Friday, October 4, 2019

Thoughts on Abbey Road

So this week the pop culture news was all about it being the 50th Anniversary of Abbey Road's release.  That's the last official release from The Beatles.  The recording sessions for it were also the last ones in which the four Beatles would work together in the studio. In fact, those recording sessions would be the last time all four Beatles would be in the studio together.

Because it's the Beatles, everything about them is given significance.  This album's identity as their last, even up to the final song, a throw away ditty poetically titled 'The End', is given meaning.   True, Let it Be would be released after Abbey Road.  But that was a compilation put together by Phil Spector, using reams and reams of recordings from the abandoned 'Get Back' project that happened before the Abbey Road sessions.  Neither the Beatles themselves, nor their producer George Martin, had much to do with the album's release (in fact, at one point McCartney sued Spector, feeling that Spector's legendary 'wall of sound' approach ruined what McCartney envisioned for his songs, most notably the songs Let it Be and The Long and Winding Road).

In fairness, at the end of the day, Abbey Road is merely an acceptable album.  Compared to those works being released alongside of it, Abbey Road sounds no more or less than what was coming out at that time.  In fact, you might say that most of the music coming out was the result of the musical innovations and revolutions that the Beatles brought to the music industry.  It's just now their musical children were doing it better.

Fact is, the Beatles myth lies mostly in their early years.  From their explosion onto the world stage and their unprecedented adoration by millions, the hysteria, the mania, the shattered records and the bringing of rock and roll into the mainstream of popular culture, the Beatles altered not only the music industry, but the Western cultural world.

Still, credit where it is due.  As their producer George Martin pointed out, they were not content with just riding the Mop Top/Teeny Bopper image until it ran out of gas.  From the beginning they wanted to push boundaries and challenge themselves.  To that end they were blessed by Martin, who was like their Sherpa, leading them to ever higher heights and pushing the recording industry to the limits in order to do what they wanted.  Some call Martin the Fifth Beatle.  In honesty, he was the Third Beatle, because it is his work with the domineering Lennon and McCartney that defined the Beatles sound.

Nonetheless, all of their records, all of their contributions, all of their groundbreaking studio and recording work, all of their creative breakthroughs, came mostly in those first few years of their fame.  From their breakthrough in late 62/early 63, through the release of their milestone Sgt. Pepper, they definitely led the cultural and musical pack.

But after that, and after the death of their manager Brian Epstein, it was never the same.  After that, their contributions, had they been from any other artists, would be seen as average at best.  In some cases, albums such as legendary White Album, would likely be panned.  In fact, most of their work following Pepper received mixed reviews at best.  Several news outlets mentioned this about Abbey Road, expressing shock that critics of the time didn't think much of the album, at least compared to the place in history it now occupies.

No, they didn't.  They didn't for Hey Jude, or Let it Be, or Abbey Road, or the White Album.  In all of those cases, the reviews were at best luke warm.  And if you pretend it's not them recording these works, it's not hard to see why.  None of them leap out, break ground, or really do anything special.  Truth be told, by the time Abbey Road rolls around, most of them are being recorded by the lone Beatles, off to themselves, working as individuals apart from their band mates, with only Martin holding them together.

So as we look at this week's time in music history, just remember that things become classics for various reasons, and not always to do with quality.  I like the album.  Heck you might say I love it.  I also enjoy it for its place in the whole of the Beatles' story.  But I also admit what it is, and that's an album that is no different or better than one of a hundred others from that year, if as good.  Heck, apart from the technical aspects (it's likely their most technically perfect recording, owing in part to the technical innovations they helped pioneer), it's not even their best.

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