UK: Abbey Road - The Beatles
After two years of honouring musical delights from across the globe, we don't have to search hard in our home nation to find a gem of our own
To pick objectively the best artist from any largely-populated nation one would inevitably struggle to reach a consensus. People can debate for hours upon end who for example might represent the United States, with several artists of roughly equal importance and musical genius that could be picked. Who would quibble if we selected Prince for his fierce musical ingenuity, Elvis Presley for bringing rock’n’roll to the masses, or Aretha Franklin’s soulful fervour that influenced a generation of artists across the musical spectrum. The same might apply for other nations such as France whose artists which include Édith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg and Daft Punk could each stake a claim to be the most highly acclaimed French act of all time.
“...it shows off their ability to write singles that would not only sweep the nation but the entire planet, spanning across numerous genres in doing so, whilst at the same time Abbey Road serves as a cohesive piece of music that has been perfectly thought out in terms of its structuring, telling a story which guides the listener on a musical extravaganza...”
For the United Kingdom, however, there could have only been one choice. While the UK has a brilliant roster of fantastic musicians who have made their mark on an array of genres and have achieved great success worldwide, the fact remains that there is simply no other artist or group that comes close to the monumental impact these four shaggy-haired lads from Liverpool had on music. That is not to say that they are the greatest band of all time, and though that is a position many do hold, such designations are meaningless. The Beatles were not born in a vacuum. They were influenced by musicians who preceded them and were their contemporaries. Yet, it is the way in which the fab four managed to assimilate all their influences and formulate them into catchy, complex and captivating songs which both reacted to and helped form the bedrock of the zeitgeist of their era. Part of their genius was to make those songs timeless.
When we begun this madcap journey we had several concerns that we kicked into the long grass, such as obtaining an album from North Korea as well as some of the world’s least populous microstates. On top of this came the threat of the New Caledonian independence referendum meaning that we would potentially have to undergo the arduous rebrand as the somewhat less catchy 201worldalbums. However, when we finally overcame those stumbling blocks, we were then faced with the most brutal dilemma of all, in finally confronting our album choice for the United Kingdom and the United States. As the project was birthed out of a desire to widen our listening to music from countries away from the UK and US we decided that they would be the final two nations for us to review. When we decided that back in 2020 it seemed a long way away. However, the time has now come.
With all that in mind, we felt we had no choice but to review an album by the Beatles, with one of us going into the decision to select one of their albums as ‘the best of British’ a casual fan, while the other a superfan, we felt we both could bring a slightly different approach to demonstrating our appreciation of the group. Picking an album was a difficult choice, but this decision was made by our resident Beatles connoisseur who selected Abbey Road due to its unique musical quality and unparalleled musical ambition of such lofty heights that the Beatles never managed to quite reach before. As the last hurrah for the band that defined a decade, Abbey Road encapsulates what made the group utterly brilliant. Even for those who aren’t Beatles aficionados, the album comes with a great deal of gravitas due to the fact that it has arguably the most iconic album cover of all time. Even without any knowledge of which songs feature on the album, it is already proceeded by a legendary status simply due to the universally recognisable artwork.
This portentous status should not put people off. Its status can often undermine what is in reality a very comical, light-hearted and accessible record, intertwined with high-concept musical ambition. The album itself defines everything that is great about the Beatles. This is because it shows off their ability to write singles that would not only sweep the nation but the entire planet, spanning across numerous genres in doing so, whilst at the same time Abbey Road serves as a cohesive piece of music that has been perfectly thought out in terms of its structuring, telling a story which guides the listener on a musical extravaganza around the world and back again, making it a perfectly crafted album.
For some Beatles’ fans, there may be an elephant in the room on this album – the somewhat maligned Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. Despised by some music critics and three of the four members of the band itself as archetypal of what John Lennon called Paul McCartney’s “granny music”, any stiff-neck criticism which comes its way is unfounded and unjust. The song itself straddles the line between vaudevillian humour and Cockney knees-up with a healthy dose of gallows humour as the listener is invited to laugh at the juxtaposition of the dark lyrics with the plinky-plonky sound of the piano and the delightful chime of what was a genuine anvil. The comedic nature of the song is also made even more hilarious as its appearance on the album comes directly the utterly beautiful George Harrison number Something.
This album also serves as a kind of first vindication for Harrison. Known as the quiet one among the foursome, Harrison was also the most creatively frustrated among the Beatles at that time. As the youngest member, he was often stifled by Lennon and McCartney’s ‘big brother’ attitude towards him, and as his songwriting talent grew, so did the quality of the Beatles’ musical output. Though he only managed two solo-penned pieces on this record, they stand head and shoulders above the rest. Something is the second most-covered Beatles song of all time and Here Comes The Sun is by and far and away the most streamed Beatles track. The exquisiteness of Something does not just come from its authentic lyricism, expressing love in the purest of forms, but also from the musical composition itself. Despite being famously a four-piece, the band brought in an orchestra, whose stunning string work complements Ringo Starr’s percussive talent perfectly with the immaculate timing of each instrument within the song.
Starr, though not renowned for his songwriting skills, had decided in the latter years of the band to turn his hand to music composition. Taking the lead on Octopus’s Garden, only the second song he had ever written, the track feels so ‘quintessentially Ringo’. The best known song upon which he provided the vocals was Yellow Submarine, Octopus’s Garden feels like it contains that same cheeky-chappy charm unique to the drummer. Despite taking the leading role only once on Abbey Road, Starr’s presence on the album is felt throughout with his phenomenal percussive work, of which he is regularly underrated and not spoken about in the same breath as other masters of the art. We feel that he shines the most on The End, the penultimate track on the album which does a fantastic job in responding to any criticism of the Beatles’ softer side when compared with other British rock legends The Rolling Stones. On one of his few drum solos, Starr blows the socks off the listener, reminding them that the Beatles can have a certain edge to them and can rock as hard as Jagger or Moon.
Though not the focal point of the band, Starr’s integral presence in the development of their more experimental work cannot be ignored. Starr’s phenomenal drumming is one of the vital pieces of the jigsaw in making perhaps the most avant-garde track on the album I Want You (She’s So Heavy) a barnstorming success. His percussion effortlessly shifts from proto-heavy metal droning to a lighter and fleet-footed Latin jazz inflected beat at just a moment’s notice. Perhaps the star of the show is not Starr himself though, rather, it is the mind-boggling bluesy organ solo by Billy Preston which makes the track spill into psychedelia at its utter peak.
If at this stage you are thinking, ‘are these two music nerds really going to proceed with what is arguably the most pointless album review of all time, delayed by half a century?’ then you are in for a treat as there are a dozen other tracks that require attention and praise. Next up for inspection is the Beatles’ conquering of yet another series of genres in some of their biggest hits from the album. The eminently soulful doo-wop track Oh! Darling, was of course going to be a hit, whilst Come Together has grown in stature over the years as one of Lennon’s most accomplished tracks lyrically and musically. The lyrics of the track are simultaneously powerful and nonsense, which is very much part of Lennon’s modus operandi. He almost scats his way to profound utopian wisdom, stumbling across deeper meaning via a series of rhyming couplets.
With the mega medley from You Never Give Me Your Money until The End, the Beatles embarked on an ambitious set of tunes that paint a collage of varying elements that made the group what they were, from soft and almost meditative ballads such as Sun King and Golden Slumbers, to grand orchestral set pieces like She Came In Through The Bathroom Window and Carry That Weight, to the cheekily comedic stylings of Polythene Pam in which Lennon relishes singing in a thick scouse accent, to McCartney’s penchant for the storytelling elements of songwriting such as on the fun Mean Mr Mustard. They even manage to feature deeply sincere and profound lyricism, as seen on You Never Give Me Your Money, a track which astounds as its stunning musical complexity enables it to change tune completely in the middle without it being so jarring for it to bat any eyelids from the audience. Her Majesty, though not technically a part of the medley, as it was originally a hidden track, serves as a lovely tongue-in-cheek closer to the album. Even the suggestion that a member this group would be able to make the Queen his love, seems to somehow not even be appear such a preposterous claim by the end of this album, as their ability to break down barriers and turn the established ways of thinking on its head have been ample demonstrated.
The song Because should be noted for its technical innovation, implementing the use of overdubs to create the effect of many more vocalists than there were in reality. Inspired by classical music as well as 60s psychedelia, the track is classic Lennon. Saving the best for last, Harrison’s finest moment as a member of the Beatles surely has to be the pièce de résistance Here Comes The Sun. Words have finally failed us when it comes to describing the delight of this track. If for some reason you have been living under a rock, give it a whirl, you won’t be disappointed. All in all, Abbey Road is a glorious celebration of what was great about the Beatles. Though the recording sessions were often acrimonious and mark the last time the band were in a studio together as a foursome, there is still so much joy, humour, wit, invention and musicianship on display, with each member of the band firing on all cylinders. It is in some ways their zenith as a group and one can only wonder what else they would have gone on to record had the band been able to stay together. As it stands, it serves as a fitting epitaph of the UK’s greatest musical export.