How to conclude the final album by the greatest band in the history of forever? How about a song called ‘The End’ featuring Ringo’s first ever drum solo, and 3 electrifying guitar solos featuring Lennon, McCartney and Harrisons differing styles? And a final lyric that declares ‘And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make’?
And so it should have been, ‘Abbey Road’ closing with an exciting, positive and collaborative final effort. But, with the album pretty much put to bed, Second Technician John Curlander decided to tag on ‘Her Majesty’, a left over segment from the albums ‘Long Medley’ idea, to the end of ‘The End’ and, unbelievably, The Beatles allowed it. As such, the ‘final thought’ we are left with from their unmatched series of albums and singles is a throw away ditty, featuring just Paul McCartney and his acoustic guitar making bland and meaningless sentiments about the Queen. Perhaps more a sign of their complete disregard for The Beatles as a band at that time, its still a disappointing mistake to have made, and always annoys me when I forget to quickly turn the album off after ‘The End’.
2. Eric Clapton
Getting Eric Clapton to join the band in recording ‘While My Guitar gently Weeps’ wasn’t a disastrous decision for The Beatles. But, come on, Eric Clapton? Not very cool is it. One of only two professional musicians to collaborate on a Beatles record (the other being Billy Preston), it unfortunately places his turgid, showy, ‘muso’ guitar playing on a much higher pedestal that it deserves. Harrison was struggling for a long time with the solo passages to this song (including trying to record it all backwards to sound like ‘weeping’) and recruited his good friend to help out. How did Clapton repay him? Nicked his wife, naturally. Poor George. Should never have got Clapton involved.
3. Just Let it Be
The majority of what became the ‘Let It Be’ album was recorded between The White Album and their swansong, ‘Abbey Road’. Yet it didn’t see release until after the latter. The idea behind the album was for the band to get back to its ‘roots’, that is, a more rock and roll, less experimental approach that focussed on the band working, and playing together as a four piece. After the disjointed approach to recording The White Album, this certainly made sense. However, in the end, it only served to stretch the already strained relationships between the group and the resulting recordings where left on the shelf.
The songs were later given to Phil Spector to pick through, and he ended up producing the album ‘Let it be’. With his signature production techniques all over, it flew in the face of the ‘warts and all’, ‘no overdubs’ approach of the original idea. McCartney in particular was upset with the treatment his ‘The Long and Winding Road’ had received. But since the band had just split, no one seemed to care, and history came to see ‘Abbey Road’ as the bands actual swansong, so its place as a failed experiment (that at least produced the legendary rooftop concert) was secured, no one really minding either way.
Except McCartney couldn’t let it go. And as such, 33 years after its initial release, it was made available in its ‘intended’ form as ‘Let It Be…Naked’. Gone are the swirling choirs and over the top orchestration and instead we are left with some simple and direct run thru’s of the same set of songs (plus Lennon’s fantastic ‘Don’t Let me Down’). So what’s the problem?
Well, the initial sessions were a mess. Utter misery, and probably the low point of inter Beatle relations. The hours and hours of tape betrayed the fact they had completely lost their focus and direction, and that at least 50% of the band weren’t interested anymore. The second attempt by Spector to rectify it was a hit and miss affair, and completely disregarded the ‘honest’ approach they had attempted, though he had chosen to leave in various false starts, between song ad-libs and conversations, which at least gave an impression of what it was meant to be.
Its well known that a large amount of The White Album was written during their stay in Rishikesh, and, as such, many songs were either acoustic based (at least in origin) and / or throw away in-jokes. And whilst I will discuss this in further detail later, special attention must be drawn to the track ‘Wild Honey Pie’, which is quite possibly the worst song they ever released. Perhaps (though only ‘perhaps’) other songs were more trite, more disposable, more careless, more ill thought-out, more misguided, but was ever a song so bloody annoying? Mercifully not much longer than a minute, its inclusion as track 5 on The White Album is utterly befuddling. From the nauseating group vocal to the horrible wobbly guitar, it simply recreates the feeling of being very, very ill.
But now, the third attempt at ‘getting it right’ was just as flawed. The between song banter was removed and placed on a bonus disc (22 minutes of random conversation – why?) and instead we are left with the bare bones of the songs. Admittedly, the remastered tracks sound fresh…but by meddling with history McCartney has taken the soul out of the music, the character. Even the original premise of it being ‘as was’ in the room was betrayed - an out of tune Lennon note was corrected digitally. What was this meant to be? Not to mention the album is now suspiciously McCartney heavy. At least the original album and accompanying film were interesting documents, showing the decline and dissolution of a great band. ‘…Naked’ added nothing to this, only took away from it.
But the big thing McCartney has missed is that, well, the songs just aren’t very good. It’s not a good album in the first place, and no amount of remastering and altering the order of the tracks is going to change that. ‘Get Back’, ‘Let it Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’ withstanding (but I cant really stand the last 2 in that list) there’s nothing here that approaches The Beatles best, by some stretch. After THREE botched attempts to get something worthwhile out of the sessions, you cant help but feel that perhaps the whole thing would have been best left in the vaults, earning a reputation as being the ‘great lost tracks’. If McCartney’s interfering had revealed a real gem, then fine, but it doesn’t. It was all there in the title, all along. Why didn’t you just ‘Let it Be’ Paul?
4. ‘Wild honey pie’
On a wider level, it showed The Beatles instincts had been well and truly blunted. The belief, formed with their discovery of LSD, that ‘random’ elements and ideas were as equally valid as those well thought out ones had brought them some amazing success: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, ‘I am the Walrus’ etc but had also led to more self indulgent, less focussed work such as ‘All Together Now’ and ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’. Though ‘clean’ during their trip to India, this belief had clearly stuck around, hence the release of utterly inferior work like ‘Wild Honey Pie’.
5. Run For Your Life (little girl!)
A constant theme running through The Beatles work was ‘Love’; from the simplistic teenage infatuations’ of ‘She Loves You’ et al, to the more universal, hippy messaging of ‘All You Need Is Love’ it was the one constant in a diverse career. So fitting the lyric ‘I’d rather see you dead, little girl, then be with another man’ into this theory is a little difficult…
But worse than the nasty bitterness of this Lennon penned number is the pure hypocrisy. By the time it was released on ‘Rubber Soul’ in 1965, Lennon had long tired of his loveless marriage to Cynthia, and was openly engaging in affairs and one night stands with a vast amount of ladies. ‘Norwegian Wood (this bird has flown)’, also from ‘Rubber Soul’ tackled this very subject, but its ambivalent ending was due to some late lyrical changes, to avoid Cynthia finding out. Not that she wasn’t at least partly aware; Lennon would often brag openly in her company of his various conquests. It was his feeble way of rebelling against the gentle bourgeois hole he had found himself in. But how could he sing ‘If I find you with another man, it’s the end – little girl’ with any sincerity what so ever?
‘Rubber Soul’ saw the band developing greatly as songwriters, and the aforementioned ‘Norwegian Wood’ shows a more thoughtful and complex approach to dealing with personal issues. ‘Nowhere Man’ deals with a similar feeling of isolation and ‘In My Life’ is a beautiful and mature expression of love and melancholy. All Lennon numbers, and all fantastic.
Which makes it all the more surprising that ‘Run for Your Life’ sits along side them, as the albums closing number, no less. Later, older and wiser, and under the influence of Yoko Ono, he expressed utter regret at the song and its misogynist views. It’s hard to think of a bigger misstep in The Beatles catalogue, purely in terms of mood and intent and its bizarre that no-one, especially Brian Epstein or George Martin thought to point out the bitter taste it leaves. For The Beatles themselves, it would be the last bit of ‘filler’ they committed to tape until the LSD come down of Magical Mystery tour and the passing of tracks of this inferior calibre would see the onset of their imperial phase: Revolver and Sgt Pepper.
6. Quality Control, and The White Album
Now, let’s be clear; The White Album (some weeks) is my favourite Beatles album. Not because it has the best songs. Far from it. But because it has a unique atmosphere, a seemingly relaxed approach, once described as the ‘lazy afternoon’ of their career. The fact that most of the band were working in different studios on their own songs, mean it is incredibly diverse, and sways wildly from straight on ‘rock’ to twinkly folk, to mesmerising 9 minute soundscapes, each of the composers letting their personalities shine – even Ringo, with his first ever self penned composition. The 30 tracks show a huge range, and though there is a self indulgent element to it, it’s utterly fascinating if given the time.
That said, and as mentioned previously, it does contain some duff tracks. It’s an interesting exercise to try break the two discs down to one album, especially if you throw ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution (single version)’, recorded at the same time, into the pot.
The aforementioned ‘Wild Honey Pie’, whilst atrocious, does at least fit in with the Rishikesh sing-a-long starting point for the album. But the decision to release a 30 track double album resulted in crap like ‘Savoy Truffle’ and ‘Honey Pie’ being forced upon the world. And these weren’t quickly recorded throw away tracks – they were planned, thought out pieces that simply showed their authors to be, in the first instance, out of ideas and inspiration (a song about Eric Clapton eating chocolates – him again!) and in the second, literally going through the paces of recreating some awful dance hall pastiche, which can only leave the question – why? ‘Honey Pie’ in particular was an early sign of McCartney turning into the insufferable smug ‘entertainer’ role he later seemed to relish in.
A slight bit of trimming could have left us with an exceptional 26 track double album, or even, with a bit more work could have seen the inclusion of later solo tracks (Lennon’s ‘Child of Nature’, McCartney’s ‘Junk’ or Harrison’s ‘Not Guilty’) or even the wonderful ‘Hey Bulldog’, still at that time in the vaults, seeing eventual release on the ‘Yellow Submarine’ soundtrack a year later. But the problem was the egos, and the disintegrating relationships, no one writer willing to give up his space on the album. And whilst the track listing itself is a pretty awesome effort in creating a flow throughout its hour plus, the ‘kitchen sink and all’ approach sadly leaves some pretty big cracks. Some of these ‘cracks’ in the façade are fascinating. But some are beyond redemption.
7. Never toured past ‘65
When Beatles Manager Brian Esptein died in 1967, the band effectively lost their ‘rudder’, the man who had guided them through the turbulence of ‘Beatlemania’ and beyond. Since they had ceased touring in 1966, his role had become more perfunctory, yet his death still had a huge effect on the band. After the high of Sgt Pepper, McCartney stepped up to suggest a film project in order to keep them focussed, which became ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. The band then went on their Indian adventure, resulting in another album. But at the dawn of 1969, with Lennon and Harrison pulling in different, non-Beatle directions, McCartney dreamt up another idea, one that, he hoped, would bring them all closer together.
Sadly, and as already discussed, it pretty much tore them apart. The ‘Get Back / Let it Be’ project was, however, a good idea in principle; to re-engage the band by playing live, rehearsing carefully as a four piece after the separation of The White Album sessions.
Its yet another symptom of The Beatles malaise at this time that, after brainstorming ideas for the location of the ‘one-off’ gig to conclude the ‘Get Back’ sessions, which included an Atlantic Sealiner and a Tunisian Ampitheatre, they eventually settled on the roof of the apple building where they ‘worked’. Similarly, their final album was to be called ‘Everest’, until they realised that involved them all flying to said mountain for a photoshoot. They promptly changed it to ‘Abbey Road’ meaning they could step outside the door and be done in 20 minutes.
The result of all this being that we will never be able to hear The Beatles greatest songs performed live by the band themselves. Giving up live performance was undoubtedly one of the finest (and bravest) decisions they made. It allowed them to explore and experiment beyond the limits of sound and pop in the mid sixties. But, with the exception of ‘Revolution 9’ which isn’t ‘pop’ anyway, their last ‘pushing of the boundaries piece’ was probably ‘I am the Walrus’ in 1967. The trick they missed was performing all that 65-68 material in concert. Instead they pushed forth with the performance angle but instead tried to ‘get back’ to their Hamburg roots, a final attempt to reinvent themselves that ultimately failed
Sadly, after the split, Lennon only ever performed 3 of his Beatles songs live (Come Together, Yer Blues and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) and McCartney’s modern day touring band unfortunately polish the essence out of what were quirky as well as seminal recordings (I can barely listen to Hey Jude or Back in the USSR without seeing his wrinkled face backed by 20 plus session musicians)
Common belief is that it just wasn’t possible to create the sounds of their Pshycedelic peaks, but existing demos and alternate versions of ‘Strawberry Fields’, 'Tomorrow Never Knows', ‘I am The Walrus’ et al would suggest otherwise. Stripped back, with different elements to the fore, certainly, but how exciting would a live album have been, seeing all these classics reinterpreted by the band themselves? Live albums are often the nadir of any bands back catalogue; in this instance The Beatles could have revolutionised that concept too.
8. ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’
Forget ‘Strawberry Fields’ or ‘Eleanor Rigby’, this has to be the most ‘un-Beatles’ single the band ever released. For one, it only features Lennon and McCartney, Paul only really agreeing to the whole enterprise in a doomed attempt to keep Lennon interested in being a Beatle. But Lennon’s mind was elsewhere, and in many ways, this could be argued to be his first ‘solo’ single.
Describing his recent run ins with the law, his bed in for peace and the medias treatment of Yoko, it is an interesting document of what was happening at the time, without being a great song. Its hard to tell whether its chorus refrain of ‘Christ, you know it aint easy, you know how hard it can be / The way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me’, is a tongue in cheek reference to his early (misquoted) suggestion that ‘The Beatles are bigger than Jesus’ or the onset of a messianic complex. Likely, it was a bit of both. Either way, as a song and a proposition, it raised questions about what a Beatles song could, and should be; the problem was it raised it in a way that only really offered one answer…
And so, featuring a lyric that no one in the world could relate to, bar Yoko Ono, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ was Lennon at his most self obsessed, and self interested and further signalled the end for the band. Musically it is pleasant enough, in the style of the ‘Get Back’ sessions around which it was recorded, but is certainly no classic, and had any other band recorded it, it would have been long forgotten.
9. Anthology of disinterest
Anthology was a big deal. An opening of the vaults, a chance to hear unreleased Beatles material, all those lost classics that had been the subject of speculation for decades. A chance to tell a different story, reveal the secret history behind the worlds biggest band. But they kind of bottled it.
Whilst relations between the surviving members and Yoko had certainly improved by the mid nineties, in that they could at least talk fairly reasonably about things, the unsteady peace resulted in any member being able to veto any inclusions, for whatever reason. It wasn’t a case of majority vote, if someone wasn’t happy they could just walk away. They were a Beatle, they didn’t need this stress. They certainly didn’t need the money.
And so, what could have been an essential purchase, became a bloated run of backing tracks and uninteresting alternate takes. Yes, some tracks were excellent insights, but at 3 double disc sets,why no legendary 28 minute take of ‘Helter Skelter’? Or more of the White Album demos recorded at George Harrison’s house? Or what about ‘Carnival of Light’, a free form 20 minutes SGT Pepper era experiment that bridges the gap between ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and ‘Revolution 9’? Nah, an instrumental version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is what we get. Cheers Beatles.
10. Come Together / Fall Apart
From 1965 to 1970 The Beatles output of singles and albums was phenomenal. Up until the release of ‘Come Together / Something’ in 1970, the only singles they released from albums were ‘Help!’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby / Yellow Submarine’. They tended to usher in new albums and directions with standalone singles; ‘Paperback Writer / Rain’ for ‘Revolver’, ‘Strawberry Fields / Penny Lane’ for Sgt Pepper, ‘Hey Jude’ for The White Album. It’s an astounding record, both from the perspective that whilst pioneering the idea of what an album could be, they were still producing ‘hit’ singles, that were equally pioneering and that so many of their well known tracks are simply really good album tracks. This consistent high quality is part of what makes them a great band; buying their albums is never a case of getting 4 hit singles and 8 fillers.
Which is why it’s sad, and symptomatic of their falling apart, that they released the split ‘Come Together / Something’ single from ‘Abbey Road’ AFTER the album was released. Not only were they both album tracks (and tracks 1 and 2 at that) but it was the only time they released a single after the album. That might not sound odd now, as that is generally common practice these days, but back in 1970 it was lazy and showed utter disinterest. Lennon’s typically dismissive comment was that they’d released it so people could hear the 2 decent songs off the album, without having to bother with the rest. Whilst clearly not true, to show such contempt for his own work spoke volumes and not long after The Beatles were no more.
One positive upshot was that the release of this single saw Harrison get his first Beatles A-Side and may well have been a goodwill gesture from Lennon / McCartney, both of whom praised ‘Something’ highly. But, regardless, the release of this single ended an unparalleled run of singles and albums that went: ‘I Feel Fine’, ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘Help!’, ‘Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out’, ‘Rubber Soul’, ‘Paperback Writer’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Revolver’, ‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, ‘All You Need Is Love’, ‘Hello, Goodbye’, ‘Lady Madonna’, ‘Hey Jude’, ‘The Beatles (White Album)’, ‘Get Back’, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, ‘Abbey Road’.
*The Best Beatles book in the World is 'Revolution in The Head' by Ian Macdonald. If you only own one, make it that one.