Abbey Road: why it's in my blood

20:33, Aug 29 2011

These days there is only one album by The Beatles that I can always listen to, and that's Abbey Road. That should come as no surprise to regular readers of Blog on the Tracks; I've mentioned it often. You see, I learned to play the drums to this album. I mean, all right, sure, I had a few lessons at school (intermediate). But my mum suggested that I just play along with records. So when I got my first drum kit it was positioned in the spare room at the end of the house and I went at it. Attempting Come Together and Something and Maxwell's Silver Hammer and Oh! Darling and Octopus's Garden and I Want You (She's So Heavy).

It took me a while longer to get my head around side two - but I started out by just playing along to the opening cut, Here Comes the Sun; for the chance to use my brushes.

But the experience of working through side one of Abbey Road, my parents' original vinyl copy, meant that the songs became ingrained. Years later, I learned to play most of the songs properly - but while I was just bashing along it was fun. And it was all slowly taking shape. I would then take in side two as a listening experience.

So then my dad bought a CD copy of Abbey Road - in that first burst of enthusiasm at the very end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s when record collections were essentially dumped in favour of the new format. And that did become easier for me for playing along. I could skip songs with the remote (I wasn't always up for playing along to Something or Maxwell as I'd get bored with them. Sometimes I'd play Oh! Darling twice. Same with Come Together and I Want You) and I always listened to Her Majesty as a little coda; some in-between music for me as I got up from behind the kit to choose the next CD to work along to (usually The Cream of Eric Clapton or Band on the Run).

I've no doubt that the album I have listened to the most in my life is Abbey Road. I did my 10,000 hours to that album alone. And then I delighted in playing it all over again when I started spotting Beatles samples through The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique (in fact that album probably comes a close second on the most-played list).

Abbey Road has never left my side; not since I discovered it. Aged 12.

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I played it on CD and my dubbed cassette copy right through school. Then to university where I had the vinyl for a while, then, somewhat stupidly, I gave it away.

I eventually bought the "bread-bin" with all The Beatles albums in it - so I had my own CD copy. And then I bought the 2009 stereo remastered version. I have it loaded up to two iPods. And, last year, I found a decent-condition LP that I picked up for $20.

So there you have the rundown of all the baggage attached - one of the reasons why I would continue to play and like this album. It's in my blood; it was seminal/formative as music to listen to, retrospectively as a primary source - when recontextualised via the Beastie Boys' sampling. And it was/is just a jolly good album. One that contains some of my favourite Beatles songs - and some of my favourite songs.

I can't really get too excited about listening to too many other Beatles albums these days. I have them all. I have them all on my iPod. I have them all on CD. And I have most of them, the favourites anyway, on vinyl. You'll always hear people talking up Rubber Soul and Revolver and, yes, they are fantastic. If anyone is reading this and hasn't heard them you should really check them out. They are near-perfect pop albums.

But I discovered recently that listening to them - and for that matter some of the earlier ones and in fact anything else apart from Abbey Road - it's all a bit played-out. Those early records just remind me now of the bad bands that tried so hard to take this sound on. You don't want to be listening to Rubber Soul and hearing The Boo Radleys. That's not a good feeling.

But I never get that feeling with Abbey Road. Never ever. I just think of The Beatles. At their best. I think of them so settled in their roles; it is a great album for all four Beatles performance-wise.

George got his two most enduring songs, hit-wise, in there. Paul and John both take turns playing out their rock'n'roller personas - going back to their earliest influences. The competitive nature is strong of course but both nail some amazing rock'n'roll singing here. And some great songs. Ringo gets his token sing-song, sure. But his playing is superb. Constantly inventive, driving, perfect. So many great - simple - ideas from Ringo on this. The way he sits behind the spiralling outro of She's So Heavy; a tumble of overhanded drum fill here and there. That big, deep floor-tom pulse behind the opener, Come Together. Those fills in Oh! Darling and Something. Magic. All of it magic.

And then the guitar playing from the other three Beatles is exquisite. It culminates on The End - the perfect finale for The Beatles. Ringo gets his drum-solo; you can almost imagine the other three smiling an organ-grinder's smile. And then all three have at it with their own very distinctive styles of lead guitar. Their personalities laid out on the page, laid out on the line. And you can take that final couplet from their final song, "And in the end the love you take/is equal to the love you make" and see it as the perfect summation of what McCartney was about (and still is, really) as both a songwriter and a person. That's him distilled to a couplet.

But no discussion of Abbey Road is fair without looking at the medley. My understanding of the album is very much as it being one of two sides; that's shaped, as I've explained, from having one side to drum to and one to listen to after. But it really does feel like an album of two sides. Side one is the back-to-basics rock'n'roll and side two is the concept; the medley - a string of song snippets. They're mostly nonsensical but it's such a joy to work through; the flow is impressive. McCartney's bass work here is stunning. (Check out She Came in Through The Bathroom Window.) And it's the perfect patchwork of ideas, again with George peeling out some impressive runs, Ringo crossing his hands over to complete the fills and give a feeling of an odd metre.

Lennon is not under-represented on Abbey Road. He wasn't writing a lot. But what he was writing was amazing - see Because. The three voices of John, George and Paul are triple-tracked to create nine voices. It's a perfect preamble to the medley. It's as if this is their definitive statement vocally and then the other bookend to the medley is their definitive "jam"; their final instrumental statement.

Speaking of bookends, Lennon's songs set up the strength of side one, they give it a shape, McCartney and Ringo provide the folly - something some people are unhappy about. But I think there's the right balance across Abbey Road.

It's a huge album, with so much inside it. A fitting finale, the logical place for The Beatles to end. Anything else - including the song Her Majesty - was just a coda. This is the end of The Beatles for me, chronologically and concept-wise. This is them acknowledging they are spent, they are frustrated, they are done. But they were prepared to give it one final nudge. And the result is one of my favourite albums of all time - one that is directly responsible for me playing the drums (even though I have never ever played a version of any of the songs from this album in an actual band). And an album that has spoken to me over so many years.

I know I've written about Abbey Road before. I'll write it about it again too (consider that a warning, I guess). As long as I'm still listening to the album I'll keep finding new things inside it. In that sense I can't think of many other albums - over 40 years old, that I've been listening to for at least half that time - that I can always enjoy. And really that's what I wanted to celebrate.

What's your favourite Beatles album? If you don't like any of them there's no point in commenting. But any other Abbey Road fans out there? What do you like about it? Do you have a favourite side of Abbey Road? If you're really not a Beatles fan - and that really is an odd thing, if you like music - then share the story of the album you've been listening to for the longest time. And what is it about that album for you?

Postscript: I've just picked up a copy of this album; a set of instrumental covers of Abbey Road material. Another avenue (as it were) - a side-street to dip down while continuing the main journey.

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