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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

And in the end...

Alright, here’s the deal. Most people may not know this but somewhere between The White Album and Abbey Road things got really dicey for The Beatles. Timelines seem to shift; relationships fracture, and John Lennon, in the end, just stopped trying.

For starters by early 1969 Lennon was fully ensconced in his relationship with Yoko Ono and the two of them had released two controversial and enigmatic albums. The first, and most troublesome for The Beatles, was Two Virgins, on the cover of which John and Yoko appeared completely naked. The album, also, was nothing the likes of which Beatles fans had come to expect from Lennon and co. It was noises and bits of conversation, and to many, seemed like a practical joke played at the expense of Lennon’s vast fan base. Ono continued to appear at all studio sessions, and was becoming more and more vocal about The Beatles', and John’s, music. From all perspectives it seemed like Lennon was intentionally p**sing off the people closest to him. To combat this interference McCartney married Linda Eastman, an American photographer who, by all accounts, bugged the s**t out of John as much as Yoko bothered Paul*.

To stir the dynamic pot even further, a row between Paul and George Harrison had been brewing for about six years. George felt that McCartney never respected him as a songwriter, and treated him like a little brother (when in actuality the two were only a mere 6 months apart). Now, this may seem like a petty complaint, but considering Harrison was the lead guitarist in one of the greatest rock bands of all time, I imagine it must have been increasingly irritating to be talked down to by anyone, least of all the very person whose songs your guitar lines had been buoying for nearly eight years. Ultimately, George would get his revenge with his brilliant All Things Must Pass, arguably the best of all the post-Beatle solo albums.

But in early 1969 that album was just a gleam in Harrison’s eye, and The Beatles were heading into the studio again to make a new record**. McCartney was having another one of his paroxysms of grandeur, and had formulated this “brilliant” plan to get all The Beatles and their loved ones and crew together on a film studio and film the entire process of recording a Beatles album. That album would eventually be Let It Be, but at the time it was titled Get Back. As could be predicted the sessions spiraled out of control just about the minute all four guys were in the same room together. The tensions of a decade in close quarters, coupled with the difficulty of being filmed all the time led to another all-time first for The Beatles: they were the first family to be broken up by reality television. Instead of a insider’s glimpse at how The Beatles write and record an album, the viewer got to see just how petty the break-up of a great rock band truly appears. Paul shows George how to play his guitar and George bites back with overly genial snark. Ringo sits by idly, wondering if the band will ever start playing music. John just cuddles Yoko, clearly miles away from the proceedings. And all this bitterness is caught right there on film.

After about a month of tearing each other to shreds it was finally agreed that Get Back was a terrible idea and they headed back to Abbey Road to finish the recordings and begin the legal process of breaking up. Since they’d already wasted thousands of dollars on film they figured the movie needed some kind of proper ending so they went to the roof of Abbey Road studios and played what is arguably their most famous concert next to their initial appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and their first stadium concert at Shea. Much of what was released as Let It Be was taken from those live recordings on the roof, combined with some Wall of Sound crap from Phil Spector***.

Now, technically, Let It Be was released after Abbey Road, but because Abbey Road was the last time The Beatles met in the studio with George Martin to make a proper record, I will shift my discussion from a linear narrative to discuss the albums in the order they should have been released.

Let It Be isn’t as bad as they say. In fact, though I’ve listened to it about a billion times, I found more pleasure in this latest listen than I have in years. There are obvious stand-outs (“The Long And Winding Road”, “Let It Be”, “Get Back”, “Across The Universe”), but the over-all effect of the album is far more jovial than the miserable back-story would suggest. John is caught in multiple between-song outtakes acting the fool, and the looseness of the arrangements (largely due to the fact that half the album was taken from live recordings) show a band that was really, really good even when they hated each other. Even on auto-pilot these guys kicked ass.

George Harrison must have realized the end was nigh and had started stock-piling songs for his inevitable solo release because next to the salty, inventive excursions on The White Album his two offerings on Let It Be are pale imitations. Lennon tosses some songs at the album that most other bands would have killed for but which have an obvious laissez-faire attitude that is off-putting. Really, only McCartney stepped up his game for this album, producing three of his best, most well known songs (“The Long And Winding Road”, “Let It Be”, “Get Back”). “Let It Be” in particular is one of the most gorgeous songs McCartney ever wrote and, though sentimental, offers a gritty hope not often found in McCartney’s other work.

After the abysmal affair of Let It Be, pretty much everyone assumed The Beatles were finished, but, in true showman form, the lads from Liverpool had one last trick up their sleeve. In mid-1969 they went to George Martin and asked if he would be interested in producing one last album*^. He agreed, on one condition: That The Beatles made a record the way they used to, together, as a unit.

Perhaps because they knew it would be their last, the guys went back into the studio in mid-1969 with renewed vigor and the sessions that followed were some of their most productive since the Sgt Pepper’s days.

On 20 August, 1969 all four Beatles were in the same studio for the last time, completing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. When they left for the day, they left for good and never again recorded together. But what they produced in those two months stands as one of the best recordings of their career. From start to finish Abbey Road crackles with inspiration, talent, and imagination, culminating in the medley on the B-side which seems to encompass all the disparate ideas that made The Beatles: alienation, compassion, bizarre characters, and above all, love. I find it eternally satisfying that the last lyric The Beatles put on record is “And in the end/the love you take/is equal to/the love you make”. It’s fitting that the band that spent most of their career working toward global peace, that brought so much happiness to millions of people, would make that their final statement, despite the fact that they hated each other as they laid it down.

Abbey Road is a gorgeous record from start to finish; none of the four held back, they gave it their all and it shows. The harmonies are perfect, the arrangements subtle and effective, and more than anything the songs are really, really good. It is a perfect ending to a brilliant career and the definitive statement of those heady days when it seemed The Beatles could do anything. They could, and in the end, they did something even more impossible: They walked away from the band that made them famous, and never looked back. In this age of classic bands reuniting, this seems the most Herculean of all their feats.

On 20 September, 1969 John Lennon officially quit The Beatles but he agreed to hold off announcing it until the legal issues were tied up. Abbey Road was released just six days before that to instant acclaim, and in May 1970 Let It Be hit the shelves. In the end Paul McCartney stole the show by announcing, just days before his first solo release, that he was leaving The Beatles. This would be the first of numerous shots across the bow that Lennon and McCartney would lob at each other over the next decade, but the timely announcement ultimately helped McCartney and Let It Be both do well on the charts. Later that year Lennon and Harrison both released their solo career-starting albums, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass respectively.

It’s hard to sum up what The Beatles meant to pop music without lapsing into superlatives, so I will simply keep this personal. To me The Beatles were the alpha and omega of music, fashion, style, and art. They were everything, the only band I needed to leap into the fray of musical creation, the only band that I have liked equally throughout every phase of my life. As a 9-yr-old kid in Michigan I could dig on the catchiness of A Hard Day’s Night and Please Please Me; as a teenager I found the mysteries of Revolver and Sgt Pepper’s infinitely complex and oozing with wicked cool; and now, as an adult I can’t listen to The White Album or Abbey Road without the bittersweet songs breaking my heart. This band has lived in me for so long that I’m not sure I would understand myself in a world in which The Beatles did not exist. They are a part of me; they have known me longer than anyone else (save my parents). They are my longest running elective relationship, and they are, for better or worse, my friends.

Thanks John, Paul, George, and Ringo for 20 years of memories, and here’s to 20 or 40 or *wink wink* 64 more.

*I am in no way arguing that that was the sole reason Paul married Linda. Considering the length and strength of Linda and Paul’s relationship that would be an enormously callow argument to make. But, Linda’s presence in the control room at Beatles recording sessions suggests a childish tit for tat between the soon-to-be ex-friends.
**Oh, BTW, in early-1969 The Beatles also released the soundtrack to the filmic version of Yellow Submarine. The album isn’t all that great, but there are some bright spots on it. Though it’s still considered part of The Beatles canon, it isn’t really worth the $16.99 price tag. For a good discussion of the album go here.
***Paul enlisted the Spect-meister to polish off the recordings when it became clear Abbey Road would be The Beatles last album. Much maligned, I happen to think Spector’s additions ain’t all that bad and all y’all need to step off.
*^George Martin did not produce Let It Be. He never agreed with the idea of being on camera while he did his work and absolved himself of the project.