Sunday, October 25, 2009

Fulfillingness' First Finale

The Beatles Abbey Road was/is a miracle. Personal, financial, and musical battles had shattered their ability to work together. Geoff Emerick (their long-time chief recording engineer) stated in his book Here, There and Everywhere regarding the 1968 sessions for The Beatles "for weeks I had been incensed about what had been going on, with the horrible, unsettled atmosphere, the constant bickering." He was so distraught that he demanded to be reassigned by EMI, leaving the project in midstream. By all accounts the Get Back sessions the following January were even worse. George Harrison temporarily quit the band, the music degenerated into long jam sessions, John Lennon told George Martin that these session were no place for his slick production work.

With the Get Back project on the shelf, the realization set in that the end was near. McCartney and George Martin decided to attempt a recording done the way they used to do it, with Martin guiding the production, and the Beatles once again playing together as a cohesive band. Sensing that it might be their last shot, the other three agreed to the terms, and Geoff Emerick was persuaded to return.

Various rock critics have referred to the mini-suite on the second side as a pop symphony. But if one must attribute classical forms to this work, I think a more apt description is tone poem. From the Wikipedia page for Tone Poem: combined or compressed multiple movements into a single principal section. Most folks consider the suite to start with a song which in itself is a multi-part composition - Paul's amazing You Never Give Me Your Money. For me the entire LP side constitutes the tone poem. The lyrics from the chorus of Here Comes the Sun return in Sun King, as do the transplendent multi-layered vocal harmonies from Because. Outside of the Beach Boys, 11th chords have never been used so effectively in a pop framework.

From George's most sunny and possibly finest melody until Paul's little throwaway ode to the Queen, everything that made the Beatles a force of nature can be found here. Frankly I prefer to listen to it non-stop from start to finish. Even John's two little character studies Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pan - which taken on their own are a bit slight (especially the former) - in the context of the suite, and glued together with Beatle's magic, are an essential portion of the experience.

Nicholas Schaffner, in his fine book The Beatles Forever said "The album as it stands shows four musicians, all at the height of their powers but each tuned into very different wavelengths, making one final effort to work together creatively and efficiently. McCartney, who hasn't yet given up on Art, attempts to weld a glittering scrapheap of fragments into an ambitious song cycle. Between them, the sparks fly." Indeed.


Who Am Us Anyway? said...

What a fine, fine analysis, Mr. Pleasant. Part of what makes Abbey Road so emotionally hard hitting is just that knowledge that something so good could be The End. John in a rough moment once dismissed the entire project as just “something slick” they threw together one last time to please Paul, but I’ve also read him taking pains to point out which turn in the round of guitar solos was his in The End, and so on. And Come Together was the one song he played repeatedly after the breakup. In the end, I think he knew full well it was a great album. What did you think of Emerick’s treatment of George in his book? I had mixed vibes – on the one hand, I think he was being honest about his feelings; on the other … it rubbed me wrong, and kind of small of him. Which is not to say I wasn't otherwise grateful for the book and his memories!

tbrough said...

Ah, my favorite Beatles' album. The combination of all the members working to leave a lasting impression, with Paul fighting to hold his labors of love together. I just bought the remaster and have been sitting in the dark, just letting it wash over me.

Hoping you're well.

Mister Pleasant said...

Good feedback Who Am. John apparently had a low opinion of the song suite on side 2, but it is also mentioned that he was excited when Paul asked him to contribute a few scraps to the work. Your point about his post-Beatles live performances of Come Together certainly indicates that he loved that song. And he had to know that I Want You (She's So Heavy) was the best slab of metal ever to appear on a Beatles album.

As far as Emerick's book is concerned, I took it all with a grain of salt. His dissing of John's lack of technical knowledge was a bit severe. I only have to listen to Instant Karma - recorded in one day - to know that John was every bit as concerned with the "sound" as was Paul. He just did not care to diddle for days, and there is nothing wrong with that. Paul on the other hand loved to spend time on the production. The opposite ends of the spectrum is part of what made them so great together.

As for his comments about George and Ringo, I chalk it up to personality differences. Paul was his friend, the other three were merely clients. No doubt they could be surly and difficult. He should have been much more careful in his description of George's guitar work on the earlier albums. Certainly all of us have noted that George grew by leaps and bounds as a guitar player.

It is a fascinating book, but certainly one-sided and immature. Worth reading if only for the amazing background it gives for how those great albums and singles were recorded.

Mister Pleasant said...

Yep I am doing well, thanks Tim. The remasters are phenomenal. I am discovering things I never knew were there before. I may try a listen in a dark room - maybe Beatles For Sale which is so moody and dark to begin with.

Hope you are well too.