It was the worst of times for Rock and Roll’s greatest act. But even as their dissolution hung ominously over the Fab Four, they decided to put their differences aside and head into EMI Studio on Abbey Road for one last hurrah, just like they had so often in the good old days of the preceding eight years and eleven albums.* (Please reference footnote below for more historical context)
The Beatles’ grand finale, Abbey Road, was just the bittersweet opus fans, critics and band-mates alike would universally agree delivered a fitting encore to perhaps the greatest Rock and Roll act to ever grace a stage or studio. A sweeping and ambitious album comprised of two stylistically different sides, Abbey Road showcased the greatest strengths of the band, individually and en masse.
Most notable in Abbey Road was that the four distinct personalities that came to define John, George, Paul and Ringo shone brightly throughout the album, musically, lyrically and stylistically. This was most evident, and perhaps most hauntingly appropriate, in the song that would close the album (or at least was initially supposed to), the final segment of the epic Side B medley, aptly named “The End.”
The Beatles’ public personas were encapsulated early on in their careers with nicknames that emerged:
John: The smart/witty one
George: The quiet one
Paul: The cute one
Ringo: The funny one
But there was more to each of them, obviously, and their personalities became more defined as Beatlemania enveloped the world. John was intelligent, but he also was a rebel and a dreamer, deeply profound and affected by the world around him, the more creative and less overt leader of the band. George was quiet and shy at times, but also was mysterious and spiritual with a jocular side. Paul, though known for his “puppy-dog eyes,” was seen as a clean- cut, romantic, perfectionist – the driven, technical leader of the band. And Ringo was funny, though no more so than John or George by all accounts. Ringo was a people pleaser, the consummate team player and the veritable backbone of the band.
Tom Robbins, in his 1980 classic, Still Life With Woodpecker, opined through his eponymous anti-hero, that you can derive pretty much all you want to know about a person by asking them who their favorite Beatle is and listening to their answer: “Bernard Mickey Wrangle had developed a psychological test of his own. It was short, simple, and infallible. To administer the test, merely ask the subject to name his or her favorite Beatle. If you are at all familiar with the distinct separate public images of the four Beatles, then you’ll recognize that the one chosen reveals as much about the subject’s personality as most of us will ever hope to know.”
Just as the Woodpecker’s test has proven its merits over the years in our own armchair psycho-analyses of the people in our lives, Abbey Road’s release revealed the album to be a Rorschach test or dream interpreter in its own right. The album was like a compilation of inkblots or dreams that revealed a great deal about the personalities of each Beatle. And if Abbey Road was a dream interpreter, judging by its opening lyric, “The End” was the key dream interpretation on that test that led to a major breakthrough.
“The End” emerged as a virtual highlight reel of the great band from Liverpool, stunningly crammed into just over two minutes of smile-coaxing, heart-warming musical genius. The song’s central theme, love, is a running theme throughout the Beatles’ vast songbook. But the structure and free-spirited curtain call nature of the tune set it apart.
As the final song recorded collectively by the four principles of the band, “The End” provided a forum for each of their individual personalities and musical strengths to shine in one last masterful performance. Each Beatle has at least one solo, during which his own distinct style radiates. Even Ringo, who always maintained a vehement aversion to solos, preferring instead to target his percussion toward whoever sang or played the melody in a particular performance, has a stand-out solo sequence on the record. Apropos to Ringo’s personality, his solo was actually recorded with tambourine and guitar accompaniment, and the other instruments were later muted during editing to give the effect of a Ringo drum solo. Ringo Starr was true to himself even as “The End” showcased a “hypocritical” moment, leaving listeners with a stunningly honest portrayal of Starr despite being tainted by a bizarre feeling that something is amiss.
And John, George and Paul perform a rotating sequence of three two-bar guitar solos which flow out of the “Love You” chorus about a minute into the song. Each solo echoes the personality of its artist, and in three separate two bar segments (about twelve cumulative seconds of virtuoso wailing for each of them), the listener can truly differentiate who is playing. Paul comes in with flawless, stinging licks reminiscent of his guitar work on earlier tracks such as “Another Girl” and “Taxman.” George uses a technically advanced slide technique that was becoming his trademark as he plays off of Paul’s lead in each go around. John‘s contribution was rhythmic but heavily distorted, a nod to his guitar work on “Revolution,” and signifying his growing dissociation with his band mates and his “former life.”
Truly eerie in their guitar solo sequence (and I apologize for this morbid correlation) is the order in which they play. Paul takes the lead, followed by George with John closing each sequence. And in their true “end,” it was John exiting first, George following and Paul, still with us, who will bow out third. Paul did get the “last word” in “The End” by penning a lyric to close the song (and the album…at least in its original layout). Drawing inspiration from one of his heroes, Paul decided to write a rhyming couplet in the style of the Bard. Its message is timeless.
Sure, the song’s powerful ending lyric seems to speak to society at large, a philosophical directive to which all of us could and should relate and adhere. But even more so, the equation set up by Paul’s couplet – “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” – resonates as the defining credo, even epitaph, of four men who forever changed the musical landscape of our world. For ten years, they put everything they had into their music. Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours in dark clubs throughout Europe, and thousands more in the studio and on arena and stadium stages around the world. And in return, they received the love and adulation of a worldwide fan base that literally could not get enough. The Beatles’ music was love: love of being musicians, love of creative freedom, love of women, love of spirituality, love of rock and roll, love of rebellion, love of their fans and certainly, at one time, love of one another. We as fans all felt that love, and continue to feel it even today every time we hear one of their songs. We felt their love and loved the band right back. And if their continual popularity and relevance in today’s art, culture, literature and of course, music is any indication, we still love the Beatles today as much as ever.
*Historical background leading up to the release of Abbey Road:
Friction already created a poor showing on their tenth album, The Beatles, now highly regarded as the White Album, but critically lambasted upon release as disjointed and sloppily performed and generally dismissed as ego-driven solo efforts thrown together in a mish-mash of discontinuity. (And that, in a nutshell, proves how incredible the band truly was, because The Beatles has come to be included among the greatest albums of all time in all critic and fan-based music-themed articles, rankings, research and analyses that matter.)
And their twelfth album, Let It Be, though released after Abbey Road, was recorded, in large part, before Abbey Road had been. Originally slated to be released before Abbey Road in mid-1969 as Get Back, the Beatles were displeased with the sound and feel of the cut and shelved the effort. By all accounts, bad vibes, discontent and a general festering of acrimony boiled over throughout the recording and editing of Let It Be. Some of the songs from the Get Back recordings were released as singles before Phil Spector came in and re-edited and mastered the album, renaming it Let It Be. Let It Be drew mixed reviews at the time of its release and to this day is seldom included among any short list of the band’s greatest albums. A film of the same name was also released, and has gained mass notoriety for vividly capturing a number of conflicts among band members during the making of the album, and has often been referred to as a documentary intended to highlight the making of an album, but instead diagrammed “the break-up of a band.”
The “why” is debatable. Perhaps it was all Yoko’s fault, as many Fab Four fans like to opine. Maybe creative differences ran amok and were the culprit. Undoubtedly, Paul and John had a very different approach to music and leadership, which helped to inspire the varied styles and depth of musical genius throughout the band’s impressive oeuvre, but also laid the foundation for the Beatles’ demise as well. A grueling tour schedule and constant in-your-face idol-warship that accompanied Beatlemania took its toll on everyone, particularly George, who was retreating more and more into a spiritual lifestyle in the late 1960s. And the demands of fame in general were exhausting, from financial negotiations to promotional obligations. Finally, these are four people who, along with their few trusted insiders such as Brian Epstein (whose accidental overdose and death in 1967 caused problems of its own), and George Martin, spent a great deal of time together throughout the 1960s. So much time, in fact, that any petty disagreements, differences and moments of weakness that emerged became magnified exponentially.
Regardless of reason(s), in mid-1969, the four principles knew the end was nigh. After the disharmony and infighting that plagued the band’s previous two recording efforts, Paul went to George Martin, long-time producer and music arranger for the band sometimes referred to as the Fifth Beatle (though Paul maintained “if anyone was the Fifth Beatle, it was Brian [Epstein]”), and basically pleaded that the band needed to end on a high note and get together to make an album “the way they used to.” Martin agreed, and Abbey Road was born.
Additional sources and fun links:
1970 Rolling Stone Interview with John Lennon
1980 Playboy Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono
1971 Life Magazine Interview with Paul McCartney
1969 Interview with George Harrison in Apple Offices
1977 Interview with Ringo Starr