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Track by Track: Breaking down 'Abbey Road' in the words of The Beatles

@TylerGolsen

When The Beatles arrived at EMI Studios in the February of 1969, they had been through a lot. The previous month had been spent attempting to record songs for a planned album entitled Get Back, which would find the band stripping away their studio sheen to recall their rock and roll roots. The atmosphere was contentious, with band unity at an all-time low and various walkouts taking place over the course of the recording. By the end of the month, the tapes were shelved without any definitive plan of releasing them.

The band were now back at square one, and they decided to abandon the ethos of the Get Back project, return to the familiar setting of EMI Studio 2, and reunite with producer George Martin to make a more cohesive album. There was no direct discussion about it, but according to George Harrison, there was a general sense that these sessions would be the group’s last. Intending to create the best possible album they could, the band buckled down throughout the spring and summer to work on what would eventually become Abbey Road.

Released on September 26, 1969, Abbey Road initially garnered a divided response from critics, especially considering how the band initially publicly stated their intention to strip down their sound. The lush orchestrations of ‘Something’, the heavily overdubbed vocals of ‘Because’, and the ambitious extended medley that occupied the album’s second side was in direct contradiction to what many were expecting. The flip nature of goofy songs like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and ‘Octopus’s Garden’ did nothing to enhance the view that Abbey Road was overly manufactured and processed.

It didn’t take long for the status of Abbey Road to rise in esteem. Following The Beatles disbandment the following year, Abbey Road quickly became cited as the apotheosis of the band’s synthesis between groundbreaking technological achievements and legendary songwriting prowess. As the status of albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album continue to fluctuate within the pop music canon; Abbey Road has never been far from the top.

But what did the band members themselves think about the album? Some 52 years after Abbey Road‘s release, we’ve combed through The Beatles’ public comments to determine what the band members thought about the eclectic album’s tracks.

Here is what The Beatles thought about Abbey Road, in their own words, compiled by the wonderful Beatles Interviews.

Abbey Road, in The Beatles own words:

1. ‘Come Together’

Though a contentious song, litigiously, the track is one of the greatest opening numbers in rock and roll history. A song borrowed from the style of Chuck Berry saw Lennon throw down some serious groove and the kind of timeless rock sound he would soon be famed for.

John Lennon (songwriter): “‘Come Together’ changed at the session. We said, ‘Let’s slow it down. Let’s do this to it, let’s do that to it,’ and it ends up however it comes out. I just said, ‘Look, I’ve got no arrangement for you, but you know how I want it.’ I think that’s partly because we’ve played together a long time. So I said, ‘Give me something funky and set up a beat, maybe.’ And they all just joined in.”

George Harrison: “‘Come Together’ was one of the last ones to be recorded. John was in an (automobile) accident, so he was off for a period of time. Then when we got back, which was only a week or so before we finished the album, we did this one. I think he wrote it only a month or so ago, so it’s very new. It’s sort of twelve-bar type of tune, and it’s one of the nicest sounds we’ve got, actually. Nice drumming from Ringo. And it’s sort of up-tempo. I suppose you’d call it a rocker. Rocker-beat-a-boogie.”

Lennon: “It’s gobbledygook — ‘Come Together’ was an expression that Tim Leary had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever he wanted to be, and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and I tried, but I couldn’t come up with one. But I came up with this, ‘Come Together,’ which would’ve been no good to him– you couldn’t have a campaign song like that, right? Leary attacked me years later, saying I ripped him off. I didn’t rip him off. It’s just that it turned into ‘Come Together.’ What am I going to do, give it to him? It was a funky record — it’s one of my favorite Beatle tracks, or, one of my favorite Lennon tracks, let’s say that. It’s funky, it’s bluesy, and I’m singing it pretty well. I like the sound of the record. You can dance to it. I’ll buy it! (laughs).”

Paul McCartney: “On the new album I like ‘Come Together,’ which is a great one of John’s.”

2. ‘Something’

If Frank Sinatra calls your song one of “the greatest love songs written in the last 50 years” you know you’ve done something right. Harrison had clearly hit his peak with this track as he effortlessly constructs a love song for the ages.

George Harrison (songwriter): “‘Something’ was written on the piano while we were making The White Album. I had a break while Paul was doing some overdubbing so I went into an empty studio and began to write. That’s really all there is to it, except the middle took some time to sort out. It didn’t go on the White Album because we’d already finished all the tracks.”

Paul McCartney: “I like George’s song ‘Something.’ For me I think it’s the best he’s written.”

George Harrison: “When I wrote it, I imagined somebody like Ray Charles doing it. That’s the feel I imagined, but because I’m not Ray Charles, you know, I’m sort of much more limited in what I can do, then it came out like this. It’s nice. It’s probably the nicest melody tune that I’ve written.”

John Lennon: “I think that’s about the best track on the album, actually.”

Ringo Starr: “[Along with ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps] The finest love songs ever written. They’re really on a par with what John and Paul or anyone else of that time wrote.”

3. ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’

Usually slated as the one song that every member of The Beatles detested recording, McCartney still holds a soft spot for this song. ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ is unlikely to be on anybody’s top 10 Beatles songs list, but it does find a comfy home on the album.

Paul McCartney (songwriter): “‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ is my analogy for when something goes wrong out of the blue, as it so often does, as I was beginning to find out at that time in my life. I wanted something symbolic of that, so to me it was some fictitious character called Maxwell with a silver hammer. I don’t know why it was silver, it just sounded better than Maxwell’s hammer. It was needed for scanning. We still use that expression now when something unexpected happens.”

George Harrison: “‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ is just something of Paul’s which we’ve been trying to record. We spent a hell of a lot of time on it. And it’s one of those instant sort of whistle-along tunes, which some people will hate, and some people will really love it. It’s more like ‘Honey Pie’, you know, a fun sort of song. But it’s pretty sick as well though, ‘cuz the guy keeps killing everybody. But that’s one of the tunes we use synthesizer on, which is pretty effective on this.”

John Lennon: “I hated it. All I remember is the track – he made us do it a hundred million times. He did everything to make it into a single and it never was and it never could’ve been. But [Paul] put guitar licks on it and he had somebody hitting iron pieces and we spent more money on that song than any of them in the whole album.”

Ringo Starr: “The worst session ever was ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.’ It was the worst track we ever had to record. It went on for fucking weeks. I thought it was mad.”

4. ‘Oh! Darling’

Getting lost in a bluesy number is something that The Beatles can do effortlessly. On this beauty, the Fab Four are in the groove and deliver one of their smokiest numbers of all time. Musically attuned to McCartney’s vocal, the song really hangs on his singing performance.

Paul McCartney (songwriter): “I mainly remember wanting to get the vocal right, wanting to get it good, and I ended up trying each morning as I came into the recording session. I tried it with a hand mike, and I tried it with a standing mike, I tried it every which way, and finally got the vocal I was reasonably happy with. It’s a bit of a belter and if it comes off lukewarm then you’ve missed the whole point. It was unusual for me– I would normally try all the goes at a vocal in one day.”

John Lennon: “‘Oh! Darling’ was a great one of Paul’s that he didn’t sing too well. I always thought I could have done it better – it was more my style than his. He wrote it, so what the hell, he’s going to sing it.”

George Harrison: “‘Oh! Darling’ is a typical 1950s–’60s-period song because of its chord structure.”

5. ‘Octopus’s Garden’

If you’re looking for a silly little ditty that doesn’t mean too much then Ringo Starr has you covered with this childlike nursery rhyme, ‘Octopus’s Garden’. Working as Starr’s second composition, the track was born after Starr had temporarily left the group. 

Ringo Starr (songwriter): “I wrote ‘Octopus’s Garden’ in Sardinia. Peter Sellers had lent us his yacht and we went out for the day… I stayed out on deck with [the captain] and we talked about octopuses. He told me that they hang out in their caves and they go around the seabed finding shiny stones and tin cans and bottles to put in front of their cave like a garden. I thought this was fabulous, because at the time I just wanted to be under the sea too. A couple of tokes later with the guitar – and we had ‘Octopus’s Garden’!”

George Harrison: “It’s only the second song Ringo wrote, and it’s lovely. Ringo gets bored playing the drums, and at home he plays a bit of piano, but he only knows about three chords. He knows about the same on guitar. I think it’s a really great song, because on the surface, it just like a daft kids’ song, but the lyrics are great. For me, you know, I find very deep meaning in the lyrics, which Ringo probably doesn’t see, but all the thing like ‘resting our head on the sea bed’ and ‘We’ll be warm beneath the storm’ which is really great, you know. Because it’s like this level is a storm, and if you get sort of deep in your consciousness, it’s very peaceful. So Ringo’s writing his cosmic songs without noticing.”

6. ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’

The track was a slight hangover from the Let It Be sessions, it was the first track to be recorded for the album despite this, it was also one of the final songs on the album to be fully completed. It sees Lennon at his most honest and visceral on the album.

John Lennon (songwriter): “‘She’s So Heavy’ was about Yoko. We used a Moog synthesizer on the end. That machine can do all sounds and all ranges of sound.”

George Harrison: “It’s very heavy. John plays lead guitar and sings the same as he plays. It’s really basically a bit like a blues. The riff that he sings and plays is really a very basic blues-type thing. But again, it’s very original sort of John-type song.”

John Lennon: “Simplicity is evident in ‘She So Heavy.’ In fact a reviewer wrote: ‘He seems to have lost his talent for lyrics, it’s so simple and boring.’ When it gets down to it– when you’re drowning, you don’t say ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream.”

7. ‘Here Comes The Sun’

Sometimes playing hooky can really work out for you. In ‘Here Comes The Sun’ you have all the proof you need. The song was written in Eric Clapton’s back garden while Harrison avoided laborious band meeting at Apple HQ. It was in this place of frustration that Harrison created one of the most uplifting songs ever written.

George Harrison (songwriter): “‘Here Comes The Sun’ was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: ‘Sign this’ and ‘Sign that’. Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever; by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. The relief of not having to go and see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote ‘Here Comes The Sun’.”

John Lennon: “It reminds me of Buddy Holly, in a way. This song is just the way he’s progressing, you know. He’s writing all kinds of songs and once the door opens, the floodgates open.”

Ringo Starr: “He said, ‘Oh, I’ve got this song. It’s like seven-and-a-half time.’ ‘Yeah, so?’ You know, he might as well have talked to me in Arabic, you know what I mean? I had to find some way that I could physically do it and do it every time so it came off on time. That’s one of those Indian tricks.”

George Harrison: “It was just sunny and it was all just the release of that tension that had been building up on me. It was just a really nice sunny day, and I picked up the guitar, which was the first time I’d played the guitar for a couple of weeks because I’d been so busy. And the first thing that came out was that song. It just came. And I finished it later when I was on holiday in Sardinia.”

8. ‘Because’

It’s a simply beautiful song with some emotive and clean lyrical content, it’s also a reminder of The Beatles’ early roots as it features a classic three-part harmony.

John Lennon (songwriter): “I was lying on the sofa in our house, listening to Yoko play Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on the piano. Suddenly, I said, ‘Can you play those chords backward?’ She did, and I wrote ‘Because’ around them. The song sounds like ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ too. The lyrics are clear, no bullshit, no imagery, no obscure references.”

Paul McCartney: “I like John’s ‘Because’ on the second side. To say, ‘Because the world is round it turns me on’ is great. And ‘Because the wind is high it blows my mind.’ I wouldn’t mind betting Yoko was in on the writing of that, it’s rather her kind of writing: wind, sky and earth are recurring, it’s straight out of Grapefruit and John was heavily influenced by her at the time.”

George Harrison: “‘Because’ is one of the most beautiful tunes. It’s three-part harmony, John, Paul and George all sing it together. John wrote this tune. The backing is a bit like Beethoven. And three-part harmony right throughout. Paul usually writes the sweeter tunes, and John writes the, sort of, more the rave-up things, or the freakier things. But John’s getting to where he doesn’t want to. He just wants to write twelve-bars. But you can’t deny it, I think this is possibly my favorite one on the album. The lyrics are so simple. The harmony was pretty difficult to sing. We had to really learn it. But I think that’s one of the tunes that will impress most people. It’s really good.”

9. ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’

The Medley will go down in Beatles history and this song is one of the key reasons. One of the more well-rounded pieces in the ensemble, ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ is the gateway to the medley and offers up a bright vision of what’s to come.

Paul McCartney (songwriter): “This was me directly lambasting Allen Klein’s attitude to us: no money, just funny paper, all promises and it never works out. It’s basically a song about no faith in the person, that found its way into the medley on Abbey Road. John saw the humour in it.”

John Lennon: “That’s Paul. Well, that’s not a song, you know. Abbey Road was really unfinished songs all stuck together. Everybody praises the album so much, but none of the songs had anything to do with each other, no thread at all, only the fact that we stuck them together.”

George Harrison: “’Funny paper’ – that’s what we get. We get bits of paper saying how much is earned and what this is and that is, but we never actually get it in pounds, shilling and pence. We’ve all got a big house and a car and an office, but to actually get the money we’ve earned seems impossible.”

Paul McCartney: “We wanted to dabble, and I had a bit of fun making some of the songs fit together, with key changes (into the long medley). That was nice. It worked out well.”

10. ‘Sun King’

Don’t listen to Lennon who routinely called the song “garbage”, ‘Sun King’ is one of the finer moments from ‘The Medley’ that takes up most of the second side of Abbey Road. The singer most likely got the song’s title from The Sun King, Nancy Mitford’s 1966 biography of the French King Louis XIV, the song quickly bypasses French and descends into cod-Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.

It all adds up to a bit of irreverent nonsense that within the context of the group was always an enjoyable experience.

John Lennon (songwriter): “That’s a piece of garbage I had around. We just started joking, you know, singing `quando para mucho.´ So we just made up… Paul knew a few Spanish words from school, you know. So we just strung any Spanish words that sounded vaguely like something. And of course we got `chicka ferdy´ in. That´s a Liverpool expression. Just like sort of– it doesn´t mean anything to me but (childish taunting) `na-na, na-na-na!´ `Cake and eat it´ is another nice line too, because they have that in Spanish– ‘Que’ or something can eat it. One we missed– we could have had ‘para noya,’ but we forgot all about it.”

Paul McCartney: “There was a thing in Liverpool that us kids used to do, which was instead of saying ‘f-off’, we would say ‘chicka ferdy!’. It actually exists in the lyrics of The Beatles song ‘Sun King’. In that song we just kind of made up things, and we were all in on the joke. We were thinking that nobody would know what it meant, and most people would think, ‘Oh, it must be Spanish,’ or something. But, we got a little seditious word in there!”

George Harrison: “At the time, ‘Albatross’ (by Fleetwood Mac) was out, with all the reverb on guitar. So we said, ‘Let’s be Fleetwood Mac doing Albatross, just to get going.’ It never really sounded like Fleetwood Mac… but that was the point of origin.”

11. ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’

Recorded as a single piece alongside ‘Sun King’, there’s not much to really sink your teeth into with ‘Mean Mr Mustard’. The song was written by Lennon while the band were in India in 1968 and, if you’re not a huge fan of this song then you needn’t worry, Lennon wasn’t much of a supporter either.

John Lennon (songwriter): “That’s me, writing a piece of garbage. I’d read somewhere in the newspaper about this mean guy who hid five-pound notes, not up his nose but somewhere else. No, it had nothing to do with cocaine.”

Paul McCartney: “‘Mean Mr Mustard’ was very John. I liked that. A nice quirky song.”

John Lennon: “In ‘Mean Mr Mustard’ I said ‘his sister Pam’ – originally it was ‘his sister Shirley’ in the lyric. I changed it to Pam to make it sound like it had something to do with it [‘Polythene Pam’]. They are only finished bits of crap that I wrote in India.”

12. ‘Polythene Pam’

Re-telling the story of a young Liverpool scrubber, of course with a heavy dose of poetic licence, ‘Polythene Pam’ sees Lennon channelling his inner-poet. It’s another song written during their time in India.

John Lennon (songwriter): “That was me, remembering a little event with a woman in Jersey, and a man who was England’s answer to Allen Ginsberg, who gave us our first exposure… I met him when we were on tour and he took me back to his apartment, and I had a girl and he had one he wanted me to meet. He said she dressed up in polythene, which she did. She didn’t wear jackboots, and kilts, I just sort of elaborated. Perverted sex in a polythene bag– Just looking for something to write about.”

13. ‘She Came In Through the Bathroom Window’

A song about the ‘Apple Scruffs’, a group of people who held an ongoing vigil outside the band’s headquarters as well as Abbey Road studios and even the band members’ homes. The song is said to have been based on a genuine incident involving a scruff breaking into his home and stealing a precious picture.

Paul McCartney (songwriter): “So I got ‘So I quit the police department’, which are part of the lyrics to that. This was the great thing about the randomness of it all. If I hadn’t been in this guy’s cab, or if it had been someone else driving, the song would have been different. Also I had a guitar there so I could solidify it into something straight away.”

John Lennon: “He wrote that when we were in New York announcing Apple and we first met Linda. Maybe she’s the one that came in the window.”

George Harrison: “A very good song of Paul’s, with good lyrics. It’s really hard to explain what they’re about.”

Ringo Starr: “The second side of Abbey Road is my favourite. I love it. ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,’ and all those bits that weren’t songs, I mean, they were just all the bits that John and Paul had around that we roped together.”

14. ‘Golden Slumbers’

The beginning of the album’s ending, ‘Golden Slumbers’ has a habit of dividing fans. Some see it as a masterpiece of small proportions while others see it as another throwaway.

Paul McCartney (songwriter): “I was just playing the piano in Liverpool at my dad’s house, and my sister Ruth’s piano book… she was learning piano… and ‘Golden Slumbers and your old favourites’ was up on the stand, you know– it was a little book with all those words in it. I was just flipping through it and I came to ‘Golden Slumbers.’ I can’t read music so I didn’t know the tune… I can’t remember the old tune… so I just started playing ‘my’ tune to it. And then, I liked the words so I just kept that, you know, and then it fitted with another bit of song I had– which is the verse in between it. So I just made that into a song. It just happened ‘cuz I was reading her book.”

John Lennon: “That’s Paul, apparently from a poem he found in a book, some eighteenth-century book where he just changed the words here and there. Paul layered the strings on after we finished most of the basic track. I personally can’t be bothered with strings and things, you know. I like to do it with the group or with electronics. And especially going through that hassle with musicians and all that bit, you know, it’s such a drag trying to get them together. But Paul digs that, so that’s his scene. It was up to him where he went with violins and what he did with them. And I think he just wanted a straight kind of backing, you know. Nothing freaky.”

George Harrison: “Another very melodic tune of Paul’s which is very nice.”

15. ‘Carry That Weight’

Recorded as one with ‘Golden Slumbers’ McCartney’s section of side two’s medley is a distillation of his sonic preferences. Lush and perfectly arranged, ‘Carry That Weight’ may well be a small piece but it makes a big impact.

Paul McCartney (songwriter): “I’m generally quite upbeat but at certain times things get to me so much that I just can’t be upbeat any more and that was one of the times. We were taking so much acid and doing so much drugs and all this Klein shit was going on and getting crazier and crazier and crazier. Carry that weight a long time: like forever! That’s what I meant.”

John Lennon: “That’s Paul. Apparently, he was under strain at that period. He’s singing about all of us.”

16. ‘The End’

Aside from the throwaway ‘Her Majesty’ at the end of the album, it is the final song from Abbey Road and is certainly one of the band’s most beautiful moments. Not only in the song, which is tuneful and bodacious at every turn, making use of the orchestra at hand, but also contextually within the band. Aptly titled ‘The End’ it was a clear representation of things to come.

Paul McCartney (songwriter): “We were looking for the end to an album, and ‘In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make’ just came into my head. I just recognized that would be a good end to an album. And it’s a good little thing to say– now and for all time, I think. I can’t think of anything much better as a philosophy, because all you need IS love. It still is what you need. There aint nothin’ better. So, you know, I’m very proud to be in the band that did that song, and that thought those thoughts, and encouraged other people to think them to help them get through little problems here and there. So uhh… We done good!!

John Lennon: “That’s Paul again, the unfinished song, right? We’re on Abbey Road. Just a piece at the end. He had a line in it [sings] ‘And in the end, the love you get is equal to the love you give [sic],’ which is a very cosmic, philosophical line. Which again proves that if he wants to, he can think.”

Paul McCartney: “Ringo would never do drum solos. He hated drummers who did lengthy drum solos. We all did. And when he joined The Beatles we said, ‘Ah, what about drum solos then?’, thinking he might say, ‘Yeah, I’ll have a five-hour one in the middle of your set,’ and he said, ‘I hate ’em!’ We said, ‘Great! We love you!’ And so he would never do them. But because of this medley I said, ‘Well, a token solo?’ and he really dug his heels in and didn’t want to do it. But after a little bit of gentle persuasion, I said, ‘Yeah, just do that, it wouldn’t be Buddy Rich gone mad,’ because I think that’s what he didn’t want to do.”

17. ‘Her Majesty’

There’s something innocent and joyous about this song that elevates it above the aforementioned tracks. At under 30 seconds, the song is a bit of a throwaway but as throwaways go, it’s a marvellous one.

Paul McCartney (songwriter): “That was just… I don’t know. I was in Scotland, and I was just writing this little tune. I can never tell, like, how tunes come out. I just wrote it as a joke.”

John Lennon: “We always have tons of bits and pieces lying around. I’ve got stuff I wrote around Pepper, because you lose interest after you’ve had it for years. It was a good way of getting rid of bits of songs. In fact, George and Ringo wrote bits of it… literally in between bits and breaks. Paul would say, ‘We’ve got twelve bars here– fill it in,’ and we’d fill it in on the spot. As far as we’re concerned, this album is more ‘Beatley’ than the double (White) album.”

Paul McCartney: “It was quite funny because it’s basically monarchist, with a mildly disrespectful tone, but it’s very tongue in cheek. It’s almost like a love song to the Queen. That was very much how things happened. Really, you know, the whole of our career was like that so it’s a fitting end.”

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