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ALL US rock and roll freaks are also inveterate list-makers, and we spend a large part of our non-listening hours Ranking the Groups we listen to the rest of the time. The puzzle is that in nearly every such reckoning the Beatles come out regularly, monotonously on top of the heap. This is puzzling because the other groups that populate the upper reaches of today's pop hierarchy are so incredibly good in their own special professional ways that it is difficult to see how a bunch of amateurs like the Beatles invariably manage to surpass them all. Thus in the modern rock and roll scene there are, to name only a few, groups like the Who. with their titanic instrumental drive; or groups of the structural and textural subtlety of Traffic and Procul Harum: or maverick musical virtuosos like Laura Nyro and Jimi Hendrix-or, of course. the Rolling Stones, absolute masters of rock and roll rhythms of the rock and roll temperament.
By contrast, the music that is coming out of the Beatles these days has none of these explicit qualities: their latest songs are casually, almost sloppily, put together, composed of elements that are determinedly unadventurous and unpretentious to the point of seeming derivative. So why do we nevertheless like the Beatles so extravagantly? It is worth, I think, the effort to try and understand the abstract roots of the Beatles' superiority, a superiority that is evident from beginning to end of Abbey Road.
One quote (from Peter Townshend of the Who): "Unchanneled or misdirected energy is incredibly wasteful in pop music. Like the Beatles know how to channel their energy. I'm convinced that there's not a lot actually coming out, it's just that we get all of it." That's the first thing. The Beatles not only generate enormous energy, but they direct it in a carefully chosen and strictly limited manner so that nothing is wasted. They never overreach and whatever they choose to give us comes out intensely focused, as penetrating and overwhelming as a laser beam.
The Beatles are just so self-confident, they have such a sure touch. That was always the secret of the great Memphis Delta blues-men (and of folk artists in general, they could knock you dead by the mere aura of unself-conscious authority that they projected. I think that what is happening with the Beatles is that they are beginning to achieve, in a rock context, that exact amalgam of easy natural strength and sure-footed integrity born of a complete command over the medium. (Exciting to think that, before our eyes, the Beatles are doing it all over again-taking rock and roll up to yet another higher plane of cultural and artistic value.) The paramount position that the Beatles hold then in the rock world comes primarily from their unmatched style: one, that is, of boundless energy controlled with breezy authority.
IT WASN'T easy to evolve the musical form that fits this attitude of elegant super-confidence and it took the Beatles several distinct steps to do it. After the creaky harmonies and raw enthusiasm of their early career, which reached its peak with A Hard Day's Night, came the monumental Rubber Soul, an album on which they conquered the rhythm and blues structure and set themselves forever free. Their first reaction to this freedom was to push it to its furthest limits which they did in continuous experiment from "Strawberry Fields" to "I Am the Walrus." What we have been seeing ever since has been a retrenchment. The Beatles are back to being a standard rock band (drums, bass, guitar/piano) but the richness of their immediate background enables them to transform this seemingly limited form by magical proportions. The Beatles may be musical amateurs but they have more experience than anyone in the business.
Who else would be able to fit three independent melodies into the same song and sustain them all so effortlessly? (It's been done before but never so effortlessly, so casually.) "Here Comes the Sun," for example, starts out as something the Byrds might have been able to do-till you get to the part where an instrumental interlude breaks in to invert all the melody lines and the whole thing still makes beautiful sense. Or how else to explain the presence of "Oh Darling" on the album, a song which would have been no more than a flat 1950's period piece if not for the breathtaking ripples of drums and piano that accent it? All the music on Abbey Road is vaguely familiar in broad outline but it might as well have not been for all the good it does anyone trying to put the album down for that reason.
Side two of Abbey Road is a long poem by, I'm sure, John Lennon, and performed under his guidance. (In fact, this whole album is very much John's trip, just as the last double-album was Paul's and George's.) This whole song-poem is done in the style of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" with short sections of lyrics and themes disappearing and re-appearing to build to the definite expression of a particular message and its corresponding mood.
It is foolish to think that there is ever any single exclusive meaning to any of the Beatles songs, which is why it is difficult to interpret them. This is especially true when one is dealing with as complex and fluid a poet as John Lennon. Nevertheless there are always some meanings in Beatles' songs and it is important to try and understand them.
On "Happiness Is A Warm Gun," Lennon was painting the world in despairing terms, and one of the central metaphors he used in that song was his guilt at the way he had treated his ex-wife Cynthia. He ended up that song advocating suicide, smack and nihilism. This time around Lennon is different, more at peace with himself and the world and advocating the same for everybody. Again the metaphor of his relationship with his ex-wife recurs and the difference in his handling of it shows exactly how he has changed. Thus, on side two of Abbey Road, which must always be thought of as a single unified composition, Lennon's insistent call is for everyone to come to terms with the world just as he has come to terms with himself for the pain and sorrow that he caused someone else (i.e., Cynthia Lennon). The song "You Never Give Me Your Money" is about divorce proceedings and alimony payments and the section of it that goes "I never send you my pillow/I only send you my invitation/and in the middle of the celebration/ I break down" is significantly placed just before that last chorus of "Carry that Weight" which goes "Boy you're gonna carry that weight a long time." In other words Lennon is moving from the general advice and exhortation that is the first chorus of "Carry that Weight" to the particular example of himself at the altar that he follows it with. And the conclusion, tremendous and humane, follows: "And in the end/ the love you take/ is equal to the love you make." If you have hurt someone badly try to make up for it by treating other people with extra love. Acceptance of one's situation is all.
The whole piece is divided into three "movements" and each one contributes the same meaning in microcosm that the whole aims at. Thus each section begins on an up note, come down in the middle and is then silently and tenderly resolved. This sketch of a musical structure is brilliantly filled out with every minute of listening space taken up by a staggering number of wistful melodies, exquisite guitar work, and, near the end, an amazingly meaningful drum solo by Ringo.
Abbey Road then is an album of the Beatles at the very height of their creative powers, a combination of extraordinarily strong songs written and performed with a kind of relentless assured zeal, and-on Side two in particular-infused with a mature and compassionate poetic vision, No wonder the Beatles are still Number One on every rock freak's list.
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