Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Abbey Road and the Swan Song Myth: The Beatles didn't plan it as their last LP, but it was


The Guardian today talks to Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn about a meeting tape from Sept. 8, 1969, that includes John, Paul and George discussing plans to record an album after Abbey Road, which ended up being the group's final LP.

The meeting discussion focuses on songwriting, and the right of each Beatle to contribute songs equally (or, relatively equally in Ringo's case) to their LPs. George, especially, was frustrated that he'd been relegated to only one or two songs per album.
...we hear John suggesting that each of them should bring in songs as candidates for the single. He also proposes a new formula for assembling their next album: four songs apiece from Paul, George and himself, and two from Ringo – “If he wants them.” John refers to “the Lennon-and-McCartney myth”, clearly indicating that the authorship of their songs, hitherto presented to the public as a sacrosanct partnership, should at last be individually credited. 
Then Paul – sounding, shall we say, relaxed – responds to the news that George now has equal standing as a composer with John and himself by muttering something mildly provocative. “I thought until this album that George’s songs weren’t that good,” he says, which is a pretty double-edged compliment since the earlier compositions he’s implicitly disparaging include Taxman and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. There’s a nettled rejoinder from George: “That’s a matter of taste. All down the line, people have liked my songs.” 
John reacts by telling Paul that nobody else in the group “dug” his Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, a song they’ve just recorded for Abbey Road, and that it might be a good idea if he gave songs of that kind – which, John suggests, he probably didn’t even dig himself – to outside artists in whom he had an interest, such as Mary Hopkin, the Welsh folk singer. “I recorded it,” a drowsy Paul says, “because I liked it.”
While there's a common notion that the Beatles planned Abbey Road as their swan song, the tape indicates otherwise.

But it's not the only evidence showing this is true.

Abbey Road, in 1969, wasn't marketed as the final Beatles album and the group didn't describe it as such in interviews during the time. So far as the public knew - and perhaps so far as the band itself knew - the Beatles would likely record again.

In fact, in a Sept. 12, 1969, interview, John says, "If I wanted to make a record, I'd choose the Beatles."

Still, there was a growing sense among the group that its days were numbered. The idea that the Beatles might break up was in the back of all their minds, and had been discussed repeatedly during the Get Back/Let it Be sessions, as in this exchange from Jan. 7, 1969:
George: We should have a divorce.
Paul: Well, I said that at the last meeting. But it's getting near it.
John: Who’d have the children?
Paul: Dick James.
Discussing Abbey Road years later, George Harrison said: "I didn't know at the time that it was the last Beatles record that we would make. But it felt as if we were reaching the end of the line."

Interestingly, the end of the line came very shortly after the Sept. 8 discussion about the next LP.

The same day as saying publicly that he wished to record again with the Beatles, John departed for Toronto to perform at the Rock and Roll Revival festival with a hastily assembled version of the Plastic Ono Band that included Klaus Voormann, Eric Clapton and Alan White.

On the way, he reportedly told Allen Klein that he was leaving the Beatles. In the midst of re-negotiating the band's recording contract at the time, Klein told John that he understood, but to keep quiet about his plans.

At a Sept. 20 group meeting, however, as Paul brainstormed future plans for the group, John expressed his own wish for a "divorce" and announced that he was leaving the group. Five days later he was in the studio with Klaus, Clapton and Ringo, recording "Cold Turkey" for solo release.

The experience of performing with the other musicians, and the other Beatles' rejection of recording "Cold Turkey" as a single, likely prompted John's decision to quit. Going solo, he wouldn't have to fight for space for his songs on Beatles' albums. He could choose for himself what songs to release as singles. Above all, he could escape the increasingly tense group atmosphere each member of the band was feeling. He was more interested in creating music and art with Yoko at this stage, anyway. The Beatles had run their course.

Ringo briefly quit the band during the "White Album" sessions. George walked out during the making of Let it Be. But it took John's announcement that he was leaving to finally end the band.

It was only in later years that the idea of Abbey Road as a deliberately planned final album took hold, with even producer George Martin framing it as such in the Beatles' Anthology:
Let it Be was such an unhappy record (even though there are some great songs on it) that I really believed that was the end of The Beatles, and I assumed that I would never work with them again.  I thought, 'What a shame to end like this.'  So I was quite surprised when Paul rang me up and said, 'We're going to make another record – would you like to produce it?'  My immediate answer was:  'Only if you let me produce it the way we used to.'  He said, 'We will, we want to.' - 'John included?' - Yes, honestly.'  So I said, 'Well, if you really want to, let's do it. Let's get together again...(but) If I have to go back and accept a lot of instructions which I don't like I won't do it...'  It was a very happy record.  I guess it was happy because everybody thought it was going to be the last.
And, while it may not have been planned as such, Abbey Road certain works as a last album. "You Never Give Me Your Money" references the band's financial squabbles and disagreement over Klein's management. It also expresses loss - the ending of a dream - but also new possibilities:
Oh, that magic feeling
Nowhere to go, nowhere to go
And the aptly named "The End," with it's simple lyric, is the perfect summation of the Beatles' career and musical philosophy:
And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make

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