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Abbey Road, the last album the Beatles recorded, was released in 1969. Hard to believe it was so long ago, when I still have a clear memory of the record first appearing in our house, bought by my brother. We didn’t know, then, that it was all over, and in a way it wasn’t – previously recorded tapes from the generally disastrous Let it Be sessions were yet to be handed to Phil Spector, who would turn them into a rather depressing album released the following year, drenched in his signature, and in this case thoroughly ham-fisted, “wall of sound” overdubs. What he did to Long and Winding Road was practically indictable.

There was certainly nothing in the immaculately produced music of Abbey Road that hinted at the band’s demise. It was another step forward, like all their albums, vibrant, beautifully recorded, and full of tight ensemble playing. The Beatles had seemed fractured on the prior White Album; now they’d rekindled the spirit of their finest moments, and seemed to be reveling in what their combined talents could produce.

In retrospect, one can’t help but sense that they felt in their bones this was going to be it, and they wanted to go out in style.

The album ends with a 20-minute song suite (often called “the long medley”) that winds its way to a McCartney piece called Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight, before climaxing with The End.  In 1969, Paul was at the peak of his prowess, and here he produced a gorgeous symphonic conclusion that every turgid Art Rocker since has fumblingly tried, in one way or another, to emulate.

Once there was a way to get back home, sings Paul over his mournful piano.  The inspiration came from an Elizabethan Era poem by Thomas Dekker:

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,

Smiles awake you when you rise;

Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,

And I will sing a lullaby,

Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

The lyrics track the poem fairly closely, except, tellingly, the sentiments about losing the way home, and being left to carry that weight for a long time, were Paul’s own.  Still just 27 years old, he was now scaling to dizzying musical heights; did he know he would never be back there again?  It’s hard not to discern a sad awareness of all that was soon to be lost in this lovely, soaring song – but who wants to exit crying?  The great, beautiful music machine that was the Beatles was just about to be sent to the breakers and turned into scrap, but why weep, when instead there was still time to take her out for one last glorious spin?  So we end with a raucous guitar duel that vanishes in a flash to leave behind a single sweet note played on piano, over which is delivered a sort of benediction:

And in the end

the love you take

is equal to the love

you make.

The orchestra swells and lingers on a last note for just long enough, and no longer, and it’s all over.

I’ll let musicologist Walter Everett have the last word:

While not an unusual theme for the Beatles, and certainly one of central importance to John Lennon, as in “The Word”, and “All You Need is Love”, it seems rewarding to hear this uplifting message as a very personal final gift from Paul to his mates, as well as from the Beatles to the world. ‘Tis true that a good play needs no epilogue, but McCartney’s ear for structural balance graces a fine medley with a better coda.

{See Everett, The Beatles as Musicians, from Revolver to Anthology, beginning at location 5775 in the Kindle edition)}

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