Four men walking across the street—an image so unassuming and simple, one would look past it if they had no knowledge of its significance. In fact, this image is one of the most pirated and imitated in all of pop culture. This is the famous cover to The Beatles’ 1969 album “Abbey Road.” But the John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr seen walking across the street on the album were not the same musicians that burst onto the scene in 1963 with their first album. To truly understand what makes “Abbey Road” such a significant album for The Beatles, one must look at the band’s trajectory leading up to that point.
Between 1963 and 1965, The Beatles put out some of the best pure pop rock of all time. They released five albums in this time: “Please Please Me,” “With the Beatles,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Beatles for Sale” and “Help!” These albums contain some of the best examples of pure pop songwriting at its best, with gems like “Twist and Shout” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” Many people look at this period of the band with either nostalgia or contempt. Those critical of the band think it spent these years producing bland pop without any lyrical or musical substance.
This is only a surface examination however. This was the early to mid-1960s when the pure commercial value of an artist was still the name of the game. The band was such a behemoth that there were certain expectations to be met. As this period went on, there were hints of the musical and lyrical genius that was to come sprinkled throughout these recordings.
Listen to the excellent vocal harmonies from Lennon and McCartney on “If I Fell” or the flamenco style guitar from Harrison on “And I Love Her.” One can also see hints of more mature ideas creeping in. In “Help!” Lennon literally cries out for help from the walls of fame closing in on him. In “The Night Before” Harrison uses interesting techniques with his volume knob to get unique guitar sounds. Most famously on the track “Yesterday,” producer George Martin decided to use a string quartet alongside McCartney’s vocals and acoustic guitar to add grandeur to the track. Yet all of these innovations as well as many others paled in comparison to what the band would do next.
In 1965, the band released “Rubber Soul.” Coming off of their last album “Help!” many expected more of the same. They were wrong. Instead they were greeted with new sounds: distorted guitar, Indian sitar, electric organ, European-style melodies and mature songwriting. Tracks like “Norwegian Wood” took influence from artists like Bob Dylan and featured storytelling lyrics combined with surrealism. The track also featured Indian influences. On “Girl,” Lennon sings about a girl who ruins her man’s existence. No longer the standard lovey-dovey affairs.
Probably the best track on the album is “In My Life.” On the track, Lennon sings about his nostalgic childhood in Liverpool. Featuring a sped up piano solo, the song is a powerful meditation on the past. Yet even these leaps and bounds were eclipsed by their next album, “Revolver,” from 1966, which features backwards music, further international influences and even more mature lyrics. McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” features extensive orchestration, and “For No One” is a surprisingly deep analysis of a relationship for a 24-year-old. Harrison’s influence began to grow as well, allowing another unique voice to shine on songs like “Taxman.”
After “Revolver,” The Beatles had almost taken pop as far as it could go. The only thing left to do was to destroy pop/rock and remake it into their own vision. The result was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The album was groundbreaking. The psychedelic overtones were novel, and the production was rich and lush. There were multiple overdubs, and the nature of music itself was altered. The studio became a true creative force. Artists could now use the studio to take their music anywhere they wanted. This resulted in their masterpiece “A Day in the Life.” The true peak of Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting, the song featured a full orchestra as well as several musical sections—a game changer in every sense.
After “Sgt. Pepper,” The Beatles pulled back on psychedelia and studio production and produced the “White Album.” This sprawling double album featured masterpieces like “Blackbird,” “Helter Skelter” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The band was in a bind after this. Arguments were frequent, and Paul’s “Let It Be” project was going nowhere (although recorded first, it would be released after “Abbey Road”).
The band pulled it together and produced “Abbey Road.” The album was bold, confident and filled with happiness. Featuring classics like “Come Together,” “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” the album was bold in every sense. The vocal harmonies on “Because” are textbook examples of how to do harmonies right. McCartney’s bass is amazing on “Come Together.” But more signficantly, as a coda to an artist’s career, one can seldom find a better example. The last song, fittingly called “The End,” ends with the line: “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” No finer words could have been chosen to sum up what the band was about.
A remastered version of “Abbey Road” for its anniversary will be released on digital, CD and vinyl on Sept. 26. The album will feature alternate takes as well as new remastered versions of the songs.
Ben Sagal-Morris is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org