Photo courtesy of Studio Canal
London, 1980. I’m with a trio of friends – one old, two new – walking near the Thames, singing. We’re trying to see how much of the medley on the second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road we know by heart. The answer is: most of it. Our harmonies aren’t a patch on the originals, but it’s impressive how deeply this record, already 11 years old, has become engrained in all of us. None of us are surprised.
I’ve tried to explain this to my own grown-up kids: before computers and smartphones and Netflix and infinite entertainment options, one of the things we used to do was sit and listen to records. Just sit. And listen. All we had to look at was a black disc going round and round and the albums’ cardboard covers, some of which were more imaginative and informative than others. The front cover of Abbey Road, with no words, became part of the loopy “Paul is dead” conspiracy theory: he’s barefoot, which (someone said) was how men were buried...somewhere.
I was 12 when it came out, in September 1969. All the Beatles were still in their mid-to-late 20s. At the time, that made them seem impossibly mature and sophisticated. Now, I just think: how young. But in 69 I was on The Beatles’ bandwagon; had been since ‘She Loves You’ (1963), which we mimed at state school wearing plastic Beatles wigs.
I grew up with The Beatles. Didn’t discover them later, as happened with early Elvis and early Sinatra (both of whom sparked fan frenzy similar to “Beatlemania”). I had an older brother who actually bought the records, including four-track EPs featuring ‘Help!’ and ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ and then, in 1967, the Sgt Peppers... LP, with its gatefold cover. Our musical paths would diverge – he moved on to ponderous stuff by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes and Genesis and, somewhere along the line, either in a moment of weakness or to renounce his pop past, my brother gave me his Beatles discs, which I still have in all their scuffed glory.
They came with me when I moved homes and states in the 70s, the decade that began with The Beatles’ break-up, but stayed silent as I flirted with Slade, then Jethro Tull and The Moody Blues. At uni, when college corridors echoed with songs by 10CC and Supertramp and Leonard Cohen, I got to know a guy who still played Beatles records. This struck me as quaint until I sat down with him and listened again and heard things I’d never noticed before. There were constant surprises – lyrically, and also in terms of instrumentation. My own old records came out again and I fixed the holes in the collection until I had them all. On vinyl.
Now – even when I also have half of them on CD or as downloads, plus outtakes and demos in The Anthology series – I think of sides rather than songs if you push me for favourites. The first side of Help and Revolver, second of Sgt Peppers, third side of the White Album – which spans the aural rainbow from ‘Birthday’ to ‘Helter Skelter’ and the downy-soft ‘Long, Long, Long’. The Beatles, and their hugely influential producer George Martin, who died this year, spent a lot of time working on track sequences, something Gen Shuffle might not appreciate. Side one of Abbey Road, for example, ends with John’s long and bluesy ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy’). Then, after a pause to flip it over, side two kicks off with George’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’ – and that’s just how it feels. Light after darkness.
I keep going back to the last six minutes of that side, the conclusion to the final record they ever made together. There are better songs – I have a soft spot for ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ on Revolver, for example, and Peppers’ climactic ‘A Day in The Life’ can still stop me cold – but when ‘Golden Slumbers’ moves into ‘Carry That Weight’, then reprises a bit of ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ before ‘Carry That Weight’ kicks in again after some orchestral flourishes, well, it’s like everything coming together just as John sang on side one.
Then comes ‘The End’ (which isn’t the end at all, as Paul’s ‘Your Majesty’ sneaks in after 20 seconds of silence), with Ringo’s only extended drum solo and the other three taking turns on lead guitar. They’re all in it together, everyone working together “frightfully well”, Martin would say later. They knew it was almost over. To George, “it kind of felt like we were reaching the end of the line”. Paul recalled a sense of “let’s show ’em what we can do”. And they did.
I hope we did it justice in London in 1980. Because, six months later in Venice, in a train carriage, an Italian girl in tears sought confirmation from me of some dreadful news, asking: “John Lennon morte?” I nodded. We sat in silence. It really did seem like the end.
Alan Attwood is a former editor of The Big Issue.
This article first appeared in Ed#518 of The Big Issue.