in which Paul McCartney reads Alfred Jarry

It’s unclear, the extent to which various Beatles felt or knew that Abbey Road was going to be their final album together…but in many respects, it feels very much fitting as the band’s finale – most obviously in ending (almost) with a song called “The End.” Since McCartney remained the band’s driving force on this project (although the band’s collective mood was much improved from its nadir during the interminable Get Back/Let it Be project), still, much tension is evident. Several tracks lack a member or two, George Martin, Billy Preston, and Mal Evans (!) are called in to play parts that band members easily could have played…and everyone else, to a man, hated McCartney’s song “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (more on that later).

Abbey Road has one of the more distinctive openings of any Beatles album: the immediately recognizable bass and percussion riff of “Come Together.” Apparently the song was originally faster, more obviously an homage to the artist from whom Lennon borrowed that “here come old flat-top” line (Chuck Berry), but that didn’t quite work: it was slowed down and rendered more “swampy,” and that made all the difference. Lennon’s imagery here is odd, often indecipherable…but distinctly dark, even somewhat queasy in places – in conjunction with the raw, desperate intensity of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” it’s clear this was a man deep in thrall to some object of desire. Lennon’s always said these songs are about Yoko…if I were Yoko, I’m not sure I’d want the sound of these songs to be about me; they sound much more like they’re about Lennon’s bout with heroin addiction. Regardless, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is not only a triumph of intensity, but the band achieves a new sound here (due in part, apparently, to the new equipment at Abbey Road, which had a warmer sound) – bluesy, almost jazz-like in its sounds and chords – and then (in the “She’s So Heavy”) foreboding, massive, frighteningly powerful. (Harrison and Lennon apparently tracked that guitar riff many times over to get the sound.) The song builds, adding layer after layer of noise (literally: the band used a very early Moog synth to generate white noise) – and then, in one of Lennon’s most brilliant and spontaneous musical decisions, stops dead, brutal, done. (A note on the remaster: I really, really wish they’d put a bit more silence prior to the beginning of “Here Comes the Sun.” They’re in the same key, but couldn’t be further apart in mood…a break here would improve things.)

McCartney tries to bring a similar intensity to his vocal performance in “Oh! Darling”…and nearly succeeds, done in primarily by the slightly creaky, fifties-blues set-up of the song. Still, it’s a tremendous performance (and I quite like the song)…but Paul’s weakness always has been for genre pastiche.

“Here Comes the Sun” is a wonderful, bright piece of brilliance – nearly the best song George Harrison had written to date. (And some very nice synth playing – too bad the band broke up too soon to explore the use of that instrument.) Except, of course, that he also had written “Something”…and even the rest of the band, egos in full engorgement at the time, acknowledged this as the album’s best song. It errs perhaps just this side of saccharine with its orchestration (I would have preferred a smaller ensemble, or even the use of a Mellotron instead), but its otherwise direct, seemingly simple approach is quite powerful (and less simple than it seems: some of those modulations are quite unusual). George was also reaching a peak as a guitarist: the solo here is one of his best – hell, among the better guitar solos period – and he played it live, in one take, during the orchestral overdub.

I’m not sure what I can add to all the praise for the vocal harmonies on “Because” – except to note that you can really hear them in the remasters. The band had a fabulously intuitive sense of how their voices worked together, which they’d developed to a wonderful peak of craft by this point in their careers. And while this and the soloing on “The End” are among the better instances of the band working together, the one song on Abbey Road that most exposed the disharmony among them is Paul’s “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

I get it…it is rather “fruity” (Ringo’s term), at least musically, and for the most part the lyrics seem as if they could be outtakes from a failed musical. A failed musical about a serial killer, that is. Paul’s so “cute” that people, weirdly, sorta overlook that fact. It’s odd that John, in particular, hated this song so much…since arguably it’s cousin to his own “Bungalow Bill”: a comical genre song laden with a satirical lyric about violence and (for Lennon, at least) hypocrisy. But whereas Lennon’s sarcastic humor is quite obvious, McCartney is subtler, presented without comment, even with merriment, as if the song were only about a magical blanket or something. (Oh – and “pataphysical” here is from Jarry’s Ubu Roi – which Linda McCartney confirms Paul was reading at the time.)

Still, the song does sit a bit oddly on the album, and maybe would have made a better b-side.

Speaking of, McCartney did a masterful job sweeping up what might otherwise have been a handful of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time tracks by working them (his and Lennon’s) into the renowned medley that originally occupied side 2 of the album. While “You Never Give Me Your Money” and, probably, “Golden Slumbers”/”Carry That Weight” (considered as a single track) might make the grade as full-fledged songs, everything else here, on its own, would feel like underdeveloped fragments. But the sequencing and cumulative context actually give them a bit more weight (a bit more) than they would otherwise have had. Maybe the clearest illustration of that is “The End” itself. Strictly speaking, it’s not much of a song: four lines of words that barely rise above the level of la-la-la (“Oh yeah/alright/are you gonna be in my dreams/tonight”), several minutes over two chords, a transition for, curiously, full orchestra, two more lines, and out. And all that goes to prove that verbal description is inadequate in the face of music: those several minutes include, a first, Ringo playing a drum solo (in stereo!), and, a last, the other three band members playing together, in the famous trading bars solo round-robin. It’s Paul, George, John, in that order, if you’re keeping score: odd that there’s debate, since John’s primarily rhythmic parts are clearly his, and Paul’s solo style is obvious (“Taxman,” “Good Morning, Good Morning,” to name two), while George, in his second or third solo, does a bit of a Chet Atkins-type thing that’s clearly him. And I have to admit: when I read Geoff Emerick’s description of the band preparing to play those solos…ah hell, I teared up (hey – I also cried at the end of Spinal Tap – yeah, this is like a guy’s chick-flick thing, I guess).

Finally: even though on paper, McCartney’s mantra-like couplet that closes the song (“And in the end the love you take/is equal to the love you make”) might seem facile, even meaningless, what it actually meant, and means, is clearer after that cathartic build-up – cathartic in part because, it’s hard to avoid imagining, the band knew it was their last hurrah: it sounds great as it falls, slowly, into that final chord sequence, a summary hope of an equivalence that wasn’t sufficient to keep this band together.

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1 Comment

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One response to “in which Paul McCartney reads Alfred Jarry

  1. John Sharples

    Excellent piece.

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