But by most accounts, the recording of Abbey Road was relatively painless and drama-free -- perhaps because the Fab Four knew it would be their last album together. "Nobody then was sure it was going to be the last one, but it felt like it was," producer George Martin recalled in The Beatles Anthology. George Harrison agreed: "Once we finished Abbey Road, the game was up, and I think we all accepted that."
As far as rock music swan songs go, this might be the best there's ever been. From the iconic opening bass line of "Come Together" to the ambitious Side 2 medley to the solemnity-subverting "Her Majesty," the entire album is an unqualified triumph.
It wasn't seen that way at the time, however. The album received mixed reviews, with the New York Times calling it an "unmitigated disaster" and Rolling Stone saying it was "complicated instead of complex."
Regardless, it was a massive hit -- it topped the Billboard 200 album charts for 12 weeks -- and its stature has exploded over the years. Fans often cite it as the Beatles' best, and critics frequently rank it as one of the greatest albums ever made. Heck, even the cover art is a pop culture touchstone. Everyone from Kanye West to Sesame Street has paid homage to the iconic image.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, here's our classic track-by-track review of the Beatles' Abbey Road. [In addition to various interviews, The Beatles Anthology documentary series, Steve Turner's A Hard Day's Write book and Barry Miles' Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now biography were invaluable resources for this article.]
Side 1 of Abbey Road opens with one of the most iconic bass lines in rock, surreal lyrics and swampy R&B-influenced rock. John Lennon began composing "Come Together" as a campaign song for LSD guru Timothy Leary, who was running against Ronald Reagan for governor of California in 1969. The lyrical inspirations for "Come Together" perfectly sum up Lennon's headspace at this point: The title comes from a line in the I Ching that Leary fed him, while "ol' flattop" was inspired by a lyric in Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me."
George Harrison's lush, elegant ballad was released as a double A-side single with "Come Together" and topped the Hot 100 chart -- helped by a promotional video showing each Beatle nuzzling with their respective significant other. Harrison's then-wife Pattie Boyd maintains the song was written about her, although the title is almost undoubtedly taken from a song on James Taylor's debut album called "Something In the Way She Moves" -- especially considering that album came out on the Beatles' own Apple Records.
"Maxwell's Silver Hammer"
Paul McCartney's tale of a young man's remorseless violence is delivered in a jaunty vaudevillian style. While it's one of the lighter songs on Abbey Road, the recording sessions were reportedly tense, with McCartney demanding endless retakes. "It was the worst track we ever had to record. It went on for fucking weeks. I thought it was mad," Ringo Starr told Rolling Stone in 2008. (They actually spent three days on it.) The hammer noise on the song was a blacksmith's anvil.
A rocker that finds McCartney's heart on his sleeve, his voice in the rafters and his head banging against the wall. He recorded it multiple times on different days in the early hours of the morning, hoping to capture the sound of a man who had been up all night. Musically, "Oh! Darling" harkens back to rock n' roll piano pioneers Fats Domino and Little Richard. In the New York Times' damning review of Abbey Road, the writer slammed this song while incorrectly reporting that Lennon sang lead vocal on it.
Given the whimsical tone and nautical theme, this is almost a sequel to "Yellow Submarine." But unlike that Revolver track, this one is written by Ringo himself, with an uncredited assist from Harrison. Starr explained he was inspired to write the song after the captain of Peter Sellers' yacht described octopus life to him while on vacation. "He told me all about octopuses, how they go 'round the sea bed and pick up stones and shiny objects and build gardens. I thought, 'How fabulous!' because at the time I just wanted to be under the sea, too. I wanted to get out of it for a while."
"I Want You (She's So Heavy)"
Written about Yoko Ono, this is one of the bluesiest and heaviest songs in the Beatles' catalog. It's also the rare Beatles songs that finds the group jamming for an extended period of time, and the result is transcendent. While the Beatles work a sludgy riff, Billy Preston plays a Hammond organ and Lennon overdubs a Moog synthesizer to add in some white noise. While the studio mix went to 8:04, Lennon decided to cut the song at 7:44 so the cataclysmic jam session -- and Side 1 of the album -- would come to an unexpected close.
"Here Comes the Sun"
The start of Side 2 on vinyl. While Harrison's first song for the Beatles, "Don't Bother Me" in 1963, was a gloomy rocker, his final contribution gave the band one of their most uplifting songs. Harrison's lyrics about the joy of emerging from a "long, cold lonely winter" had a double meaning. After days of arguing over business matters at Apple Records, Harrison played hooky and hid out in Eric Clapton's house for one day in the spring of 1969. "The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric's acoustic guitars and wrote 'Here Comes the Sun,'" he later recalled in his autobiography.
After hearing Yoko play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" on piano, Lennon was inspired to rework the melody for the riff to a song that became "Because." John, Paul and George's vocal harmonies are double tracked twice -- which means you're actually hearing nine separate vocal tracks on "Because," giving it an eerie, otherworldly quality. Lacking a traditional ending, the song closes with an extended "ahhhhh" that leaves you waiting for more and serves as a perfect segue into Side 2's legendary medley.
"You Never Give Me Your Money"
The first song in the greatest medley in rock history is practically a medley in itself. Opening with several pensive piano verses, the song kicks into Chuck Berry mode with the "out of college, money spent" segment before the "oh, that magic feeling" bridge. A more contemporary guitar riff heralds the "one sweet dream" segment, which is given a fascinating melodic counterpart by the "all good children go to heaven" nursery rhyme. "You Never Give Me Your Money" is a microcosm of the complementary counter melodies and sudden stylistic shifts that will characterize the rest of the album.
Lyrically, "You never give me your money" is often seen as a commentary on the intergroup tensions over choosing a business manager. Similarly, McCartney later said the "pack up the bags, get in the limousine" line was a reference to trips he and Linda McCartney would take to the countryside to escape Beatles-related tensions.
"Sun King" is a breather of sorts before the medley kicks off in earnest. While fans opine the Sun King might be a reference to France's Louis XIV, it's possible the song is just nonsense -- Lennon says the group randomly tossed around words in Romance languages for the song's lyrics, with no thought given to deeper meaning. Musically, the song is as oneiric as Lennon's laconic delivery, with the reverb-laden guitar moving between left and right stereo channels. This makes the entrance of Ringo's drum fill at the start of "Mean Mr. Mustard" all the more arresting and startling.
"Mean Mr. Mustard"
With Lennon taking lead vocals and McCartney singing backup, the Beatles introduce the character of a cheap old miser who keeps a "ten-bob note up his nose," inspired by a newspaper article Lennon read about an old man who hid money around his house. "Mean Mr. Mustard" starts a three-song story arc that marks a lyrical shift on Abbey Road. While most of the album's lyrics touch on personal experience, universal themes or stream of consciousness, "Mean Mr. Mustard" introduces a bizarre cast of characters in specific settings.
While many of the Side 2 medley tracks were half-finished songs the Beatles stitched together, "Mean Mr. Mustard" was written as a standalone song running four minutes. For the medley, it was shortened to 1:06 and the name "Shirley" was changed to "Pam" to provide continuity for the next rack.
With Lennon singing in an exaggerated Liverpool accent, the band tears through another minute-long rocker. "Polythene Pam" was inspired by two real-life people: "Polythene Pat," a girl who ate plastic that the Beatles knew from their Cavern Club days in Germany, and a woman who wore polythene clothes that Lennon met through British beat poet Royston Ellis.
"She Came In Through the Bathroom Window"
The end of "Polythene Pam" bleeds into this track, which is characterized by angular, clean guitar lines, a thumping bass, snappy percussion and cooing background vocals. Here we meet another character inspired by real events. In this case, "she" refers to multiple Beatles fanatics who broke into McCartney's house (via a ladder to the window) and stole some of his pictures and pants.
After the one-two-three-punch of "Mustard"/"Pam"/"Window," "Golden Slumbers" takes a break from rock for a contemplative piano-and-strings ballad. This song also drops the narrative arc pretense. Instead, McCartney seems to be self-consciously addressing the end of the Beatles; "Once there was a way to get back home" is the lyric of someone who knows they're bidding goodbye to something special that they can never return to.
Additionally, the lyrics are based on the 1603 poem "Cradle Song" from Thomas Dekker, which begins with the following stanza: "Golden slumbers kiss your eyes / Smiles awake you when you rise / Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry / And I will sing a lullaby."
"Carry That Weight"
Recorded in one piece with "Golden Slumbers," "Carry That Weight" features a reprise of "You Never Give Me Your Money" and a booming chorus with Ringo's voice at the forefront. As with "Golden Slumbers," McCartney seems to be speaking to the end of the Beatles and acknowledging the burdens of fame and business that will plague them for "a long time."
An appropriate title for the final proper song on the Beatles' farewell album, "The End" is also a minor musical journey from the Beatles' first album to their last. "Girl you're gonna be in my dreams tonight" is a cry of joyous, youthful lust that wouldn't have felt out of place in "I Saw Her Standing There."
But by the end of the song, the Beatles have matured to the pithy, cosmic wisdom of their later years: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." After singing that line, John, Paul and George sing a collective sigh of relief, as if they're finally free.
After 14 seconds of silence, a brief guitar clank (reminiscent of the "A Day in the Life" finale) introduces a goofy sketch of a song about a boy needing to get drunk enough in order to tell the Queen he loves her.
Although the song ends with a chord that almost sounds like a flubbed note, the strange beginning and ending to "Her Majesty" both make sense when you listen to it sandwiched between "Mustard" and "Pam." It was originally sequenced between those two songs, but McCartney thought it disrupted the medley's flow and dropped it. An engineer tagged the excised song onto the end of a tape, and McCartney liked the effect so much after hearing it played back that he decided to end the album on it. It was not listed on the original album track list, making it the first high-profile hidden track in rock.
While the inclusion of "Her Majesty" irked some fans and critics who felt the album would have been better off wrapping with the self-conscious, pristine climax of "The End," that's part of its genius. This half-song subverts the seriousness and formality of a proper finale -- and ends the Beatles' career with a reminder that despite everything, the Beatles always walked around with a knowing smirk.