Analyzing the Abbey Road medley

Abbey Road cover

What’s the album called, again?

NANCY CARR • I recently discovered the Soundscapes website, which features — among many other things — musicologist Alan W. Pollack’s notes on the entire Beatles catalog. Not since I found George Starostin’s  original review website have I been so excited about a mine of musical information and analysis.

The whole set of notes is well worth your time and attention if you’re interested in understanding the Beatles’ work, with an emphasis on the music rather than the lyrics. Pollack does make some comments about the lyrics and the songs as whole entities, but his focus is on explaining what’s happening musically. I’m familiar with good commentaries on the catalog (Riley, MacDonald), but it’s great to find musical analyses of this quality available free, and written in such a way that they’re accessible to those of us with a limited understanding of musical terminology.

I went first to Pollack’s analysis of the long Abbey Road medley, because it was that medley that really drew me to the band. As I’ve said here before, I came to the Beatles at a later age than most fans, having spent my adolescence/young adulthood mostly listening to 70s power pop, 80s New Wave, and the Who. When I went off to grad school Abbey Road was one of the few Beatles albums I owned, along with the red and blue compilations. It was while I was writing long, research-intensive papers that I started listening to the album regularly, especially the second side. Something about “Here Comes the Sun” and the long medley could always get me (relatively) unstuck. The emotional landscape of that side has lastingly fascinated me, and now both my children know it from memory as well (not that they’re always grateful for that kind of immersion; often they’d rather be listening to Psy or Taylor Swift).

For me Pollack’s notes do what great writing about music does: they help me understand what it is that drew me to play that side over and over years ago, and what about it still draws me today. By looking at each fragment and explaining how they work together, Pollack explains the “organic interconnectivity and teleology they embody as a whole.” Specifically, he analyzes the way the medley’s shifts between the keys of A and C underline the emotions expressed in the lyrics. Pollack puts it this way: “one experiences the tonally ‘bi-polar’ design of the medley as expressive of some kind of mixed or unresolved emotions.” I’d add that it’s an achievement of the first order that the medley takes so much that is ambivalent or negative and makes it beautiful.

Since I’ve known the Beatles’ story better I hear this medley as the band’s (and George Martin’s) farewell to each other and the audience. Interesting that Lennon often went on record as disliking it, and that it was McCartney who chiefly stitched it together, with Martin’s help. Seems entirely in keeping with Lennon’s distaste for all things Beatles-related at the time of the album’s release, and with McCartney’s longing for the band to continue.

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8 Comments

  1. (sorry if this is double posted, I wasn’t sure my first try went thru).

    I’m always left in amazement how Paul was able to string together various bits and pieces, some over a year old and in different states of completion, into something coherent without altering melodies, structures, etc. It’s a perfect listen, every time.

  2. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I adore the medley like no other piece of music. It’s the Beatles’ symphony.

    I think Lennon went on record as disliking the medley precisely BECAUSE it was McCartney who chiefly stitched it together, with Martin’s help. Reminds me of that line from Geoff Emerick’s book where he mentions that John had a bad attitude toward the medley during its creation — until Paul realized that John simply wanted to be asked to contribute. And once John was asked, and had contributed his bits, he seemed more positive about it.

    All of which is a depressing sign of how badly John and Paul’s relationship had broken down by that point. They couldn’t communicate even about the music. No wonder Paul is so sad in the medley. He saw it happening and could do nothing to stop it.

    And yet somehow, despite the sadness, they managed to end the medley on an uplighting note. Sure, it was the end, the music announces, but hasn’t it been one hell of a ride?

    Thanks for the tip. I’m eager to check out this site.

    — Drew

    — Drew

  3. Avatar king kevin wrote:

    John wanted to have it both ways: be on the amazing album and reap the glory, but also disown it and claim to prefer music with more “meaning”. Funny, because his contributions to the medley are completely awesome. A little unrelated, but I’ve always thought that George’s interviews from around this period (Abbey Road release/ pre breakup) are fascinating. He digs the record, and expects the band to keep working. The medley is an amazing achievement, though. I love how it jumps from style to style but somehow keeps the vibe going.

  4. Avatar girl wrote:

    Someone tipped me off to Pollack’s sight years ago. I’ve had it in my favorites but never got a chance to read it. Your post Nancy, makes me want to make the time to read it.

    Like George at the time, John is also on the record as saying the medly was really great. It seems it wasn’t until after Abbey Road came out and the band had broken up that he spoke against it. That is an interesting story per Geoff Emerick that John just wanted to be asked to contribute. It’s very revealing and in keeping with John’s basic personality it seems. The long medly is a wonderful piece of work on a wonderful album.

  5. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I always liked Her Majesty directly after Mean Mr. Mustard, like this:

    – Hologram Sam

  6. Avatar SCBrain wrote:

    John knocked Paul for writing “Granny” music about imaginary people, and for the most part John only wrote songs about himself or concepts, but the medley on Abbey Road is an exception. Maybe he was trying it Paul’s way, just once, to see how it felt. Polythene Pam and her brother, Mean Mr Mustard (so it’s Polythene Pam Mustard?) as well as the somewhat underdeveloped character of the Sun King, are all we have of Lennon’s attempts to imagine other people’s lives.

  7. @SCBrain, I seemed to recall a real-life basis for Polythene Pam, and here it all is: http://oldies.about.com/od/thebeatles/a/The-Beatles-Songs-Polythene-Pam.htm.

    • Avatar SCBrain wrote:

      I suppose you could add Sexy Sadie to that list. I think there’s something almost significant about that burstlet of 3rd person Lennon songs in 1968-9.