To me, Abbey Road is one of the least-dated-sounding Beatles albums—possibly the least dated—but it also sounds the least like the Beatles. Oh, there are Beatles playing on it, I’ll grant you that. The generally impeccable songwriting—that melding of optimism, expression, rawness, craft, and pure joy—could only have come from three particular songwriters. And that’s unquestionably John, Paul, George and Ringo strutting across the cover.

But to me there’s always been something about this album that doesn’t sound like the Beatles, and it’s not just the super-slick production or the fact that Ringo’s drums sound a little thicker than they do on the group’s mid-Sixties records. No, it’s something more intangible than that. I think it’s because John is, to use Cynthia Lennon’s description of his role in their marriage, “present but absent.”

On the Abbey Road steps, in peak Smacked-Out Jesus attire.

From 1965 to 1968, I believe it’s John who defines what each Beatles record is “about.” As much as I hate reductionist Lennon/McCartney simplifications, I think it worked like this: McCartney approached each new project with new musical ideas, new goals for recordmaking, new schemes to fuse high art with pop, and an insatiable need to explore genres. Without this, the Beatles would have ended sometime after Rubber Soul, because John, for all his gifts, simply was not this kind of a musician. After he discovered Dylan in 1964, his musical tastes, broadly speaking, calcified.

But John did something else, and he did it as instinctively as McCartney came up with melodies, arrangements, and the idea for Sgt. Pepper. As Lennon’s songwriting became more solipsistic and divorced from outside influences, he simultaneously contributed the songs, co-writes, and—do not neglect this—harmony vocals that unified each Beatles album from Rubber Soul through the White Album, giving them their defining character, their vibe.

John usually arrived at the beginning of sessions for each new album with a song that defined what those sessions would be about, and exploded then-current notions of what a pop record could encompass. “Norwegian Wood” was attempted on the first day of sessions for Rubber Soul. It announced to the group that Beatles music could be subtle and sophisticated—lyrically, musically, and in attitude—in ways that not even “Help” or “Yesterday”had presaged. The rest of Rubber Soul walks through the door jimmied open by this first song.

“Tomorrow Never Knows” did the same for Revolver to an even greater degree, setting the stage for sonic, lyrical, and melodic experimentation. Lennon’s other Revolver songs, too, unify Paul’s and George’s compositions; thanks to Lennon’s work the LP has an unexpressed but subtly coherent ethos—ambition, exploration, diversity of viewpoint—and employs a distinct, harder sonic palette. It’s John who keeps Revolver from being a series of very odd, unrelated genre exercises by group members who otherwise aren’t playing together as a band very often.

Despite never making it on the record, “Strawberry Fields Forever” arguably did as much for Sgt. Pepper as McCartney’s whole fake-band concept. This composition established the phantasmagoria and abstracted communication of searching, childlike thoughts that infuse even the lightest tracks on Sgt Pepper with a spirit of discovery and meaning. SFF’s recording process similarly established that new sounds, new instruments, and a willingness to push technology far beyond anything attempted even on Revolver would be the norm. And although he didn’t write many songs, it’s mostly other Lennon contributions, like “Lucy in the Sky” and “Mr. Kite,” that make the album a smilingly caustic Day-Glo appropriation of Edwardian Britain.

On his way to accidentally set the direction and tone for the Beatles’ most famous album.

Equally important, his enthusiastic participation on Paul’s songs—the answering vocals and lyrics on “Getting Better” and “She’s Leaving Home,” the wizened harmonies on “When I’m 64,” the goofy noises on “Lovely Rita,” the prominent vinegar singing on the two versions of the title track and “With A Little Help From My Friends”—are the finishing touch selling the idea that this is a band concert, conveying the Beatles’ unified, total commitment to the fun of this idea—without which the conceit, already flimsy, would deflate. In other words, during Pepper John’s emotionally present enough to take the opportunities for joy that Paul creates, and make them joyous in the particular way that only heas the group’s acknowledged leader—was positioned to do.

Lennon kicked off the White Album sessions with the long, slow version of “Revolution” that ended in a discordant, occasionally scary, and often unsettling jam. Even though that version ultimately was scrapped in favor of Revolutions 1 and 9, the White Album can’t escape the shadow of that unreleased version, becoming a haunted, creepy, and weird record on the verge of disintegrating. John also had so many haunting, creepy, and weird songs on White that they color and suffuse the way we perceive the less-menacing songs as well. I guarantee that if “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” were on Let it Be instead, it’d just be excellent guitar rock, rather than a nightmare anticipating the real darkness of “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

“What’s that? You’re out of biscuits? Tell you what…”

I don’t think Lennon did any of this consciously—or that Paul and George consciously responded to these first-song-of-the-session songs. Rather, I think it was the result of years of group habit, calibrating its emotions and ambitions around Lennon. Even after Paul and George became adults in their own right, something essential remained from Liverpool and Hamburg: Where John was driven to go, they followed. If that language is too Lennon-centric for you, let’s say they attuned themselves to him.

Before Abbey Road, the destinations changed, but the mechanism was always running. “John’s taking Prellies all night and playing like a madman out of some deranged, grief-stricken motivation to become the most famous man in the world” transmogrified into “John’s on acid and wants everything to sound weird,” but so attuned were the group to each other that they absorbed these changes from Lennon and allowed them to direct their energies and ideas, if only subconsciously. (Students of alcoholic family dynamics will note that this dynamic is familiar: when the alcoholic is relaxed and having a good time, everyone else in the family can, too. And as Michael Gerber has eloquently explained elsewhere on this blog, the Beatles fit this pattern: John as the addict, Paul as the caretaker, George and Ringo as the children.)

But in 1969, John was no longer there. This time, there was no Lennon song to kick things off; for almost a month of the sessions, he was physically absent. After he returned, he had very little interest in them, contributing only a few songs, none of which had the ambition or desire to break ground that could define an entire project the way “Norwegian Wood,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Day in the Life,” or the long “Revolution” could. Side one’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”—the closest to a big Lennon experiment—is too rooted in his relationship with Yoko, not just in its lyrics but in its minimalist approach, to set the tone for much of anything with Paul or George, who probably did not see jumping off points in a composition so closely connected with the ideas and attitude of John’s new collaborator. Lennon played a little rhythm guitar on a few of Paul’s songs, but compared to Yoko, politics and heroin, the Beatles ranked a distant fourth; John seems to have been less interested in the project than any previous album, including the Let it Be/Get Back sessions. Lennon himself famously admitted (or did he brag?) that he “stopped doing all the little things” on Abbey Road. It shows. There are no Lennon harmonies breaking out of the mix on Abbey Road the way there are on Pepper to create a crucial missing link by showing that the most headstrong, cynical, and abrasive Beatle is in on the fun. There are no co-writes. There are no “answering” vocals like on “She’s Leaving Home” or “Getting Better.” None of those little details—no acceptances of Paul’s invitation to create joy—exist. And the album’s sheen, I think, stems from this absence, not just the production.

Don’t get me wrong—I still love Abbey Road. I just tend to think of it as the one and only record by a great group that only made one album.

by Michael Bleicher