Do you prefer your masterpieces fully aware and cognizant of their own ambition (Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) or perhaps something born the moment just before such self-awareness sets in, when some naïveté survives but the talent, confidence and musical range are surging (Rubber Soul and Revolver)? Do you prefer art when it knows it is art, or when it thinks it might still just be rock ‘n’ roll?
Of course, there is a third road: Abbey Road, the Beatles’ second swing at a conceptual masterwork, and arguably the more successful one, even if they could never hope to duplicate the world-changing novelty of the first one. Abbey Road in fact sounds nothing like Sergeant Pepper’s. It is deeper, darker, more assured, more beautiful and more broken, showing all the wear and tear of the interceding years and all that they had learned. Consider: They are only separated by two years. Two years. “Year” must have meant something different back then.
And what kind of swan song do you prefer? An epic, groping masterwork utilizing every tool at the artists’ considerable disposal as the credits roll, or a return to basics, the camaraderie and the original impulse of rock ‘n’ roll? With the Beatles, of course, you get both. The stripped-down, rooftop Hail Mary rock ‘n’ roll record Let It Be was the last the Beatles ever released. There was a desperation in it, more apparent in the film than in the vinyl grooves, as the lads tried somewhat in vain to recapture the feeling and chemistry of the Cavern and Hamburg. Well, of course it is a great record, it’s the f*&#ing Beatles; but they were too far gone for rapprochement. Think, just for a moment, what the previous seven years had been like. In some respects, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy: a quarantine of fame that extreme.
The very last album they recorded, Abbey Road stands as their self-conscious and almost-corporate finale, the fitting classic at the back end of their mind-boggling eight-year achievement: grandeur, conceptual ambition, maturity and command of all the materials of music and production, a songwriting skillset far beyond and yet still belonging to rock, and – between “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on one pole and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” on the other – a measure of how irreconcilably far apart Paul and John had grown. Paul’s pawprints are all over the Side Two medley, and you can almost hear John’s contempt for the whole idea in his throwaway contributions to it like “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam.” (Would that my symphonies were half as good as his throwaways.)
“Polythene Pam” might be a silly little thing, but John shines on Abbey Road. With “Come Together” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” he initiates the embrace of primitivism that would manifest in his solo masterpiece Plastic Ono Band a year or so later. With the lush impressionism of “Because” and “Sun King” he invented an entire subgenre, without which we would have no Elliott Smith, among others. Paul’s brilliance is everywhere on the record, in such achingly beautiful songs as “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “She Came in through the Bathroom Window” – and in all the others’ songs as well, for Paul was the record-maker in the Beatles. It has often been said of George that he was good for two great songs per Beatles record and, excepting the spectacular All Things Must Pass, for two great songs per George Harrison solo record as well. Did he ever have two better songs on a record than “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”? Has anyone?
Well, that’s a lot of questions for you. That Woodstock clique of ace players who have been staging fastidiously detailed and loving tribute shows to Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Traffic, and the Beatles (a/k/a The White Album) the last few years is at it again, this time setting their sights on the recently remixed Abbey Road. The Beatles themselves never tried any of this stuff live, but the long-running and ultra-high-end tribute band the Fab Faux has set a very high bar for faithful live reproductions of late Beatles. I think it is impossible to do Beatles tribute work anymore without awareness of the daunting accomplishments of Will Lee, Rich Pagano, Jimmy Vivino, Jack Petruzelli and Frank Agnello in the field of Beatles Studies. The first time I saw them, the principal harpist of the New York Philharmonic sat in for “She’s Leaving Home,” and the late, legendary Lou Soloff played the piccolo trumpet solo on “Penny Lane,” so, yeah, the Faux have some resources.
And yet, we look down the lineup for this upcoming show and there is no doubt it is going to excel and astound. The band features a litany of local luminaries: Joey Eppard, Danny Blume, Adam Widoff, Scott Petito, Tyler Wood, Leslie Ritter, Steve Taylor, Andy Stack, Jeff Mercel. If I were to get into their credits, I’d be owed a lot of overtime. And besides, you probably already know.
Colony in Woodstock hosts a tribute to Abbey Road on Friday, December 6. Tickets cost $25 in advance, $30 on the day of the show.
Abbey Road tribute concert, Friday, Dec. 6, 7 p.m., $30/$25, Colony, 22 Rock City Rd., Woodstock; www.colonywoodstock.com