Abbey Road’s Dead Space

I was talking the other day with a young Ukrainian physicist and all-round intellectual type about the 10-minute dead space (hidden track) on An Awesome Wave, the excellent 2012 debut album by the English indie-rock band, Alt-J. I thought the album brilliant, strong and subtle in its aesthetic, but I don’t like dead space. It is conceptually an interesting design idea, but it loses its novelty value after a few iterations and becomes gratuitous. The dead space at the end of Abbey Road, on the other hand, not only had the full novelty value, as the Beatles were the first to deploy the technique, but the entire structure of the album bends toward and justifies that 15-second hiatus, the dead space, the black sign of mortality, between “The End” and “Her Majesty.” (“Her Majesty” was not listed on the original cover or record.) Bear with me as I try to execute this analysis without reference to the “Paul Is Dead” conspiracy theory that swept across pop culture during the month that Abbey Road was released (September 1969).

Back when you had LPs with 2 sides, Side 1 of Abbey Road (songs 1-6 on the CD)* gave us an almost archaeological journey through genres, from cool, edgy “Come Together,” to the reflective love song (“Something”), to the bouncy, pub-sing-along sound of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” to the 50s-ish, doo-wop “Oh Darling,” to the child-friendly “Octopus’s Garden,” to the heavier, hypnotic rock and jazz counterpoints of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”  We also get a panoramic landscape of the Beatles’ sensibilities on this side, with songs by John, George, Paul, Paul, Ringo, and John, respectively.

The white noise that encroaches upon “I Want You” at the end of Side 1 might in some way foreshadow the black space at the end of Side 2, but it is really not until Side 2 proper that transitional spaces become blurred. The first song on this side (#7) is a beautiful acoustic with clear edges and clean finish. The transition from #8 to #9 is normal, except that #8 ends in the middle, not the end, of a musical motive, so we’re “waiting” for #9 in that miniscule gap between them. The move from #9 to #10 is a tiny bit more porous, as the edges are bridged only by the continuing sound of crickets. Then the medley begins in earnest, and remaining songs are really movements within a single whole.

Thematically, with “Golden Slumbers” (#14), the clouds begin gathering at this, the final moments of the final album recorded by the Beatles (although Let It Be was released later). The final sequence of “Golden Slumbers – Carry That Weight – The End” sounds like a Beatles’ farewell, comparable to Prospero’s epilogue in Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest. The voice in “Golden Slumbers” raises two possibilities: either it is a soothing lullaby to a small child (go to sleep now and you’ll wake up to smiles) or the last rites to someone dying (let yourself drift into sleep and the angels will greet you when you rise). In context, the second interpretation makes better sense, since the song is drenched in melancholia and pitched to one who might share in the lament that “once there was a way to get back home,” who might recognize that closed path as a weight to be carried across the next passage, the weight of all that loss, the weight of mortality. This is, after all, the dying moment of the Beatles, the cracks of the breakup filling in with nostalgia for the heady days when as teenagers they changed the trajectory of cultural history, relief to get away from it all, hoping that some smile will greet them when they wake up. “Carry That Weight” weaves back in musical motives from earlier songs — most notably, “You Never Give Me Your Money” — and we can now look back and see that beneath the surface strand of Beatles “celebrations” and “negotiations,” there is a hidden strand of “breakdown[s]” and missed connections.

With “Carry That Weight” behind us, we get an exuberant guitar interlude, a burst of life, a sense of relief and liberation from the heaviness – we are witnessing not just a death but an archetypal death-and-rebirth pattern, a sonic anticipation of breaking the shell of those golden slumbers, breaking from death to rebirth. Then the guitar burst mellows into a mystical conclusion, a final couplet (a perfect iambic tetrameter couplet if you read it as it would be read from a poetry book) that summarizes the 8-year dream of the Beatles, with a few potent words and a sudden orchestral gravitas.

After this powerful farewell, we get the 15-second hiatus, the dead space before the “hidden track” – and “well-hidden” in its day because 15 seconds was a very long dead space in 1969 and because the album had increasingly melted songs together rather than using the hiatus at all. So if we’re startled when “Her Majesty” begins playing, the shake-up is not gratuitous. In the moments after death, even symbolic death, any fluttering back to life in the blackness must be startling. In this case, after the grand summation of the Beatles phenomenon in that couplet, from out of the black hole of the Beatles’ mortality, inexplicably, we get a return glimpse of the simple, playful, beautiful acoustic roots from the brainstem of the early Beatles, before they had all that weight to carry. (I’m not sure because I have no real musical training, but “Her Majesty” begins with what sounds like a recapitulation of “the most famous chord in rock history,” the one that opened “A Hard Day’s Night.”)

As reflections on one’s deathbed must enable one to see the values of life more keenly, so we can, from the perspective of Abbey Road’s ending, go back and read earlier details with more meaning filled in. The following lines from “You Never Give Me Your Money,” for example, must surely be on one level the bittersweet last words John and Paul, lifelong friends feeling the weight of estrangement, would have for each other as Beatles:

Pick up the bags and get in the limousine
Soon we’ll be away from here
Step on the gas and wipe that tear away
One sweet dream came true today

Finally, it’s hard to listen to Abbey Road and not ponder that sometime between 1962 (when Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender” was the #1 song of the year) and 1969, an enormous paradigm shift had taken place and the era of music we now live in had begun. The Beatles not only mark the beginning of this era but, to a larger extent than anyone else, invented it.

(Related Beatles commentary in Led Zeppelin and Dr Freud and Morrison’s Women)

 download

*Side One

  1. Come Together
  2. Something
  3. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
  4. Oh! Darling
  5. Octopus’s Garden
  6. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)

Side Two (original numbering)

  1. Here Comes the Sun
  2. Because
  3. You Never Give Me Your Money
  4. Sun King
  5. Mean Mr. Mustard
  6. Polythene Pam
  7. She Came in through the Bathroom Window
  8. Golden Slumbers
  9. Carry That Weight
  10. The End
  11. [Her Majesty]

 

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8 thoughts on “Abbey Road’s Dead Space

  1. Thanks for this very well thought out post. I really enjoyed reading it and I’ll revisit your blog. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in and ready to play).

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  2. What a wonderful post, Gary. You capture the ethos of Abbey Road, of The Beatles, and of the era, as well or better than any other treatment I have read (a usual happenstance for our Fashion Anarchist!).

    In pondering the long pause between “The End” and “Her Majesty,” my attention always seems to return to this earlier stanza in “You Never Give Me Your Money”:

    Out of college, money’s spent
    See no future, pay no rent
    All the money’s gone, nowhere to go.

    Eddie Jobber got the sack
    Monday morning, turning back
    Yellow lorry’s slow, nowhere to go

    But, oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
    Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
    Nowhere to go…

    These last three words, repeated three times, are the most haunting words on the album for me. Nowhere to go, when? Today, tomorrow, when we’re out of a job, out of a career, out of ideas, out of life? The black space after “The End,” to me, signifies that magic feeling of ‘nowhere to go,’ when, perhaps, what has become too routine in life utterly implodes and new possibilities either beckon or threaten. In the case of The Beatles, that black space seems to resemble a long, reflective inhale of fresh, creative breath, with “Her Majesty” exhaled as a first, modest statement of the lads’ respective new possibilities.

    Thanks again for another provocative post, read on a Sunday morning with nowhere to go.

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  3. Hi Gary,
    Thanx so much for your post…it is super interesting for me as a musician to read such an extensive analysis on the highest musical form: silence.
    Is the hyatus at the end of ARoad well placed? Is it meaningful? good questions…I suppose the main thing that can be said, from my point of view, about ARoad is that it was the result of a kind of truce between the fab four. In my opinion, a book that is super interesting from the point of view of the creative mechanics of The Beatles is “Here, there and everywhere” by Geoff Emerick, the sound engineer who worked on most of their records. As he explains, by the time the Beatles did Abbey Road they had left behind the white album´s tensions, and they had also forgotten about crazy projects such as The Magical Mystery Tour and Let it Be (both Paul´s babys). The Magical Mystery tour especially brought the Beatles a taste they hadn´t experienced since the old days in Liverpool, in which they´d do gigs for 50 quid or so (for a lot longer than I knew! Their success was far from immediate). were booed off the stage and things like that. That taste was failure. This umpleasant experience is, as we all know, many times sobering and puts one´s feet to the ground. As far as I know, that was the state of mind of the Fab four when they did AR (Initially they wanted to call it something like Himalaya and have a picture taken of them at the top of the highest peak)…Still they were super confident about their prowess…they had changed things and they knew it. However, it seems that a certain form of common sense broke through and they opted for the simplest title (a homage to the very umpleasant EMI studios they had worked in for so many years?) and the simplest cover (let´s walk down the street and take a pic of the four of us (their leaving the studio was some form of closure?).
    I like to think that the simplest forms of art are the highest forms. AR is no Sergant Pepper, but it did, after all, leave us many questions (did Paul die? is the licence plate in the car parked across the street in the cover some form of message? etc etc).
    Questions aside for a minute, AR is the result of four very seasoned players (and three superb composers) trying to focus on what they did best. It is also the result of four friends deciding to set their egos appart, and enjoy themselves as much as possible.
    The form of the album is interesting, it starts as a kind of Let it be or white album in the sense that it contains John songs, Paul songs, George songs. But in the end, the four decided to “collaborate”…in stead of creating songs together, they used the help of George Martin, that super arranger, to stick together bits and pieces of unfinished songs (unborn babies?) they had left over…What a preface to a final good bye. There´s a very cool twist in the end, between Carry that weight and The end, I think, in which John, Paul and George jam different guitar solos…something new for them and again, a sort of musical good-bye.
    I´ve been in a few bands that have been hard to leave…I can´t imagine how hard it must have been for these four working class youngsters to leave the Beatles behind. I´m sure that all the darky messages fans found all over AR are probably forms of subconscious emotional ties stretching, aking, bleeding, that would take any Freudian or even Jungian for a ride.

    And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make

    says Paul. John could have written that and I remember reading that even in the peak of their post Beatle tensions, John couldn´t help but acknowledge the power and beauty of Paul´s final words.

    The Beatles were, to many, Paul´s band after Pepper (John was far away in LSD land and George was just starting to blossom by then). Is that the reason fans saw Paul´s death all over AR?

    (let´s leave a final hyatus here…)

    The last note of Her Majesty was cut off accidentally, Geoff Emerick tells us, by mistake in post production. Paul loved it and it stayed (and everyone in the prod team slept peacefully that night) and maybe that missing final note is the reason why we cant´t stop listening to these guy´s music.

    Thanx for the post Gary!

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    • Thanks for all the historical info, much of which was new to me. Interesting that you call silence “the highest musical form.” I’ve noticed that some musicians find greatness in their need to fill the silence, just as nature abhors a vacuum (think of some of Eric Clapton’s guitar solos with cream); others find greatness in allowing for some empty “contemplative” spaces (maybe Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon??). At least these are examples from the Beatles era. I suppose one could massage this idea with examples from various eras and genres.

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