I went down to Bristol yesterday to see the author Mark Lewisohn’s presentation about the making of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and their final days at the Redgrave Theatre in Clifton. I’d read about it in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago and the London shows had sold out. So I looked at what was still available, and it came down to a choice between Bristol and Maidenhead. Sorry Maidenhead, no contest!
The show is called “The Beatles: Hornsey Road”. This is because there was an EMI studio in Hornsey Road in North London which at one point was mooted for the recording of what became “Abbey Road”. The title of the album came quite late in the proceedings, apparently.
The format was essentially a presentation – very slick and with lots of musical interludes as well as insights into the lives of all four Beatles, based on Mark’s meticulous research. He has written extensively about the Beatles and is working on a comprehensive trilogy which he intends to be the definitive work on the band. The first, “All These Years: Volume One: Tune in” (catchy title) takes us all the way up to 1962! I must say I’m tempted to buy it, but Volume Two will really get us into the Beatles’ glittering years. One thing the show did last night was to remind us about the phenomenal output and revolutionary music that the Beatles put out in only six years of the 60s. And none of them were out of their twenties when the band split. Incredible – there has never been anything like it.
Yesterday’s show was a lovely combination of nostalgia and discovery. Each track on the album was analysed, both in terms of the inspiration behind it and the constituent parts of the music. Some of the backing tracks – often taken from a Beatles-endorsed music game – were very revealing. The individual vocals, the harmonies, the beats, the solos. A band at work, committed to their music, even as things fell apart legally and financially. It was inspiring, and the first thing I did when I got back to my hotel room was to play “Abbey Road” on Spotify!
I won’t go into detail as there may be readers who have booked to see the show, perhaps in London. But I will share just one example of the research that Mark does. He was able to tell us that “Mean Mr Mustard”, part of that wonderful suite of short songs which is the highlight of “Abbey Road”, is based on a real person who was called Mr Mustard. (Maybe others know this, but I didn’t). He was a civil servant, originally from Scotland, whose divorce made the Daily Mirror and other papers, including a Spanish one, on account of his alleged meanness. Lewisohn had obtained a copy of his will which maybe contradicted that notion of meanness – he’d left all his money to the ex-wife.
What was so good about the show, ultimately, is that it was a celebration of what we must surely acknowledge as the greatest band of all time and a reminder of how restless and ahead of the game they always were. And the number of songs they recorded every year of those six years was amazing. “Abbey Road” was state-of-the-art stuff, amid the occasional silliness – step forward “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus’s Garden” – and who knows what they would have achieved if they’d stayed together. Apart, they produced some great music, but nothing like they had done as the Beatles – they were the classic example of synergy. Better together.
And while there was certainly plenty for the Beatles nerd (which I’m not, really) what shone through most of all was Mark’s love for what he was doing. That was infectious and often rather moving, particularly as the story neared its end – and “The End”. Good luck to him in completing his three volumes of Beatles history – it is clearly a monumental task!
Mark had access to a tape of a meeting at which the Beatles, with John Lennon to the fore, were discussing a possible new album to follow “Abbey Road” (and, I assume, what became “Let it Be”, which was recorded before “Abbey Road” but released afterwards). John was insisting that the Lennon-McCartney accreditation should end – the two of them and George Harrison should each have four songs, with Ringo getting two if he wanted them. Paul was confessing that he didn’t think much of George’s songs, casting doubt on the equal allocation. They were also discussing a 1969 Christmas single. Lewisohn wasn’t able to play much of the recording for legal reasons, which is a shame. It suggests that there is still more to come out about the end of the Beatles, if everyone involved agrees with it. Perhaps they never will, but it may still come out one day. Someone will spill the beans.
Does it matter whether we know or not? Perhaps not – maybe we should just enjoy the extraordinary music between 1963 and 1969 that the Beatles gave us. But what might have been…