The Anthony Burgess Memorial Award for Most Unfortunate Recording to Be Associated With Pain and Anguish Through Conditioning
By Christopher Alexander | 18 December 2009
The Beatles :: Abbey Road
The automatic doors whirred open, and for a split second, it sounded like victory. It was September 9th, 2009, and as I walked into work at Horizon’s Books and Cafe, I was greeted by the closing minutes of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” I felt like I had grown ten feet. I clenched my fist. I let myself be seen clenching my fist. I began miming all the drum fills – the book displays made excellent rack toms. I would stop to windmill and enunciate the “DUNH DUNH DUHHHHNNN“s of the third bar, then repeat my drum solo. I was holding my air sticks correctly. I felt proud of myself. I felt awesome.
The song ended in its violent cut-off, and I strolled up the escalator, lightheaded with the tune of “Hear Comes the Sun.” Oh, Horizon’s! For over a year you had been torturing me with Colbie Caillat, Jonas Brothers, and that one weird band on Capitol who sang—who wrote out, performed, released, and then marketed this line—“So long / Put your blue jeans back on / take care, remember / Hollywood is not America.” Dar Williams told me to press the buzzer so often (and would define a “fascist” as “when you do things your not proud of”; you could look this song up, but don’t say I didn’t warn you) that I threw food trays clear across the cafe. The Twilight soundtrack. The 2009 Grammy Nominees. For three months after the Grammys. You hate me. I get it. But today, and maybe the next few weeks, I could look forward to dissolving in your peachskin, sour-milk maw, because I would have the ultimate victory: the motherfucking Beatles. Is there any release as high profile as this one to come out in this calendar year? No, you fuckers; you have to play them.
I said hello to my friend Vicki and gave her the thumbs up. She’s suffered the music with me as well. I was surprised when she looked at me with grim self-defeat. “Just wait,” she said.
I put my barista apron on and strode briskly to the cafe counter. “Hey Karen,” I said, smiling. “I bet you’re happy to hear this music, huh?” she asked with much the same look Vicki gave me—a sort of wide eyed, shaking, haunted countenance. “Just wait.”
Wait? For what? What the hell are you even talking about? Why is everyone so glum? Can’t we just sing? “Boyyyyy / you’re gonna carry that weight! carry that weight! a lonnng time!” I tried to rouse her in conversation, but she just stood there, staring blankly. A customer would come, and she began speaking loudly over the music. I was pantomiming the guitar solos of “The End”—playing lefthanded for Paul’s solos (first, fourth, and seventh). What can be better than this?
After that song reached its plangent end, I wondered what was next. George doing his languid count-in of “Taxman”? The airplane screech that christens “Back in the U.S.S.R”? The thunderous, thousand-doors-all-opening-to-awesome chord at the front of “Hard Day’s Night”? I was giddy with excitement; I no longer listened to Beatles music, as much as I acted it, and there were so many looming opportunities to geek out that I found, in that three second silence, that I couldn’t stand it. This was going to be a great day. A great few days. Sure, I’d get sick of it after a while, but that was in a while.
Imagine my genuine puzzlement as “Come Together” began playing. “That’s weird,” I said. “We just listened to this album.” “This is it,” Karen said, blankly, like some shell-shocked veteran. “This is all we’re listening to. All day.” “Well, why doesn’t someone change it?” I asked. Karen said something that wasn’t in English. I immediately went downstairs to the CD changer to investigate. I pressed eject (cutting Lennon off in the middle of his Berry plagiarism), looked into the changer tray, and saw two apples looking at me. They both had “Abbey Road” printed on them.
At this point my supervisor, Mary, came over to me, in that same expression I saw on Vicki and Karen’s face. “It’s a make item.”
“Abbey Road,” she said, not looking at me, “is a make item. We have to sell fifty copies by the end of next week. So we have to really push it on people. So the manager decided, what better way…” her voice trailed off, not wishing to speak the horrible truth.
Suddenly reality struck me. “No.”
“Abbey Road.” She said. She began to shake her head, but stopped. “For two weeks.”
No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no.
Mary had already walked away.
There are brighter stars, and much more surprising turns, in the Beatles oeuvre, but it’s easy to see why Abbey Road is such a favorite. The closest the band came to true “classic rock,” it’s a monstrously effective album that was content to avoid reinvention, a doubling back and consolidation of strengths for one last payday. It features songs of impossible grace (Harrison’s contributions), bizarre but winsome humor (Lennon’s compositions), and genre exercises (guess who) that range from satisfying (“Oh! Darling,” “She Came in through the Bathroom Window”) to absolutely transcendent (“Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight,” “The End”). It also contains fucking “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” a song which, as Ian MacDonald perfectly summarized, is “an appalling lapse of taste and judgment, of which there are countless examples on McCartney’s many solo albums.”
I didn’t much care for this song on September 8; since September 9th it’s become grounds for murder. The plucked anvil became like an icicle piercing my temple. I found myself punching the espresso machine in time; the shots pulled quicker, so I punched again. I couldn’t even feel relief at those ridiculous bosso-profundo vocals that signal the song’s end. What the fuck goes on in McCartney’s head, I asked myself, often, that he could write “Penny Lane” and, two years later, think this is a good idea. I would stop myself after hearing the augmented chord that opens “Oh! Darling,” but the sigh of relief was always short lived—I only had three minutes til “Octopus’s Garden.” God’s own urine would not be as horrifying.
But I already hated those songs—songs that I used to love began showing their cracks, and those cracks became yawning crevices through such repetition. Does Harrison blow a note in the twelfth measure of “Something’s” guitar solo, or is that phrase just a poor choice? Why are there nighttime ambient noises in “Sun King”? Were the tape edits in “I Want You” always that noticeable? Was the Moog always this out of place? The record became past knowing, past acting. It was like staring at a word for so long the letters ceased to signify anything. The legs and angles of the words had become the objects themselves. The piano of “The End” really is perceptibly sharper. No wonder I got back into metal this year.
Abbey Road has been out of our player for months—it’s been left to Sting’s Christmas album to properly hatefuck our customers, and that CD performs its duty admirably. But I still can’t listen to “Because” without smelling the sour milk of the used washcloths; or idly rock out to “Polythene Pam” without feeling a sudden dread that my cafe supervisor is going to lecture me about recording every unsold ounce of coffee. I have devised a pitch for our Horizon Rewards card to the tune of “Something.” I’m not making any of this up. Before, whenever I heard “Come Together,” I used to have an image of John Lennon clapping into the microphone, or a professional skateboarder doing a demonstration video on Mars. A friend played the song in his car the other day, and I instead saw a vision of myself from mid-September, slumping against the cafe counter, wondering who in this life I’ve so grievously wronged (and finding too many plausible answers). I can see myself saying “shoot me,” and while it looks like I’m singing along, in reality, I’m earnestly begging. “Shoot me.”