The Infinite Jukebox: The Beatles’ ‘The Long Medley’

Fifty years after The Beatles broke up, you’d expect that I would have heard everything they recorded. On the other hand, my CD collection only goes up to Magical Mystery Tour and even though I once had Let it Be on vinyl, the fact I let it go speaks volumes about my attitude to the music of the end of their career.
A couple of weeks ago, as I write, I heard the Long Medley from Abbey Road in full for the first time. I’ve heard parts of it before, and I used to have the last three tracks on tape, but this was the first time I had heard the Medley from start to finish. I’m not impressed.
John Lennon once described it as “junk … just bits of songs thrown together”, and it is. It’s the throwing together of fragments, half-ideas half-baked, not one of which could constitute a song if taken to an extended conclusion. None of the first five songs are anything worthwhile, they are leaden, not even jokes.
But what I didn’t understand until hearing the Medley in full, is how they establish the context for the immense change that occurs when Paul McCartney launches into ‘Golden Slumbers’. The last three songs have depth, tell a story that anatomises in the simplest of words, where the Beatles were at and where they very shortly would never be again. The last three songs are serious, in intent and in impact. The weary, stupid, barren quintet that precedes them serves to emphasise the instant increase in intensity, a Phoenix from the ashes instant.
Abbey Road was the last Beatles album: Let it Be was released later but recorded earlier. It was a deliberate attempt to record as they had once recorded, as a working band, but against the crumbling relationships between the Fab Four it failed in that task. And McCartney acknowledges that fact openly at the very beginning of ‘Golden Slumbers’.
There’s a change in sound, the looseness, the amateurishness of what has come before vanishes in an instant as McCartney’s gravitas underpins the piano introduction. And what he sings is sad but brave: once there was a way.
Once there was a way to get back homewards. The words are both wistful and resigned. Where is home? What is home? We each of us define this according to our own emotions, but the ambition of the Abbey Road recordings, to make the Beatles a band again and not four talented individuals reaching the point where they cannot work together any more, has failed. Because the other side of Once is that there isn’t a Now. There is no way to get back homewards, to when the Beatles were friends, comrades, allies, a band.
McCartney pairs this line to an old and sentimental lullaby, a song from the Twenties. It’s perfect for his sentimental streak, but it fits the overall theme, for it is a putting to bed, to peaceful sleep, just as the band will do once this final sequence is done. McCartney sings powerfully, sleep pretty darling, do not cry, for I will sing a lullaby. And those words come back: once there was a way.
As if to answer him, the music changes. The band masses its voices, McCartney inside as much as he is outside. Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight they tell him and us, carry that weight a long time. The weight they carry is of being who they’ve become. Whether as Beatles or former-Beatles, they are none of them who they were and they can never recover any of what they were, not after their experiences. McCartney responds by re-writing the words of ‘You never give me your money’ to talk of intangible things, a pillow, an invitation. But in the middle of negotiations, I break down, and the band emphasise it for him again, you’re going to carry that weight. There is no going back.
And from there we pass into the final part, the aptly titled ‘The End’. The band is back, the rock band, the band of Hamburg and the Cavern Club, playing simple, joyous rock. Oh yeah, McCartney roars in delight, all right! Are you gonna be in my dreams… tonight? There’s that little pause before the word tonight that turns the song into a question, and an expectation that no, not tonight, like many nights, this can be as plain and happy rock as it wants to be, this explosion of energy and raucousness.
And of all things we cut to a Ringo solo! His only drum solo in the history of the Beatles, one urgent drum beat in solid rhythm as he builds fills and runs around it, and then the band, playing together for the last time ever in the same studio, make the most of these final moments before the guitars fade and McCartney bangs the piano and sums up the Sixties in a short, sweet but very powerful couplet.
And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
If one line could sum up the Sixties, that would deserve to be it. Yes, it’s trite, yes, it’s sentimental, it’s even hippy-dippy, but it’s what it was all about. Being together, being one, being for each other as much as for ourselves. Being allies, not adversaries. It’s a reminder of what the Beatles were and where they came from, lost in the poignancy of where they no longer were.
I’ve been conscious of the weight, if you’ll excuse the pun, of those last three songs for a very long time. The rest of the Medley is crap, but by being crap it points up by just how much the end of it is genius, is serious, is the Beatles’ final message.
The rest is history.

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