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Fab Four Face-Off: What's your favorite song from 'Abbey Road'?

September 21, 2009 | 12:21 pm
BEATLES_ABBEY_ROAD

With the official release of the remastered Beatles catalog now nearly ancient history, Pop & Hiss persists in asking the musical question: What would go on your Beatles mix tape?

Continuing my couchbound meditations about what's best on each of these remastered treats, this entry considers "Abbey Road," the last album the Beatles recorded but, because "Let It Be" was delayed, the second-last to be released.

Agree or declare yourself barefoot and out of step with me when I select....

"Something"

This time I'm sticking to my guns. For days (or, if you're counting by albums, at least since I opted against one of his contributions to "Revolver")  I've been waiting to fully shine the spotlight on George. And now is the moment, even as the enormity of another John/Paul stroke -- the multi-song medley that dominated Side 2 of "Abbey Road"  -- casts a shadow of doubt.

George was the subtle Beatle, the songwriter whose genius didn't sparkle in that friendly Paul way nor spit in John's in-your-face fashion. To use an analogy that might have pleased the spiritually inclined Liverpudlian, George represents the Middle Way in 1960s-era rock: His songwriting was never so indulgent that it upended his focus, nor so purely crafty or commercial that it prevented him from going the next step on his journey.

Unlike in Buddhism, however, the Middle Way of the Beatles has its drawbacks. Next to the insatiably inventive poptimism that gives McCartney's songs the face-licking friendliness of a shaggy sheepdog, or the self-challenging intellect that makes Lennon's best work a visceral head trip, George offers gentler pleasures. His official status as the band's shy guy, and his relatively few contributions to the band's catalog, place him in solid third place when most Fab fans play favorites, as in our little ongoing contest.

"Something," however, is an undisputed champ -- it was the only Harrison composition to top the charts while he was a Beatle and is the band's most-covered song next to "Yesterday."

"It's possibly the vaguest love song ever written," wrote the English journalist Paul Du Noyer about the song, and that's exactly what's good about it. In this most insistent declaration of non-committal adoration, Harrison used the same qualities that sometimes prevented his songs from hitting hard -- his reticent artistic personality, his guitarist's non-way with words, the appreciation of ambiguity he'd developed through meditation -- to really capture the lived experience of love, its ebb and flow, the lover's desire to be unconditional despite a constant undercurrent of uncertainty: "I don't know, I don't know."

Maybe the key was keeping Ray Charles in mind. Harrison said, after "Something" became his biggest Beatles hit, that he'd been thinking of that musical founding father when he penned the ballad. That other kind of soul proved as strong a power source as anything Harrison learned in India.

I'm not going to equivocate on my selection any further, as tempting as it is to delve more deeply into the details of "Abbey Road" -- an album that could easily win a different contest, as the most seamless and satisfying full-album listen the 1960s had to offer. But that would be another conversation. Feel free to chime in on that, or tell me why "Something " will never beat out "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" on your list.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Apple Corps.

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