So, second post on this blog and I’m already swinging wide of my area of expertise, but hear me out, I think you’ll like where this is going. You may have heard of “Machete Order” which is one Star Wars fan’s attempt to put the Classic and Prequel Trilogies into a watching order that preserves the Empire Strikes Back twist while still ending on a satisfying conclusion to the Saga (this was put forth before the sequel trilogy). It goes Episodes IV – V – II – III – VI (he considers Episode I to be extraneous). But this is not an article about Star Wars, I only bring it up because what I’m going to lay out here is a kind of “Machete Order” for Abbey Road. As a refresher for those of you who don’t obsess over Beatles albums (And a primer if you’re completely unfamiliar) here’s the track list for Abbey Road as it appears on the original LP.
If you’re not familiar with this album, most of Side 2 is a medley with the consensus definition starting with You Never Give Me Your Money and continuing all the way through The End (some people consider Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window and Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End to be individual sub-medleys but that’s not important for this discussion). There is one other important note before we get to the actual topic at hand, and it’s about the media format itself. Vinyl LPs are somewhat more restrictive than modern digital music formats, but they also have one interesting bit of flexibility that digital media doesn’t. Because the songs are literally cut into the smooth vinyl of the record leaving a groove behind that the needle rides in (that’s why songs are called “tracks” by the way), and the speed of the record is fixed (33 ⅓ revolutions per minute for an LP), the length of the album is determined by the length of the spiraling groove that’s cut into the record. So you can actually literally squeeze more music onto the record by cutting narrower grooves so you can squeeze the spirals closer together, but there’s a trade-off because as the groove gets narrower, the sound quality goes down. So you could squeeze up to 30 minutes onto an LP side, but high quality professional recordings typically tried to stay at or below 24 minutes per side to preserve the quality of the recording.
OK, we’re finally ready to dive in head first to what we actually came here to talk about. The first discussion point is really just a semantic point of contention and doesn’t actually impact how the album plays at all, just a nitpick of mine. I’ve always wondered why Because isn’t included in the consensus definition of the Medley. It ends on a D chord with a diminished 5th that then resolves to the root A chord at the beginning of You Never Give Me Your Money. It’s a beautiful transition and it feels incomplete if I hear Because without the rest of Side 2 because of how it ends on an unresolved chord. If you’re with me so far, then we’re ready to go deeper. Once you’ve accepted Because as the “real” beginning of the Medley, now we’ve got an interesting bit of a musical puzzle that I’d like to solve, and this is where we get into the types of fan theories or “Head Canon” usually reserved for rabid Sci-Fi fan-bases. Can you have Beatles Head Canon? I’ve got Beatles Head Canon.
Because begins with a series of guitar arpeggios that, according to legend, were inspired by John listening to Yoko play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano and asking her to play the arpeggios backwards to hear what they would sound like, he liked it, and that became Because. I Want You (She’s So Heavy) has a very long coda where these heavy guitar arpeggios repeat ad nauseum with more and more background noise fading up until the song just ends abruptly. The arpeggios that vamp out I Want You (She’s So Heavy) are essentially the inverse of the arpeggios that start Because so my theory is that I Want You (She’s So Heavy) was intended to start off side 2 and then segue into Because but the track lengths didn’t work out on the LP because I Want You (She’s So Heavy) is so long (almost 8 minutes), so they ended up having to switch it with Here Comes the Sun to keep each side’s running length below 25 minutes. I think Here Comes the Sun pairs better with the rest of the songs on side one anyway and would make a great cap on the exquisite first side of Abbey Road. so here is my “Machete Order” Abbey Road. Without the limitations of physical media, run time is no longer a constraint on album construction, so this is how I have my digital music library set up to play Abbey Road, and I suggest you give it a try. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can even cross-fade the end of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) with the beginning of Because so that it plays more like it’s part of the medley.
I actually sent Peter Asher (of Peter and Gordon fame) a message asking him what he thought about this theory. He was not only a contemporary British Pop musician of the Beatles, but also knew them personally and professionally. Paul McCartney dated his sister Jane for a good portion of the 1960’s and Paul actually lived at his house for a number of years. Then, when the Beatles started the Apple Records label in 1968 and moved, He was their chief of A&R (Artists and Repertoire – basically who are they signing to record deals and what are those people recording. Peter Asher is the one who discovered James Taylor). He has a show on the Beatles Satellite Radio station as a DJ and he makes a point of answering all emails that listeners send to him. So I thought, if anyone outside of Paul and Ringo who are still alive knows whether or not this is true, it would be him. Here’s what he sent back:
“There are many theories and yours is interesting and coherent. Some good points. I have no “inside info” and so it is pretty much every man for himself out there. And, in the end, does it really matter? It sounds the same regardless of how one sub-divides it conceptually? I appreciate your writing- thanks Peter”
Oh well, it was worth a shot.