The Myth of Unity in The Beatles’ “Long Medley”

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On September 4, the website Dangerous Minds reposted from another website, Open Culture, an isolated acapella vocal track from YouTube of The Beatles’ “Long Medley” (linked below) from their 1969 album Abbey Road. The Dangerous Minds piece features a photo of McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison around a microphone laying down a harmony part. Underneath is the following text:

“Not completely sans instrumentation, nevertheless the vocals are the important bits here. It’s a (slight) pity that some of the gaps weren’t cleaned up a little bit better for ease of listening, but this is still pretty amazing and revelatory. Even as the group was breaking up, their voices could still blend so beautifully.”

This link went viral, with thousands of social media shares and internet reposts in the past two weeks. There is no denying the excitement that this isolated vocal track can instill in the diehard Beatle fan. However, there are some problems with the “beautiful vocal blending” premise connected to this track. The main reason, assumedly, that this video has gone viral is due to the idea that people think they are listening to The Beatles singing as a group. And indeed they are…in places. But many of the haunting, incredibly close harmonies we hear are executed by one man by himself with an engineer and a pre-recorded backing track in his headphones: Paul McCartney.

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The photo that the Dangerous Minds website uses to give a visual image of the three together around a lone microphone is the first place that listeners are led astray. This photo was not taken during the Abbey Road sessions. Just look at Lennon’s hair. This is a 1968 photograph, well before Abbey Road was started. By the time the band went in to record Abbey Road, they were hardly speaking to one another. They certainly weren’t socializing. In fact, much of the album’s songs were constructed and overdubbed by each selection’s author. Lennon, who was absent for pretty much anything he hadn’t written, declined to even participate in “Here Comes The Sun” or “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” He is credited in Ian MacDonald’s book Revolution in the Head with playing rhythm guitar on “Something,” but it’s barely audible. And of course, his writing contributions to the Long Medley are abbreviated (“Mean Mr. Mustard”, “Polythene Pam,” and “Sun King”) in light of McCartney’s obvious strong hand. But this isn’t the main issue here; what we need to consider is that people are listening to this isolated vocal track thinking that it’s a successive vocal performance around a single microphone or least done together in some capacity – which isn’t completely true.

First, let’s look at the start of the medley. McCartney’s “You Never Give Me Your Money,” purportedly a reference to the ongoing legal troubles in the band, starts off with a haunting double-tracked vocal then spreads out into a glorious three-part harmony for the second verse that sends chills down the spine. This excitement is compounded when isolated, and it hooks everyone right at the start. It’s that trademark, magical Beatles harmony. But listen again. Listen closely. It’s McCartney, McCartney, and McCartney.

Sometimes we tend to think that back in the heady days of the late ‘60s technology was such that musicians had to all play at the same time, and there was a resulting organic “togetherness” that we don’t get in today’s music. To a certain extent that may be true, but by the time Sergeant Pepper’s and Pet Sounds were released, overdubbing had become the norm as opposed to the exception. Yes, basic tracks were played all at once, but then the rest of the tracks were added afterwards. And in the case of the Beatles’ later albums, these overdubbing sessions were usually lonely affairs. This romantic notion that The Beatles worked diligently together on Abbey Road for one last hurrah are simply erroneous. For instance, Lennon was hospitalized from a car accident in Scotland and as a consequence is missing vocally from the parts of the medley recorded in early July of 1969. Had he been available, McCartney in his possessive musical ambition probably would have opted to do the second verse harmonies himself anyway on “You Never Give Me Your Money.” It does, however, appear to be Lennon and possibly Harrison in the “ahh-ooh” section and the “1,2,3,4,5,6,7” part at the end (where you can plainly hear Lennon’s playful rasp among the harmonies).

“Sun King” was an unfinished White Album reject (like “Polythene Pam” and “Mean Mr. Mustard”) that was also demoed for Let it Be but didn’t materialize into anything. Lennon once referred to these songs as “some crap I wrote in India.” Mark Hertsgaard’s book A Day in the Life mentions that Lennon despised the Long Medley anyway, and that if it weren’t for McCartney and producer George Martin’s idea to blend all the rejected snippets together, these three Lennon tidbits never would have seen the light of day. While the main parts of “Sun King” are most likely Lennon and McCartney (Harrison is not credited vocally on this song or “Mean Mr. Mustard”), the Spanish/Italian gibberish lyrics sound locked in by Lennon himself – although McCartney can be tricky and ghost Lennon well when he wants. In fact, McCartney is a lot more present on Lennon’s Abbey Road compositions than vice-versa, as evidenced in this trio of Lennon snippets during the middle of the medley. On “Mean Mr. Mustard” we have Lennon and McCartney most definitely harmonizing together on the second verse. No question. Here we can really hear that distinctive Lennon/McCartney blend, in the same way they connect on “Two of Us” from Let it Be.

On “Polythene Pam” we hear some very intricate background vocals that sound like they’re all Lennon – even though all three are credited. Either way it’s an incredible part, and if it is indeed all three Beatles on this one they must have spent hours perfecting and doubling it (which alone makes it suspect). The truth of the matter is that it was way easier and faster at this point in the Beatles’ lives for the lead singer to do all the harmony parts alone, hence McCartney doing a lot of his own vocal overdubs on this record. Therefore, while we like to envision the harmonies being all three, we may in fact actually be hearing the writer of the song opting for the easy way out. This is particularly evidenced on “Here Comes the Sun” where Harrison overdubs his own harmonies, with no other Beatles’ vocals present except for a bit of Paul in the “sun, sun, sun” section.

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On “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” we have two main harmony parts: the ahh’s and ooh’s underneath the verses, and the two-part on the chorus (”Sunday’s on the phone to Monday,” etc.). The former is the three Beatles, easily audible and discernable. The latter, however, is McCartney harmonizing with himself. And, as an aside, you can hear him chewing away on gum in between lines. Such is the delight of isolated tracks.

As we go into “Golden Slumbers,” we hear McCartney taking the lead vocals throughout. When we get to “Carry That Weight,” we have all Beatles singing, including Ringo who can be heard bellowing with particular gusto. Then, for “I never give you my pillow…,” we have McCartney doing a lone three-part harmony before another “Carry That Weight” done by all again.

The “Love-you” part before the guitar solos is treated with some sort of vari-speed effect that makes the vocals sound like the Chipmunks. It’s probably all of them, but it’s hard to know. Either way, McCartney has the last word as he overdubs all three vocal parts on “And in the end, the love you take…is equal to the love you make.”

So there you have it. Not exactly the 16-minute display of vocal unity and togetherness that it’s made out to be. Yes, there are moments of transcendent vocal greatness among the three vocalists here and there throughout the medley, but it’s hardly the reflection of musical camaraderie that has made the isolated vocal version go viral on the internet. Granted, no one overtly claimed that all three were singing on everything here, and who knows…maybe people are not as naïve as I think when it comes to such details. But anyone who has embraced this isolated vocal track as the last love-in of The Beatles is misguided. At this point in the band’s life, they were like ships passing in the night through the doors of Abbey Road Studios. They did not spend six months huddled around the same microphone locking in those harmonies like the old days. The truth of the matter is that McCartney and George Martin orchestrated this whole opus, with the others in a supportive and subservient role.

The greatness of Abbey Road has not been paralleled in rock music. And the Long Medley is a groundbreaking piece of work that ushered in a whole new way of recording, arranging, and editing. Its concept and execution, however, should not be sold to the public as a singular Beatles vocal performance as a group. It was a group effort, yes. But it was not done as a group in logical or temporal succession. We must look at the greatness of the piece itself as it stands on record, as opposed to tying any sentimental value to it as a temporary respite to the Beatles’ personal issues and ensuing difficulties that would almost immediately lead to their dissolution after the last notes of this record were recorded.

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September 15, 2013 · 1:42 am

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