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An Introduction to Notes on the Abbey Road "Medley"


Notes on ... Series #192 (MEDLEY)
  by Alan W. Pollack

General Points of Interest



  Next note The "Abbey Road" medley calls for some kind of overall consideration based on the extent to which the whole of it is indisputedly greater than the sum of its smoothly interlocking parts.
  Next note The medley's relative novelty in context of a rock album circa 1969 is of no small historical interest as well; as is the seemingly fortuitous yet uncannily coincidental manner in which such an ambitious novelty should appear as the capstone the group's recording career. But both of the latter are issues separate from the musical content itself.
  Next note For now I'm going to focus on just the music.

Formal Architecture

  Next note Alright, so let's at least deal with terminology first off. I'm not sure what kind of pat label to put on this thing, but the dictionary definitions for "medley" and its closely related synonyms, "potpurri" and "pastiche" just don't seem right. All three words connote a musical composition consisting of a "series of songs detatched from several, or various sources." The closest the Beatles come to this form in their officially released recordings is with "Kansas City / Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey" way back on the "For Sale" album; and in that particular case the Beatles were simply copying Little Richard's own earlier pairing of the same two titles.
  Next note Original Beatles experiments with medley-like form fall into four increasingly adventurous categories:
  1. Two songs directly segued: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" followed by "With A Little Help From My Friends"; the sequence of "Good Morning, Good Morning", the "Sgt. Pepper "Reprise" and "A Day In The Life"; and "Back In The USSR" followed by "Dear Prudence".
  2. "Sgt Pepper" introduced the concept of album sides sequenced without the traditional bands-of-silence between tracks though instances of direct musical segue on that album are limited.
  3. Two songs cross cut within a single track: "I've Got A Feeling / Everybody Had A Hard Year" and "I Want You / She's So Heavy".
  4. More than two short songs sequenced as what I've labeled a teleological medley: "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" and "You Never Give Me Your Money".
  Next note Compared to all of the above, the "Abbey Road" "Sequence" (how's that for lack of a better term?) is unique and unprecedented for the Beatles in terms of the sheer number of individual songs involved, as well as the level of organic inter-connectivty and teleology they embody as a whole. And we know from ample documentation of the recording sessions that this was an effect fully intended by the composers, not something serendipitously noticed and then official "acknowledged" after the fact.
  Next note In the realm of opera (both "classic" and "rock") you find a musical approach that is very similar to the "Abbey Road" medley (rats, I think we're stuck with the label for better or worse), but the opera form is able to lean as heavily as it needs to upon a story line thread to enhance its musical sense of continuity; this as true in "Tommy" as it is in "Marriage of Figaro." By contrast, the extent to which the "Abbey Road" medley is relatively abstract at the level of its lyrics is a point worth emphasizing.
  Next note Getting down to cases, the Medley comprises eight songs that are performed in a specific sequence and without break as follows:
  1. "You Never Give Me Your Money" (cross fade)
  2. "Sun King" (complete ending, but rhythmically segued)
  3. "Mean Mr Mustard" (segued)
  4. "Polythene Pam" (segued)
  5. "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window" (complete but somehow inconclusive ending)
  6. "Golden Slumbers" (complete ending, but rhythmically segued)
  7. "Carry That Weight" (segued)
  8. "The End" (complete ending)
  Next note The tracks that are completely segued are more tightly coupled than the others; i.e. 3 -» 4 -» 5 and 6 -» 7 -» 8. In theory, you could take advantage of the weaker links to commence a partial performance of the medley by starting at numbers 2, 3, or 6. But in terms of track endings, you find only the final track provides a satisfactory resting point. Combining these observations, it appears (and is borne out by Macca's inclusion of it in recent tours) that the only workable subset that can be extracted entirely on its own is numbers 6 through 8.
  Next note Elements other than harmony and home key (which we'll examine in detail below) help articulate the larger form.

Temporal Proportions

  Next note Total length of the medley is 970 seconds. The weaker connective links and dramatic flow allow the total duration to be broken into four discrete, almost symphonic like "movements" of classically balanced, but (thank goodness) not slavishly equal proportions:
  The first movement is comprised of the single longest song, itself a mini medley, contains much opening movement-like "vigorous" music, and takes up ~25% of the total time:
  1. "You Never Give Me Your Money" 242 seconds
  The second movement is contrastingly slow in character, but takes up only ~15% of the total, necessary economy in order to keep the overall pace from bogging down:
  2. "Sun King" 146 seconds
  The third movement is a trio of songs whose total is, again, ~25% of the total (255 seconds). The internal temporal proportions of the trio are ~25/~25/~50%, reinforcing the extent to which you think of the first two numbers dramatically setting up the arrival of the third one like a one-two-three wind up punch:
  3a. "Mean Mr Mustard" 66 seconds
  3b. "Polythene Pam" 72 seconds
  3c. "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window" 117 seconds
  The fourth (and finale) movement is another trio of songs whose internal proportions are ~25/~25/~50%, again making for a wind up punch gesture. The subtotal of this trio weighs in at ~35% (327 seconds), making it appropriately the single longest movement of the four:
  4a. "Golden Slumbers" 91 seconds
  4b. "Carry That Weight" 96 seconds
  4c. "The End" 140 seconds

Dramatic Thrust

  Next note The first movement ("You Never Give Me Your Money") presents its own self-contained dramatic arch, starting off in a mode of gentle exposition, and increasing in both vigor and tension until a point of climax (the ending of the instrumental passage over a series of dimininished seventh chords) from which the cross fade retreats into heaven.
  Next note The second movement ("Sun King") though providing overall quieter contrast to what both proceeds and follows it, still projects its own subtle dramatic arch. On paper, it's a perfectly balanced ABA form with a middle section slightly more intense than either A section. The critical gesture here is the way in which the vocals of the second A section give it greater weight over the first A section, something that runs counter to the sense of what otherwise would be "perfect" balance.
  Next note The third movement ( "Mean Mr Mustard", "Polythene Pam", and "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window") accumulates an almost ballistic momentum over the course of its first two songs, blossoming out with a major climax at the start of the third one. The seemingly abrupt and harmonically quizzical ending of this series is critical in putting on some brakes, stopping short of letting the whole wad go, and preventing the fourth movement from sounding anti-climactic.
  Next note The fourth movement ("Golden Slumbers", "Carry That Weight", and "The End") starts off in very much the same gentle, expository mood of the first movement, but instead of an arch shape, the drama here proceeds more in the upward trajectory style of the third movement. Granted, the progression in this case is more gradual and deliberate in character than the previous, carefully placing the ultimate climax of the entire sequence this time at the very end of the third subsection rather than at the beginning of it. This movement also supplies a very classical sense of "recapitulation" in the way it contains one subtle allusion (the outer sections of "Golden Slumbers") to, and a direct quote (the middle section of "Carry That Weight") from the first movement; in both cases, the opening section of "You Never Give Me Your Money".

Tonal Architecture

  Next note The key design of the medley effectively supports the dramatic and formal plan, with its recurrent tendency to start off from the keys of A Major or a minor, yet inevitably wind up seeking its apparent center of gravity in the home key of C.
  Next note Keep in mind that so-called tonal music posits the "unity" of a single home key as its most essential and basic meta-principle; the Western, Judaeo/Christian monotheistic overtones of which I'll not touch here with a ten foot pole other than to acknowledge their strong resonance.
  Next note In classical practice this principle results in prodigal son-like harmonic plot lines in which the music establishes its home key, wanders from it through a series of (mis)adventures in other keys, only to ultimately return with a sense of unquestionable confirmation of the place it started from originally as home sweet home.
  Next note Several Romantic harmonic tendencies can be understood as direct reactions against the seemingly boring predictability of that original monolithic plot line. Examples include:
  • Starting the music remotely from its ultimate home key in order to eventually converge upon it.
  • Morphing over the long run from an initial preoccupation with a minor key to end up in its more triumphant sounding parallel Major.
  • Wallowing for extended periods of time in movement toward a home key without ever quite reaching it unequivocally; the latter technique eventually providing one of the springboards for "atonality" in the early twentieth century.
  Next note Again keep in mind that these harmonic gambits rely for their success on the way they fight against your seemingly innate expectation for the original single home key paradigm to be the normal, default state of affairs.
  Next note In this context one experiences the tonally "bi-polar" design of the medley as expressive of some kind of mixed or unresolved emotions. Trace it by movement.
  Next note The first movement begins in a minor and ends in A Major, but the key of C is never far from its mind. The opening establishment of a minor is done by working the full way around the diatonic circle of fifths, thereby walking right through C Major in the course of the first phrase of the song. The following middle section clearly establishes C Major, and even the final section in A Major uses the C-Major chord as part of an unusual final harmonic cadence.
  Next note The second and third movements would appear to make a concerted effort to establish A Major more clearly and unequivocally. The home key of the second movement and first two sections of the third one are clearly in the key of E (the V of A Major), and the climax of the third movement (the arrival in the "Bathroom" so to speak) is clearly in the key of A. But note again, how C Major is never completely out of mind; it turns up as the key of both "Sun King"'s middle section, and "... Bathroom"'s bridge.
  Next note This vacillation continues straight through the fourth movement. "Golden Slumbers" maintains the appearance of re-establishing a minor at its start, but unlike the first movement, a closer examination here shows that the latter key is never truly established at all, and its mid section is clearly in C Major to boot. "Carry That Weight" momentarily reverses the pattern, with outer sections in C and a middle section in a. Finally "The End", in spite of its strong start in A Major flipflops at pretty much the last minute to the key of C.
  Next note That last minute switch is sufficiently abrupt, even awkward, to be less than 100% satisfying or convincing. And yet, given the strong, repeated presence of C Major all along the way, it seems much more than the impulsive yielding to a momentary, irresistable urge.
  Next note For me it nets out along the lines of, something inside ("that was always denied") that pulls against all odds, pressure, and better judgment, toward C Major instead of A. I'm not sure whether that goes to support or challenge what the lyrics go on to say about the love you shake and bake.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note "Her Majesty" is a conspicuous misfit for this medley (originally planned to fit in between "Mean Mr Mustard" and "Polythene Pam") from just about every perspective you'd care to consider it. In particular it fatally interrupts the build up of momentum at that point, and its in a mood, arrangement, and home key that have nothing at all to do with the rest of the medley.
  Next note It's a mark of compositional insight and professional maturity for Paul to "throw it away," to literally cut it out of the master tape, during the mixing session of July 30, 1969.
  Alan (020600#192)
Copyright © 2000 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.