Long Form No. 3

The summer of 1969, as I’ve noted here numerous times, was when I began to listen with great interest to Top 40 radio, as well as to a little bit of other music that fit within the genres of pop, rock and R&B. It was also the second of three summers when I spent four days working at the state trap shoot, sitting in a cramped dirty concrete structure placing clay targets on the machine that threw them out into the air to be shot.

And the confluence of those two things made 1969 the year when I got my first cassette recorder and discovered one of my favorite long pieces of music.

For a couple of years before then, I’d been fascinated by cassette recorders. One of my dad’s friends at St. Cloud State had one, and he was, I think, interested in the educational possibilities of the machines. They would certainly make easier any educational task that required a tape recorder, given their advantages in size and convenience over the large and often unwieldy reel-to-reel machines then in use.

The first time I saw Dr. Perry’s machine, I was more interested in it as a gadget than for its musical applications. It would just be fun to tape stuff. Around the same time, Rob across the street had gotten a small reel-to-reel recorder and for a few weeks, he wandered around the neighborhood, taping everything from the sounds of birds in his front yard to the roar of a Great Northern Railroad train as it went through the crossing on Seventh Street just a block away.

One afternoon, he and Rick and I rode along as their dad drove his beloved Studebaker for some maintenance in the city of Anoka, fifty miles southeast on Highway 10. Rob brought the tape recorder along, and the three of us recorded an aural journal of our trip, commenting on anything from the size of the small burg of Becker (365 then, 4,538 in the most recent census) and the crops in the fields in the countryside to the architecture of the churches and the presumptive errands of the people we saw along the way. Being adolescent boys, we found almost everything we said humorous, and the resulting taped journal occasionally lapsed from commentary into fits of giggling.

One couldn’t drive to Anoka every day, of course, but I thought at mid-summer 1969 that there would be some value in a cassette recorder. So my dad and I took the fifty dollars I got for my four days of trap shoot work downtown to Dan Marsh Drugs, where dad knew the folks who sold cameras and such; in those days, the “such” included cassette recorders. I selected a Panasonic model that fit my budget, and with some blank tapes in hand, set out to record the world. The thought of listening to music on the machine had not yet entered my consciousness.

When I’d decided to get a recorder, I’d hoped to have the machine in hand by the time Apollo 11 landed on the moon so I could record what turned out to be Neil Armstrong’s “one small step,” but that didn’t work out. I was five days late, and the first news event I was able to record off of television – and I did it just to see how it sounded – was Senator Ted Kennedy’s live statement relating what had happened at Chappaquiddick Island after he drove off a bridge and a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in his submerged car.

And after a few days of recording stuff and listening to it play back – and I hated the sound of my own voice – I wanted something more fun to listen to. For whatever reason – maybe budget, maybe not being interested quite yet in popular music, maybe simple dimness – I hadn’t thought about music. Then my sister stepped into the breach and one day brought home from the mall – where she worked as a waitress at Woolworth’s – a cassette of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ self-titled second album.

I recognized the hits: “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” had gone to No. 2 in the spring of 1969, and “Spinning Wheel” had done the same early that summer. I digested the rest of the album, and then football practice started and I began to be drawn into the music I heard on the radio in the training room. So I knew “And When I Die” as it began its own climb to No. 2 that autumn, and I began to wonder what tape I should get next to supplement BST and the music I was hearing on the radio.

Late one October evening, after I’d gone to sleep with the sounds of Chicago’s WLS at low volume on my bedside RCA radio, something woke me. As I lay there, I turned the radio up slightly. There came a ghostly “shoop” followed by a bass and drum riff repeated several times, and then I heard John Lennon’s unmistakable voice: “Here come old flat top. He come groovin’ up slowly . . .”

I was spooked, I was fascinated and I was determined to have that song – whatever it was – for my own.

It was, of course, “Come Together” from the Beatles’ Abbey Road, which had been released at the beginning of the month. Once I learned that, I also learned that the album – LP, cassettes and eight-track tapes – was on sale at J.C. Penney at the mall for $3.50. I handed some of my cash to my sister, and she brought home my first copy of Abbey Road.* And when I first played it, I came across the long set of songs now called the Abbey Road medley.

The suite of songs – starting with the simple piano introduction to “You Never Give Me Your Money” and ending with the now-famous couplet “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” – entranced me, as it did millions of other listeners. It’s generally accepted now that the medley was the work of Paul McCartney (although three of the pieces in the medley – “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” – were Lennon creations), and it might be the high point of the Beatles’ existence.

The tracks in the medley are:

“You Never Give Me Your Money”
“Sun King”
“Mean Mr. Mustard”
“Polythene Pam”
“She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”
“Golden Slumbers”
“Carry That Weight”
“The End”

While there’s plenty of brilliance to parse in the sixteen-minute medley – in writing, in playing, in singing, in production – there is one touch that, to me, elevates the medley from excellence to genius: The emergence of the “You Never Give Me Your Money” theme – first with trumpets, then adding strings and then adding vocals – in the middle of “Carry That Weight.”

Here, then, in our occasional exploration of longer pieces that move me, is Long Form No. 3, the Abbey Road medley:

*I’ve since had three other copies: That first tape was stolen and replaced, I bought the vinyl of the album in 1971, and I bought the CD in 2001.

Revised since first posting to include “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window.”

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2 Responses to “Long Form No. 3”

  1. jb says:

    I am sitting here flashing on the first tape recorders I ever owned. The first one was a toy one of my brothers got for Christmas, probably in 1967. It had a continuous loop cartridge that ran about a minute-and-a-half, and I can still see us there on Christmas morning trying to get my year-old brother to talk into it.

    Later (1970?), I got a portable cassette machine. Like you, I didn’t think of recording music first. My other brother and I used it to make up dramatized stories like it was old-time radio. I eventually figured out I could record songs off the radio with it.

    Flash forward a decade. I found one of the old tapes in a drawer. Hearing my pre-pubescent 11-year-old voice coming back at me was a strange experience. I wish I’d hung onto that tape because I’d like to hear it now.

  2. Steve E. says:

    I got my first portable cassette recorder in early 1972 for my birthday, when I was 14. But even though I was several years into Top 40 music and buying records, I did NOT initially think of recording music. Instead I started taping Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” monologues and comedy bits (like Carnac) every night. I ended up doing that for five years and had a huge collection of those monologues; in 1973, my friends and I started going to Burbank to see the show taped, and that just added to the fun. I finally stopped taping the monologues when I was in college and had too many other things to think about. However, I do recall one time when I put music on those tapes. That was in preparation for a two-week driving trip my parents and I were going to take to the Grand Canyon and other landmarks in the western United States. I knew I wanted to have music with me for the long car rides, so I wrote up a list of my then-100 favorite songs (from singles and albums I had in my collection), and I proceeded to tape them in countdown style, even announcing each number before each song on the tapes. It was a mono recorder, but I was delighted to listen to those tapes during the trip. And my No. 1 song was “Here, There and Everywhere” by the Beatles.

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