So we get each Beatle in a solo moment here, which is very cool and very unique in the catalog. But this isn't the crazed improvisatory jamming that you hear in some of their contemporaries-- the solos unfold against a tight structure, such that it's clearly not just virtuosity for its own sake. You never have a doubt that this is all going somewhere purposeful. The solos are pieces of one larger musical statement. And as always with the Beatles, no one members stands out. It's the band playing together that blows your mind. (Which is why "Her Majesty," the little McCartney jerk-off that follows as an afterthought, basically diffuses everything.)
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The opening guitar stuff is practically a fanfare in guitar form, announcing that something profound is about to happen. When Paul comes in in his best Paul-McCartney-the-rock-star voice, it only amps everything up. And then there's Ringo, doing the drum solo that only he would offer up-- intensely and perfectly rhythmic, exciting yet unshowy, and tight as all hell. The story goes that Ringo didn't even want this solo (he still doesn't love to play solos to this day), and that there was a guitar playing alongside him originally, but to give him a solo along with everyone they mixed out the guitar and let Ringo shine alone. It's a tremendous solo, one that makes you hear how affecting drum music can be even when (especially when) the drums aren't being Keith-Mooned to death, but what's interesting is that Ringo has some even more kickass little moments throughout the rest of the song. Listen for the drums, and you'll be wowed by his ear for detail and his little flourishes of awesomeness. It just goes to show that Ringo's best with a band.
Then, the guitar solos begin with significantly less humility and more showiness than we heard from Ringo. Each of the guitar-playing Beatles takes two bars each and then hands off the line to the next guy-- so we get two bars of Paul, two of George, and two of John, in a pattern that they repeat three times. It's been acknowledged by lots of people, including John himself, that he is the weakest guitarist of the band, but based on this section alone I would argue that he's not so much weaker as he is different, less virtuosic-- a Ringo of the guitar, perhaps. Paul and George offer badass, melodic solo lines in the long tradition of guitar gods, just freaking all over the place and off-the-charts amazing-- especially George, who comes off as the best guitarist, as opposed to Paul, whose totally singable solo lines help him come off as, maybe, the best musician. Does that make sense? I think I hear that here, even though I might be imposing my own preconceptions on this. John, however, plays gritty, growly lines that end up grounding the whole thing, or something. And don't anyone tell me that John's syncopated drive that hurls us into the abrupt piano stuff isn't wicked awesome. But you can kind of hear that he's most adept as a rhythm guitarist, because his rhythmic sensibilities are just so terrific. Ultimately, the balance works totally well, and the Beatles end up carrying on a fascinating musical conversation-- one in which they really are saying goodbye to each other with affection that language couldn't have communicated, especially at this point in their career.
Doesn't mean Paul's not going to give the language a try, though. His piano chords interrupt John's guitar with percussive A minor chords that never let the rhythmic drive relax. And then Paul tries to put some of this stuff into a grandiose lyric, and I guess kind of succeeds. "And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make" is a good line, one of those that sounds simple but might belie a bit of sweat on Paul's part. No doubt he was putting the pressure on himself, trying to come up with, like, The Moral of the Story, or at least The Moral of the Beatles. Though I don't usually like morals, there are a couple musical events happening around the lyric that make me shed most of skepticism: for one thing, the entrance of strings on the second "love"-- particularly noticeable given our guitar/piano/drum context so far. And then, of course, the Beatles are singing together so warmly and so sweetly through this whole last section that a girl could almost die of awesome. And then there's the fact that at the same time the meter slows down into 3/4 on "equal to the love," we're being led with the utmost elegance (supported by Paul's descending bass line) from A minor into C major (its close relative), such that by the time the word "make" comes in on the C cadence it's like fireworks are going off. I don't know how else to describe it.
If you're going to choose to go out with a gigantic gesture, there's no better one than "The End," is there? That C chord just resonates in the air for ever, the loudest and most resonant and most important cadence you've ever heard (or such is the illusion, anyway). It would be corny in a Broadway/Hollywood kind of way if it hadn't all been written so smartly, and if George's soaring guitar solo wasn't the final commentary we hear. You gotta give it to Paul, and to the rest of the band for following his lead, too. I'm not sure any other band has ended their career more awesomely. Oh, Beatles, if this thing has to end, I'm glad that "The End" is the end you chose.
"The End," released in the U.K. side B track 10 of Abbey Road, September 26, 1969; in the U.S. October 1, 1969.