Part 1 – Past Masters

The first, and perhaps most obvious parallel between Abbey Road and New X-Men is the way in which both recapitulate previously established tropes of their respective bodies of work. However, this isn’t in simple service to nostalgia; a chasing down of old glories. Instead, both works revisit classic elements in such a way as to build and (especially in the case of New X-Men) comment on what’s come before. Instead of rote, tired retreads, we are given summations of the things that make X-Men “X-Men” and The Beatles “The Beatles”.

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Abbey Road’s recapitulations are immediate to the listener from the start of Side 1 (the Lennon penned “Come Together”) and are obvious all the way through to the end of the same (“I Want You/She’s So heavy,” also by Lennon). In those two particular songs we can hear Lennon continuing the spare, rough-edged hard rock sound that he’d been exploring over the course of the previous couple of years, particularly in White Album-era songs such as “Revolution” and “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Over the course of 1968, Lennon had moved away from the clean pop and psychedelic flourishes that marked the earlier work of The Beatles into a more somber, insistent and direct place. But as he did so, there were still touches of studio trickery that helped make that previous work shine so brightly: “Come Together” begins with Lennon repeating the words “Shoot Me,” his voice heavily distorted by echo while “I Want You/She’s So Heavy,” ends with a rising blizzard of distortion that gradually overtakes the song and engulfs the listener. Lennon never forgets that his music is an auditory experience, even as it journeys into a more stripped down sound.

Paul McCartney, meanwhile, runs in the opposite direction of Lennon and dives deeper into his love of Tin Pan Alley/Cole Porter-style feel-good-old-timey pop tunes. McCartney’s fascination with such music can be seen clearly in 1967 with “When I’m 64,” and it continues onward with such songs as “Honey Pie,” “Your Mother Should Know,” and “Martha My Dear.” While this is not the totality of Paul’s work at this time (he did, after all, cut the proto-heavy metal “Helter Skelter” concurrently), it emerges in 1967 and 68 as a strong current in his songwriting, and it’s no surprise that it finds a place on Abbey Road with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Paul’s other contribution to side 1, “Oh! Darling!” also revisits older sounds, but in that case it’s the 12 bar blues (which exhibited such a profound influence on the Beatles and early rock n’ roll in general) that McCartney is exploring, even “woo-ing” like golden-era rock n’ roller Little Richard.

And then, of course, there is Ringo Starr. On Abbey Road he sings “Octopus’s Garden,” a song he wrote inspired by a vacation to Sardinia. It is a joyous, bubbly tune with delivered the same child-like, sing-songy manner of his previous turns as singer for the group. From “Act Naturally” to “Yellow Submarine,” and “Don’t Pass Me By” Ringo always played the art of the band’s “Happy Fool,” a ceaselessly bright counter-point to Lennon and Harrison’s more brooding personas and McCartney’s own tendencies toward wistful romanticism. “Octopus’s Garden” is no different in that respect, but it has little touches that make it something more: Backing harmonies sung through straw and a glass of water add to the under-water feel, George Harrison contributes some especially bright guitar work, while Paul’s piano is especially spritely and inspired. It’s this added lushness to the production that pushes Octopus’s Garden over the top and makes it perhaps the plain happiest song in Ringo’s (and arguably The Beatles) entire repertoire.

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A cursory look at Grant Morrison’s New X-Men storylines reads like a greatest hits of the franchise. “E is for Extinction” features Sentinels and Genosha. The Shi’ar and Lilandra show up during the “New Worlds” arc. At one point Logan briefly mentors a teenage mutant girl, Angel Salvatore stepping into the role that Jubilee and Kitty Pryde had before her. The Weapon X program is revisited as well. “Riot at Xaviers” harkens back to X-Men’s earliest days by giving us a glimpse of student life. The series penultimate arc, “Planet X,” culminates in a grand battle against the X-Men’s oldest, greatest foe, Magneto. The series closer (which manages to serve as both New X-Men’s climax and coda), “Here Comes Tomorrow” is set in that most X-Men of settings, a ruined alternate future a’la “Days of Future Past” and “Age of Apocalypse.” And running like a backbeat throughout the whole of Morrison’s run is the Phoenix, the entity that arguably defines X-Men philosophically and is the subject of what is still, inarguably, X-Men’s most storied tale: “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”

The wonder of New X-Men is that it manages to be fresh while journeying over such well-trodden ground, much like Abbey Road. One of the ways this is achieved is through pure formal ability. Morrison is a professional who knows how to craft a good story and populate it with rich characters in much the same way The Beatles were professionals who knew how to write solid lyrics and catchy hooks. But on a deeper level, we see that a large part of how both Abbey Road and New X-Men manage to be fresh instead of tired, is that both are unafraid to play with established tropes, tweak them and often invert them.

Continue to Part 2 – I Want You (She’s So Heavy)

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