Back when I was running competitively in grade school and junior high, I used to take pride in finishing my races (usually the mile or the 800) with a strong finishing sprint. In sixth grade, I remember Cameron Ousley had about a 50-yard lead and I beat him on the last stride.
I thought of that finishing sprint this evening even though I'm in no shape to sprint. In fact, I'd just lain down after a heavy dinner of meat pie and felt practically comatose. But as I reclined on the bed, barely able to keep my eyes open, I put on my i-Pod and began listening to the second half of The Beatles' Abbey Road. Long before my food coma should have ended, I was suddenly drumming my hands on the polyester sheets, wiggling my feet, and singing along softly to myself.
Every time I hear the two medleys--first of "Sun King", "Mean Mr. Mustard", "Polythene Pam", and "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window", then with a brief pause "Golden Slumbers", "Carry That Weight" and "The End"--I wonder about how the idea of it came together. Why choose to play only a portion of each song and then fold it into another? On The Beatles Anthology 3 you can hear demo versions of these songs in their entirety, but it never brought the satisfaction I expected. I missed having the medley, even though for years before hearing the Anthology I longed for the songs to be separated.
I now think the medley is a perfect finale for the end of the last Beatles record. Let It Be is often called their last album because it was the final one released, but I always think of Abbey Road being the real swan song because it was the last one they recorded. So as the songs from the medley bunch up together, I think of it as a finishing sprint. Even though they're about to break up, there's an urgency there: let's jam in as many songs as we can for those last few minutes of the last record. It even ends, appropriately enough, with "The End" (excluding the few-seconds-long "Her Majesty" that follows, of course). I particularly love to hear them just jamming at this point, not going quietly at all. There's even a Ringo drum solo.
When the Beatles broke up in 1970, it was the dawn of the age of long, indulgent, several-minute-long rock songs, a la Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. And yet the Beatles closed out the '60s, as well as their own career, with a bunch of short fast rock songs more like the '50s. On the other hand, though, you could argue that this succession of short songs that fold into one another without pause like this is a suite, an idea dating to 17th century France that was popularized by Bach and Handel.
As it turns out, I recently read the answer behind the creation of the suite, whichc was arranged by McCartney and producer George Martin. It seems obvious in retrospect: the suite, some 16 minutes in length, was conceived as a way to utilize a lot of Lennon/McCartney songs that had been left over from the White Album and Let It Be sessions, many of which were incomplete; thus, in many cases, one song seguing into another.
Often I have resisted researching the stories and decisions behind Beatles records. I'm afraid of anything threatening the wonderful spell these songs continually cast over me as I listen to them hundreds of times over the course of my life. Luckily I play it over and over, "The End" never really must be one.