What does it sound like?:
Abbey Road represents The Beatles at their most professional. It is their most beautifully produced and most flawlessly played. The four of them had spent virtually every waking hour playing together for the best part of ten years. They knew each other inside out and had grown together as musicians. Having been semi-detached for much of The White Album and the Get Back sessions, George Martin was reinstated as producer-in-chief, his trusty lieutenant, Geoff Emerick, back by his side. Once the studio red light came on, they were focussed, disciplined and working almost telepathically as one.
The sessions grew from the Get Back recordings. Billy Preston was still present for the early versions of Oh! Darling and I Want You (She’s So Heavy), both of which you can imagine being performed on the rooftop. The Beatles had rehearsed thirteen of the songs during January 1969 at Twickenham. Only Come Together, Here Comes The Sun, Because, You Never Give Me Your Money and The End were new. Some had been demoed as far back as Esher mid 1968. In April, they recorded the non-album single The Ballad Of John And Yoko and its B side, Old Brown Shoe. By May, they were ensconced in Abbey Road, recording in earnest, in a collective positive frame of mind, the notion of the long medley already in place. They had June off. A shaken Lennon was late to reconvene in July. He’d taken Yoko and their children to visit family and friends in Liverpool, Wales and further north, crashing his Austin Maxi avoiding another car on a long and winding road in Scotland. A pregnant Yoko took her place in the studio once a bed was commissioned from Harrods, a microphone strung above her in case she needed to attract attention. Abbey Road was complete by 21st August.
Outside of the studio, their lives were changing dramatically. Both Lennon and McCartney married. Lennon recorded Give Peace A Chance during his bed-in honeymoon. Harrison’s marriage started to fall apart. Apple, as a business, was in chaos. Their songwriting publishing was sold without their knowledge. Allen Klein had been appointed manager in a vote of three to one, the first time they had acted without unanimity, a rift that could never be repaired. As Harrison put it and McCartney captured in song, they had big houses and nice cars but no actual money, only funny paper, the contracts and legal papers they seemed to be endlessly discussing.
It was their first album to be recorded exclusively on eight track. There was a state-of-the-art transistorised mixing desk installed at Studio Two, the TG12345 MK1, allowing a much smoother sound with less distortion and greater separation of the instruments. The low end clarity enabled McCartney’s bass to be more rounded in tone and prominent in the mix. Ringo’s drums could be captured in stereo with several microphones deployed to different parts of his kit. He especially enjoyed new calf-heads on his toms. By early August, Harrison had acquired a Moog synthesiser, one of the first of its kind, giving a number of tracks an unusual flavour. He also routinely fed his guitar through a Leslie 147VR cabinet, enriching its texture and giving it a liquid quality that, along with his slide, became his signature. Abbey Road is The Beatles most sumptuous, modern-sounding LP. It’s all so familiar now but try and recall the first time you heard the opening bars to Come Together. It was stunning.
This remix comes in three editions: a single disc of the album alone, a two disc collection in which disc two consists of an alternative of each track in the same sequence as the album and the complete box with the remix, two discs of outtakes, a 5.1 Surroundsound for those looking for even more immersion and an excellent one hundred page glossy book.
Now Giles Martin is on his third album, we are getting used to his style. He stays true to Abbey Road’s sonic veracity and stereo fidelity, subtly rearranging the furniture on the sound stage. He creates a surprising amount of space, especially in the denser tracks. Most of all, he impresses with his work on detail and texture while making everything seem bigger. He sprinkles fairy dust on the vocals, the strings, the bass and the drums in particular. The harmonies shimmer with gold. The lead voices are brighter and more crisp. You can almost hear Lennon’s spite splatter the mic guard on Come Together and Ringo’s army carries That Weight with such gusto the windows rattle. The tone of those calf skins is exquisite, pitter-patting handsomely across the whole album. McCartney’s bass is at its most ebullient on Abbey Road yet, somehow, Giles finds some extra bounce. Harrison’s playing is exceptional throughout, his guitar ringing as clear as a bell. Even the percussion gleams as though exposed to the sun for the first time. The tambourine on Mean Mr Mustard, for example, is tremendous.
As with the Sgt. Pepper and The White Album boxes, Giles chooses to use the two discs of outtakes and early versions to tell the story of the album’s development. The tracks are presented in chronological order, Anthology style, often with studio chat included. It’s remarkable how long Billy Preston remained in the early phase. He adds considerably to Something & Oh! Darling but the wildness of his organ on the powerful coda of the Trident recording of I Want You is jaw-dropping. A solo McCartney, accompanied by acoustic guitar, runs through Goodbye beautifully, the kind of pleasant ditty he could write in his sleep, later given to Mary Hopkin. Take 2 of Old Brown Shoe demonstrates what a wonderful song it is, sounding so much better in balanced stereo. The demo of Come And Get It is spruced up brightly, begging the question why Silver Hammer. The trial edit of the medley, The Long One, justifies the removal of Her Majesty as it interrupts the momentum between Mean Mr Mustard and Polythene Pam. Instrumental versions of Something and Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight make sense, especially with strings almost as tactile as these, but Because without vocals is pointless. Overall, it’s impossible not to marvel at the skill of George Martin and his colleagues in transforming these raw, base materials from a ‘good little band’ into the final grand, polished product. Every decision they made, from changing the odd word in a lyric to abandoning an extra bridge in Something or simplifying the instrumentation on Oh! Darling, was undoubtedly the right call.
Abbey Road is a minor miracle. The Beatles were running out of ideas. There is little here they hadn’t done before. As Ringo has pointed out, John and Paul had stopped writing songs. Only Harrison’s two have any real substance. Lennon’s are effectively simple mood pieces, albeit very different ones, and McCartney’s weakness for sugar is too often exposed. Nevertheless, they managed to create a Da Vinci with scraps of doodles, swept along by the dexterity of the playing and the passion in the singing, topped off with the medley, a suite of music ebbing with McCartney’s melodic flare and concluding in a satisfyingly emotional narrative arc. Abbey Road is concise, cohesive and sophisticated. Giles’s remix makes the whole thing explode with joy. Any hint of longing, loss or uncertainty is countered by a sense of adventure, hope and warmth.
The 2009 remaster is still available.
Was Abbey Road, particularly its medley, a conscious farewell? Mark Lewisohn has a tape from 8th September of The Beatles, minus Ringo, discussing another album. Lennon suggested that he, McCartney and Harrison have four songs each, individually credited, and Ringo can have two “if he wants them.” Nevertheless, less than two weeks later, Lennon informed the band he had quit. No less an authority than George Martin felt that Abbey Road was a last hurrah. Like a dying man, everyone knew the end was nigh and made sure they did all they could to sort out their studio affairs and leave a lasting legacy.
As they walked away from Abbey Road Studios, in single file, in Iain Macmillan’s cover photo, Lennon was 28 years old, Ringo 29, McCartney 27 and Harrison just 26. Abbey Road sold 5 million copies worldwide in the final three months of the year making it the fourth best selling album of the entire decade. It was their first to break ten million sales. Its popularity has grown over the last half century. There may have been little love lost between them in the early seventies but love for The Beatles still seems endless. And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
What does it all *mean*?
It turns out that Abbey Road isn’t so bad after all.
Up until now, Beatles fans have only had one version of Abbey Road. Today, there are two plus extras, more than doubling the joy. Every Beatles fan can look forward to many happy hours paying close attention to every nook and cranny.
Goes well with…
Anything. Abbey Road can be enjoyed any place, any time, on any equipment, with or without family or friends. It’s an album that transcends generations.
27th September 2019
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