I. Once There Was a Way to Get Back Home
By the opening days of 1969, it was clear that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were four very different people, temperamentally and artistically. Their lives were taking them in different directions and threatening to pull them apart from the group that made them internationally famous. The Beatles, a.k.a. The White Album, had made high art out of those very differences and – surprising no one – was another triumph for the world’s biggest band. But still there was dissension in the ranks. The group decided to take a “back to basics” approach, and on January 2, 1969, rehearsals and recording began at Twickenham Film Studios for what became Let It Be. A little over a week later, George Harrison departed the sessions in frustration. (“Rehearsed until lunchtime, left the Beatles, went home,” he dryly noted in his diary.) So began a tumultuous period for the Fab Four, or at least that’s how the story goes. George was back by January 22 at the new environs of the Fabs’ own Apple studio, and on January 30, the group staged their legendary “rooftop concert.” The next day, three more songs were filmed, and recording was paused for three weeks. Apple Records announced in mid-February that the new Beatles album would arrive in April or May. Instead, the new Beatles album arrived in September…but it was a different album which had risen from the ashes of the January sessions.
Abbey Road would have been a landmark album under any circumstances. It was The Beatles’ first to be recorded exclusively to 8-track tape, a technological improvement which gave more room to accommodate the boys’ boundless imaginations. It was also their first LP to be released only in stereo. Little did the world know Abbey Road would be the last Beatles album to be recorded, if not to be released. Yet on just two sides of vinyl (slimmed down from The Beatles‘ four) Abbey Road encapsulated the power of The Beatles: at once elegiac, nostalgic, surreal, whimsical, raw, and immaculate.
The recording of Abbey Road began with sessions held between late February and early May 1969; by May, Glyn Johns had made his first stab at compiling the January recordings as Get Back. The Beatles weren’t sure where the five tracks recorded in that first period (“I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Something,” “Oh! Darling,” “Octopus’s Garden,” and “You Never Give Me Your Money”) would wind up. When the Fabs returned to work in July and August after a particularly fraught time of business tensions, it was with renewed purpose – to complete the album that would become known as Abbey Road. All of the July and August sessions were, naturally, held at EMI’s Abbey Road studios with George Martin at the helm. Some of the earlier material had been recorded at Trident and Olympic Studios, but The Beatles were ready to complete their final statement back home.
II. He Come Groovin’ Up Slowly
The new 3CD/1BD slipcased Anniversary Edition box set of Abbey Road is, in strictly numerical sense, the leanest of The Beatles’ 50th anniversary deluxe editions to date (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band got the treatment in 2017 and The Beatles in 2018). There are just 23 Sessions tracks, primarily one for each song on the album plus in-progress versions of related songs (i.e. Mary Hopkin’s “Goodbye,” Badfinger’s “Come and Get It,” the non-LP “Ballad of John and Yoko” and “Old Brown Shoe”). Then there’s the requisite new stereo mix by Giles Martin and Sam Okell, available on CD and Blu-ray, along with new 5.1 DTS-HD surround and Dolby Atmos mixes (also on the Blu-ray).
The differences in the new Martin/Okell mix are noticeable from the very first track. The vocal quality of Lennon’s lead on “Come Together” is more present and more immediately piercing over the tight blues-funk groove. While George Martin’s original mix is unimpeachable, the younger Martin and Okell’s reworking offers a valid alternative point of view from which to listen to the familiar album.
Those intimately acquainted with the original mix will no doubt notice Billy Preston’s organ is more pronounced in Harrison’s soulful “Something.” (Much as the first line of “Come Together” had been nicked from Chuck Berry, it was a flattered James Taylor who inspired the opening of perhaps George’s greatest song.) Ditto for the Moog part in McCartney’s mordantly whimsical “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” The prominent, pounding piano in his Little Richard-inspired early rock-and-roll throwback “Oh! Darling” gains gravity in the new mix. John had his own “heavy” song with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” but in a decidedly more modern blues-rock vein. Still, this was The Beatles, and the track was still adventurous, with its stylistic and tempo shifts.
Journeying down Abbey Road, only The Beatles could have pulled off the progression from the light (the childlike country-and-western fantasia “Octopus’ Garden”) to the aggressive (“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” to the positively bucolic (“Here Comes the Sun” as the Side Two opener). This was very much an album of its own; one couldn’t imagine “Here Comes the Sun” on The White Album! It’s the calm after the storm, and in the remix, the opening harmonies shimmer anew as does the Moog.
Naturally, Giles Martin has honored his father’s work as producer, arranger, and musician. There’s crispness and clarity to the haunting “Because” (with its electric harpsichord played by George Martin) both instrumentally and vocally vis-à-vis the lush, three-part harmonies. The biting “You Never Give Me Your Money” opens the linked suite (“The Long One,” as the Fabs referred to it; truly a Beatles song sampler, with many songs in fragmentary nature but still brimming with melody and craftsmanship) that concludes Abbey Road. In any mix, the complexity is stunning. “You Never Give Me Your Money” is itself a mélange of three separate songs. The ethereal, hazy psych-pop “Sun King” melded beautifully with the offbeat rocker “Mean Mr. Mustard,” and “Polythene Pam” with “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” Paul’s gorgeously melodic lullaby “Golden Slumbers” and chorus “Carry That Weight” were likewise powerfully linked.
The two-part “The End” introduced the lyrics that may be the most meaningful on any Beatles album: “And in the end the love you take/Is equal to the love you make.” But cheeky to the end, The Beatles followed “The End” with the 23-second “Her Majesty” when most listeners were ready to lift the needle and turn the album off. The new mix doesn’t replace the original but pays homage to it by honoring all of these original elements that have long made Abbey Road such a singular experience.
Martin and Okell have also crafted the new 5.1 DTS-HD surround mix. As with Sgt. Pepper’s and The Beatles, the 5.1 mix is relatively conservative if still ear-opening. Who wouldn’t savor the enveloping strings on “Something,” placed in the rear channels along with Preston’s organ? Guitars creep in from behind on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and background vocals and chorus harmonies on “Octopus’s Garden.” With the added dimension of surround, “Octopus’s” becomes more of a delight. There’s also elegance to the 5.1 mix of the shimmering “Here Comes the Sun,” isolating Harrison’s lead vocal front and center with harmonies and strings in the rear channels. An immersive “Sun King” swirls around the listener, and “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight” makes a joyful noise even more joyful with the added depth of surround. (Note that The Second Disc is not equipped for Dolby Atmos playback, so that mix could not be reviewed here.)
III. The Smiles Returning to the Faces
Yet for many, the undisputable highlight of the box set will be the two Sessions discs. Creative editing has taken place on many of these tracks, and occasionally chat from a different take will be grafted onto the primary take for the track here. But the result is a visceral fly-on-the-wall journey into the making of one of rock’s most famous albums.
“John, is it possible without affecting yourselves too much to turn down a little?” asked Glyn Johns, engineering for producer George Martin during a Trident Studios evening session for the thunderous “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” “Apparently there’s been a complaint…from somebody outside the building.” Paul quipped in response, “It’s his own fault for getting a house in such a lousy district.” Such exchanges are among the most delightful aspects of the Sessions discs. The 7-minute take of the unquestionably loud production combines Take 32 with an Abbey Road reduction mix (made to free up tracks on the tape for new overdubs) on which we hear Billy Preston’s full, swirling organ part, John’s Moog up front, and the original ending (the familiar album version, of course, just stops). It’s expectedly fascinating, although the notes tantalizingly describe a “faster version” which hasn’t been included.
Take 5 of “Come Together” boasts a gritty, hoarse lead from John and some fun dialogue. There’s more amusing chatter before the pre-overdubbed Take 27 of “Polythene Pam,” as the boys good-naturedly banter about The Dave Clark Five and The Who’s Tommy. Musically, there are plentiful variations here from the familiar, finished versions. Take 4 of “Oh! Darling” unveils some new Preston parts recorded just after his work on “I Want You,” and the take also reveals a strong, different McCartney vocal. Conversely, Ringo’s lead on Take 9 of “Octopus’s Garden” is much less confident and breaks down early, though George’s guitar lines are already intact. Take 12 of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” has a scatting, goofy Paul; he warbles a few words of “The Fool on the Hill” prior to the Takes 1-3 composite of “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight.” Take 20 of “Sun King” has a pronounced surf guitar feel and a hushed guide vocal from John.
George Harrison, of course, came into his own on Abbey Road. Take 9 of “Here Comes the Sun” might have been the version that made the album but The Beatles opted for Take 13 (labeled 12-1/2 instead). Even sans overdubs and background harmonies, Take 9 is close to the final take with some different vocal inflections and a less polished track. “Something” is heard in its raw February 1969 demo with piano overdub. While the song was still undergoing revisions (note the extra lyrics), much of the basic structure was in place along with the key guitar riff.
Quite a few songs were tackled during this period that didn’t make Abbey Road. Happily, they’ve been included here in session form, such as the February 1969 guitar-and-voice demo of McCartney’s saucy “Goodbye” (written for Mary Hopkin) and his July 1969 demo of “Come and Get It” for Badfinger. It was previously aired on Anthology 3 in a later remix; this version is the original mix made shortly after recording. Take 7 of the single “The Ballad of John and Yoko” has some clear variations in phrasing from John. His camaraderie with Paul is very much in evidence here, making the take a true high point of the collection. The eventual B-side of “Ballad,” Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe,” is also featured in its first take with John and Paul (Ringo never played on the song).
The most thrilling discovery on the Sessions discs is the trial edit and mix of the lengthy Side Two medley referred to as “The Long One.” In this trial mix, it includes “Her Majesty” between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” and the overall feel is sparse. While subsequent overdubs of both instrumental and vocal parts are missing, there are “new,” soaring wordless harmonies on “You Never Give Me Your Money,” and an alternate vocal on “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight.”
George Martin played a tremendous role in shaping the medley; his orchestrations get their due here, as well. The instrumental first take of “Because” is one of just three complete instrumental takes of the song, driven by Sir George’s electric harpsichord (note Ringo clapping his hands to keep John, Paul, and George Martin in time). Strings are isolated for “Something,” and strings and brass for “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight.” After hearing the grandiose medley in stripped-down form, it’s a treat indeed to revisit the orchestral elements that lent the final version such dramatic heft.
IV. And In The End…
The four discs of Abbey Road: Anniversary Edition are housed in individual sleeves within a lavish 100-page hardcover book, itself packaged in a sturdy, rigid slipcase. As with Pepper’s and The White Album, the book is a coffee table presentation worth the price of admission, featuring a foreword from McCartney, an introduction by Giles Martin, two essays and lengthy track-by-track annotations by Kevin Howlett, and a summation by David Hepworth. With striking, full-color photos and copious memorabilia images, it’s clear that no expense has been spared on making this the definitive chronicle of the making of Abbey Road. Miles Showell has remastered the album and Alex Wharton handled the Sessions discs; the tasteful sound is comparable to the previous anniversary editions.
While the January 1969 sessions were salvaged for Let It Be – which, despite many controversies can still stand up as a proper “concluding” chapter for The Beatles – Abbey Road represents the true farewell from the four young men from Liverpool at the peak of their collective powers. They got back home on Abbey Road – home to EMI’s Abbey Road studios, to a time before the in-fighting, the business quarrels, the personal tensions, when they could work together to create remarkable art built to stand the test of time. Now, this engrossing Anniversary Edition takes listeners back home, too, opening new windows on a now-classic work of art. Oh yeah, alright!
Abbey Road: Anniversary Edition is available now:
Super Deluxe 3CD/Blu-ray: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Deluxe 2CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
1CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
3LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
1LP: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada