‘Abbey Road’ at 50: Peak Beatles
Giles Martin, the son of the Beatles’ late producer, George Martin, and now the band’s go-to man in his own right, recently spent the better part of a year working on the massive 50th-anniversary box set of the Beatles’ swan song, Abbey Road.
He says that, even after all the hard work and long hours, he’s even more a fan than when he started working with the band, back when he created the immersive, mash-up mixes for Cirque Du Soleil’s LOVE show, back in 2006.
“I think what happens with the Beatles is that, as you open the songs up, and you open up the creative sparks within them, you realize, ‘Oh my God, these guys really knew what they were doing,’” Martin says in between mixing sessions at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios. “There's a reason they did everything.”
Abbey Road is the Beatles’ final album together. Released in September 1969 (Let It Be, salvaged from the January 1969 Get Back sessions, was released six months later), it was the last time John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr flew their collective flag, and they certainly gave it their all. It remains the band’s best-selling album, and regularly tops the reinvigorated vinyl sales charts.
Full of some of the Beatles’ best songs – “Come Together,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “Something” and the McCartney/George Martin neo-classical Side Two collaboration, affectionately known as “The Long One” within the Fabs’ inner circle – it’s always seemed to take second fiddle to the band’s more iconic, edgier works.
“It's always been Pepper and then Revolver as the quintessential Beatle albums, because there were so many innovations on those albums, I think,” says Walter Everett, the author of What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music and Their Time, as well as several books examining the musicianship of the band.
“But I think with Abbey Road, it's the apex of their songwriting. Even in the short little snippets, in the medley on Side Two, they work together as a part of a larger whole. And there's this strong craft of construction throughout, on songs like “Here Comes the Sun,” “Something” and even in the simplicity of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy).’ Their mastery of musical composition surpasses in new ways what they were able to achieve earlier on. So it's easy to get all of Abbey Road. And that pop orientation, I think, is what gives it its broad audience, but relegates it behind some of their other albums in some ways.”
Watch the Beatles' 'Here Comes the Sun' Video
It also represents the culmination of everything the Beatles had learned about making great, era-defining records up to that point.
“For me, there's a certain drama to this album that doesn't exist in the same way on their other records, except in bits and pieces, on songs like 'A Day in the Life,'” says George Martin’s biographer Kenneth Womack, who recently published a book about Abbey Road. “Abbey Road has dramatic highs and lows throughout. The subtle, slinky opening of 'Come Together,' the sensitivity of 'Something' and then ending Side One with a spectacular bang with 'I Want You (She's So Heavy),' is an amazing, dramatic musical journey. And then, on Side Two -- because that’s how we were listening originally -- I still feel the hairs on the back of my neck rising up as the tension is created in 'Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight,' and then, right on through in 'The End,' where finally that simple piano phrase rises out of the fuselage of guitars. It’s just peak Beatles.”
Those songs, unlike many of their Let It Be counterparts, Giles Martin says, were finely crafted and honed to perfection by four men who knew exactly how to make great art.
“Abbey Road is an extraordinarily economical album, as far as all the parts being in their perfect place,” says Martin. “When you watch John Lennon playing his guitar part on 'Get Back,' on the rooftop, you can see that it’s a definitive part he wants to play, and he plays it the same way every time. The Beatles liked doing that. As we all know from playing Beatles songs, if you don’t play the part, it doesn’t sound like the song. And Abbey Road is chock full of those very considered parts. So with Abbey Road, I think they had more time and less material. Therefore, there was an emphasis on how the songs were played and arranged, and how they were going to be recorded.”
In the aftermath of the aborted Get Back sessions, there were rumors the Beatles were ready to call it quits. Meanwhile, just like when they were holed up for months making Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the press surmised they were washed up, the band was actually hard at work.
“I went to EMI Studios, to the famous Studio Two, and there’s Ringo’s drums in the corner, and George’s gear, and there’s John and Paul,” recalls John Kosh, the man who designed Abbey Road’s iconic cover from Iain Macmillan’s remarkable, stark photos. “Paul was on drums, and John was playing rhythm guitar. I was trying to show them my mock-up for the cover of the single 'The Ballad of John and Yoko,' which is what they were actually recording that day. And all of a sudden, Paul was playing bass and John was playing lead. They were having a great time. It was like being back at the Cavern or something for them. These guys were not supposed to be speaking to each other. The press had decided that this was the end. But they were having great fun. Having worked for Apple for a while, I thought I should probably start looking for other work. But it suddenly didn’t feel such a pressing problem anymore.”
It’s a highlight of the 23 outtakes from the sessions included on the Giles Martin-curated box set to hear Lennon and McCartney finding their way through Lennon’s latest story-song. It also turns the long held belief that the Beatles knew the end was near.
“To be honest, there’s no indication that they were thinking Abbey Road was their last album on the session tapes,” insists Martin. “For that, I’m just going on what my dad said. I’ve seen the pieces about Mark Lewisohn’s tape, of course. My hypothesis is that maybe they’d intended Abbey Road to be their last album, but it was a good experience, versus the bad one they’d had on Let It Be. So they decided to have a meeting about doing another album. But I think there’s no doubt that they all had a sense that it was coming to an end. Individually, aside from Paul, each one had left, previously. So I think the likelihood is that they felt that if it wasn’t going to be the last time, it was pretty damn close to it.”
Listen to the 2019 Mix of the Beatles' 'Oh! Darling'
It’s obvious, too, from the nuances you hear in Martin’s new remix of the album itself, as well as the sessions tapes, that the Beatles were enjoying being Beatles again.
“It's respecting each other’s art as musicians, and that they could depend on each other to improve each other’s songs,” Martin says. “I think it’s simple as that.”
Another of the long-held beliefs about Abbey Road has been that it was largely an album made by McCartney, Harrison and Starr. With Lennon waylaid by a car crash while on holiday in Scotland, and Yoko Ono’s miscarriage that spring, he certainly missed his share of sessions. And while the theory is borne out in the photographic evidence presented in the book included in the box set, one of the revelations in the audio is how essential Lennon is to the proceedings.
“We certainly do hear a present John Lennon,” says Womack. “He's clearly involved and wanting to get it right and excited about what they’re doing.”
“There were things that I knew but had forgotten,” says Martin of his experience working on the original session tapes. “I’d forgotten that the medley was recorded as a medley, because the legend is that the medley was something pasted together, and not something that was prepared. But 'Mean Mr. Mustard' and 'Sun King' are the same recording – the same session – so I think that’s the revelation of Abbey Road, actually, is how much like Sgt. Pepper it was, in that it is a record that’s being thought about. It’s a record that had that blueprint. And there’s John Lennon, leading the band through so many of the songs.”
“I think the song ‘Because’ is among the most beautiful creations Lennon ever made,” contends Everett, adding further evidence to debunk the myth that Lennon wasn’t fully engaged in the sessions. “And if you can't feel Lennon's soul in 'I Want You (She's So Heavy),' you're just never going to get the Beatles. But it’s his guitar playing, throughout the album, that’s just fantastic.”
“There’s been a lot written about the Beatles from what was said by the Beatles after they broke up,” adds Martin. “I was doing an interview and the person kept on asking about ‘The End’ medley section, and how much John ‘hated’ it. I said, ‘You do know that John Lennon was hardly a shrinking violet? He did play on ‘The End.’ And he did write songs for the medley. I’m sure he loved it at the time. I’d find it hard to believe he didn’t. It wouldn’t really be like him to just remain quiet in the room and not say anything.”
While Starr’s drumming – recorded to 8-track tape for the first time – has always been a stand-out part of Abbey Road, it now sounds better than ever.
“Ringo sounds great on this record,” Womack says. “He always did, of course. But we know that for the millennials and the post-millennials, you’ve got to beef up the drums and bass. Regardless, it's great to hear Ringo coming to the fore in some songs where maybe his fills were hidden behind other instrumentation. Like on 'Something,' for example, I really feel the crispness of his transitional fills from various parts of that song.”
Harrison’s gorgeous, economical guitar playing, almost taken for granted up until now, takes on a new life here too.
“Harrison's guitar-playing rocks out when it needs to, but mostly it’s just the perfect parts for these songs,” says Everett. “And his guitar playing is more interesting, I think, than on many of the other Beatles albums. Meanwhile, his two songs, 'Something' and 'Here Comes the Sun,' are both much more pop-oriented than anything he'd done before, because his songs had always been more typically Indian-influenced or blues-oriented.”
Harrison, often portrayed as disgruntled at being treated as a junior partner to the juggernaut of the Lennon/McCartney team, left the songs he’d been stockpiling at home – “All Things Must Pass,” which had been abandoned during the Get Back sessions and led to Harrison briefly quitting the band, among them – in favor of those two instant classics, which regularly top the streaming charts over songs like “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday.”
Ultimately, the Beatles’ Abbey Road is the band’s most-loved work precisely because it’s the most finely crafted work they ever released. It’s a pop-music masterpiece, but it also set the template for just about every large-scale rock album to come in its wake. If it was to be their collective swan song, they seem to be saying, they were going to leave nothing to chance.
Listen to the Studio Demo of the Beatles' 'Something'
“I was in Derek Taylor’s office at Apple, working away,” John Kosh recalls of his days serving with the Beatles’ publicity man. “The door opened and John Lennon walked in. He had an acetate, which had been cut in the basement, at Apple Records, of Abbey Road, and he put it on the turntable. The turntable was state-of-the-art, and the speakers were like giant refrigerators, and when it came to 'I Want You,' I really felt like I should fall on my knees. I felt that this was the Beatles’ best record ever. People say Sgt. Pepper, or Revolver, or Rubber Soul. But when I heard it that day, I realized it was something really, really special.”
“It was the fruition of everything George Martin was doing with that band from the beginning,” says Womack, the producer’s biographer. “He should get credit for the way he blew up their demography. This teenybopper band from 1964 had ended up in a very different, remarkable place, with fans from two-year-olds to 92-year-olds. I dare anyone to find a bigger demographic explosion in the history of popular art forms. And Abbey Road is the culmination and confirmation of that. You have McCartney and then Martin and the whole entire band making sure that those demographics are all consolidated in their own ways. It's all there, and there's George Martin, putting the finishing touches on so much of that material with his orchestrations, elevating it further still.”
“For me, every time I listen or think about a Beatles track, I'm learning something,” adds Everett. “With Abbey Road, I think, it is the concept of the four Beatles as composers that really I find most interesting. Of course, the interpersonal thing is right at the core, because we know the difficulties the Beatles were having earlier in 1969. But the idea of that they were miserable in the studio throughout the making of Abbey Road never made sense to me, because their playing together as a band is as crisp on Abbey Road as it ever was before that. Just listen, and think about how the four of them are working work together.”
“There’s no doubt that, whenever I play Paul a mix, the thing that he’ll always remark about is how good of a band they were,” Martin concludes. “You see him trying to work out why they were such a good band. And, of course, the real answer is because it’s John, Paul, George and Ringo. That's the answer.
"We all wonder what would happen after the Beatles? Well, we know what happens after the Beatles. They pretty much have the same songs, because they already had those songs they released as solo artists, because they were writing them while they were still together. It’s just they didn’t have each other playing on them. And I think, when they were in the studio together, they always knew that at some moment, there would be a point when someone -- whether it was Ringo on the drums, or George on the guitar, or John on Paul’s songs, or Paul on John’s songs -- would suddenly transform that song into a Beatles song.”