Abbey Road: Anniversary Super Deluxe
It’s the 50th Anniversary of the last album The Beatles recorded together – and its available in a spangling new package with a book and outtakes and straight away you might wonder if you need to purchase it again and the answer is, ultimately that you will look deep inside yourself and if you’re a huge Beatles nerd (and possibly with a secret record-buying bank account that your partner doesn’t ‘really’ know about) you will find a way. And both you and the Super Deluxe Edition will be very happy together.
But you could just take the old version of the album out for a spin and feel happy enough – I did that recently too and got happy enough to write a bloody poem about it! But of course the new set (a range of options: 2CD, 3LP, boxset with blu-ray and hard-cover photo book) is too interesting to pass up. It’s dangling there like a delicious fruit – and Giles Martin’s recent updates/remixes of Beatles albums have been respectful and interesting. So why not. It is your favourite Beatles album after all. Or should be…
Abbey Road was always the best sounding Beatles album – by virtue of it being the first recorded on 8-track and mixed in stereo. It was 1969 and the times they were a changin’. Ringo even had a new drum-kit, so went tom-tom crazy and the songs were all the better for it.
It’s a strange album in a way, and like many things connected to The Beatles it’s hard to articulate the magic and better just to listen – on paper this is a mess. Side one featuring a song from each Beatle (two from Paul and John) and no thematic structure whatsoever. Weird bluesy-dirges, a kids song about a psychopathic murder, another kid song about a frigging octopus and Harrison stepping up to write his first A-side and a song that puts Paul and John to shame as wee Georgie-Boy shows them, I’ll write you a fucking Beatles song eh!
Side two though. Something absolutely magical happens. And it is the result of four musicians that were struggling to communicate with each other, and with John Lennon all but disappearing – you can nearly hear him nodding off and slipping away on the last third of this record – and a bunch of leftovers and snippets cleverly stitched together to be greater than the sum of the parts. And isn’t that just The Beatles though: So often so much greater than merely the sum of their parts. But what parts: George goes country-gat crazy with his guitar licks here, John hits down So Heavy on whatever strings or keys get in his way, Paul is determined to make every little leftover count, to sprinkle his own pixie dust on everything. And Ringo, with his new skins, plays out of his.
Giles, son of Sir George Martin, didn’t want to radically alter Abbey Road and knew it to be the cleanest and best-sounding of the albums in the can, so his new mix merely applies a polish. There’s space to hear the separate guitars (The End), there’s room for Billy Preston’s Organ (I Want You) and for the best rock’n’roll vocals from John (Come Together) and Paul (Oh! Darling). There’s even more Ringo (every song!) and the side two medley really comes alive.
None of this is utterly necessary to your world unless you want it to be. I’ve been back to my ropey-af 1987 CD (or whenever it was made) and I still find the best thing on there: The Songs. But then back to the new version, there’s a clarity to the closing dirge and windswept weirdness of She’s So Heavy now (side one’s closer), and a further brightness to the bird-chirping contrast of Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun (the side two opener) and the triple-stacked vocal harmonies of Because seem utterly transcendent, transportive.
Newly found taped-recordings of old conversations are telling us The Beatles were happier than we think, or at least weren’t contemplating this as the actual end, or were even grumpier about Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (which, to my ears, has never been as bad as people seem to think and is certainly the best of the “Bad Beatles Songs”) – and all of this newly found nonsense and the stories we’ve swept up over years of obsession feeds into the music and into new listens. And that’s something the outsiders will never understand and therefore deem a waste of time. But to us lifers this is the juice. The good oil that cranks the gears and has us feeling like we’re listening to something brand new after 50 years. We all have a different idea of where The Beatles were at when they made this, the final album recorded in the band’s lifetime. We’re all wrong. We’re all right!
Abbey Road is The Beatles ditching anything psychedelic and returning to being influenced by things other than just themselves. They’d had the keys to the kingdom, had been the kids in the candy-store and had grown bored of that. So Sun King hitches a ride on the mighty-wide wingspan of Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross. John was barely writing but when he was it was about Yoko and heroin all at once and often with old Chuck Berry songs in his head. Paul was doing his best to impress his teenage heroes like Ray Charles and Little Richard.
Paul also – starting with You Never Give Me Your Money and ending with, well, The End – eulogises The Beatles live in the studio by grabbing up some of John’s lazy leftovers and assembling some of his own best snippets and telling an abstract tale of the “sweet dream” of The Beatles and of the very near future where they’ll be stepping on the gas and wiping the tear away as they, er, come together to drift apart – all in about 16 whirlwind minutes that still (and always) feels like a magical merry-go-round of song.
A second disc or extra LP of leftovers and outtakes here features a few charming snippets of studio banter and some songs that didn’t make it onto Abbey Road, but have been heard on the Anthologies (Come And Get It), as singles (Ballad of John and Yoko, Old Brown Shoe) or further down the road and by other artists.
But we are not bombarded with 42 versions of Maxwell, for instance. We just hear what we probably want to hear as eavesdropping, eve-over-the-fence nosy neighbours. We have loved this album for 20 or 30 or 50 years and to hear the wee demo of Paul country-crooning Goodbye (recorded by Mary Hopkin) is sweet. Or the bit where John and Paul are the only ones in the studio to make Ballad of John and Yoko and Lennon calls out to Macca “you can go a bit faster Ringo” since Paul is on the drums and he replies “Okay George!” and there’s a sweet little chuckle from them both and we probably think, oh, these two still like making music together. They were teenagers coping with the early death of loved ones by not coping, rather by bonding. And here, in the band’s last and darker moments there’s some light.
And that light is best-reflected to me, always, in that closing medley. The joy that’s hard to articulate – four musicians all working together while wanting to wander off in different directions. It was the end of the line. John wanted Yoko and hated being a Beatle. George wanted to record his spiritual songs. Paul loved being a Beatle a bit too much; his control-freak streak could no longer be concealed. And they were gonna put Ringo in the movies! But on You Never Give Me Your Money and She Came In Through The Bathroom Window and Carry That Weight and – finally – finally – The End they play dutifully and beautifully and the sound is something that is big enough to carry the weight of their world at the time. And on now for 50 years.
So you do owe it to yourself to indulge in the new mix if you’ve read this far or if you are the person that goes to the pub quiz waiting for a Beatles question – any! – or if you have a younger friend or family member that you want to introduce to this beguiling, beautiful-mess of a record.
Because, in the end, the love you have for this album is only ever equal to the time you take listening to it, rediscovering it, keeping it alive.
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