A 50th-anniversary deluxe edition of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” provides occasion to circle back through our pop-culture past and ask some deep philosophical questions. For example: Is it possible for an album that has “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on it to be the greatest of all time?
John Lennon, were he here today, might say no. His antipathy for Paul McCartney’s song was known even before news reports this month about a newly surfaced tape of one of the Beatles’ final meetings, in which Lennon rats out George Harrison and Ringo Starr and informs McCartney no one else in the band liked the song either. (McCartney resisted the temptation to fire back that “Polythene Pam” wasn’t exactly Proust.) The ever-candid Lennon later went on record saying “Abbey Road” was mostly “competent,” but the “pop opera” closing out the album was “junk.” Criticism came in from outside the band too. The box set’s book recalls how Rolling Stone said “Side Two is a disaster” and the record toed “a rather tenuous line between boredom, Beatledom and bubblegum.” The New York Times’ Nik Cohn called the Side 2 medley “a triumph,” but then wrote that “the rest of this album is unmitigated disaster.” Harrison, for his part, bravely declared the album “pretty good.”
It only took a few weeks for the tide to turn, at least in the critical mindset, if not Lennon’s brain. Today, any person-on-the-street survey about the apotheosis of this art form would surely find “What’s an album?” and “Abbey Road” running neck-and-neck as the top answer. Even the cognoscenti who argue for “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver” or the White Album would be hard-pressed to put on this collection’s new Giles Martin-Sam Okell mix — or the old one, since it’s not such a radical upgrade — and not be lulled back into believing that when it comes to “Abbey Road,” Western civilization has kinda had it right for the last 50 years.
Oh, and while we have the pompoms out: Team “Maxwell,” all the way. (Sorry, John.)
Why is our attachment so undying — apart from the album being very, very good? Maybe because “Abbey Road” reassures us that all things must pass … in a blaze of glory. Contrary to the belief that the group knew it’d be its final album, it’s been proved that, in the moment, the band had every intention of following it up. That it didn’t — going right from scaling a great summit to Eh, I still hate your lawyer — feels a little tragic but also appeals to our sense of chutzpah, with the Beatles staring down mortality like we’d all want to: by sticking the landing, gloriously. To pick a different metaphor: It’s pop music’s greatest mic drop.
The bonus material is not as copious in this super deluxe edition as it was in the White Album collection that came out a year ago, which is testament to how focused the Fabs were, heading in for their swan song. It may be that McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison exercised more quality control over what to allow out of the vault this time. What it probably speaks to most is how prepared the Beatles were after assuring producer George Martin that, as a condition for his returning to the fold after the shambolic “Let It Be” sessions, he could do some whip-cracking. Plus, they’d also demoed or quickly run through a majority of these songs while making “Let It Be,” which was recorded first but released later. It seems likely that when that 50th-anniversary box comes out in 2020, it’ll have a lot of the truly raggedy rough sketches of “Abbey Road” songs that are missing here.
Anyway, there are alternative versions enough, and as always, it’s fun to hear how a group that seemed to be charmed and incapable of getting anything wrong came so close on so many occasions. Take Harrison’s demo of “Something,” and thank Krishna he cut these buzz-killingly bad rhymes: “You know I love that woman of mine / And I need her all of the time / And you know what I’m telling to you / That woman don’t make me blue.” An early assemblage of the Side 2 medley inserts “Her Majesty” right between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” an intriguing idea that stops the whole momentum as dead as you’d imagine. An earlier “Oh Darling!” take finds McCartney’s voice sweetly intact, but without his having shredded it yet into a late-’60s rasp, it’s just a clever late-’50s pop pastiche, not a classic. Good job, Beatles!
The alt bonus that’ll attract the most attention is a version of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” that, rather than being overladen with crescendoing white noise and a “Sopranos”-style cut to black, ends with three and a half minutes of Billy Preston going nuts on the organ jam. It’s a thoroughly fun listen, but it turns a Beatles masterwork into, like, a really solid Iron Butterfly track. Equally a draw, on the less heavy side, is the inclusion of Martin’s isolated orchestral arrangement for “Something,” which stands on its magisterial own just fine. As revered as Giles’ dad was, we may yet have underrated him.
A handful of non-album tracks show up in exploratory form: Paul’s solo demos of “Come and Get It” (a major hit for Badfinger only after he basically insisted that they not change a note, as the accompanying book amusingly recounts) and “Goodbye” (a lesser ditty for Mary Hopkin); George’s “Old Brown Shoe,” which soon found its rightful place as a B-side, then later got bumped up to the A-list by its inclusion on the “blue” best-of; John and Paul knocking out a preliminary sketch of “The Ballad of John and Yoko” without George or Ringo around … and then making a joke out of calling each other George and Ringo. A bit more of that banter — not a lot, but a bit — makes its way into the bonus discs, and the loose talk occasionally confirms something you might have long suspected. Like, when the opening acoustic guitar chords of “Polythene Pam” are strummed, and you’re thinking it sounds a bit Who-like, Lennon actually makes a “Tommy” joke, belatedly letting us know we didn’t imagine it. The bulk of the songs from the original album are represented among the bonus material by one alternate version and one alone; among the exceptions is “Her Majesty,” which gets three complete run-throughs from McCartney, extending the running time by not much more than a couple of minutes.
The remixed album itself holds hundreds of small and large musical pleasures — to name a couple, Harrison playing electric country licks on a bunch of very non-country songs, or the magical thud of Ringo’s fresh calfskin tom-toms, the sound of which some digital wunderkind should have spent millions trying to invent if it hadn’t been put down on miraculous analog five decades ago. Unlike the compromised multitracking of “Sgt. Pepper’s” just two years earlier, by 1969 there’d been so many sonic upgrades that Giles Martin would be the first to tell you “Abbey Road” is a lily that doesn’t need much gilding. So for anyone on the fence, maybe the best advice is to buy this edition for the deliriously detailed historical book, if nothing else — then decide whether to warm up to the new spatial separation on John, Paul and George’s turn-taking guitar solos on “The End,” among other modest tweaks.
And in the end, the love you feel for “Abbey Road” may be equal to how you feel about McCartney. (Lennon may have been a little justified in his pique; he all but vanishes for the last third of the album.) McCartney has his silly moments — as does the guy who sang “toe-jam football,” for that matter — but part of what endures is Paul’s seesaw bittersweetness in that closing assemblage. Wailing “nowhere to go” and “wipe that tear away,” he’s thinking of his newlywed love for Linda and their drives into the country, far away from Allen Klein and “funny papers,” and there’s a wistful sorrow to the chords that seems to prophesy, mourn and welcome what’s about to be lost or gained. Even if it was just intuitive, “Abbey Road” embeds the Beatles’ own eulogy in those last grooves. But it also sends you out humming Ringo’s drum solo.
“Abbey Road: Anniversary Edition”
Original album producer: George Martin. 2019 mix producer: Giles Martin. 2019 mix engineer: Sam Okell. Project producers: Jonathan Clyde, Guy Hayden