Here comes the scion. Giles Martin, the son of original Beatles producer George Martin, has again worked his audiophiliac and curatorial magic on “Abbey Road: Anniversary Edition,” his third 50th anniversary Beatles project in a row, following “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band” two years ago and the White Album in 2018.
If anything, “Abbey Road” is more popularly beloved in its original form than the two previous projects he tackled, so he clearly didn’t take it lightly, although he and co-remixer Sam Okell tried to leave a light tread in putting a fresh audio spin on an album whose sonics haven’t been the source of too many complaints since 1969. The vault material on the bonus discs is also a bit less exhaustive, or arguably exhausting, this time around. No one’s going to call it a minimalist set when the deluxe edition also includes the first official Dolby Atmos remix of a Beatles album, of course. But it’s a very approachable box for what may stand as the Beatles’ most approachable album, not just for elders but the young people Martin continually hopes will discover the Fabs anew.
Variety spoke with Martin a few days before the anniversary package’s release. Happy “50 IF,” everyone.
Do you have a strong sense of what makes this so many people’s favorite album, not just among all Beatles albums, but of all time?
Oh God, yeah. It’s a Beatles record that defines them to a certain degree, because it’s their last album, so it’s that kind of “what would have happened next?”-type record, but also a record that’s been beautifully made. And I suppose that it’s a great feeder into the world of the Beatles, “Abbey Road.” To me it’s almost a perfect epitaph to their career where it has so many elements that transgress what they did. I think if you don’t like “Abbey Road,” you probably won’t like the Beatles.
There’s this myth that the Beatles knew this was the end — and of course it actually has the song “The End,” and people think they were consciously writing their own epitaph. But then we know they had a meeting afterward and were talking about making another album.
My dad always said he thought it would be their last record. Now there’s this tape that’s surfaced that Mark Lewisohn was talking about recently in the press [where John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison discuss what to do for a follow-up]. I wonder… It was certainly gonna be one of their last records. I wonder when they were making it, if they were thinking, “I wonder if this will be the last time we do this.” I’m sure they were, regardless of what’s been written or been read about since on the tape that came out. But with “The End” being the end and “The End” being the last thing the four of them recorded, and also the beauty of them all sort of having a solo during that — with Ringo’s drum solo and then John, Paul and George playing the guitars — there’s a beauty and poetry and symmetry about it. That it’s one of their greatest albums, and to many people their greatest, is very unusual for a band that does a last album.
The Abbey Road studios were equipped to record the Beatles the way they needed to be recorded by 1969 standards, and so there a long way had been come, as you’ve said, just from “Sgt. Pepper” two years before, in terms of not having any compromises in the number of tracks that could co-exist on tape without folding them over, and not having to reconcile the merits of separate mono and stereo mixes. So going into an “Abbey Road” remix, were you thinking, “Well, there’s not much to improve on here,” or is it just as fun when there are subtler things to do?
Yeah, it’s more subtle, I suppose, would be the answer. As you rightly say, the technology had changed, so “Abbey Road” to a certain extent is a much more modern-sounding Beatles record than the others. Simple things like the desk could change in the studio, so they could plug in more microphones to record the drum kit, to give a really rough example, and so that gives you a more modern recording. In a way, “Abbey Road” sounds a bit more like a ‘70s record, say, than it does a ‘60s record. It’s a bit more hi-fi. And so therefore when you go to remix them, not only are you competing with the great engineering talents of somebody like Geoff Emerick and Glyn Johns and my dad, but also there’s less of myself and Sam Okell sitting in the studio and going, “Oh, we can just use technology on this one.” To give you an example, we remixed “Come Together” I don’t know how many times before we felt like we were getting there with it, just because every time we did something, it didn’t sound as good as the original.
“Come Together” does sound astonishing, and part of that is how unusual and perfect Ringo’s drums sound, once you start thinking about them on this track. There are quotes in the companion book about how happy he was with the new calfskin drumheads on his tom-toms at the time. How do you go about improving a drum part? Is it panning, as some people have pointed out?
You know, it is a bit of panning to a certain degree. I mean, I had an idea way back when we did “Sgt. Pepper” that we could chop each individual sound and then use that in panning. So we did this with “Come Together,” where the drums actually pan slightly, because we took each drum hit and just panned it slightly across the sound field. Now, modern-day recordings, they have all drums in the center, because they sound stronger. And actually we did that with “Come Together,” and then we realized it that it didn’t sound as good. The drums need to be slightly to one side — they need to be slightly off-kilter, if you like — in order to make it sound cool.
Because the thing about the Beatles is, they’re playing this live. I mean, it’s bass, drums and guitar live, and John singing live into a microphone. And if you lose that sense of them being in a studio together, it falls apart — even on psychedelic Beatle tracks, I find. The beauty of them is the noise they make within themselves. And the more studio gizmos we put on top of that, the less it’s Beatles. The hardest thing to achieve is obviously natural talent, which they had. So the attention always when we approach these remix projects is to actually peel back the layers, you know, not to add too much technology.
I love the idea that records don’t get old. We get old around records. And when Paul McCartney or John Lennon are performing, they’re in their late 20s, and they will always be that age. And nowadays with the global jukebox we have to deal with these days, people listen to Ed Sheeran next to the Beatles next to Duran Duran next to whoever it is, and there’s no reason why the Beatles shouldn’t sound (as aurally impressive as) Ed Sheeran, who is the same age as the Beatles were when they did “Abbey Road.”
With “The End,” that’s a celebrated moment with the three different guitar solos. Did you want to do something there to sort of bring out the distinctiveness of the guitar solos, how they were spaced or placed?
Yeah, because the three boys went in and recorded the guitar solos live — they’re all playing that live onto the same piece of tape — and so now we can just select each one and put them in a different space. It’s nice to know now you can hear, because they’re in different positions, Paul, John and George playing. Or Paul, George and John, I think, is the order; I’ll probably get it wrong as usual. But one’s in the center, one’s left, one’s right. Again, that’s just because that’s probably how it was (on the studio floor). Going back to the non-gimmicky side of stuff, you get the sense that that’s what they’d have done if they’d been able to. It’s a terrible presumption to make, you know, obviously, what the Beatles would have done. But I did have the great fortune of working with my dad for so long that I kind of knew the way he thought about stuff.
Speaking of your dad, one of the great highlights on this is the pure orchestration track of “Something.” There’s also an orchestra-only track of “Golden Slumbers”/”Carry That Weight,” but in that case, there are parts that drop out to just let the band play. “Something,” though, really stands as a piece of great symphonic music that you can listen to on its own.
I’m really happy you’re saying that. Because in putting this thing together, you kind of don’t want to be … People think I’m biased towards my dad in this stuff. But I agree with you. I think it’s a really beautiful piece of music. I’ve always thought “Something” was the most beautiful song; I didn’t realize how much beauty was in it. And I think that hearing something like that string arrangement on its own reveals the intricacy that goes into this. I can’t think of many records now where you would be able to just solo an instrument or a track and go “Oh, yeah that sustains itself.”
Among the outtakes, an obvious standout is “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” with the three and a half minute organ solo by Billy Preston. It’s fascinating to think of that as a road not taken, like people probably would have loved if it had been on the album, but it’s also very 1969 — more of its time then what they ended up with.
Yeah, and I suppose it’s typical of the Beatles, and typical of John Lennon, that you have this phenomenal keyboard playing, and what do you replace it with? You replace it with white noise, the most discordant, all-frequency sound there is. But the white noise becomes iconic. It being the Beatles, I suppose their thought process would have been, “Well, everyone’s heard a great keyboard solo, but how many people have heard this?” It’s very typical Beatles that they would do that. What I also love about the outtake of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is John’s reaction to the complaints from outside that they’re making too much noise. I love the fact that here we are with what I guess was known as the angriest Beatle, and he’s like, “Oh, okay, we’ll turn down, then.” That’s what his attitude is, not like: “We’re the Beatles! We can play as loud as we want!” I think he’s really charming in that, and I think it just shows what a good place they’re in.
The book tantalizingly mentions another, faster version of “I Want You” that they did, maybe as a lark, while the engineers were doing a test, and it’s not included in here. It seems like maybe there was some quality control exercised, because there are fewer outtakes on this particular set, and there are probably several different reasons for that…
It’s a really good question, or good point. In all honesty, there’s no discussion (to pre-determine) how many tracks we’ll have. The record label often wants to know how many tracks we would have because they’ve got to start working out how many CDs in the package. But the way we made those decisions is purely down to what’s good. It’s down to the Beatles as well. And so we will listen to everything. And I think the key thing we think about is that we do this so the music can be enjoyed. We don’t try and do this so it can be added to a collection.
And we think carefully about it. Because for instance, George thought doing the “Anthology” (collections of outtakes in the 1990s) was scraping the bottom of the barrel. And he was a Beatle, and I think he’s got a point. I think we have to make sure that the quality is there. And I think with the White Album we had an abundance of riches, where, possibly because of the way “Abbey Road” was recorded, with fewer takes, more rehearsal time, no acoustic demos, etc., we had less material to use. It wasn’t “for this album, we’ll put on less extras.” If we are doing “Abbey Road,” we’re going to do “Abbey Road” as best as we can and not hold anything back from it. That would be no good at all. We’re not saving anything for the 60th anniversary!
In the book it says a majority of songs on “Abbey Road” were actually recorded in some form at some point during the “Let It Be” sessions. So it seems safe to guess that when the “Let It Be” box comes out, that will have some of the roughest versions or snippets of “Abbey Road” songs.
In all honesty, I have actually started working on the “Let It Be” film, which is this Peter Jackson project, but I haven’t been asked to do any record stuff yet. So I don’t honestly know the answer to that.
Again, if there’s material that’s good and it’s worth listening to, then we always try and get the fans to be able to hear it. But you’re talking to the son of someone who strongly believed that singles shouldn’t be on an album because you’re making the fans buy the music too many times! So there’s that spiritual level of, if people are going to part with their hard-earned cash, let’s make sure it’s all good enough.