“Last chance to be loud…” – John Lennon, studio chatter, Abbey Road -50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
My younger brother was the first one to be bitten by the addictive attraction of rock and roll. He had a stereo and actual albums long before I did. I’d walk up the stairs in my parent’s home and have to pass by his door before turning left into my room. We shared an adjoining wall and I heard an almost constant stream of music coming through. Back in the really early days, it was mostly the Beatles that he was playing. Later I’d hear some solo George Harrison, but it seems his first love was the Fab Four. Although he also went through a Doors phase… but I’m getting off point.
When I started getting into music, I was a Stones guy. Back then most people were either Stones fans or Beatles fans… it was like the rival gangs from West Side Story (indeed, “what are we going to do about a problem called Maria?”). But despite my loyalty to the Stones, I famously went into my brother’s room with a single cassette because I was going to make a tape of all the Beatles’ “good songs.” Like those would fit on one ninety-minute cassette… the ignorance of youth. I sat in front of my brother’s stereo – it was one of those “all-in-one” units with a tape deck/turntable/radio built into one unit – trying to figure out when to hit pause on the tape deck to skip a song I didn’t like. I pretty quickly realized that uh, all their songs are great. Well, except “Revolution 9.” I remember thinking, this is going to take a few more cassettes…
Even so, it wasn’t until I was in college, heading down to Aggieville to the lone record store in Manhattan, Kansas to buy music that I started buying Beatles LPs. I bought almost every album they had out. Sadly those were mostly the U.S. versions which I feel pale in comparison to the UK versions. When I heard they were releasing an Abbey Road – 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition I went to my vinyl to look at my Beatles collection. As I suspected, I had never purchased Abbey Road. I have it on CD from a Beatles’ box set I own, but I never purchased it on vinyl. It came down to one thing for me – the side two medley. It seems that like John Lennon, I was not fond of the side two mess, er medley. Ten songs, mashed into one. Well, and if I’m being totally honest, I never liked “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and I thought “Octupus’s Garden” was a novelty song for children.
I do remember listening to the record in my brother’s room. I’d stare at the iconic album cover photo of the four Beatles in the crosswalk outside the Abbey Road studios. My brother explained how the album cover featured in the “Paul is dead” rumors. Around the time of Sgt Pepper, some strange cult of people started interpreting things in their songs and album covers that were a secret code indicating that Paul had died and had been replaced by a look-alike. There must have been a lot of bad acid going around in those days. The Abbey Road cover played into those rumors: John, dressed in white, was Jesus; Ringo, dressed in a long black coat was the undertaker (or maybe a Reverend of some kind); Paul was the deceased because he has no shoes on; George, dressed in all denim was the grave digger. That’s a pretty long way to stretch for a theory.
I put Abbey Road on and listened with my headphones recently. I must admit, it holds up better than I remembered. The two George Harrison tracks are flawless. He really came into his own on this album. “Here Comes the Sun” and the exceptional “Something” are his best songs, even though Sinatra, who covered “Something” said it was the most beautiful song ever written by Lennon/McCartney. Poor Frank. I love Lennon’s “Come Together,” which has also been beautifully covered by Aerosmith for a bad movie soundtrack. McCartney’s “Oh, Darling” is a really great track as well. I recently read that Lennon thought he should have sung that song and damn, I think he’s right. It would have fit John better. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” at leasts builds up some heat. I can even accept “Octupus’s Garden” because, well, it’s Ringo. Everybody loves Ringo (“Peace and Love,” baby). I’ll even admit the medley does sound cool with headphones on. George Martin’s production really shines on this album. I think actually playing the songs live, as a group in the studio and then overdubbing helped the process. They’d been recording one instrument at time on multi track prior to that.
All that aside, the medley still bothers me. McCartney has continued to do some version of this medley, thematic tunes stitched together, ever since… from Red Rose Speedway to Egypt Station. And then there’s the boat anchor on this album for me, namely, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” The other members in the band described it as “granny music.” Tension was running high in the band and had been since the recording of The Beatles album. Lennon, who wins the “pussy-whipped” hall of fame MVP, was constantly bringing Yoko into the studio, which was like a clubhouse prior to that (“No Girls Allowed”). It threw the chemistry off. Lennon was using heroin and his moods were, to be generous, mercurial. Harrison felt stifled and under-appreciated. I think everyone but McCartney had quit the band at one time. Lennon was in a car wreck and when he got back the first track McCartney asked him to play on was “Maxwell.” Lennon turned around and went home for two weeks. He was quoted as saying that McCartney ground Harrison and Ringo down recording that song, insisting on take after take after take. There had been some modicum of a return to camaraderie during the recording of the single, “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and McCartney blew it away to record an old-timey song about a serial killer. Bad acid indeed.
Now, in keeping with 50th anniversary editions of Sgt. Pepper and The Beatles we have an expanded Super Deluxe version of Abbey Road with two discs of outtakes and additional material. I had largely ignored the Sgt. Pepper 50th until I went to a Classic Album Sundays session and heard the new stereo mix by Giles Martin, George’s son, and fell in love with it. Prior to that the mono version was the definitive. I bought that on vinyl. I bought the 50th edition of The Beatles for much the same reason – a definitive stereo version. However, The Beatles also had a treasure trove of additional material including the mostly acoustic, famous Esher demos (‘The Beatles (The White Album) – Super Deluxe’ – “So I Guess I’ll Have to Buy ‘The White Album’ Again”).
I have to admit, I don’t hear a lot in Giles’ stereo mix that outdoes his father’s original stereo mix of the album. Some of Ringo’s drums sound better but that’s about the only thing I can distinguish. If you’re into Abbey Road there are some choice tracks in the bonus material. McCartney’s demos for songs he gave away, “Goodbye” and “Come And Get It” are nice finds (although “Come And Get It” was on the Anthology albums). I love Billy Preston’s monster organ playing on the “I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – Trident Recording Session” version. Early takes on “Old Brown Shoe” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko” are interesting for completists. “Here Come the Sun (Take 9)” makes Ringo really shine. I think the gold for most collectors is the original running order of the medley, here known as “The Long One” where they reinsert “Her Majesty” back in between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam.” I don’t know why they cut it out and left it as a coda. It makes more sense in the middle. Purest are really geeking out about this version.
Other than that, early versions of the tracks that ended up in the medley do very little for me. Ditto for “Octupus’s Garden (Take 9).” They include two orchestral backing tracks to showcase George Martin’s brilliant composing abilities. And I get it, I love George Martin as a producer, but two tracks? Seemed like overkill.
This album has largely been seen as a “farewell” from the Beatles. Everyone seemed to think they knew this was the end. However, there is a recording of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison in the studio, sitting around shooting the shit. Lennon suggests they do another album with the songwriting equally divided, four tracks each by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. They’d let Ringo have 2 tracks too. Very egalitarian…Lennon had really come around on Harrison’s songwriting and thought “Something” was the best song on Abbey Road. McCartney seems offended that Harrison would get an equal number of songs and implies he didn’t think any of Harrison’s previous songs were any good… big balls indeed. Lennon goes on and suggests that maybe McCartney should start farming out his old-time sounding tunes like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” to other acts and should focus on rock and roll. McCartney replies with, “I recorded it because I liked it.” Sounds like it was over before it started…
I’ll be honest, I really think this edition of Abbey Road is strictly for Beatles nuts and completists only. I think, in terms of purchase, I’m going to sit this one out. It’s a lot to lay out for what you get. For me it boils down to not loving Abbey Road in the first place. It was the Beatles biggest selling album, so I’m probably in the minority. It’s certainly an interesting listen. If you’re not in love with Abbey Road, you’re probably not reading this anyway, and should probably steer clear of the new package.