One sweet dream: On “Abbey Road” at 50 and an anniversary reissue

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 28, 2019)

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“A pleasant but unadventurous collection of basically low-voltage numbers.”

-from the original 1969 Newsweek review of Abbey Road

By 1969, the Beatles had probably done enough “living” to suit several normal lifetimes, and did so with the whole world looking in. It’s almost unfathomable how they could have achieved as much as they did, and at the end of all, still be only in their twenties.

Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road?

Hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through the (yet to be reissued) 1970 documentary, Let it Be? Filmed in 1969, the movie was intended to document the “making of” the eponymous album (there is also footage of the band working on several songs that ended up on Abbey Road).

Sadly, the film has a rep as hard evidence of the band’s disintegration. Granted, there is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where an uncharacteristically riled-up George reaches the end of his tether with Paul’s fussiness).

Still, signs of a deeply rooted musical camaraderie remain in that outdoor mini concert filmed on a London rooftop. If you look closely, the boys are exchanging glances that telegraph they’re having a grand time jamming out; an affirmation that this is what this band of brothers were put on this earth to do, and what the hell …it’s only rock ’n’ roll.

The Let it Be movie doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how tumultuous 1969 was for the band. As Ian MacDonald notes in his excellent 1994 assessment of the Beatles’ catalog, Revolution in the Head:

The day after the rooftop concert, the band recorded three songs unsuited to recital in a moderate gale [“Two of Us”, “Let it Be”, and “The Long and Winding Road”] before winding the [recording sessions for the “Let it Be” album] up in some relief. An ignominious failure which shook their faith in their collective judgement, it had pushed them to the verge of collapse. […]

[soon after the “Let it Be” sessions wrapped] a fatal rift in the group’s relationships opened when Lennon, Harrison, and Starr asked the Rolling Stones’ American manager Allen Klein to take over the Beatles’ affairs. McCartney, who favoured Linda Eastman’s family firm of management consultants, immediately opened a court battle which long outlasted the remainder of the Beatles’ career.

The dream was over. Or so it seemed. The boys were not about to go out on a sour note (at least in a creative sense). As Bob Spitz writes in his exhaustive band bio, The Beatles:

The tapes from earlier in the year that would eventually become “Let it Be” languished in the can, abandoned, a victim of haste and sloppy execution. “[They] were so lousy and so bad,” according to John – “twenty-nine hours of tape …twenty takes of everything – that “none of us would go near them …None of us could face remixing them; it was [a] terrifying [prospect].” “It was laying [sic] dormant and so we decided ‘Let’s make a good album again,’” George recalled.

Beatles musicologist Tim Riley picks it up from there – from his 1988 book Tell Me Why:

Still, venturing out into solo careers was a daunting notion, especially when the itch to make more Beatles music wouldn’t go away – perhaps the rooftop set had been so promising that they felt the need to reconcile the musical loose ends on the unreleased “Get Back” [album] sessions [from early 1969]. If the Beatles were still a band, they owed their audience a follow-up to “The White Album”. George Martin remembers a phone call from Paul in July asking him to help make a record “the way we used to do it.”

In case you hadn’t heard, that record turned out pretty good.

In fact, I’m listening to it at this very moment, as I write this review. Specifically, it is the 3-CD + Blu-ray disc “Abbey Road Anniversary Super Deluxe” box set (also available in a truncated 2-CD edition). The reissues commemorate the 50th anniversary of the album (originally released in the U.K. September 26, 1969 and in the U.S. on October 1, 1969).

CD 1 is the album itself, remixed in stereo from the original 8-track masters (supervised by George Martin’s son Giles). I don’t have a state-of-the-art sound system, but even so I was able to discern the difference upon first listen. The tracks have a warm, analog resonance that sound closer to the original vinyl (we’ve come full circle, I suppose). Upon initial listen, “Something”, “Here Comes the Sun”, “Sun King”, “Because”, “You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Golden Slumbers” benefit the most from the upgrade.

CDs 2 and 3 contain alternate takes of the Abbey Road cuts (it’s fun to hear the studio chatter, especially Lennon’s playful and frequently hilarious lyric improvisations) as well as early takes of their 1969 45 “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and its B-side “Old Brown Shoe”. Other highlights include Paul’s demos for “Come and Get It” and “Goodbye” (hits he wrote for Apple Records artists Badfinger and Mary Hopkins, respectively) and takes of George Martin’s isolated orchestral parts for “Something” and “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight”…which remind you of his genius for song arrangement.

I haven’t had time to explore the Blu-ray yet; it contains 3 different enhanced versions of the new mix: in Dolby ATMOS, in 96kHz/24-bit DTS-DD Master Audio 5.1, and in 96kHz/24-bit High Res Stereo. Obviously, these mixes require a high-end setup for full appreciation; I’ll hang on to it in case I ever get a spare $25,000 for a home theater room.

The Super Deluxe Edition also includes a 100-page book with rare photos (many taken by Linda Eastman), essays and track-by-track annotation with the complete rundown on personnel involved in each session.

This is a lovely package, a treat for Beatle fans. It’s pricey, but you have an option to pick up the 2-CD version for less than $20 (although it’s missing the Blu-ray, quite a few of the outtakes and demos, and the book…come on, you know you want the box set!).

I remember buying the LP when it came out. I was 13 and living in Columbus Ohio. October of 1969 was a stressful time for my family. My dad had just left for a tour in Vietnam, and my mom was at the end of her tether. It was the first time they had been apart for an extended period of time since their wedding in 1955; my brothers were typical 2 and 4 year-old terrors and I was adding to her aggravation being a typical 13 year-old male with a smart mouth and no father figure to give it a well-deserved smack.

I think that was when music became important to me; in a spiritual way. I couldn’t articulate at the time why Abbey Road was so important to me, but it was. I was like Richard Dreyfuss playing with the mashed potatoes… “This MEANS something!” Abbey Road provided the salve I needed at that moment. And at this moment. And in the end…

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