Abbey Roadworks Ahead

Author: Bruce Jenkins   Date Posted:3 September 2019 


Some see it as the culmination of a brief, frenetic, indisputably great recording career. Others cite it as evidence of The Beatles inevitable decline. Little in life and music is black and white and some want a bet each way, lauding parts of the final recordings but dismissive of others. Many people—perhaps most—simply don’t give a toss. It’s Abbey freakin’ Road and if you don’t like it, go stand on a zebra crossing at peak hour. For the 2019 reviewer, faced with (another) re-issue in this 50th anniversary year, the challenge of what to say about this legendary record, housed in its iconic cover, is great indeed.

Let’s start by acknowledging some of the music. 

Album opener “Come Together” is a John Lennon composition whose line “one thing I can tell you is you got to be free” captured the late sixties atmosphere of change and rebellion. The song was, according to Ian MacDonald (Revolution in the Head, p. 287) “a call to unchain the imagination and, by setting language free, loosen the rigidities of political and emotional entrenchment”. It’s a damn fine funky rock song too.

George Harrison’s “Something” is one of the quiet Beatles’ finest songs. Second only to “Yesterday” in the number of cover versions recorded by other artists, it is a rich yet simple piece that is both beautiful and timeless.

Graced by some neat guitar work, Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” is an unremarkable but pleasant cousin to “Yellow Submarine”. Abbey Road also contains a Starr drum solo. He wasn’t keen, but rolled up his sleeves for a brief but memorable interlude in “The End” which serves as a neat reminder of how good his drumming is throughout the album.

Talking of “The End”, that short piece completes what is generally known as the Long Medley on side two of Abbey Road. Conceived by Paul McCartney, this sequence of snippets and songs lends a coherence to the album that was certainly not present during the sessions. Having said that, parts of it are superb, none more than McCartney’s “You Never Give Me Your Money” whose resigned sadness seems an elegy for both the band and the decade. Moreover, Paul’s “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight” provides the heart of the Long Medley. “Slumber” is steeped in melancholy while the “Weight” is a last rousing salute to a golden age now past. The four protagonists—once closer than family but now fractured into separate lives—sing together in unison one last time.

Giles Martin, son of original producer George Martin, undertook the 2019 remixes. Following the critical success of his work on Sgt Pepper, Martin had access to the original eight-track masters of Abbey Road, an album that sounded fabulous when it was released. Not surprisingly, these ‘new’ versions generated great interest. Even more excitement surrounds the demos and alternate takes included on some versions of the re-issues. We should note that all extra tracks were approved by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison.

Overall, it could reasonably be said that Abbey Road has been skilfully resurfaced. It has retained the character you’d expect—all the landmarks are in their familiar places—yet the refurbished ride reveals extra detail and nuance. In fact, contrary to the modern city trend, the audio traffic is less congested; the soundscape is more spacious than before. Slow down and enjoy the trip. And remember: in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

As a postscript, here are some fun facts about the famous album cover.
1. The photos for the cover were taken by Iain Macmillan with the final choice being made by Paul. The entire shoot lasted ten minutes, during which Macmillan stood on a step ladder while a policeman stopped traffic.
2. If you didn’t make it to the anniversary of the shoot on August 8th, fear not. At the Abbey Road Studios web site you can view a live web cam monitoring the famous crossing 24/7.
3. Tribute album covers have appeared too many times to count, including releases by Booker T & the MGs, Red Hot Chili Peppers, George Benson, Sesame Street, Metallica and Kanye West. Even Paul McCartney revisited the crossing for a 1993 live album cover.

© Bruce Jenkins 2019

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