n the spring of 1969, Paul McCartney telephoned George Martin to ask if he would be willing to work with the Beatles on a new album they planned to record in the months ahead. Martin, who was widely regarded as the most accomplished pop-record producer in the world, had overseen the making of all nine albums and nineteen singles that the Beatles had released in Britain since their début on E.M.I.’s Parlophone label, in 1962. His reputation was synonymous with that of the group, and the fact that McCartney felt a need to ask him about his availability dramatized how much the Beatles’ professional circumstances had changed since the release of the two-record set known as the White Album, in the fall of 1968.
“After [‘Get Back’] I thought it was the end of the road for all of us,” he said later. “I was quite surprised when Paul rang me up and asked me to produce another record for them. He said, ‘Will you really produce it?’ And I said, ‘If I’m really allowed to produce it. If I have to go back and accept a lot of instructions that I don’t like, then I won’t do it.’ ” After receiving McCartney’s assurance that he would indeed have a free hand, Martin booked a solid block of time at Abbey Road studios from the first of July to the end of August.
Thus the stage was set for the Beatles’ tenth studio album, named after the labyrinthine recording complex in North London’s St. John’s Wood that had served as the site of their greatest musical triumphs. Though the tracks from the “Get Back” project, retitled “Let It Be,” would be released later, in the spring of 1970, “Abbey Road” was the Beatles’ last word—the final recordings by the most popular and influential artists of the nineteen-sixties. Now, on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, “Abbey Road” has been expertly remixed by Giles Martin, George Martin’s son , and reissued in a super-deluxe edition that comes with an archive of studio outtakes and a hundred-page book of essays and liner notes that chronicle how the recordings were made.
Paul McCartney was the only Beatle who showed up at Abbey Road at the start of the sessions in July. (He spent the day refining his singing on “You Never Give Me Your Money,” which summed up his opinion of Alan Klein.) John Lennon was over four hundred miles away at the time, on a road trip with Yoko Ono and their respective young children in Scotland, where, that same day, he flipped their car into a ditch. The children were merely shaken up, but Lennon suffered a gash on his head, and both he and Ono had to be hospitalized. George Harrison and Ringo Starr joined Paul at the studio the following day, and, for the next three weeks, while John recuperated, the remaining three Beatles worked together on songs by Paul and George.
When John at last arrived, bearing a new song (“Come Together”) he was accompanied by a crew of attendants, who set up a double bed for Ono in the main studio at Abbey Road. Lennon made it clear that McCartney had not been speaking for him when he assured George Martin that the Beatles were willing to take direction from their producer as they had in the past. Upon hearing of Martin’s desire to elaborate on the unified “concept” of “Sgt. Pepper” by linking the tracks, musically and thematically, to give the new album a “symphonic” form, Lennon countered with an organizing principle of his own—all of his songs on one side of the record, all of Paul’s songs on the other. As ever, it fell to Paul to broker a compromise. Drawing on the band’s past triumphs, he proposed that one side of the album, like “Revolver,” consist of songs by the individual Beatles, most of them dating from the earlier sessions in April, each with its own distinct lead singer. The other side, like “Sgt. Pepper,” would consist of an interrelated medley of newly recorded tracks. On this basis, the Beatles forged ahead.
“Abbey Road” was the first Beatles album to be made from start to finish using the newly refined technology of multitrack tape, and, though Giles Martin’s remix preserves the pristine sound of the original recording, it lacks the revelatory quality of the restorative remixes he produced for the anniversary editions of “Sgt. Pepper” and the White Album. Listening to the album fifty years on, what does come as a revelation is the remarkable musicianship of the band. From the opening bars of Lennon’s convocation, “Come Together” the interplay between the instruments is an unending source of fascination and delight. McCartney adds a bold melodic fluidity to his playing that burnishes his reputation as a pioneer of the electric bass, which sounds, at times, like a lead instrument. Ringo’s sturdy, slaphappy drumming achieves a newfound warmth and depth. But the true musical star of the album is George, who unveils a whole new instrumental persona. Harrison was also responsible for introducing the recently invented Moog synthesizer to “Abbey Road.”
George contributing two of the album’s most memorable songs. With its understated singing and commanding lead guitar, his exquisite ballad “Something” overshadows the more mannered and self-indulgent tracks that follow it on the album’s now virtual “side one,” sounding like a prospectus for his imminent solo career.
The “side two” starts with “Here Comes the Sun,” a second astonishment from Harrison, a similar lightness and brightness pervades Lennon’s ballad “Because,” whose rhapsodic three-part harmonies come as a reminder that, it was the sublime synergy of the Beatles singing together that launched the band’s career. Next comes McCartney’s “You Never Give Me Your Money,” the three short sketches by Lennon that follow are examples of the sort of musical bits and pieces that he and McCartney would once have fashioned into finished songs. “Sun King”, in Spanish and Italian, “Mean Mr. Mustard”, “Polythene Pam”, McCartney returns with “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” a full stop yields to the minor chords of “Golden Slumbers,” a nostalgic lullaby, as the medley builds to its climax and a stirring reprise of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” now joined by strings and horns. An enormous orchestral downbeat brings back the booming chorus of “Carry That Weight” as the music strains toward the grand “symphonic” finale that George Martin envisioned for “Abbey Road.”
And then comes the stroke of genius that only the Beatles could provide. At the last moment, on the cusp of that stately ending, the music seems to jump right out of its skin: the tempo surging, the orchestra fleeing, as McCartney’s shout of “Oh, yeah! All right!” with a Ringo’s barrage of tom-toms bring,Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, sawing away on their three guitars, soaring, swooning, growling, and groaning as they play off one another in a series of exhilarating two-bar breaks. And then, as abruptly as this began, the music falls away, leaving only a faint pulse of piano chords. “And in the end,” McCartney sings, his voice rising as he pauses for Lennon and Harrison to join him: “The love you take / Is equal to the love you make,” as George’s lead guitar spirals up the scale.