The release of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road in September of 1969 was not met with the kindest of words. Reviewing the album in The New York Times, Nik Cohn praised the medley on the second side of the record before proceeding to refer to everything else as an “unmitigated disaster.” Meanwhile, Rolling Stone reviewer Ed Ward condemned it as “a rather tenuous line between boredom, Beatledom and bubblegum.” Abbey Road did have its defenders, though; in another review published in Rolling Stone, John Mendelsohn simply wrote that album had been “breathtakingly recorded.” This positive interpretation summarizes the resulting commercial consensus behind what is considered to be one of the Beatles’ greatest albums, and for good reason. The last album John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr recorded together, it essentially stands as their final musical will and testament to the world before they parted for good. And what a fine musical testament it is.
Now, Abbey Road is being re-released in honor of its 50th anniversary as a deluxe edition featuring the original album as well as multiple cuts from the same recording sessions that have never been previously released. Giles Martin, the son of the Beatles’ producer George Martin, helmed the remixing of Abbey Road for this occasion, the third in a series of reissues of Beatles albums that includes Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album. While many bands have taken to reissuing remastered versions of certain albums in anticipation of a milestone anniversary, the Beatles have successfully set their efforts apart by approaching the process in a different way: Each album is newly remixed from the original master tapes rather than simply remastering the original mixes from before. The result once again reminds us why both the album and the band still loom so large in our collective imagination and the history of music.
The remix of the original album preserves the feel and atmosphere of the songs as they were in 1969, but simultaneously transforms them in minute ways which highlight various aspects that may not have been discerned before. Certain elements within each song have been altered in some manner; in some cases, a harmony that was buried in the mix is brought up or a drum fill is now louder. The individual components of each song are now more obvious — drum parts which were relatively quieter at first can now be heard much more clearly, and guitar parts which may have sounded slightly more compressed now stand at the forefront of the mix, ringing with vitality and brightness. The most enjoyable surprise to find, however, is the increased prominence of the harmonies underscoring the main vocal on each song. As John, Paul and George harmonize together on the song “Because,” their three vocal parts stand apart and allow the listener to distinguish between the separate voices but also blend together so well that it seems that they are singing live, allowing you to identify each part momentarily with your own ears. They seem so close in that moment that you want nothing more than to open your eyes and find yourself looking at John, Paul, George and Ringo, back in Abbey Road Studios having finished another take. It is a difficult feeling to summarize in words but one that hints at why the Beatles’ music has touched the lives of its listeners so profoundly: It sounds as fresh and new as it did 50 years ago.
The best part of this 50th anniversary edition, however, is undoubtedly the inclusion of the session outtakes. Due to their somewhat rougher quality, there exist instances of the band talking to each other or trying different interpretations of a song as they attempt to make it through a take, uncovering some fascinating banter in the process. There are many humorous moments: the Beatles react to hearing that someone living near the studio where they are recording has issued a noise complaint before a take of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” John’s voice cracks during a rendition of “Come Together” and John and Paul jokingly refer to each other as George and Ringo before launching into “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (George and Ringo were absent from the sessions at that time). But within these takes also lies the most poignant moment. While singing an alternate version of “Golden Slumbers,” Paul’s voice is so full of emotion it sounds as if he is holding back tears. And how could he not, when the four boys from Liverpool who had been together and supported each other for the entirety of their adult lives were about to leave each other forever? It is a sentiment that haunts every one of these songs; as people listen to them, they know that these were the last songs the Beatles could record before their working relationship completely collapsed under a cavalcade of personal problems, infighting, financial woes and so many other squabbles it would be impossible to list here. It makes you hold on to the remix for as long as possible, never quite wanting the good times to end, knowing they eventually will.
It is impossible to truly say why the Beatles have remained so iconic since their short active lifespan, but the answer can best be found in revisiting what made them famous in the first place: their music. The songs can move past the people who made them; they speak to those who listen, no matter how different each listener’s circumstances may be. They can reach something inside us and resonate — and it never hurts to be reminded of that. Abbey Road represents a cultural touchstone, not just as a symbol at the close of the 1960s but also as the last collection of songs that the members of the Beatles recorded together. For those who grew up with the Beatles and long after, these songs hold the key to some of their dearest and most cherished memories — a fixed moment in time they never want to forget. Many others, though, cannot help but think instead of the four people who made these memories possible through nothing more than their dedication and their art. Abbey Road reconjures a memory of a band which, despite so much infighting and acrimony surrounding its recent affairs, was still able to get back together to make more music. Even if it was only for one last time.
John Colie is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]