The Beatles – Abbey Road (Anniversary Super Deluxe)
October 6, 2019
OVERALL (OUT OF 10): 9
Damn it, Giles, the “one two three four five six seven/all good children go to Heaven” vocal part at the end of “You Never Give Me Your Money” is supposed to go back and forth across the stereo field from one speaker to another on Abbey Road instead of staying in one place, how could you have not known that when you were remixing the album? Sorry, but that’s the level of obsessiveness a true Beatles maniac is going to have when listening to the new Abbey Road remix. I mean really, there’s no excuse for that. Though actually, that and a organ too low in the mix during the first half of “Sun King” are the only real quibbles I have with Giles Martin’s remix, on the whole it sounds pretty good.
And when I say pretty good, what I mean to say it is an noticeable improvement, but not nearly as revelatory or as exciting as Martin’s remixes of Sgt. Pepper or The White Album. Of all the Beatles’ albums, Abbey Road had the best original mix and was the one least in need of a remix. It was one of the few times they recorded on an eight-track recorder, and with the additional available tracks there was considerably less “bouncing” – mixing two tracks together into a single track so that more tracks could be recorded – so the instruments were a lot less muddled together than on a lot of their previous albums. That said, the definition of the individual instruments has improved in the new remix, no question. The most noticeable difference is with the drums – the drums are far more upfront, they breathe a lot better, just listen to the opening drum roll of “Something” – there’s a thundering fullness that was never there before. In the original mixes Ringo’s drums always sounded so claustrophobic, and I suppose the improvement in the sound of the drums alone is justification for the new remix. And when did Ringo ever have so many shining moments on a Beatles’ album? The brilliant aforementioned drum intro to “Something”. The clever drum fills in the bridge for “Here Comes the Sun”. The drum fill between the verses on “Come Together” with that cool crescendo that almost covers up the idiotic whispered “shoot me”s. And of course, his brief but brilliant drum solo on “The End”. Abbey Road was surely Ringo’s finest hour as a drummer.
So, yeah, I guess the drums alone justify the remix. As does the new vocal placement on “Here Comes the Sun” – the Moog glissando that travels from the left speaker to the right at the beginning of the song is pretty cool, as is the way that George’s vocal kind of springs out of it. But in the original mix they just kind of left his lead vocal panned hard to the right speaker, which made the mix feel pretty off-balance. Centering his lead vocal was a much needed improvement. With all the additional clarity to the instruments, it becomes more noticeable how much is going on instrumentally in the song, although the Beatles were far too clever musicians and George Martin far too skilled a producer for the production to get too cluttered. The new mix of “Here Comes the Sun” is probably the highlight of the album remix.
Speaking of “Here Comes the Sun”, I can never make up my mind whether it or “Something” is the best song on the album. It’s one of those two, that’s for sure, and Abbey Road is unique in that not just the best song, but the two best songs on the album weren’t Lennon-McCartney songs. George was really coming into his own as a songwriter, and Abbey Road along with the next album he recorded, All Things Must Pass, found him at his absolute peak as a songwriter. The breakup of The Beatles was inevitable – you couldn’t have so many egos and so many people used to getting their way in the same band for long, we are all lucky they stayed together as long as they did. But with George firing on all cylinders alongside the Lennon-McCartney juggernaut, it’s hard to resist the temptation to wonder how much more amazing their next couple of albums might have been, however inevitable the breakup may have been sooner or later.
But having said that, I’m going to commit a little Beatles sacrilege here and say that while Abbey Road is certainly a great album, it’s far from a flawless album. The heights are as high as they had ever been, so let’s focus on those first – “Come Together” and “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” and “The End”. And who doesn’t have a soft spot in their heart for “Octopus’ Garden”?
“Something” is hands down one of the greatest love songs ever written, and the arrangement is perfect – George’s tender vocal delivery is spot on, and while he hated McCartney’s busy bass part, I think it is one of Paul’s all-time greatest, a slice of pure melodic bass genius. If you ask me, Paul treated George’s song with a lot of care and attention as far as the bass part goes, it is easily his best bass part on the album, he didn’t give that much attention to the bass parts on his own songs. And the strings have such a warm sound on this song, rendered even warmer with the clarity of the new remix. I am not sure George was ever so articulate and expressive with his guitar phrasing, listen to the way he slides from the second to the third note in the guitar figure that opens the song, or the way he plays that cool variation on the guitar riff the next to last time he plays it at the end of the song – it’s perfection. So is his guitar tone on the song – all in all, it isn’t just one of the the greatest love songs ever written, it is the best ever example of George’s technique as a guitarist.
The production on “Here’s Comes the Sun” is just as good. The opening guitar is such a bright sunny guitar figure – it evokes a crisp, bright spring morning as well as any guitar part I can think of. Rarely has a Moog been used so effectively in a song, the descending note just before the vocal comes in is pure gold. This song may well have Ringo’s most brilliant drumming ever, and the new mix gives the song a propulsive drive that was less evident before. The arrangement on this song is exquisite in a way no ex-Beatle would ever achieve again in the long years to come.
No question, the highest highlights on the album are George’s. But Lennon-McCartney weren’t asleep at the wheel either. “Come Together” is a pastiche of patented Lennon nonsense lyrics – supposedly the song was written for Timothy Leary’s gubernatorial campaign, but I have a hard time thinking anyone was going to win many votes with lines like “hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease”. The chorus is great though, Ringo’s drums fills are brilliant, McCartney’s bubbly bass is the perfect counterpoint to the guitar, and overall the song has a moody vibe that’s irresistible. Lennon’s wordplay on “Because” is kind of cool (“because the world is round/it turns me on…because the sky is blue/it makes me cry…”), but the real draw is the intricate three-part harmony that John, Paul, and George meticulously worked out. It’s priceless. Other than The Beach Boys and maybe Simon and Garfunkel, no voices ever blended so perfectly as The Beatles, and it’s a real shame we never got to hear those voices ever blend again after that.
As far as Paul’s songs go, “Oh Darling!” is fantastic– the outtake in the superdeluxe edition with the cleaner vocal merely emphasizes the brilliance of McCartney’s approach in the final version, coming in first thing every morning before anyone else showed up to the studio to try to get a vocal that was rough and ragged – the character of the song is completely different with that throat-rending vocal, and the “when you told me”s are absolutely spine-tingling. A great song, if not on the level of “Something” or “Here Comes the Sun”.
Ringo could be a pretty charming guy, and he really lays on the charm with “Octopus’ Garden”, a song I truly believe is impossible to hate. It’s got a country western kind of vibe to it, the kind of thing Ringo always loved, and the backing vocals that sound like they were recorded underwater is an example of the Beatles’ attention to the little details that always set them apart from their contemporaries. Just a fun, harmless piece of fluff, from a fun, harmless, fluffy guy, a song that is absolutely lovable.
But along with those highs there are some – I wouldn’t call them lows, but definitely mediocrities. I found “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” amusing when I was much younger, with its goofy lyrics and anvil clang clangs. But I’m at a point in life where I don’t find the idea of some guy named Maxwell banging people’s heads in with a silver hammer even slightly amusing, and I’m with the other Beatles who uniformly hated the song. McCartney had some unusually good rhymes in the song by his standards (“Back in school again, Maxwell plays the fool again…P.C. 31 said we’ve got a dirty one”), but the whole concept of the song is just disturbing really, and not something that ought to be considered something to joke about. Not sure what McCartney was thinking on that one.
And even when I was immature enough to like “Maxwell”, I still always hated “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. It’s got a jammy vibe you don’t really find on any other Beatles song, and John’s vocals are certainly passionate, but I find it kind of boring, that guitar riff that merely mirrors the vocal melody gets real redundant real quick. The lyrics are pretty lightweight too – for having a reputation as a master wordsmith Lennon was a pretty shallow lyricist on this album. And what’s with the pointless repetition at the end of the song? This would have been a place to have a rip roaring guitar solo if they’d had a lead guitarist that was up to it, but George was really more of a sprinter than a distance runner, so to speak, capable of short bursts of brilliance, but never one for epic lengthy guitar solos. So where there should have been a brilliant guitar solo over that long monotonous coda, instead John had the swell idea of mixing in white noise, which is about as interesting as you can expect white noise to be. I know there’s all kinds of people out there who disagree with me, but this is not a great song.
The medley on side two encapsulates perfectly how the moments of brilliance on the album alternate with some pretty mediocre moments. “But oh that magic feeling” is paired with some guitar that sounds just like ringing bells in “You Never Give Me Your Money”, and along with with the “One sweet dream…” section is pure pop brilliance, topped off with some tasty lead guitar in the final stretch (the new mix gives us a few precious seconds more than we had before). The segue into “Sun King” is gorgeous – it’s the first time I can think of that the Beatles let a song introduction unfurl at such a leisurely pace, the new mix does wonders for all of the crickets and night sounds that open the song, and the harmonies on this one are downright heavenly. But just when you think you’re in Sun King Nirvana, Lennon takes the song completely off the rails with his stupid Latin-sounding made up nonsense syllables, tarnishing an otherwise brilliant song with a bit of unnecessary tomfoolery. Not content with that bit of aural vandalism, he drops a couple of worthless throwaway rockers into the medley right afterwards that had no business ever being on a Beatles album. Is there really anyone out there who is going to argue that “Mean Mr. Mustard” is s great song? It isn’t clever, it isn’t whimsical, there’s nothing charming about a guy who “sleeps in a hole in the road…keeps a ten-bob note up his nose” and shouts obscenities at the Queen. It’s just an all around dumb song, and the fact that Lennon offered it for the medley says all we need to know about what he thought of the medley. Same with “Polythene Pam” – it’s just filler, there’s nothing really to recommend about it, other than a pretty cool lead guitar section at the end. I mean, come on, these are some pretty atrocious lyrics
Well, you should see Polythene Pam
She’s so good-looking but she looks like a man
Well, you should see her in drag dressed in her polythene bag
Yes, you should see Polythene Pam
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Get a dose of her in jackboots and kilt
She’s killer-diller when she’s dressed to the hilt
She’s the kind of a girl that makes the “News of the World”
Yes, you could say she was attractively built
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Luckily they are delivered in such a heavily Liverpudlian accent that you can’t really tell what he’s saying, and it helps make an awful song somewhat more palatable. “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is no great shakes either, the lyrics aren’t much of an improvement over the two songs that precede it, the dark melody in the lines “didn’t anybody tell her” has potential but is completely wasted on this piece of piffle. So right there in the middle of the medley we get three and a half really dumb songs, which makes the whole medley almost completely unsalvageable…
…except for the unsurpassed brilliance of the last three songs, which more than redeems the medley and completely justifies its existence. “Golden Slumbers” is remarkable, with some of the most moving moments on the album: “once there was a way to get back homeward…sleep little darling do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby”. What a transcendent musical moment. And I know of no more true prognostication in all the world of rock than “Carry that Weight”, which is exactly what all of the ex-Beatles would do with the band’s legacy for the next five decades. Individually they made many good albums, and a few great ones, even one or two outstanding ones – but alone none of them would ever again reach the high bar they had set in the greatest band that ever existed or would ever exist. Each of them would spend the rest of their lives carrying that weight a long time. Then comes “The End”, with Ringo’s cool – and wisely concise – drum solo, then the dueling lead guitars of Paul, George, and John (in that order), a marvelous musical moment before piano chords usher in Paul’s grand statement
And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make
Lennon referred to it as “a very cosmic, philosophical line. Which again proves that if he wants to, he can think”. Then swelling strings bring the song home with a suitably majestic conclusion. Although I have to say I kind of feel like the orchestral build-up seems a tad bit too abrupt, and maybe a few more seconds of build-up might have helped it feel a little more natural. As it is, it’s all over in a matter of seconds, it almost feels a little rushed. Brilliant lead guitar at the end there though, all in all an appropriately strong ending to an ambitious if not wholly well-executed musical conceit. If all the songs in the medley were as strong as the opening and the ending, I’d feel very differently about it, maybe they stuck the weak songs in the middle hoping they’d be less noticeable. A shame really though, I wouldn’t have thought the Beatles would have any difficulty coming up with some brilliant songs for the medley from start to finish.
Then “Her Majesty” comes crashing in with all the wit and cheeky charm that was completely missing in “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”. A quick little blast of whimsy, short enough to avoid wearing out its welcome before its abrupt end, and a nice way of deflating all of the pretentiousness of “The End”.
The strongest songs on Abbey Road are among the Beatles’ absolute best, which is no small praise for a band as phenomenally talented as The Beatles. And yet, I can’t bring myself to call the album an unqualified success – while The White Album had its share of clunkers, it’s hard not to feel like it, Sgt. Pepper, and Magical Mystery Tour are stronger albums, with less filler. And as far as the remix goes, it’s an improvement, but not in the same way the remixes were for Pepper and The White Album. Yes, it is worth having for the upgrade, but it isn’t an improvement half so astonishing as that of the earlier albums. Apparently next year Let It Be will get the 50 year Super Deluxe treatment, but after that the Beatles album that is most desperately in need of a remix is Revolver. And I really wish George’s estate would get around to a remix of All Things Must Pass too, but then again I can only imagine what a truly Herculean effort that would be with all of the instrumental overdubs and hopelessly cluttered musical arrangements on the album. But throw enough money at the best engineer you can find, and I bet it could be done.
Abbey Road may be the best selling Beatles album, but in my book it is far from their best album. Coolest cover on a Beatles album though, hands down. And it would have made a much better swan song than Let It Be, of which NME critic Alan Smith famously wrote: “If the new Beatles’ soundtrack is to be their last then it will stand as a cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone, a sad and tatty end to a musical fusion which wiped clean and drew again the face of pop.” That strikes me as an unnecessarily harsh assessment of Let It Be, which while rough hewn and somewhat dowdy next to the masterpieces that preceded it, has its fair share of moments of Beatle brilliance. There is no denying, however, that Let It Be is a far lesser album than Abbey Road, with fewer classic songs and considerably less polish, and having the misfortune of being a weird Frankenstein’s monster of an album that began as a “warts and all no overdubs allowed” initiative and ended up with Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound© plastered all over it. Never has an album strayed so far from the idea of its initial conception as Let It Be, it ended up being the exact opposite of what it was intended to be. No question, Abbey Road would have been the more brilliant sunset to the Beatles’s story, and “The End” a far more graceful exit than “I’d like to say ‘thank you’ on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.”
But there’s no changing the events of 50 years ago, and it little matters now anyway. If you love the Beatles, get the new Abbey Road remix, and if you don’t love the Beatles, you’re hopeless and won’t have read this far into the review anyway. Ringo’s remixed drums and the new mix of “Here Comes the Sun” more than justifies the cost for this new re-release. And personally I want to do all I can to support the practice of re-mixing classic albums from the Sixties. So by all means, buy the new version of Abbey Road. And then join me in hoping that before long we get that remix of Revolver that the world so desperately needs.