By the late nineteen-sixties, the artistic basis of the Beatles’ preëminence in the world of popular music was plain for all to see.
In 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. In Martin’s view, the five months of tension and drama it took to make that album, followed by the fiasco of “Get Back,” an ill-fated film, concert, and recording project that ended inconclusively in January, 1969, had turned his recent work with the Beatles into a “miserable experience.”
“After [‘Get Back’] I thought it was the end of the road for all of us,” he said later. “I didn’t really want to work with them anymore because they were becoming unpleasant people, to themselves as well as to other people. So 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 protégé, 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. “The Beatles are good even though everybody already knows that they’re good,” the classical composer Ned Rorem observed in 1968, alluding to how the band’s immense popularity confounded the usual notions of discriminating taste. If anyone needs to be reminded of this, this new edition of “Abbey Road” should do the trick.
The unpleasantness that George Martin ascribed to the Beatles stood in stark contrast to the first impression he formed of this oddly named group from Liverpool when they auditioned for a recording test at Abbey Road, in the spring of 1962. At that time, Martin had his doubts about their musical potential, but he was totally charmed by their personalities and repartee. The change he perceived in their behavior toward one another during the course of 1968 was very recent and very real, and it was due to many sources, including the travails of Apple Corps, the Beatles’ farcically naïve attempt to run their own business following the death of their visionary manager, Brian Epstein, in 1967, and their disillusionment with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the jet-setting Indian swami who had filled the void left by Epstein’s death by serving as the band’s brazenly entrepreneurial spiritual adviser. But the root cause of disaffection in the group involved something much more fundamental than its efforts to dabble in hip capitalism or pop mysticism.
By the late nineteen-sixties, the artistic basis of the Beatles’ preëminence in the world of popular music was plain for all to see. Here was a band comprising two of the greatest pop singers and songwriters of their generation, supervised by a supremely innovative pop record producer, and supported by a pair of highly competent and resourceful instrumentalists, one of whom, George Harrison, was emerging as a gifted songwriter in his own right. The axis of the group’s genius, of course, was the collaboration between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. For more than ten years, the musical friendship between these two partners had remained the predominant relationship in both of their lives. But that had changed abruptly in the spring of 1968, when Lennon returned to London from the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh, blew up his marriage, and threw himself into a romantic and creative partnership with Yoko Ono, the fame-obsessed Japanese performance artist who had been pursuing him for more than a year. Ono would later be demonized by the press and the public as the cause of the Beatles’ downfall, but she was more like the solvent that Lennon used to dissolve the bonds of solidarity and common purpose that had distinguished popular music’s most exalted band of brothers. From the moment Lennon and Ono moved in together, in June of 1968, Ono displaced McCartney as Lennon’s collaborator, muse, and sounding board. That she knew virtually nothing about singing, songwriting, or music-making bothered Lennon not at all. If anything, Ono’s brand of dilettantism came as a great tonic to a renowned musical artist whose insecurities about the pretensions of art-making had recently led him to insist to the Beatles’ authorized biographer, Hunter Davies, that “Beethoven is a con, just like we are now.”
McCartney responded to the advent of Ono with all the powers of musical persuasion at his command. The many months of rehearsal and recording it took to make the White Album had brought about a striking improvement in the Beatles’ ensemble playing. The “Get Back” project, as conceived by McCartney, began as an attempt to restore the group’s sense of personal and musical camaraderie by returning it to its roots as a performing band. Toward this end, several of the songs McCartney unveiled at those sessions had been expressly designed to encourage Lennon to share the lead singing with him. (“Two of Us” was self-explanatory, whereas “I’ve Got a Feeling” reversed the pattern of “A Day in the Life” by joining McCartney’s verses to Lennon’s release.) In April, when Lennon sought to celebrate his recent marriage to Ono by rush-recording “The Ballad of John and Yoko” at a time when George Harrison and Ringo Starr were otherwise engaged, McCartney threw himself into the session, making up for absence of the others by playing bass, drums, piano, percussion, and singing harmony on the track. When Harrison and Starr rejoined them a few days later, it marked the start of a productive series of sessions in which all four of the Beatles introduced new songs.
But any hopes that this renewed spirit of collaboration might carry over into the work on the band’s next album were dimmed when a mounting series of business crises caused Lennon and McCartney to square off over whether the group’s financial management should be entrusted to McCartney’s new in-laws, the entertainment lawyers Lee and John Eastman, or to Lennon and Ono’s proxy, the music-business fixer Allen Klein. Klein and the Eastmans, in their efforts to outdo one another, squandered the opportunity for the Beatles to gain control of both their management and music-publishing companies, forcing E.M.I. to pay their record royalties into escrow until the courts could sort things out. For the first time in a long time, the world’s most successful rock group convened to make an album because it needed the money to pay its bills.
Despite this imperative, 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 Klein.) Lennon was over four hundred miles away at the time, on a road trip with 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. Harrison and Starr joined McCartney at the studio the following day, and, for the next three weeks, while Lennon recuperated, the remaining three Beatles worked together amicably on songs by McCartney and Harrison.
When Lennon at last arrived, bearing a new song with the somewhat ironic title “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. While the shock of this sank in, 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 McCartney’s songs on the other. As ever, it fell to McCartney 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 in the weeks after Lennon’s return on a record that each of them, in his way, must have hoped, feared, or otherwise suspected might well be their last as a group.
To speak of “sides” is to acknowledge that “Abbey Road,” like most Beatles albums, was originally released as a double-sided vinyl LP. This was the format with which the group had revolutionized the recording industry in the sixties, when its popularity, self-sufficiency, and burgeoning artistic ambition helped to establish the self-written album as the principal medium of rock. Earlier, in the fifties, when “long-playing” records first became available, their selling point was their capacity. Unlike the 78-r.p.m. records they replaced, LPs could hold more than twenty minutes of music per side, which made them an ideal format for the extended performances of classical music, Broadway shows, film soundtracks, modern jazz, and standup comedy that accounted for the lion’s share of the record market at the time. Best-selling pop singers like Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, and Elvis Presley also capitalized on the potential of the LP, not least because a prime virtue of albums in the pop market was their packaging. The records were sold in foot-square cardboard sleeves, faced with a photograph or illustration that served as an advertisement for the product within. By providing a portrait of the artist and a platform for the sort of promotional copy that had previously been confined to fan magazines, album “jackets” served as a tangible accessory to the experience of record listening. LP covers became an established form of graphic art, and the high standard of the graphic design on the Beatles’ early albums was one of the ways that Brian Epstein and George Martin sought to distinguish the group from the patronizing stereotypes that applied to teen-age pop.
All of this, it goes without saying, is ancient history in an era of digital streaming and shuffling, which threatens the very concept of a record album as a cohesive work of art. In this sense, the fiftieth anniversary reissue of “Abbey Road” is an anachronism, a throwback to a time when an LP cover could serve as a cultural icon and the order of the songs on the two sides of an album became etched on its listeners’ minds. In the iconography of Beatles album covers, “Abbey Road” ranks with the conclave of culture heroes on the front of “Sgt. Pepper” and the mysterious side-lit portrait on the group’s first Capitol LP. Yet, like so much else on the album, its cover was a product of compromise. After entertaining the notion of naming the album “Everest” and travelling to Nepal to have themselves photographed in front of the world’s tallest peak, the Beatles elected to simply walk out the door of the studio on an August afternoon. The famous tableau of the four of them striding purposefully across the now-landmarked “zebra crossing”—Lennon in white, Starr in black, McCartney in gray, and Harrison in hippie denim from head to toe—advertised the differences in a band that had first captured the attention of the world in matching suits and haircuts. But its iconic status owed to the way it came to serve, in retrospect, as a typically droll image of the Beatles, walking off the stage of their career as a group.
“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,” which was modelled on Chuck Berry’s up-tempo classic “You Can’t Catch Me” until McCartney took it upon himself to rearrange the song in the sinuous “swamp rock” style of Dr. John, 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. Having fitted his kit with old-fashioned calfskin heads, Starr’s sturdy, slaphappy drumming achieves a newfound warmth and depth. Even Lennon, who barely played on his bandmates’ songs, rouses himself to solo eloquently on several tracks. But the true musical star of the album is Harrison, who unveils a whole new instrumental persona based on the piquant, pining lyricism of his bottleneck-slide guitar. Harrison was also responsible for introducing the recently invented Moog synthesizer to the tonal palette of “Abbey Road.”
Ringo Starr and George Harrison with a Moog synthesizer at Abbey Road Studios, in North London’s St. John’s Wood, in August, 1969.
Even more surprisingly, Harrison compensated for the breakdown in the collaboration between Lennon and McCartney by 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. In a somewhat less flattering way, the same could be said of “Maxwell’s Silver’s Hammer,” McCartney’s cheerful homage to a serial killer, “Octopus’s Garden,” Starr’s return to the depths of his former glory in “Yellow Submarine,” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” Lennon’s anguished paean to Ono—a trio of highly polished yet one-dimensional songs that occasionally verge on self-parody.
If the individualized tracks on the first side of “Abbey Road” looked to a post-Beatle future, the medley that McCartney and Martin conceived and arranged on “side two” seemed to mine the Beatles’ past in its search for a suitable ending. It starts with “Here Comes the Sun,” a second astonishment from Harrison, which recalls songs like “I Feel Fine,” “Good Day Sunshine,” and “All You Need Is Love” as an expression of the sheer benevolence that led many Beatles fans to see the band as avatars rather than mere superstars. A similar lightness and brightness pervades Lennon’s ballad “Because,” whose rhapsodic three-part harmonies come as a reminder that, before Lennon and McCartney emerged as the yin and yang of their own musical cosmos, 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,” his best song on the album, which navigates a dreamscape reminiscent of “A Day in the Life,” shifting from the Beatles’ current “situation” to the dead-end vistas of their youth, in Liverpool, before ending with an account of escape-by-limousine whose allusion to the days of Beatlemania is sealed by the line “one sweet dream came true today.”
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. The protagonist of “Sun King” is a “Walrus”-like trickster spewing Apollonian gibberish in broken Spanish and Italian. The miserly “Mean Mr. Mustard” sounds like a refugee from Lennon’s books of nonsense and verse, whereas his sister “Polythene Pam” recalls the kink of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn during the Beatles’ apprenticeship there. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Lennon adds in a sardonic reprise of “She Loves You,” as McCartney returns with “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” his thinly veiled commentary on the advent of Ono. “Didn’t anybody tell her?” he asks. “Didn’t anybody see?” A full stop yields to the minor chords of “Golden Slumbers,” a nostalgic lullaby, as the medley builds to its climax by way of a self-fulfilling prophesy (“Boy, you’re going to carry that weight a long time!”) 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!” and Starr’s barrage of tom-toms bring the Beatles and their listeners back to the place where it all began—before the marathon recording sessions and the international tours, before Apple and Maharishi and Swinging London and Beatlemania, before the provincial dance halls and the cellar dives of Liverpool, before the Beatles, even—to the simple setting of 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 old-fashioned rave-up 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 on the karmic calculus that would serve as the Beatles’ epitaph, “The love you take / Is equal to the love you make.” As Harrison’s lead guitar spirals up the scale, a final curtain of “ahs” descends in an unspoken cadence of amen.
To return to Ned Rorem’s formulation: How good were the Beatles, notwithstanding the fact that everyone knew they were good? Good enough to produce this self-allusive masterpiece with their dying breath as a band. Good enough to enlist the smoke and mirrors of a modern recording studio to simulate the merger of musical sensibilities that they had once achieved by means of an unprecedented concentration and collaboration of sovereign talent. In this sense, “Abbey Road” memorializes a paradox of the group. The singing, songwriting, and playing on the album affirm the extent to which all four of the Beatles became consummate musical professionals in the course of their eight-year career. But the ending of that career affirms the extent to which these four “mates” from Liverpool, whose lives were transformed by such a surfeit of wealth and fame, never gave a thought to professionalizing their personal relationships with one another.
Their contemporaries, such as the Rolling Stones and the Who, would carry on for decades as lucrative rock franchises, long after the bonds of adolescent friendship that originally joined them together had withered away. But, for the Beatles, whose adolescent friendship institutionalized the archetype of the rock group, a ubiquitous mode of musical organization that has endured to the present day, the deterioration in their personal relations completely outweighed the financial incentives that came with their status as the most successful musical artists of their time. From the beginning, they were understood to be a “band” in both senses of the word: as musicians, of course, but also, on a more elemental level, as a group of young men who shared a sense of identity, solidarity, and purpose. “I’ve compared it to a marriage,” Lennon would say. “Up until then, we really believed intensely in what we were doing, and the product we put out, and everything had to be just right. Suddenly we didn’t believe. And that was the end of it.”