Inside the making of The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ Part 1

By  Dave Thompson

The entire Beatles catalog, including Abbey Road, has been digitally remastered for CD release in Sept. 2009. (©Apple Corps Ltd., 2009)

The entire Beatles catalog, including Abbey Road, has been digitally remastered for CD release in Sept. 2009. (©Apple Corps Ltd., 2009)
It is one of the most iconic images in The Beatles’ entire catalog, and one of the last that we would ever see of them as a group.

Four Beatles in a row, crossing the black-and-white zebra crossing on Abbey Road, one be-denimed and so serious-looking, one barefoot and smoking; one simply looking to keep up with his friends and the fourth in white, hands in pocket and his face swathed in hair.

No matter that they were making their way to exactly the same studio they had been using their entire career, they had come a long way from the four smartly smiling Moptops who waved out of the cover of their first LP, and a long way, too, from the all-for-one unity that bound them together back then. Abbey Road, as they titled their latest LP, would not be the last new Beatles album to be released — that honor would fall to the soundtrack to the “Let It Be” movie. But it was the last LP they would ever record together, and if the word “together” hangs awkwardly at the end of any sentence involving the latter-day Beatles, that is because it’s the last word that could describe them.

Yet, amid all the gloom and recriminations that flew around the end of The Beatles, and the sheer finality of a track listing that concluded with a song called “The End,” Abbey Road stands as perhaps the most cohesive of all The Beatles albums since Revolver. Yes, the White Album is more atmospheric, Sgt. Pepper is more lauded and Magical Mystery Tour is more mystifying. But from the opening warning, “Here comes old Flat Top,” to the closing chord that edges onto the label, Abbey Road not only features some of the group’s most ambitious songwriting and arrangements, it also offers a summation of everything the band had been striving for throughout the previous three years. Everything, that is, apart from the reconciliation that would allow John, Paul, George and Ringo to continue working together.

Misery loves company

In terms of chronological taping, the first sign that there might be a new Beatles album gelling around the chaos of the Get Back sessions, as Let It Be was originally known, came Jan. 2, 1969, the very first day of the sessions, when John introduced a new song, “Sun King,” to the proceedings.

That early in the process, of course, its presence was meaningless — every song that was brought to the movie set was a new one, and that same day had already seen George’s “All Things Must Pass” and John’s “Dig A Pony” unveiled to the watching cameras and tapes. But as time passed and the final shape and nature of the movie’s contents started to make themselves apparent, it was clear, too, that The Beatles had far move useful material on hand than Get Back could accommodate.

“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Oh Darling,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam” (both of which Lennon originally wrote during The Beatles’ visit to Rishikesh the previous year), “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers” (whose lyric McCartney borrowed from the 17th century poet Thomas Dekker), “Carry That Weight” and “Her Majesty” were all roughed out during the Twickenham Studio sessions, which themselves stretched throughout the month of January.

The sessions themselves were, John Lennon later sighed, “hell … the most miserable sessions on earth.” In the history of The Beatles, added George Harrison, they represented “an all-time low.” But the songs that the quartet brought to the sessions, and which they were now to take out of them again, could not help but benefit from their exposure to this harsh environment. For the first time since they gave up touring, The Beatles — or at least some combination of the individual members — were playing together live, and no matter that the audience was largely made up of cameramen and technicians, their songs were taught to breathe and grow.

Of course, it was in an attempt to recapture that “in concert” feeling that Paul McCartney hatched the movie scheme in the first place; he wanted the band to return to their roots, a rock ’n’ roll combo that kicked ass in concert, with Get Back, both on record and film, capturing that ass kicking for all time — remember, there were no truly listenable recordings of the “live” Beatles in existence at that time; either the shows were drowned out by screaming, as with the long-since mothballed Hollywood Bowl tapes, or were captured in the lowest of lo-fi, as was the case with the Star Club tapes. The fact that future generations would find both of these acceptable for release is immaterial. They were not a sound that The Beatles wished to be remembered by.

Neither, as it turned out, was Get Back, which was why the project was subjected to so many delays and disagreements before the bulk of it was handed over to Phil Spector for remixing; the so-called “naked’ version of Let It Be that was released in 2003 shows what a mess The Beatles themselves had left the album in. That was not a fate that their next LP could be allowed to share, and so The Beatles did the other thing that a great rock ’n’ roll band should do. They broke in the songs in the live environment, then took them into the studio to perfect. The result is the most natural and positive-sounding record they had made again since Revolver.

Despite the acrimony that was slowly devouring The Beatles during the first half of 1969, the group remained busy. In April, John and Paul alone recorded “The Ballad Of John And Yoko” and proved that their friendship could survive the problems that were consuming their professional relationship. True, some people balked at the self-serving nature of Lennon’s lyric (and title), but the performance itself was exemplary, and “The Ballad Of John and Yoko” remains one of The Beatles’ greatest latter-day achievements. Interestingly, it was also destined to become their final U.K. #1 hit single. Neither “Something”/“Come Together,” which followed toward the end of the year (#4) nor “Let It Be” (#2) would taste such heights.

It was the ease with which this single came together that encouraged McCartney and Lennon to return to the studio just a couple of days later, this time with their bandmates accompanying them — Ringo Starr was filming “The Magic Christian” at the time of the “Ballad Of John And Yoko” session, and Harrison was apparently “out of the country,” which may or may not have been a euphemism for other forms of unavailability.

But now they were back, and the quartet reunited at Abbey Road April 16, 1969, to record two of Harrison’s recent compositions: “Old Brown Shoe” and an early draft of the spectral beauty of “Something” — a song which Harrison wrote for his wife Patti, and which Frank Sinatra later described as “the greatest love song of the past 50 years.” Sadly, any joy George might have taken from those words would soon be tempered when Sinatra took to describing his live version of the song as a Lennon/McCartney composition. “He was very old by then,” Harrison is said to have retorted. “We probably all looked the same to him.”

Two days later, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” was approached for the first time, a veritable Lennon leviathan that would be subject to any number of overdubbed guitar lines before it finally sounded as “massive” as the band demanded. How fitting, then, that McCartney had already decided upon a title for the album. It would be called Everest.

Tape operator John Kurlander told Beatles chronicler Mark Lewisohn, “It was around July, when it was very hot outside, that someone mentioned the possibility of the four of them taking a private plane over to the foothills of Mount Everest to shoot the cover photograph. But as they became more enthusiastic about the LP, someone — I don’t remember whom — suggested, ‘Look, I can’t be bothered to schlep all the way over to the Himalayas for a cover; why don’t we just go outside, take the photo there, call the LP Abbey Road and have done with it?”

A legend was christened.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Rough Start!

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