"Abbey Road": Fifty years later, the reviews are in

Here are reviews of two of the 2019 anniversary editions of The Beatles' "Abbey Road," and recent books about the masterwork.
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Below are reviews of two of the 2019 anniversary editions of The Beatles'Abbey Road, and recent books about the masterwork.

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THE BEATLES

Abbey Road
(2-CD Edition)

Apple/Universal

5 Stars

As the 50th anniversary of the beyond-iconic Abbey Road LP approached, the question on the minds of many was a relatively obvious one: what could possibly be done to make sonic improvements to The Beatles’ penultimate release? After all, as producer Giles Martin duly notes in the 40-page booklet that accompanies the newly remixed double-disc set, “Abbey Road sounds pretty great already.”

Working at Abbey Road Studios alongside mix engineer Sam Okell (who also assisted with the Sgt. Pepper and White Album remixes), Martin doesn’t feel the need to mess with (near perfection); the sonic differences between the 2019 Abbey Road and previous versions seem mostly subtle at best. What has been done, however, is to further explore the inherent power and beauty in each of the songs and in The Beatles’ individual performances, as well as to pull back the curtain on the creative process involved in the recording.

Arguably, The Beatles’ collective vocal and instrumental prowess was at its peak on Abbey Road: their golden vocal harmonies on tracks such as “Because” and “Sun King” positively glisten; Ringo Starr’s drumming has never sounded more powerful and innovative; Paul McCartney’s incredible bass guitar work—“You Never Give Me Your Money” and “Come Together” are but two of the numerous examples here—is pure gold; George Harrison’s fluid guitar lines are nicely integrated into the overall mix (“Something” contains what might be his best-ever solo); and even though John Lennon’s overall contributions seem less pervasive than McCartney’s, his “Come Together” and “I Want You (She’s so Heavy”) are vocally and instrumentally…well, heavy (and “Because” remains simply flat-out gorgeous).

Disc one features the 2019 remix and as with Martin’s previous Fab Four remixes, half the fun for Beatles fanatics is finding those subtle sonic differences mentioned earlier. To wit: “Come Together” has some previously unheard vocal vamping towards the end, while Lennon’s drawn-out moan has gone missing; Harrison’s lead vocal on “Something” has a breathtaking, newfound presence as it snuggles up against a more pronounced, lush bed of strings; the background “oohs” and “ahhs” on “Oh! Darling” are more prominent in the mix, as are the guitar arpeggios; Starr’s ride cymbal cuts through the swath of white noise on Lennon’s howl of love, “I Want You (She’s so Heavy),” while the lead vocal now sounds more nuanced than before; McCartney’s lead vocal is brought further out front on the “Out of college, money spent…” section of the marvelous “You Never Give Me Your Money,” while some new intricacies are revealed on the lead guitar on the outro; and the strings and brass have been bumped up in the mix on “Golden Slumbers,” to great effect. Overall, the record sounds fresher than ever, as if it could have been recorded yesterday. Cliché? Perhaps. Truth? Most certainly.

Disc two features alternate takes of each of the album’s tunes, presented in the original LP’s running order (unlike the “Sessions” CDs included in the new Abbey Road box set, where the songs are in random order, with additional tunes such as McCartney’s demos of “Goodbye” and “Come and Get It” sprinkled in). Not only is it a joy to listen in on the songs in various stages of development, but the pre-and-post-song asides and banter between The Beatles is nice to hear, as well; there seems to be quite a bit of laughter and frivolity from all involved, which seems to fly in the face of the oft-repeated stories that The Beatles were frequently at each other’s throats during this period.

Highlights on disc two are many: they include a previously unheard version of “I Want You (She’s so Heavy),” which is dubbed the “Trident Recording Session & Reduction Mix” and is notable for Billy Preston adding a beautifully wild organ part that would later be replaced by the now-familiar white noise on the officially released take. There is also an electric guitar and piano demo of “Something” in which Harrison seems to have the song’s arrangement already sorted (it includes a vocal bit that was excised from the final version); “The End (Take 3)” is presented without the three guitar solos in place and is highlighted by a different drum solo from Starr; “Octopus’s Garden (Take 9)” begins with peals of laughter from Harrison and breaks down when Starr loses his place on his lead vocal (“I went wrong…”); “Polythene Pam (Take 27)” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (Take 12)” both find McCartney offering some drum instruction, with Lennon laughingly remarking that Starr’s pounding beat on the former track “sounds like Dave Clark.” (Interesting note: the take of “Maxwell” ends with McCartney tossing off a brief piano figure that sounds very similar to one used in “You Know My Name [Look Up the Number],” the B-side to the “Let it Be” single.)

Those whom require a deeper dive into Abbey Road and the sessions from whence it came would be advised to spring for the CD box set, which includes the 2019 mix, two discs’ worth of sessions, and Blu-ray audio of the new mix (Dolby ATMOS, 96 kHz/24 bit High Res Stereo). Whether it’s the box, the 2-CD set or any of the vinyl iterations, spending time with Abbey Road 50 years on will take the listener on a wonderful sonic voyage and leave them, as Paul McCartney so aptly puts it in the booklet, “…still wondering at the magic of it all.”

—John M. Borack

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THE BEATLES

Abbey Road
(SUPER DELUXE EDITION— 3 CD/1 Blu-ray)

Apple Corps. Ltd/Capitol/UMe (

5 Stars

The 50th anniversary series of Beatles reissues continues with Abbey Road, but this album even gave producer Giles Martin pause. He admitted the original mix was great; so what could he add? He eventually decided a new mix that was more suitable to today’s standards of audio equipment would justify a remix; “You don’t want your kids to listen to The Beatles’ records and go ‘God, this sounds old,’” he told the Los Angeles Times. So it’s a modern remix that, Martin feels, still has the integrity, the feel, of the original album.

Overall, there’s a greater clarity to sound in comparison with the 2009 remaster, that’s evident on even a basic stereo system. Paul McCartney’s vocal on “Oh! Darling” is noticeably beefed up; the harmonies on “Because” are thick enough to sink into; the medleys are much richer, more robust experiences. Fine as the 2009 remaster is, the new remix does bring out further sounds that were buried before (those to these ears, the drums are often too much in the foreground, making the sound too “busy”).

For a richer listening experience, the set’s Blu-ray disc offers 96kHz/24 bit high resolution stereo, Dolby Atmos, and 96 kHz/24 bit DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The 5.1 mix really allows you to focus on individual elements of the songs, such as the way the Moog synthesizer line in “Here Comes the Sun” moves around, or the nuances in McCartney’s vocal on “You Never Give Me Your Money.” And it might be short and sweet (a mere 23 seconds), but the way “Her Majesty” playfully moves around the speakers gives this mix a cheeky send off.

There are two CDs of bonus tracks, with an alternate recording of every track on the album. The earliest take is a version of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” from a February 22, 1969 session at Trident Studios, a composite track made up of an outtake that segues into a reduction mix made that day. Even stripped of the white noise that overwhelms the finished track by the end, the song is quite “heavy” enough already, and you can really hear Billy Preston’s organ work during the fade out. It’s terrific fun to hear all three takes of “Her Majesty.” And speaking of which, you get to hear the earlier version of the medley that placed “Majesty” between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam.”

Some other highlights: the wonderful rawness of John Lennon’s voice on take 5 of “Come Together”; McCartney struggling with his vocal on take 4 of “Oh! Darling” (it took him a number of sessions before he laid down a vocal he was satisfied with); the sweet sadness of the first three takes of “Golden Slumbers”/ “Carry That Weight.” Bonus tracks also include alternate versions of non-Abbey Road tracks recorded around the same time (e.g. “The Ballad of John and Yoko”). Note that the demo of “Come and Get It” is a different mix to that which appeared on Anthology 3.

The set is packaged in an album-sized book in a slipcase. The large size makes the photographs especially nice to look at. Illustrations also include studio documentation and handwritten lyrics. But the bulk of the 100-page book is devoted to track-by-track notes by Kevin Howlett; you’ll want to keep this handy as you listen to the album. As with the 50th anniversary editions of Sgt. Pepper and The Beatles, it’s worth buying the Super Deluxe edition for this handsome book.

One frustrating thing on reading the book is seeing how much music there is that we don’t get to hear. Unlike the 2017 Sgt. Pepper reissue (which included, for example, five takes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and an earlier stereo mix), you don’t get to follow a song over the course of its development. And while the three instrumental tracks (“Something,” “Because,” and “Golden Slumbers”/ “Bury That Weight”) are lovely, most fans would probably have preferred to have songs with vocals instead. Well, at least there’ll be something available for the 60th anniversary reissue…

— Gillian G. Gaar

https://www.goldminemag.com/features/the-top-5-songs-from-the-beatles-abbey-road-album

Kenneth Womack

Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and The End of The Beatles

Cornell University Press

3 Stars

Bruce Spizer

The Beatles Get Back to Abbey Road

498 Productions

5 Stars

In addition to the fine book included in the Abbey Road super deluxe set, two other respected Beatles authors have released their own books on the subject.

Womack takes the narrative approach, opening in February 1969 and running through the release of the Let It Be movie and film in 1970, the only book to delve so extensively into the album’s recording in this fashion.

Womack does tend to jump around in the text, occasionally making it difficult to track the sequence of events, even if you’re familiar with The Beatles’ story. He also has a tendency toward flowery language. The Beatles didn’t simply return to the studio to make the record, they “decided to give it one final go before slipping into the waiting arms of history.” In their photo shoot with Angus McBean in 1963 at EMI’s headquarters, they’re “gazing downward for all time” when they look down the stairwell. The middle eight of “Carry That Weight” features “arguably (Paul) McCartney’s most revealing lyrical effusion on tape.” Such hyperbole isn’t necessary; The Beatles’ story has sufficient enough drama that it doesn’t need this sort of embellishment.

Spizer’s book, like his previous anniversary books on Sgt. Pepper and The Beatles, is thematic, with Spizer writing the bulk of the work, and other contributors weighing in on different subjects. The book endeavors to put the album’s release in context of the era: there are chapters on the news events of 1969; the year in music and film (it’s a year that also saw the release of such landmark albums as Led Zeppelin, Santana, Let It Bleed and Tommy); John Lennon’s transformation from “rock ‘n’ roller into a performance artist”; and the “Paul is Dead” theory (though there was no need for two chapters on this topic).

The key chapters are those on the U.S. and U.K. perspectives of The Beatles in 1969, and the recording sessions. The latter section is adapted from Spizer’s The Beatles on Apple Records book, and the song-by-song approach makes it easy to follow the progress of a song’s recording. The illustrations provide an additional treat, featuring contemporaneous ads, record labels and sleeves, and reproductions of articles like Albert Goldman’s review of Abbey Road in Life (“…not one of The Beatles’ great albums, but it contains lots of good things”); it’s a book that’s as much fun to look at as it is to read. Fans of these books will be pleased to know that Spizer is already working on one for Let It Be. (www.beatle.net)

– Gillian G. Gaar

Take a sneak peek, below, at Goldmine's Abbey Road issue, on newsstands (select Barnes & Noble and Books A Million) until November 6.

Beatles expert Bruce Spizer talks about all things Abbey Road