Even by Beatles standards, Abbey Road has always been an album full of mysteries. How could the world’s most beloved band make their sunniest, warmest, most charming music while they were in the middle of breaking up? How did John, Paul, George and Ringo come together to drop their all-time biggest crowd-pleaser, while gearing up to go their separate ways? The eternal mysteries of Abbey Road only get deeper as you explore the revelatory new Super Deluxe Edition, released on the album’s 50th anniversary. It follows the recent Sgt. Pepper and White Album boxes — and like them, it will transform the way fans hear and argue about this music.
Abbey Road has always represented a historic peak of pop invention and perfection — that’s why Drake just got the cover tattooed on his arm. To this day, it remains their biggest seller. But it’s also their bittersweet goodbye. After the disastrous Get Back sessions in early 1969, they regrouped for one last blaze of glory. The final moment when all four were playing together was when they cut “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” All four knew it was the end. For the last time in their lives, they were writing, playing and singing Beatles songs.
For any other band, this situation might have tempted them into hoarding the best songs for their solo records. But the Beatles were far too competitive, too ambitious, too vain, too bloody-minded for that. They didn’t merely bring in brilliant songs—they brought brilliant Beatle songs, as if they knew they’d never get another chance to write tunes for these voices to sing. John never wrote another “Because,” just like George never wrote another “Something” or “Here Comes The Sun.” These were their love songs to being Beatles together.
Giles Martin and Sam Okell have done a new mix in stereo, 5.1 surround sound and Dolby Atmos. The mix does wonders for moments like the three-way guitar duel in “The End,” with Paul, George and John trading off solos live on the studio floor. The Sgt. Pepper and White Album sets were packed with mind-blowing experiments and jams, but Abbey Road is considerably more focused. In these 23 outtakes and demos, you hear a band in the zone, knowing exactly what they want to do, working hard to finesse the details, even the ones only they’ll notice. They’re playful, like when John messes with the lyrics of “Mean Mr. Mustard”: “His sister Bernice works in the furnace!” But it’s four confident men, determined to show off for the world — and more importantly, for each other.
Abbey Road has a warmth unlike any of their other music, which is why its popularity never dips. Especially among the young folks — as Giles Martin says, “It’s a kids’ album.” The songs are full of odd role reversals: suddenly Paul is the hard-ass realist singing about money and lawyers, while John and George prefer to sing about how nice sunshine is. (A rule of thumb: whenever a Beatle sings about sunshine, it means they’re trying to duck a fight with the others.) Paul’s lush Side Two symphony is a tour de force, but it’s also full of his melancholy that one sweet dream is ending. It’s in his voice when he sings, “Soon we’ll be away from here / Step on the gas and wipe that tear away.”
Abbey Road has always been cherished by Ringophiles, as an eight-track recording that lets Ringo’s toms finally boom the way he always wanted. He hits home all over this new mix — he also croons a countrified “Octopus’ Garden.” The remix highlights hidden details like the girl-group handclaps that sneak into the guitar break of “Here Comes The Sun,” or the bells, chirps, and splashes that cue “Sun King.” There’s a raw blues romp through “Come Together.” (Followers of the long-running Armchair Controversy will note that John definitely sings, “Hold you in his arms, yeah,” plus other lyrical goofs, though he switched back to “armchair” for the album version. May that argument never end.)
Paul shines in his demo of “Goodbye,” a fetchingly flirty ditty he gave away as a hit to his protege Mary Hopkins. (Years later, she’d resurface as one of the voices oooing and sighing on David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision.”) It’s Paul in his most coquettish upper-register voice, reminiscent of how he sang “Can you take me back where I came from?” on the White Album. There are three takes of “Her Majesty.” An unexpected delight: George Martin’s isolated orchestration from “Something.” You’ve heard these strings all your life, in the background, but now you can revel in details like the Brian Wilson-style Pet Sounds pizzicato. As for the album’s dottiest gaffe, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” maybe you were hoping Take 12 might reveal new layers of nuance and meaning? Sorry — get ready to have a clang-clang dropped on your dreams. It’s hard not to suspect Paul drove them through so many takes just to piss them off.
During the Get Back debacle, George tried to teach them a new tune called “All Things Must Pass.” John ignored him and strummed a Chuck Berry riff until George stomped out and quit the band for a week. (John’s response was not his most sympathetic: “I think if George doesn’t come back by Monday or Tuesday, we’ll ask Eric Clapton to play.”) George didn’t bring this song back for Abbey Road—after that bitter experience, he’d officially given up on sharing his mystic muse with the others. Knowing he’d only get his usual two songs, he brought in a couple of pop tunes. But they turned out to be the most famous and beloved tracks: “Here Comes The Sun” and “Something.”
These twin classics sound nothing like the songs he wrote for Sgt. Pepper or the White Album. They also sound nothing like the devotionals he was already demoing for his solo album, where “All Things Must Pass” became the title track. “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” are heartfelt, but they’re also George making a self-conscious effort to write Beatles songs rather than George songs. If he was trying to beat John and Paul at their own game and shock them into trying harder, he succeeded. These tunes fired up that restless hunger the lads had to impress each other, which none of them ever really lost, even after the band split.
Nobody’s a grudging participant on Abbey Road, no matter what they might have claimed later. George and John already had mapped out their exits, planning their big free-at-last solo statements — All Things Must Pass and Plastic Ono Band, both released at the end of 1970. So they felt free emotionally to commit themselves to one more summer of being Beatles again. (They also knew their next records would be with Phil Spector, so they didn’t have to butt heads with Mr. Martin, knowing this was just temporary.) Instead of fighting to prove themselves as individuals, they poured their hearts into expressing themselves as Beatles. Like John says, they knew it was their last chance to be loud. But more than that, they knew it was their last chance to be a band.
The emotional highlight: “Because,” where John writes a harmony ballad for these three voices to sing. And only these three voices — it’s one of those Beatle songs that’s uncoverable, because nobody else can do it justice. Ringo might not be singing, but he’s right there — to help John, Paul and George stay in sync, he keeps time by clapping his hands. (His claps are audible in the outtake included here.) “Because” doesn’t resemble anything John went on to compose for his solo records — it’s his fond tribute to the old friends he’s leaving behind. In the new mix, “Because” sounds more powerful than ever. You can hear how precisely the lads rehearsed their harmonies, determined to get this one right. They stood around the microphones and sang it together, like they used to. It’s a moment where one and one and one is three. All over Abbey Road, you can hear that collaborative spirit, as all four Beatles come together. And then, signing off with “The End,” they step on the gas and wipe that tear away.