Review | The Beatles - Abbey Road 50th Anniversary Edition
One of the most iconic and awe-dropping albums in pop culture's history gets a deluxe reissue 50 years after its initial release, giving listeners a wider collection of outtakes and new insights into its songwriting process.
While Abbey Road is retrospectively considered to be one of the most magnificent pop albums, and to some, The Beatles' greatest achievement, it's always been one of the band's most mysterious and secretive projects that many critics initially derided. In late October of 1969, the prolific music critic Robert Christgau wrote, "...opinion has shifted against the Beatles. Everybody is putting down Abbey Road". Not that it didn't have some critics defending the record, but its vibrant use of the Moog synthesizer, string arrangements, and "disposable" songs weren't appetizing enough for some. Regardless, it swept the charts immediately across the west and democratic Asia, hitting #1 on album charts in all applicable countries besides Japan, where it hit #3.
Abbey Road is a 17-track journey through the worlds of Lennon, Harrison, McCartney and Starr, held together with the dynamic production by "fifth Beatle" George Martin and Alan Parson, who would later produce Dark Side of the Moon. The first 8 tracks ring more of "professional pop" and showcase the quirks and talents of each member: Lennon's calls for unity on "Come Together" contrasted by the heavy "I Want You...", Harrison's beautifully-orchestrated "Something", McCartney's return to the roots on "Oh! Darling", and Starr's playful "Octopus's Garden". However, the infamous Abbey Road Medley dominates the B-Side and was arguably their greatest achievement as a band since "A Day in the Life" in 1967. With elegant harmonies, dynamic musicianship, and a thrilling, yet confusing impression, this medley showcases The Beatles at their tightest and most cooperative, but the history leading up to the record is anything but.
The band's decision to stop touring in 1966 allowed them to treat the studio as an instrument, no more or less than a guitar or drum set. Revolver and their upcoming Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band showed the band experimenting far more, using sound effects that could never be replicated live at the time, and their use of LSD also contributed to their colourful art-pop. But each member began exploring their own tastes more, and the once-united band that thrilled audiences was entirely different; blame it on Beatlemania or drugs, but it happened.
The Beatles (commonly known as "The White Album") is arguably the band's biggest artistic statement and their most comprehensive album, but it came out of harsh tensions within the band. David Fricke of Rolling Stone refers to it as "four solo albums under one roof". Lennon, with the influence of his new partner Yoko Ono, was more interested in experimental music (as evident in "Revolution 9"), while McCartney still enjoyed the trends of popular music at the time. Harrison and Starr were largely pushed out of the window; the latter would leave the recording sessions for several weeks as a result of constant fighting, while engineer Geoff Emerick quit working with the band earlier on in the sessions. The Beatles were close to breaking up with deep fragments but held together for two more albums.
The recording sessions for Abbey Road began in February 1969, only a few weeks after they began recording Let It Be. Tensions existed as before, but Martin helped discipline the band by threatening his departure, which would have thrown the whole band apart. Meeting at intermittent times in between late February and late August, they recorded Abbey Road with far fewer tensions as before and showed a great sense of unity for a band who would break up less than a year later.
The contrast between Lennon's wish for distinct, unrelated songs on Side A and McCartney and Martin's desire for another medley on the B-Side gave the record enough room for diversity. Each member explored their interests, but for the most part, they played together as a full band. Everything on Abbey Road sounds more professional than anything they had done before; yes, songs like "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", "Octopus's Garden", and the entire medley are playful, but Martin's production and the inclusion of different instruments and sound effects dress it up to be more elegant and impressive than their earlier kitschy experiments. There's nothing as raw as "Yer Blues" or electric as "Helter Skelter" here, but for the most part, Abbey Road stands as a professionally-dressed, but authentic, look at the biggest band in the world just months before their demise, and it's undoubtedly one of the best pop albums in history.
The 50th Anniversary Edition contains two additional discs with 23 previously unreleased songs. The vast majority are outtakes of songs that weren't included in the final record. The first of the deluxe discs primarily contains outtakes from Abbey Road's first side, but there are a few early demos that show their process of writing the record's medley as well as other songs that didn't make the cut. The second deluxe disc features many outtakes of the record's medley, but also includes a few other songs that didn't make the disc as the other disc did. Through this newly-released wave of 23 outtakes, there are some of special note.
"Goodbye" shows McCartney as a vulnerable yet elegant singer, full of passion in the soft folk ballad; he wrote the song, but it would be performed by Mary Hopkin and released in early '69. "The Ballad Of John and Yoko", the band's final #1 hit in the U.K., has a rawer session which shows Lennon in a more sincere state. "Something"'s studio demo feels significantly more vulnerable without all of Martin's arrangements, and the rawness in Harrison's vocals somehow feels more powerful than it does on the original album, aside from how unpolished they sound. Disc 2 contains a string-only instrumental for the song, which sounds immensely powerful in contrast to the studio demo featured earlier. Take 36 (to get a hint at the band's perfectionism at the time) of "You Never Give Me Your Money" is much rawer than the studio version, unsurprisingly, but the vocals sound much drearier and less melodic than one would expect. "Come and Get It", written and produced by McCartney but performed by Badfinger at the end of the year, is rawer, but sounds relatively well-composed for the time. The best new release is "The Long One", or the working title of the Abbey Road medley. It's not exactly the same as the final version; "Her Majesty" was thrown in between "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pan", "You Never Give Me Your Money" is slightly shorter with a few different lines, and the recurring melodies are much more prominent. This version is interesting because it shows the band coming up with one of their greatest feats in real-time, and the more unpolished sound lets them rock out much more.
This expanded anniversary edition is a good release that's essential for any hardcore Beatles fan who enjoys listening to demo sessions that show the band's creative juices flowing in the flesh. However, none of these outtakes and demos are superior to the refurnished ones that appear on Abbey Road simply because they lack the professional production by George Martin. Lennon and McCartney's perfectionism was necessary for their best work, and Abbey Road is evidence of that. Of course, it's good marketing on behalf of Apple Corps, but this anniversary release doesn't bring that many new insights into one of the band's greatest and most secluded albums. The new mixing is quite good, letting songs like "Something" and "Oh! Darling" sound more powerful with their string arrangements and piano work, respectively. Even the heavy blues rocker "I Want You..." sounds murkier than before, most notable near its abrupt ending. For the entire reissue, it's worth getting your hands on the well-mixed originals as well as the demos for "Something", but the rest of the demos are more jarring and tiresome than insightful.
Best song: "The Long One..."
Worst song: "Because - Take 1 / Instrumental"