frank ramblings

Fifty Years of “Abbey Road”

It Feels Like Years Since It’s Been Here

As I write this, I’m flying home to Boston after a week-long vacation in London. While there, I just had to visit Abbey Road Studios and take the obligatory touristy photo at the zebra crossing made world-famous when it appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road. A few days later, fans everywhere were treated to a 50th anniversary re-release of that album.

Obligatory photo of me at the Abbey Road zebra crossing

Over the last couple of years, producer Giles Martin (son of the Beatles’ longtime producer and collaborator George Martin) has teamed up with recording engineer & mixer Sam Okell to bring new life to some of the band’s most beloved albums. First with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 2017, and then again with The Beatles (a.k.a. “The White Album”) in 2018, the team went back to the multitrack source tapes to create remastered, re-mixed versions of each album using both old-fashioned and modern techniques. They managed to make records released 50 years ago sound clean and fresh as if they were recorded yesterday. After a largely positive reception to both of those projects, fans (including me) were thrilled to hear that Martin and Okell would team up again in 2019 for the anniversary of Abbey Road, the final album that the band recorded together.

I’ve always considered Abbey Road one of the strongest Beatles albums. It’s the record where they went out on top. They exhibit their chops as songwriters with songs like “Something” and “Come Together.” They show off a fun, quirky side with tracks like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Octopus’s Garden.” They dabble in an assortment of musical styles throughout the legendary side 2 medley that takes us from “You Never Give Me Your Money” through “The End.” I gained new appreciation for Sgt. Pepper and the White Album after their respective re-releases, so I was eagerly awaiting any new perspectives I might gain about Abbey Road.

Reviewing these re-releases track-by-track here on my blog is now an annual tradition. And it brings me so much joy. As I compare the new Abbey Road re-mix side-by-side with the original mix, I really love what Martin and Okell have done this time around. Let’s break it down.

Side One: One Thing I Can Tell You Is You Got to Be Free

Track 1: Come Together

The Big Picture: Every instrument here has more space to breathe in a way I didn’t think they needed until now. I do notice that the very ending of the song has been changed a bit, which I have mixed feelings about. John’s vocal overdubs have been swapped around: his grunts and groans have been pushed way down in the mix and another vocal that was previously inaudible is now front and center. It’s a change many people won’t notice, and it’s definitely very cool to hear something that was buried in the multitrack tapes all these years. I would have preferred to save that alternate ending for the bonus discs and leave the main track unchanged in that regard, but that doesn’t ruin the song for me.

The MVP: Ringo’s drums! The way they shift across the stereo spectrum from right to left feels super immersive right off the bat and sucks you into the record. A little gimmicky maybe, but it sounds great. It reminds me of the intro to the 2017 re-mix of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”

Track 2: Something

The Big Picture: Absolutely magnificent. The stereo mix is so immersive, I feel like it’s giving me a big warm hug. Some significant tape/room hiss has been removed, some slight peaking has been reduced, and all that’s left is the beauty and majesty that is one of the greatest love songs ever composed. Every word out of George’s mouth, every strum of a guitar or press of a key feels present here and now.

The MVP: The string section is the backbone of the track. Giles Martin makes his father’s sweeping arrangement somehow even more essential to the character of the song, binding together the vocal harmonies, organ, and iconic guitar solo into one cohesive unit. You can hear the string track isolated if you spring for the Super Deluxe Edition boxed set (or, as of this writing, you can stream it for free on Spotify or YouTube).

Track 3: Maxwell’s Silver Hammer

The Big Picture: The openness of these mixes is so refreshing! Even on this novelty track about a deranged-yet-somehow-lovable serial killer, every component is refined to emphasize the great performances that are being captured here. The Moog synthesizer is so smooth and futuristic, the guitar fills are crisp, the drums have so much body and character, and the backing vocals are glorious. I do wish the anvil was a little louder, though!

The MVP: Paul’s lead vocal sounds more vibrant and nuanced, like it’s from an earlier-generation multitrack tape. Now you can better appreciate his commitment to delivering a killer performance.

Track 4: Oh! Darling

The Big Picture: Paul’s tribute to old time rock ‘n’ roll is now much more punchy and bassy. The guitar stabs are in your face, the lead vocal is raw and powerful like Little Richard, and the percussive piano would make Fats Domino proud.

The MVP: The backing vocal harmonies are super bright and uplifting. Now they really embody the doo-wop spirit this song represents.

Track 5: Octopus’s Garden

The Big Picture: I didn’t think it was possible to make this song an even more pleasant listening experience than it already was, but here we are! John’s electric guitar fingerpicking is now in stereo, giving the track more body and presence. The honky-tonk piano is so delightful, it makes me want to get up and dance. On the other hand, some of the lead guitar licks could be a little higher in the mix. And ironically, for a Ringo track, the drums weren’t given quite the same treatment as on “Come Together.”

The MVP: That iconic “underwater” bridge segment! The guitar really wails, plus you can hear the bubble-blowing clear as day behind the sing-song gargling.

Track 6: I Want You (She’s So Heavy)

The Big Picture: I think this gets my vote for most improved track on the album. It’s raw and passionate at the beginning, it’s slick and groovy in the middle, and then it absolutely rocks out all the way to its legendary abrupt end. John’s vocal track is now higher in the mix, and it sounded so fresh on my first listen that I actually had to question whether I was listening to the same vocal performance! After the first “she’s so heavy” chorus, the bluesy, jazzy guitar solo is so warm and cozy, I want to crawl up inside it and live there. And then Billy Preston’s soulful-as-hell organ solo absolutely blows me away.

The MVP: The final section of this track might be my favorite side-closer on any album, ever. It’s always been an absolute wailer of an ending, with the tension building and building. And somehow, the tension is even higher now! You’ve got the Moog white noise generator swelling, Ringo banging away on the drums like his life depends on it, and of course that ominous repeating guitar riff that seems to be heralding the arrival of something terrifying. And every time I think it must be ending any second now, there’s still a full minute left!

Side Two: Once There Was A Way To Get Back Homeward

Track 7: Here Comes The Sun

The Big Picture: Side 2 opens with one of the most popular and well-loved tracks in the Beatles’ catalog — and it’s been given the attention it deserves. Within the first few seconds, those harmonies hit you in full stereo, and they’re now as radiant as the sun itself. You instantly know you’re in for something special. The bridge (“sun, sun, sun, here it comes”) gets a nice added punch as the synths really shine through. It’s also worth noting that a new music video was released to accompany the new mix — earning over 1 million views on YouTube within the first 24 hours of its release.

The MVP: The final verse. By the time you get there, you feel the triumphant payoff that the track has been building towards all along: the sublime vocals and the ultra-catchy acoustic guitar riff anchoring everything, the driving bass and drums driving things forward, the strings adding rich texture, and the victorious synth floating up above it all optimistically. It’s enough to make you want to stand up and cheer.

Track 8: Because

The Big Picture: This song has always been hauntingly beautiful. It really didn’t need much improvement, but there are some very nice touches here. Paul’s bass line plays a more significant role than before, that Moog synth adds a lot to the bridge and final verse, the harpsichord has more oomph, and the mix is a quite a bit more open overall.

The MVP: The harmonies, obviously! They’re the song’s main attraction, and they’re even more full-bodied than before, if you can believe it. Giles Martin and Sam Okell have an incredible ability to make the Beatles’ legendary harmonies sound like they’re right there in the room with you. They’ve done it on every album they’ve re-mixed so far, and for my money, this track is the finest example.

Track 9: You Never Give Me Your Money

The Big Picture: This track has a lot of minor changes. Some I love, others I don’t prefer. On the whole, it’s like a good bottle of wine that’s been decanted and allowed to breathe — it only gets better! I love how the “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7,” chant is much stronger. Ringo’s drumming has really been brought to the fore and stereo-fied nicely. But I do sort of miss the ADT and slight reverb on Paul’s lead vocal. And like the ending of “Come Together,” there are a couple of minor changes at the end of this track that I felt weren’t entirely necessary. A quicker fade on Paul’s “came true today, yes it did now,” means he’s cut off slightly sooner. And a more gradual fade on the lead guitar uncovers some guitar noodling that wasn’t audible before. Again, a very cool alternate ending that I would have preferred left to the bonus features. But the mix is so beautiful overall, I really can’t complain! It’s very possible I’ll just get used to it with time.

The MVP: The “out of college, money spent” section really stands out to me in this mix. The piano is jangly, the drums are powerful, the bass is robust, and the harmonies are gorgeous. I just absolutely love how tight the band sounds here.

Track 10: Sun King

The Big Picture: The opening soundscape makes outstanding use of the stereo field. The way the fingerpicked guitar, cricket sounds, and cymbals dance around from one side to the other is some of Martin and Okell’s finest work together on the re-mixes. The bass sounds much cleaner. The Lowrey organ is downright regal.

The MVP: The multilingual gibberish section has never been clearer or more amusing. This sincere delivery of complete and utter nonsense is among the best examples of Lennon wordplay.

Track 11: Mean Mr. Mustard

The Big Picture: John and Paul’s voices blend so perfectly on this track! The piano isn’t particularly high in the mix, but it sounds so much clearer. I really gained a renewed appreciation for what they did there. Plus, the drums being in stereo makes a world of difference for me. My brain knows it’s digital trickery, but my ears don’t care.

The MVP: Paul’s fuzz bass is extra fuzzy and extra bassy! Love everything about it!

Track 12: Polythene Pam

The Big Picture: Much improved mix here! The original mix felt somewhat constrained to the center and didn’t make particularly good use of stereo. Now it’s much more balanced, and it highlights how incredibly tight this band was right up until the end!

The MVP: John’s exaggerated scouse accent is thoroughly delightful.

Track 13: She Came In Through The Bathroom Window

The Big Picture: Ringo shines here once again, and Paul’s double-tracked vocals on the chorus are exquisite!

The MVP: The ongoing guitar fills give this song so much character! They’re mixed a little lower than I’d prefer, but that hasn’t stopped me from playing air guitar with every listen.

Track 14: Golden Slumbers

The Big Picture: The stereo separation here is less strict than before, and it’s absolutely for the better. The piano and orchestra play off each other in a beautiful new way. There’s an orchestra-only version on one of the bonus discs, and it’s absolutely worth your time to experience this arrangement on its own.

The MVP: Paul’s vocal performance is at times wistful, and at others, soulful. I’m mesmerized by the contrast between “smiles awake you when you rise,” and then, “I will sing a lullaby.”

Track 15: Carry That Weight

The Big Picture: It’s now much easier to pick out the bands’ individual voices during both the verse and the chorus — and that just brings me a ton of joy.

The MVP: The horns quite literally send a chill down my spine when they come in with the melody of “You Never Give Me Your Money.” And then George’s guitar solo just brings me to the verge of tears.

Track 16: The End

The Big Picture: The track comes in with a bang and doesn’t let up. And that drum solo? Oh my goodness. Ringo has never sounded better. And then, just like that, the orchestra swells, and the Beatles’ recording career ends with one of their most iconic lyrics: “the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

The MVP: The three-way guitar solo, hands-down. I’ve seen mixed reactions online but I absolutely adore the way they pan left, right, and center. It was one of just a few things I had on my wish list, and they delivered in a big way. It was exactly what I hoped for.

Track 17: Her Majesty

The Big Picture: Look, I cant lie. The song is 25 seconds of Paul singing and playing his acoustic. There’s not a ton to pick apart, but it’s great. Based off the original mix, they tweaked the left-to-right panning and made it much more gradual.

The MVP: All of it. It’s 25 seconds long!

And In The End…

The new mix of Abbey Road is fresh and fantastic. If you like the Beatles, give it a good listen and enjoy it! Much like other recent re-mixes and remasters, it’s like hearing the album for the first time, all over again. It’s like stripping the finish off a beautiful piece of wood and admiring the beauty just under the surface. There are so many nuances waiting to be noticed. It’s pure magic.