The Beatles on a London roof. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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The myth of Abbey Road

Abbey Road is less a cornerstone of the Beatles’ legend than its tombstone

Abbey Road isn’t the worst of the ten Beatles studio albums; that’ll be the posthumous Let It Be. Nor is it the most overrated (Sgt Pepper) or their most creative (Rubber SoulRevolver or the White Album). It isn’t even the dullest Beatles’ album – the orchestral lashings of Phil Spector can’t mask the lassitude and loathing of Let It Be.

It was, however, the last studio album the band recorded, and the biggest selling. By the time it was released in September 1969, the long and winding death of the band had slowed the previously torrential tide of new material. A Beatles-starved public bought it in their droves, and so the album’s 50th anniversary, instead of eliciting a sober chorus of raspberries, has incited one of those delirious outbreaks of cheering that tend to follow the pop critics’ receipt of a well-tempered box-set such as the Abbey Road Anniversary Super Deluxe.

Rather than reverse the decline. Abbey Road was a sonorous death rattle

In fact, Abbey Road is less a cornerstone of the Beatles’ legend than its tombstone. The patient had been sick for years. Lennon claimed afterwards that he knew it was over in August 1967, when Brian Epstein died of an overdose and the band lost his business mind. I suspect it was a collective suicide: the decision in the summer of 1966 to stop touring had cut off the band’s lifeblood. Either way, the fatal blows had fallen before the Abbey Road sessions began in February 1969: Lennon’s addictions to Yoko Ono and heroin and McCartney’s insistence on including his novelty tunes. Rather than reverse the decline. Abbey Road was a sonorous death rattle. 

This is not the only reason that the album sounds different. Until July 1968, the band had recorded with George Martin in Studio 2 at EMI’s Abbey Road studios, using first a two-track and then a four-track REDD mixing desk. Frustrated with EMI’s apparent refusal to upgrade its equipment, the band moved to Trident Studios in Soho, which had Britain’s first 8-track desk, to record the single ‘Hey Jude. They returned to Abbey Road only when EMI installed eight-track desks there.

The REDD desks were valve-powered and had a single ‘mono’ speaker. The new stereo desks were powered by solid-state transistors. The transistor sound was clearer than the valve desk, especially in the treble range, but could not replicate the valves’ dynamic response, which created low-level enharmonic distortion, notably in the bass range or at peak moments. Compare Starr’s explosive kick drum on the REDD-mixed ‘Paperback Writer’ to his sharper but less powerful sound on Abbey Road. The heaviness of Starr’s kick on the first beat of the bar was once one of the band’s sonic signatures. So was the sonic compression that was a side-effect of ‘bouncing down’ two tracks into one to make more space for overdubs. Stereo, George Harrison said, “ruined the sound, from our point of view… It sounded, like, very naked.”

Abbey Road has a high fidelity sound quite different to what George Martin called the “maximum volume” of a compressed valve-desk mix. Its sonic virtues are those of classical music, which subsequently became, largely because of the Beatles’ experiments, the sonic vices of decadent 1970s rock with its cack-handed virtuosity, self-absorbed noodling, and novelty instrumentation such as the MOOG synthesizer that George Harrison added to Abbey Road.

Kenneth Womack’s new book, Solid State, describes the Beatles’ passage from the ‘Get Back’ sessions to Abbey Road’s completion in harrowing but enlightening detail. For Womack, a Beatles historian who moonlights as a professor of English, Abbey Road is a triumphal recovery, an “improbable musical epitaph for the ages”. 

It’s a lifeless half-album on which the Beatles no longer feel like a group

Rather, it’s a lifeless half-album on which the Beatles no longer feel like a group and don’t sound like themselves either. They do, however, sound like other artists. The first and best track, ‘Come Together’, resulted in Lennon being sued for ripping the first lines from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”. The opening of the second track, Harrison’s “Something”, is lifted from James Taylor’s “Something In The Way She Moves”. Most of the remainder of the album are exercises in other people’s genres: McCartney’s “Oh! Darling” (doo-wop), Lennon’s “I Want You” (blues rock) and ‘Because’ (the ‘Moonlight Sonata’, backwards). Further space is filled by the obligatory Ringo toe-curler (Octopus’s Garden) and McCartney (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer), and a medley of scraps and rejects, pumped up in the manner of The Who’s Tommy.

 A Beatles’ album on which George Harrison is held to be the strongest composer while Yoko lies smacked out and pregnant in a corner of Studio 2 on a bed from Harrods cannot be anything but third-rate.

 Abbey Road really did contain the sound of the Beatles’ collapse, but only the band and George Martin and his assistants heard it. As the band were mixing ‘Come Together’, they saw a ghostly Ono getting out of bed, tiptoeing across the studio and stealing one of the Digestives that George Harrison had stashed on his amp.

 “That bitch!” the spiritual Beatle screamed. “She’s just taken one of my biscuits!” The biscuit continues to be taken by the myth of Abbey Road.

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