A good part of my youth was spent in front of my old family hi-fi system, listening to Beatles records. This was music I knew no longer existed in the modern world—not on contemporary pop radio, and not on MTV… nowhere but on what seemed to me those ancient plastic disks. To my untrained ears, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour, and especially Abbey Road sounded like they had come down from an advanced alien civilization.
What I was hearing in part---especially on Abbey Road---was the perfection of the studio as an instrument, and the major influence of the last, best fifth Beatle, George Martin. Not to diminish the incredible musicianship and songwriting abilities of the Beatles themselves, but without their engineers, without Martin at the controls, and without the state-of-the-art studios---EMI, then, of course, Abbey Road---those albums would have sounded much more down to earth: still great, no doubt, but not the symphonic masterpieces they are, especially—in my opinion---Abbey Road, the last album the Beatles recorded together (though not their final release).
So how did such a brilliant recording come to being? You can piece its construction together yourself by sorting through all of the stuff that didn’t make it on the record---outtakes, alternate album cover photos---as well as through interviews with Martin and the band. At the top of the post, see one of the cover photos that didn’t make the cut. A self-effacingly-named blog called Stuff Nobody Cares About has several more alternate photos from that session on August 8, 1969 (which McCartney conceptualized beforehand in a series of sketches). Before the album got its iconic look, it came together—pun intended—as iconic sound. Just above, you can hear George Martin describe the process of producing the band’s last recording, a “very happy record,” he says, compared to the tense, unhappy Let it Be. Afterward, hear George, Paul, and Ringo recollect their bittersweet memories of the sessions.
Near the end of the documentary clip, Paul McCartney says, “I’m really glad that most of the songs dealt with love, peace, understanding….” If that’s what “Mean Mr. Mustard” or “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” are about, color me surprised, but I’ve never been one to get too hung up on the meanings of the Beatles songs—it’s the menagerie of sounds I love, the unusual chord changes, and the witty little narratives, touching vignettes, and almost shockingly apt lyrical images (“Hold you in his armchair / You can feel his disease”).
But like the band themselves coming back together, the songs on Abbey Road---including that masterful closing medley---didn’t immediately fall into place; they were the product of much studio noodling and idiosyncratic Beatles brainstorming---an activity one part music hall comedy improv, one part genius happy accident, and one part good-natured family squabble. In the three clips above and below, hear the powerful Abbey Road medley come together, in fits and starts, with plenty of playful banter and off-the-cuff inspiration.
Hearing the making of Abbey Road doesn’t take away from the otherworldly final product, but it does bring the exalted personalities of the band back down to earth, showing them as hardworking musicians and natural writers and comedians who just happened to have made---with no shortage of help---some of the most mind-blowing music of the 20th century.