The Making of The Beatles’ Abbey Road: Alternate Album Cover Photos, Recording Session Outtakes & Interviews

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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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Short Film on the Famous Cross­walk From the Bea­t­les’ Abbey Road Album Cov­er

Hear the Iso­lat­ed Vocal Tracks for The Bea­t­les’ Cli­mac­tic 16-Minute Med­ley on Abbey Road

The Bea­t­les’ Rooftop Con­cert: The Last Gig Filmed in Jan­u­ary 1969

The Bea­t­les’ Final, “Painful” Pho­to Shoot: A Gallery of Bit­ter­sweet Images

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Richard says:

    They were gods who walked among us!!!

    Nah, I’m just kid­ding. The Bea­t­les, the Rolling Stones, all of those pop groups were a prepack­aged high­ly mar­ket­ed prod­uct. Typ­i­cal of the shal­low celebri­ty cul­ture that we live in. Time to move on.

  • William says:

    Pure mag­ic. Any true con­nois­seur of music is insight­ful enough to under­stand this.

    Pound for pound, the Bea­t­les cre­at­ed more musi­cal mas­ter­pieces than any band ever. The Rolling Stones are laugh­able in com­par­i­son. All one need do is to check the release dates of a par­tic­u­lar record and you’ll find that what­ev­er the Bea­t­les did, the Stones would try and do 8–18 months lat­er. Of course, their(the Stones)imitations were always 2nd or 3rd rate.

    These out­takes are a real treat. Abbey Road is the per­fect crown­ing achieve­ment to that aston­ish­ing burst of genius and cre­ativ­i­ty that was the Bea­t­les. Even going on 50 years lat­er, it still sounds rel­e­vant and fresh. Just try find­ing anoth­er rock/pop music record that was record­ed in 1969–1970 that does­n’t sound corny or obvi­ous­ly dated–you can’t.

    The Bea­t­les weren’t Gods who walked among us. They were mere­ly humans who some­how man­aged to cap­ture music mag­ic in a time­less bot­tle.

  • mark c skinner says:

    both bands were great, no doubt! the bea­t­les led the pack but close behind were the beach boys, the stones, the spoon­ful, the ras­cals, the byrds, the mamas and papas, simon and Gar­funkel, man the list goes on, all about the songs, which with­out noth­ing would have mat­tered w/any of these bands! and speak­ing of songs all had to take a step back and a back­seat to DYLAN even LENNA and MACCA ‚ive played and wrote for over 50 yrs. (songs that is) and all the­se­bril­liant cre­ative cats were my inspi­ra­tion most­ly the four undis­put­ed genius­es of 60s rock DYLAN, LENNON, WILSON, and HENDRIX real­ly there’s no room for debate!!! GOD BLESS AND PEACE AND PROTECTION FOR ALL!!! Skin­ner

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