It isn’t hard to envision the scenario that went down. At some point in early 1969, The Beatles are in a meeting, and unbeknownst to the world, they know they are a spent force. Their attempted project Get Back was an unsatisfying, unmitigated disaster; their previous album, The Beatles, had been lauded, but even they knew it was disorganized and not a particularly strong album. Even prior to that, their 1967 triumph of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was followed by their biggest misstep to date, Magical Mystery Tour. Apple Records was becoming a disaster, too; the Apple Boutique had failed and the label was losing money. They were aware that if they were to announce their breakup, they would end on a less than stellar note. Thus, they decided to put aside their egos and differences for a few months and rally in the studio to make one final, grand statement. That final statement, Abbey Road, was introduced to the world fifty years ago, and is now being reintroduced to the world with a fantastic new box set.
The effort and the singular vision of the band in this creative last gasp paid off dividends, as Abbey Road is one hell of a fine way to conclude a career. (There’s a debate to be had about Let It Be; I’m not interested in it, and although “Let It Be” and “The Long And Winding Road” and other songs on there have a sense of finality, it must be remembered that these numbers were composed and recorded before the band decided to break up or to make Abbey Road.) Slick and polished in a way their last few efforts hadn’t been, it was a pure rock record and captured nicely the heavier and harder and more diverse direction rock and roll would head in their absence.
And yet there’s an interesting secret hidden in plain sight: much of the music on side two is otherwise forgettable. It isn’t unrealistic to think that the members—especially George Harrison—were saving their best material for their sure-to-come solo careers, and the album’s greatest innovation is a medley of lesser material that had been in limbo since 1968. On their own, “Polythene Pam,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” are incomplete thoughts, and it’s to the credit of Paul McCartney and producer George Martin that their idea for a lengthy medley of unfinished material worked so well. It shouldn’t have worked, but it does; just take a listen to “The Long One,” a rough sketch of the medley, and hear how perilously thin the line was between good and bad. John Lennon himself offers some good material—“Come Together” is a classic, and the songs “Because” and “Sun King” are utterly gorgeous, but “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is a blues-rock jam that sounds great but is ultimately a song that doesn’t really offer much but a rock jam. Lennon as a force feels quite absent–thanks in large part to a crippling heroin addiction no one outside the band knew about.
Abbey Road is largely McCartney’s baby, and it’s not surprising that he’s on point on almost every song he brought. “Oh! Darling” is a soul number that absolutely burns, and his telling “You Never Give Me Your Money” is a cathartic, honest look at how he was feeling about it all. Then there is the one-two-three punch of “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” that stands as not only The Beatles’ Last Stand, but also proves to be one of their best moments on record ever. If you’re going to go out, you go out on top, guns blazing. Yet little brother Harrison wasn’t going out on a weak note, either; “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” finds the quiet Beatle finally delivering the truly definitive classic Beatles songs one always knew he had in him, and they proved that he was more than a mere third wheel in his own band—he was a powerful songwriter on his own. Unfortunately, Ringo Starr’s “Octopus’s Garden,” while cute, is merely a rehash of “Yellow Submarine” and feels oddly out of place here. Yet even this weaker moment is lifted up by the greatness surrounding it, and Abbey Road wouldn’t be Abbey Road without it.
If you’re coming to the super deluxe edition of Abbey Road expecting lots of really interesting rarities and unreleased jewels, you might be a bit disappointed. Abbey Road was an intensely focused recording progress, and as such, they didn’t waste their time in experimenting. The two totally unreleased numbers, “Goodbye” and “Come And Get It” were solo McCartney demos for songs from Apple artists Mary Hopkin and Badfinger, and have existed in the Beatles bootleg sphere for decades. Thus, the pleasures of the bonus material is more cerebral; it’s hilarious to hear that The Beatles—one of the greatest rock bands of all time—are told to turn things down during the early morning recording session for “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” because someone had complained. The snide remark at the beginning of “Sun King” by Lennon that “this won’t keep the Apple staff in work for the next ten years, with all those families to look over and a lot of people to keep” makes one wonder just what the hell the unheard conversation was about. “The Long One” is an alternate mix of the medley on side two, and this rough take is curious for the slightly clunky alternate track order that featured “Her Majesty” smack dab in the middle. (It was rightly removed to the end.) But it’s the gorgeous orchestral backing tracks for “Something” and “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight” that are easily the most enjoyable offerings here, as they show just how much intricacy and care went in to the creation of the final product; you might not notice these backing tracks in the finished songs, but you most certainly willnotice them if they’re not, as witnessed by the interesting but merely OK alternate versions on offer here. This deluxe edition also doesn’t disappoint in terms of packaging, as the large picture book offers a detailed history of each of the songs, the story of the Beatles at that point in time, and tons of pictures of the band (many from Linda McCartney’s camera) as well as memorabilia and ephemera related to the making of the record.
Abbey Road is simply one of the finest rock and roll albums ever made, period. This Super Deluxe Edition shows just how focused on saying goodbye the band may have been, as it is also one of the finest farewell records ever made. The Beatles never sounded so good—and fifty years later, the album still thrills.