The 50th anniversary re-issue of the seminal Beatles album Abbey Road – remixed and with a slew of alternative takes – along with the celebrations by surviving band-members and fans alike, illustrates the recording industry’s preoccupation with nostalgia.
It’s also an opportunity to cash in on both the vinyl resurgence and the wave of anniversaries that accompanies the canonisation of Baby Boomer rock pioneers. The Beatles lead the pack but Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones have also put out anniversary re-releases and documentaries.
It’s easy to be cynical but Abbey Road is a musical moment with an anniversary that warrants marking. It received mixed reviews on release in September 1969. The Guardian found the record “a slight matter”, although Rolling Stone remarked that it showed that the band was “still unsurpassed”. Commercially, there was no question. It entered the UK charts at number one, where it spent a total of 17 weeks, with similar performance internationally.
The album’s effect on musicians was both immediate and longstanding. Booker T and the MG’s recorded and released an instrumental cover of the album – McLemore Avenue – within a year, featuring themselves crossing the road outside their own Stax Studios. Frank Sinatra, meanwhile, made “Something” a feature of his concerts for years, recording it twice and calling it “the greatest love song of the last 50 years”.
Abbey Road’s reach into the popular consciousness is long. It has immortalised the former EMI studios, now taking the name of their address, and the zebra crossing that featured on the iconic cover is a tourist attraction today.
Its real emotional and musical weight, though, comes through the combination of songwriting and production craft with historical placement. Although Let It Be was released in 1970, Abbey Road was the last album the band recorded – a mixing session for Lennon’s portentous “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” was the last time all four members were in the studio together.
They were mired in financial difficulties – their Apple venture (a portfolio of ventures from record label to a shortlived boutique) was struggling after a ramshackle launch period. Their increasingly divergent social and musical lives were also shot through with legal disagreements, and whether to take on Allen Klein as their manager – as favoured by Lennon, Starr and Harrison – or, McCartney’s preference, the Eastman family of his new wife Linda.
Their recording swansong followed fragmentary, disparate work on 1968’s White Album and the fractious Get Back sessions in the early months of 1969. That was an attempt to rekindle their early, live energy first in Twickenham film studios and latterly their Apple building on Saville Row although it collapsed into discord, leaving hours of tape that would eventually surface as the 1970 album Let It Be, with Phil Spector tasked with finishing the job.
Work on Abbey Road in summer 1969 wasn’t free of discord but, unlike the preceding Twickenham sessions, it didn’t result in sloppy and incomplete recordings. This was due in no small part to the reinstatement of George Martin as producer and the band’s return to EMI studios. Martin instilled a sense of discipline. His involvement came with the condition that the band “let me produce it the way we used to”.
It’s plausible that, sensing the end was near, they wanted to go out on a high. The extent to which Abbey Road was planned as a finale is debatable. As with much of the Beatles’ final days, matters are shrouded in contradiction. The mix of schoolboy friendships, working relationships, a strained legal partnership and creative inspiration meant that the months of recording were unlikely to be either unremitting contention or unbroken harmony. It’s also almost impossible to discount hindsight and the tendency to read their final moments as a band into the music – “The End"’s elegiac conclusion to the medley on side two in particular.
Regardless, they were reaching the end of the road. All were involved in solo projects by the time they recorded Abbey Road and Harrison and Starr had already temporarily left the band during recordings for the White Album and Get Back.
End of an era
Abbey Road, though, reveals the possibilities and strengths of the "band” as format – the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. It’s the first time after perhaps Sergeant Pepper that their creative impetus is audible as merging across one another’s songs – the Beatles as an entity, beyond the group of individual musicians.
Abbey Road fuses song-craft and recording innovation with the confidence that the group dynamic brought to the table. Their first forays into eight-track tape and transistor technology gave the album a fuller sound than previously, while it was one of the first mainstream albums to feature a synthesiser. Sonically, it was as much the first album of the 1970s as an artefact of the late 1960s.
Few, acts are as synonymous with a decade as the Beatles are with the 1960s. And while this is party historical accident – their creative collaboration ended with the decade – it also means that Abbey Road signposts the passing of one era into another. As we stumble uncertainly towards a new decade ourselves, there’s comfort in that album’s uneasy synthesis of sunshine and strife into a coherent musical statement.
In 1963, The Beatles had recorded their first album Please Please Me in one lightning 13-hour session. By the time they walked out onto the zebra crossing in 1969, they had expanded the parameters of popular music, helping to turn it a recording art form. Their success also solidified the concept of the band as a preeminent creative unit in popular music. Even at the end, they continued to point the way forward.