Listening to the Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ at 50: Alan Cross

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WATCH: Ahead of the release of his 20th studio album, 'What's My Name?', Ringo Starr sat down with Corus Entertainment's Alan Cross to talk about not only the new music but how his former Beatles bandmates contributed to the record – Sep 29, 2019

When The Beatles issued Abbey Road on Sept. 26, 1969, the hi-fi revolution had yet to take hold. Most people would have heard it on cheap portable record players with plastic tonearms or through hulking console stereos that masqueraded as furniture.

This meant that even though the album was recorded using the very best technology of the day it’s the first Beatles album to use both eight-track multi-track recorders and a solid-state mixing console George Martin and his crew had to be very respectful of the limitations of the playback equipment of the day. No one wanted the needles jumping out of the groove during passages of deep bass, nor was there any point worrying about capturing all the high frequencies.

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Abbey Road has been reissued numerous times since then (most notably with 40th-anniversary remaster in 2009), each utilizing the latest tech to enhance and clean up what was committed to tape between February and August 1969.

For the album’s 50th-anniversary, Giles Martin, son of George, was entrusted with giving Abbey Road a top-to-bottom inside-out refurbishment using the original source materials. This newest version surely the clearest, best-sounding version ever was revealed with a special listening session in Studio 2, the room inside Abbey Road where the Beatles made most of their magic.

Stepping into Studio 2 is like going back in time to 1969. Nothing has changed (“Even the paint job, sadly,” remarked Giles). If you’ve seen pictures of The Beatles at work back in the day, rest assured that everything has been preserved at it was. The only thing that has been updated is the staircase up to the master control room on the mezzanine level.

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Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra paying tribute to the Beatles – Sep 17, 2018

For this special playback session 50 years to the day of the album’s release, the Abbey Road boffins set up some instrumental gear that approximated the gear The Beatles would have used on the album. This included a series of beat-up upright pianos (including the one McCartney used to bash out Lady Madonna the previous year. And is… is that the Mellotron used for the intro of Strawberry Fields Forever? I think it might be.

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Giles and his crew built a Dolby ATMOS rig for the occasion with 24? Thirty-six? More? surround channels to create the ultimate immersive musical experience.

Overkill? Absolutely. But it did offer a very rare opportunity to hear what sort of 21st-century wizardry and witchcraft was used to pull unheard things from master tapes half a century old.

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Let me say this right now: no matter how many copies of Abbey Road you may have spread across any number of formats, you need to own this 50th-anniversary edition. The songs sound that good.

If you’re used to hearing the album on a good stereo, you will be extremely impressed. If your only exposure to these songs has been through digital files (MP3s, streams, iTunes files), approach with caution. Your head might explode from over-stimulation.

Here are some highlights:

Come Together: There’s a new fullness to Ringo’s drums. Even though they were carefully muffled to get that effect, subtle overtones inaudible in the original mixes can now be heard. The wobbliness of Lennon’s electric piano playing somehow sounds slightly more unhinged, drawing the listener in with its tension.

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Something: Much more definition in the drums while the subtleties of George Martin’s orchestration come through like never before. Nothing is overwhelming. The result is a series of quiet but effective enhancements. Brilliant.

Maxwell’s Silver Hammer: The most difficult recording on the album Paul worked on it so much that the rest of the band grew to hate it sparkles on the high end. The blacksmith’s anvil used to punctuate Maxwell’s bonkings on the heads of his victims comes through loud and clear.

Octopus’ Garden: Things start normally enough but as we get to the pre-chorus, everything swells into something so much bigger and more powerful.

I Want You (She’s So Heavy): Lennon’s nearly eight-minute ode to Yoko. It’s now easy to peel back the various layers, right down to the then-revolutionary Moog synth Lennon used to provide some special effects.

Here Comes the Sun: Harrison’s best moment as a Beatle, full stop. Written while wandering Eric Clapton’s garden, the song has become the second-most covered Beatles track after Yesterday. This new version is the album’s high point. You’ve never heard this recording with this much definition and clarity. It will take your breath away.

When we get into the medley portion of side two, the freshness of the new mixes really comes through. Percussion flourishes that you may have missed. Subtle stereo effects now enhance instead of distract. A complete absence of hiss and other ancient tape artifacts.

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By the time we reach Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End, you’ll have fallen deeply into the record as it and the Beatles’ career comes to an end. Then comes a fabulous orchestral swell at the end of the line “The love you take is equal to the love you make,” deeper and smoother than I’ve heard on any other version of the record.

There’s just one more Beatles album requiring the 50th-anniversary treatment. Let It Be was the last Beatles album released (it came out in May 1970) but given the controversies over the way Phil Spector finished it off with his penchant of string sections, it’ll be interesting to see what Giles and Co. do with the thing.

Abbey Road was already considered by many to be The Beatles greatest album — sorry, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper fans. And in the age of resurgent vinyl, it’s always the perennially bestselling LP in the world. This new version assures that this will be the case for a while yet.

Just when you think there is nothing more to be revealed about The Beatles…

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107 and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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