I Listened to The Beatles’ Abbey Road for Two Hours Straight

A Beatles super fan takes a non-stop stroll down the long and winding Abbey Road Super Deluxe Edition. It leaves his feet sore.

Abbey Road is first Beatles album I owned. I say ‘owned’, it’s the first Beatles album I liberated from my dad’s record cabinet. But since I neither had a record player, nor the ability to use one, there it sat neglected for many years. I now actually have the means to play it, though wouldn’t trust myself to place an original vinyl on the turntable without accidentally flinging it on to a nearby fire or something.

No worries though, I have several other copies, along with every other reissue, repackage, and other that Apple Corp have thrown at me over the years. After last year’s gargantuan box set, my White Album collection is now complete – until the 60th Anniversary Immersive Cranial Implant Edition, that is. My Abbey Road quota currently includes the remastered CD from 2009, the remastered vinyl from 2009, my dad’s my original vinyl, the HMV box set, and the hastily shoved-on-a-CD 1987 edition – the one which has paid the most visits to the CD player.

It’s my favourite album – it’s perfect (yes, even Maxwell’s Silver Hammer) – made all the more remarkable by the mess The Beatles were in at the time. Somehow they came together (sorry) enough to make their masterpiece, with the forethought to hide all the sitars from George.

But will I still feel the same after sitting through the entirety of the latest Super Deluxe box set, remastered and re-engineered by Giles Martin to mark the 50th anniversary (apart from the blu-ray... yep, they’re still pushing that)?

I’m not talking ‘in the background with rest breaks’. No, no, pure, immersive, hard listening, right from the opening clap of Come Together, through You Never Give Me Your Money Take 36, right up to Golden Slumbers Carry That Weight Take 17 Instrumental Strings & Brass Only... catchy, right?

But first the packaging – like a high-end coffee table book, only with Beatles music inside it. It’s tactile, beautiful, with some wonderful glossy little-seen photos of the group in their final days, and, best of all, it looks great on a shelf. But enough of this – glass of wine; lights off; curtains closed; phone on airplane mode. Here come old flat top...

DISC 1 – Abbey Road 2019 Remaster – time elapsed: 00:00:00

I have high hopes for this version – and, although the recording quality was already the best of all The Beatles’ albums (they had shiny new mixing desks), Giles Martin’s sterling work on the Pepper and White Album remasters makes me think he could still pull something out of the bag.

As soon as the that first clap, baseline and drum fill kick in on Come Together, you know you’re in for a treat. It all feels crisper, more urgent – you’re in the smoky studio with them as they perfect the final take – you can even hear more Lennon/McCartney ad-libbing as the song fades out. And then a drum roll, and a little song called Something starts. Martin has achieved the near impossible and made this version even more involving and moving – from the first drum fill, the clarity is completely breathtaking. I mean we know these songs – I’m not going to pick them apart in that way – but the crispness of the remaster is genuinely immersive; the warmth of Paul’s voice, the ringing of the synths and sweet harmonies on Because, the gong-bath that is Sun King... to quote an earlier Beatles song, it’s all too much.

But the pieces that really sing, that hit me between the eyes, leave me reeling, and reaching again for the wine bottle, come in the form of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and Here Comes The Sun. Try listening to the former on a pair of headphones and not getting hypnotised by it, jumping when it suddenly cuts out (I still can’t tell when that’s going to happen). Then the sky clears and George’s picking comes in. This is the song remastering was made for. 

By the time The End has faded out, the game is up, and I’m very happy. Just when you think Abbey Road couldn’t be improved upon, they go and do this. So far I’m not exactly struggling to get through this. But then it is the album I know and love, albeit with a little bit of a polish. Time to get a bit deeper...

DISC 2 – Demos and Outtakes 1 – time elapsed: 00:43:53

“My boys are ready to go,” says John at the beginning of I Want You (She's So Heavy) Trident Recording Session & Reduction Mix and there is a sense of lightness, humour, camaraderie and closeness you get on this CD which, if you bought into the story of The Beatles’ final days, you wouldn’t expect. 

You hear it on Octopus’s Garden Take 9 when Ringo messes up, on The Ballad of John and Yoko Take 7 when John gives some instructions to Ringo, and with John singing All Right Okay You Win while Paul is tuning up for You Never Give Me Your Money Take 36. Were they just behaving themselves because Billy Preston was in the studios, or was there still an element of fraternity there? I ponder this as I lie on the floor, having given up making notes and hoping some of the thoughts I’m having will bounce back to the front of my skull when it comes to sitting down at the keyboard.

Now to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, with Take 12 on this CD. The song is notorious for driving the other Beatles to distraction, with so many takes, overdubs, and notes that it even made Ringo angry. But here’s the thing, it’s good – great in fact, a nursery rhyme sound with dark lyrics and dry sense of humour. It’s pure Beatles. Get over yourselves, it fits.

And talking of Paul, Goodbye is a ‘what might have been’ song. Written for folk singer Mary Hopkin, this home recording signals what The Beatles next album could have sounded like. It’s a particular shame, since it turns out that The Beatles were in fact planning a follow up to Abbey Road which never happened. As I said, what might have been.

And my final question for this disc – which I ponder now lying face down on the sofa – is why they’ve persisted in making Her Majesty canon. On my dad’s version of the album, it isn’t there – it only appeared on the reissues in the 80s. This is a song I would expect to appear on an ‘extras’ CD like this, but on the regular album it’s still a peculiarity. But (he says, arguing with himself) it is typical Beatles – a huge, blockbuster ending in The End, then undercut by a nod and a wink. Still, I’m conflicted.

But there isn’t enough time to be that conflicted. I must push on.

DISC 3 – Demos and Outtakes 2 – time elapsed: 01:28:32

Time to talk about John’s voice in the demos – generally, it’s terrible. Whether this was because of the primal scream therapy he was going through at the time (or the heroin), we’ll never know. But it shows twice on the demo discs – I Want You (She’s So Heavy) on the previous CD and here in Come Together Take 5 – his out-of-tune voice cracking several times, giving up halfway through the song. Even he says “I’m losing my cool”. But my God, the groove is still there.

This is where my White Album Super Deluxe Edition fatigue starts to kick in – we have nothing left here but alternate takes, instrumentals, and guide tracks. It’s great for a Beatles fan, but after a lifetime of listening to the perfected versions, and two hours of absorbing what went into making them, this is definitely diminishing returns, as I find myself diving into the wine more regularly. Here is the CD that wouldn’t get taken out of the box much – it’s lovely to have, and the Something Take 39 Instrumental Strings Only washes over me nicely... But really, be honest with yourself, would you listen to it again?

Total time: 2h 10mins 43secs

Tipsy and slightly mesmerised, wondering if it’s possible to split up with myself, I attempt to collect my thoughts.

The Beatles were accomplished musicians at this point, and musically tight – almost to the point of having a shared psyche – and it shows in every take, every note played. It’s also a pleasant surprise to hear how they still get on between takes.

What really sticks out on the remasters, however, is the rhythm section. McCartney’s skills on the bass have never been disputed, but Ringo’s on the drums? Well, they have, haven’t they. If nothing else puts pay to that myth, this should. His intuitive playing, completely complementary of every song, is ingenious. His modesty as a drummer was one of his best assets – they even had to convince him to do that solo in The End.

And one more point before I pop the straitjacket on. This IS the final Beatles album, and it continues to frustrate me that its rightful place in history is usurped by an album as half-arsed and unBeatle-y as Let It Be, which is coming out next year, along with a new Peter Jackson-directed documentary, where The Beatles will go on a great quest across New Zealand to regain their publishing rights.

It irks me, but I suppose I’ve got to carry that weight. 

I’m going to bed now. Oh, it’s gonna be in my dreams tonight.