THE BEST REISSUES OF 2019: Abbey Road’s 50-Year Makeover

The Beatles’ final studio masterpiece is given the anniversary deluxe treatment with savory results

Remiagined fraction of Abbey Road back cover / art by Ron Hart

There’s always gotta be one—a malcontent, a shit stirrer, some unserious soul there just to incite conflict who only came to the party to throw sparks and stand back: “Ahhh, everyone knows,” they growl, “The Beatles suck!   

The absolute proof of the continuing power and influence of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr, half a century after they released their final album, lies in the surprisingly vehement backlash that the recent 50th anniversary reissue of Abbey Road has aroused. Social media has been a-Twitter with all manner of Beatle dustups, beginning with who cares about the Beatles anyway?—they’re ancient history. Older fans have again grasped fusty cudgels and taken to beating decomposed horses like whether Ringo’s eccentric, offbeat drumming keeps proper time. Valid questions have been raised about how Giles Martin, who has been in charge of these recent reissues, came to presume that he has his justly famous father’s ears let alone his imagination. Then there’s an esoteric battle over how bad (or good) the new 5.1 surround mix sounds. Finally, of course, comes a fresh flare up of the eternal Beatles grapple—that in the end Abbey Road just doesn’t measure up to The White Album. Or Revolver. Or Rubber Soul. And so the beat goes on. 

Leaving aside the argument about whether or not it’s a great record, or even the best Beatles album, the new reissue continues the UME/Beatles tradition of classy repackaging jobs. In an age when many of the biggest releases coming from what’s left of the major labels are reissues, The Beatles packages, which come in a variety of configurations to tap every dollar possible, are a cut above. If you’re a Beatle completist, a fan of packaging or just like cool stuff, the excellent 100-page hardbound book that comes with the Super Deluxe set features high quality printing and is more than worth a look. 

Sonically, the new mix has much in common with the original. Overseen by the quartet of Olivia Harrison, Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (none of whom are interested in rocking the boat or tellingly have gone to bat publicly for these new mixes), Martin’s fresh remixing is more about tweaks than major changes. Not as loud as the original, the new mix is more balanced the original with some original panning decisions changed for the better. Details like the much-ballyhooed synthesizer parts and the crickets (before “Sun King”) are more prominent. The low end bass parts are rounder and fuller. Perhaps the vocals ring clearer. And Ringo’s drums do seem a bit bolder. But this is no massive overhaul, only a tuneup but one that is pleasing nonetheless; an obvious must have for Beatle collectors. And also a mix that may attract younger generations to the band, a goal Giles Martin often references in interviews. 

The Beatles Abbey Road, Apple/Capitol 1969

For longtime fans, the Super Deluxe set offers two discs of extra material. Beatles completists are aware that a fair amount of the band’s unreleased studio outtakes, live shows and other recorded ephemera have leaked out over the years. Of the extra tracks here, some have been commonly bootlegged and some have been previously released on the Beatles Anthology series. Not surprisingly there are still revelations here scattered amongst the chaff. The highlight is a take of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” in which the band is informed of a noise complaint from neighbors of Trident Studios and which also contains Billy Preston’s fevered organ overdub. George Harrison’s demo of “Something” as well as McCartney’s demo of “Come and Get It,” (later recorded by Badfinger) both also on Anthology 3, are always a pleasure. While scraps like these that shine a light on the band’s fabled creative process are always great, it does provoke the question of whether fans will ever hear ALL the takes of every song. While UMe is holding that trump card until they absolutely have to use it, it does make you wonder if they’ve waited too long already. The generation that first revered the Fab Four and are still willing to fork out major bucks for exhaustive collections of Beatles material is aging fast. If and when this material is finally released—The Complete Beatles Volumes One through Fifty—will there still be enough fanatics alive to make it pay?  

If there is a flaw to the extra tracks here, it’s that there’s not enough studio patter left in. What there is—George Harrison and Ringo’s laughter before and after “Octopus’s Garden (Take 9)”—suggests that the sentimental soft focus legends that surround Abbey Road,—that the band actually got on better than they had during either the Get Back sessions (which became Let It Be) or the sessions for the White Album—may in fact be true. As a final coherent statement from the only band to ever create its own pop universe, an irreplaceable quartet whose singular body of work has been the model for much of the pop music that’s come since, Abbey Road remains a masterpiece, one whose sound has now been touched up for a new century.        

 

VIDEO: The Beatles Abbey Road Anniversary Editions unboxing

 

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