The “Abbey Road” Recording Sessions
The Beatles released “Abbey Road” on October 1st, 1969 in the USA and September 26th, 1969 in the UK. “Let It Be” was the final album released by The Beatles although it was actually recorded before “Abbey Road“, making the “Abbey Road” sessions the final sessions The Beatles worked on together as a band. In fact when it comes to the “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be” albums, it is slightly confusing trying to follow the chronology of The Beatles.
The fact that The Beatles managed to reconvene after the disastrous “Abbey Road” sessions was deemed to be miraculous. What may have been the saving grace was the decision to get George Martin back in to produce the “Abbey Road” sessions.
George Martin back on Board
George Martin had been the stabilizing influence, curbing the worst excesses of The Beatles while encouraging them to experiment and grow. However George Martin had seen the meltdown of the relationship between the band-mates and had steered well clear of the “Let It Be” sessions. When, in April 1969, Paul McCartney asked him to be part of the “Abbey Road” sessions he was initially surprised, but when Paul McCartney assured him they wanted to record, “like they used to” he came back into the fold.
One of the conditions George Martin put on producing “Abbey Road” was that they would make a polished, studio album. This is exactly what he did, it was the first and only Beatles album to be recorded on and 8 track rather than a 4 track tape recorder.
The majority of the recording took place through July and August 1969 at EMI Studios. However since since EMI had not approved the use of their 8 track, The Beatles ironically recorded some of Abbey Road away from the EMI Studios at Abbey Road, namely at Trident and Olympic Studios.
It was also recorded and mixed through a solid state board, another first. With all this new technology, Abbey Road is probably the best sounding record The Beatles released. Although George Harrison felt it sounded harsh, it won a Grammy for “Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording” in 1970.
Go Out on a High
At this point the various warring factions within The Beatles compromised some of their more avant-guard leanings. After the disastrous “Let It Be” sessions and realizing The Beatles were coming to an end there was a desire to release a strong album and leave on better terms. Quite simply the competitive nature of The Beatles wouldn’t allow them to release a weak album as their parting shot.
Reports were that the mood for the “Abbey Road” sessions were a lot lighter in tone and feel than the “Let It Be” sessions. Of course, that is not to say that the recording process was trouble free. The resentment and difference of opinion about the band that had grown over the years was still playing a part in proceedings.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney‘s Rivalry
John Lennon was growing increasingly exasperated with what he felt were lightweight songs that Paul McCartney was bringing to the band. Lennon believed that it was their role to produce artistically and politically valid music and held no truck with McCartney‘s whimsy.
The disdain with which John Lennon obviously held some of McCartney‘s songs was shown when Lennon refused to participate in recording the McCartney song “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Reports at the time saying Lennon referred to the track as “granny music”. John Lennon even pushed to have all his songs on one side of Abbey Road.
In 1980, when talking about the Paul McCartney track “The End”, Lennon said, “He had a line in it, ‘And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make’, which is a very cosmic, philosophical line, which again proves that if he wants to, he can think.”
Further disagreements between John Lennon and Paul McCartney about whether they should have the tracks on Abbey Road blended together (Paul McCartney‘s idea) or with silence between them as John Lennon wanted. In the end a compromise was brokered and the separate tracks appeared on side one and The Medley on side two.
The Medley was mainly to pull together snippets and semi-completed songs in a way that would allow the band to complete the album with a reasonable running order and deplete their back catalog of ideas in their last sessions. However it worked out extremely well, with Paul McCartney and producer George Martin emerging with a lot of credit from the project. There is Lennon material involved in the medley but much of the credit went to Paul McCartney which caused further resentment between the pair.
The splitting of The Beatles was viewed as the dissolution of the working relationship between its two chief song writers. John Lennon was quoted as saying that he and Paul McCartney were, “cutting each other down to size to fit into some kind of format” as the reason why The Beatles could not work together as a group. This may have been true, but the competition interplay between them and George Martin was exactly why The Beatles produced such great music. The worst of their respective artistic excesses and twee nonsense were brought into check by the others.
Without these checks, they were unable to keep themselves focused, but these power struggles and competition were not easy things. It placed a great strain on their relationship and lead to bitterness between the duo. In many ways it was just a case of old friends growing apart as they grew older. The inclusion of wives and different ideas about life were the main differences in the end between Lennon and McCartney but what they experienced was no different from what many school age friends experience when they grow older. The only difference is that John Lennon and Paul McCartney had to do it in the public eye and under much greater pressure than most of us can ever imagine.
Whilst the main song writing duo were working separately, George Harrison was really coming into his own as a songwriter. Although George Harrison had written songs on many Beatles albums, it was always felt as though his were the weaker songs, but “Abbey Road” was definitely his moment to shine.
1969 was not a good year for George Harrison. He had been arrested for cannabis possession and had become frustrated with life in The Beatles and the dealings of their record label, Apple. “Here Comes The Sun” is the non-Medley track on side two and was written by George Harrison while at his friend Eric Clapton’s house, avoiding business meetings at Apple.
George Harrison described it, “Winter in England goes on forever; by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided, ‘I’m going to sag-off Apple,’ and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. I was walking in his garden. The relief of not having to go and see all those dopey accountants was wonderful. And I was walking around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars, and wrote ‘Here Comes The Sun.'”
“Something” was written during the recording of “The White Album” but everything had been recorded by that point so it was shelved. George Harrison has long felt he was being ignored and after failing to get “Something” included in the “Let It Be/Get Back” Sessions, he may well have had a point.
“Something” was famously quoted as being, “The Greatest Love Song of the Last Fifty Years” by Frank Sinatra and even his band-mates were impressed. Paul said, “I like George’s song ‘Something.’ For me I think it’s the best he’s written.” and John thought it, “about the best track on the album.”
Ringo Starr was not the most prolific or technical of songwriters. However unlike The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts, he was not content with just being the drummer. “Ringo gets bored with just playing drums all the time, so at home he sometimes plays a bit of piano, but unfortunately he only knows about three chords. He knows about the same on guitar too.” said George Harrison.
The idea for the song came about in 1968 when Ringo Starr was on a trip with his family to Sardinia. They took a boat trip and the captain offered him an octopus lunch (which he turned it down) but the captain told him everything he knew about octopuses. This included how they move across the sea-bed looking for shiny objects and stones with which to build gardens. Ringo once said that hearing about octopuses spending their days collecting shiny objects at the bottom of the sea was one of the happiest things he’d heard of.
On Release of “Abbey Road“
“Abbey Road” is an amazing achievement and with George Martin taking the plaudits for managing to pull the barely functioning Beatles together and creating what is widely regarded as their most tightly constructed albums.
On release “Abbey Road” became one of the most successful Beatles albums ever. In the USA, the album debuted at at 178, then moved to number 4 and in its third week it hit number one for the first time, spending 11 non-consecutive weeks at the top spending a total of 129 weeks in the Billboard 200.
It was the 4th best-selling album of 1970 in the US and is now certified 12x platinum by the RIAA. It made a brief re-entry in November 1987 when “Abbey Road” re-entered the charts at number 69 when it was released for the first time on CD.
In the UK the album did even better, going straight to number 1 and stayed there for 11 weeks. It was then knocked off the top spot for just for 1 week by the Rolling Stones debuting their classic “Let It Bleed” just before Christmas. However, the following week, the week of Christmas, Abbey Road returned to the top and stayed there for another 6 weeks, completing 17 weeks at the top.
Abbey Road was the UK’s best-selling album of 1969 and the eighth best-selling album of 1970. In the UK Abbey Road was the fourth best-selling of the entire 1960s, and since a large quantity of its sales were in 1970, these is an impressive achievement. In all it spent 92 weeks inside the UK Top 75, making a big re-entry at number 30 in October 1987, when it was released for the first time on CD.
For all the differences of opinion and infighting between the individual members, the talent and drive of The Beatles shines through on “Abbey Road” and it is a fitting epitaph to The Beatles and with the Remastered Beatles albums being released in September 2009, Abbey Road is set to find a new legion of fans.
The “Abbey Road” Cover
The original title for the album “Everest” (after a brand of cigarettes smoked by Geoff Emerick, one of the engineers) was dropped as none of The Beatles wanted to travel to Nepal for a cover shoot. When asked exactly how far they would go for a cover shoot, someone made a joke along the lines of “the street outside”.
There is some disagreement as to who came up with the actual idea to shoot it in the street outside, it has been credited to Kosh, the creative director for The Beatle’s Apple Label, and to Paul McCartney. However the idea quickly grew legs and Paul McCartney made a sketch of how it should look.
Iain Macmillan, a friend of John Lennon and Yoko Ono was asked to take the shots and on Friday August 8. 1969, at 11.35 am, Iain stepped on a small ladder in the middle of Abbey Road, while a police officer stopped the traffic.
The Beatles walked up and down the zebra crossing in front of EMI Studios and Iain Macmillan took six pictures. Number five was considered the best as it was the only photograph on which all four were in step and one in which they walked away from the studio….which seemed important to them at the time, although this was one of the few things that was not read into the meaning of the cover image!
Paul McCartney is Dead
For several years there had been rumors that Paul McCartney was dead and had been replaced by a stand-in.
“I started to get letters and cards from people outlining how obvious it was that Paul was dead,” recalled George Martin. “They said that they understood all our clues on the covers over the past few years years and, you know, I started believing it myself.”
Peter Blake too was almost fooled, “We went to visit Paul. We talked about the rumors and he said, “You know I’m not Paul McCartney. You met Paul when you were working on Sgt. Pepper and he didn’t have a scar on his mouth. Look, I’ve got a scar. I’m a stand in.” And just for a moment, I wasn’t sure. Then he told me that he’d fallen off his bicycle…”
The Back Cover of “Abbey Road“
For the back cover Iain Macmillan took a photograph of one of the many old-style tiled street signs around the area. When “Abbey Road” came out, there was no title on the front and no lyric sheet, it just had one photograph on the front, and one on the rear.
On the original cover issued in the UK, The Beatles deliberately did not list the final track ‘Her Majesty’. However, due to some poor communication, the song was added to the track listing for the US and some other releases. It was removed from the cover for later releases.
- “Come Together” – 4:20
- “Something” (George Harrison) – 3:03
- “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” – 3:27
- “Oh! Darling” – 3:33
- “Octopus’s Garden” (Richard Starkey) – 2:51
- “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” – 7:47
- “Here Comes the Sun” (George Harrison) – 3:05
- “Because” – 2:45
- “You Never Give Me Your Money” – 4:02
- “Sun King” – 2:26
- “Mean Mr. Mustard” – 1:06
- “Polythene Pam” – 1:12
- “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” – 1:57
- “Golden Slumbers” – 1:31
- “Carry That Weight” – 1:36
- “The End” – 2:05
- “Her Majesty” – 0:23
- lead and rhythm guitars
- six- and 12-string acoustic guitars
- lead, harmony and backing vocals
- electric and acoustic pianos
- Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer
- white noise generator and sound effects
- tambourine and maracas.
- lead, rhythm, acoustic and bass guitars
- fuzz bass
- lead, harmony and backing vocals
- electric and acoustic pianos
- Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer (ribbon strip)
- handclaps and assorted percussion and sound effects.
- lead, rhythm, acoustic and bass guitars
- lead, harmony and backing vocals (sometimes multi-tracked)
- Hammond organ, harmonium and Moog synthesizer
- handclaps and assorted percussion.
- drums, percussion, timpani, anvil and handclaps
- lead and backing vocals.
- George Martin – piano; electric harpsichord, harmonium and percussion.
- Billy Preston – Hammond organ on “Something”
- “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” orchestrated and conducted by George Martin (with George Harrison)
- “Golden Slumbers”, “Carry That Weight” and “The End” orchestrated and conducted by George Martin (with Paul McCartney).
- Production by George Martin (with The Beatles)
- Engineering and Recording by Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald
- Assistant Engineer, Alan Parsons
- Mixing by Geoff Emerick, Phil McDonald and George Martin (with The Beatles).
- Moog programming by Mike Vicker
- Tape Operator, Tony Banks
The original name of the studio The Beatles recorded much of their work in was EMI Studios. This was officially renamed Abbey Road Studios after this album although it had often been referred to as Abbey Road Studios before this.
The VW Beetle shown on the cover of “Abbey Road” was not staged, but belonged to a local resident, who subsequently had the plates stolen repeatedly! The car itself was bought for $23000 in 1986 and is now on display at the Volkswagen Auto Museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.
The man seen looking back at The Beatles is American tourist Paul Cole who only realized that he had witnessed The Beatles album cover shoot when it was released later in the USA and he saw himself staring back from the cover.
Alan Parsons, later of The Alan Parsons Project was an assistant engineer. He was also involved with the recording of Pink Floyd’s classic “Dark Side of the Moon”
- The Mojo Collection: The Ultimate Music Companion
- Norwegian Wood – Norway’s Beatles Fan Club Site
- The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962-1970
- The Beatles Anthology
- Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now
- Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles