Abbey Road, the final album made by the Beatles, went on sale in the United States 40 years ago this month.
Abbey Road often is listed among the group’s best two or three albums. In my mind, for reasons I’ll explain below, it is not only the best Beatles album, it is the best pop/rock album ever made.
Such a result seemed unlikely when the group set out to make the album. The Beatles were quite literally tearing apart, having just completed the acrimonious and unpleasant “Get Back” sessions that resulted in Let It Be. Tortured by business differences, musical arguments and the hassle of being filmed on a cold television stage, the Beatles seemed to be far removed from stellar efforts such as Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
But Paul McCartney, increasingly desperate to find the answer to the group’s ills, called producer George Martin and balance engineer Geoff Emerick, asking each to return to Abbey Road to make an album “like we used to,” as Martin remembered it.
And somehow, that is exactly what they did.
I recently had a chance to ask the Emerick, a Grammy winning engineer and producer who now lives in Los Angeles, to share some memories from the Abbey Road sessions.
Although many scholars have theorized that the Beatles knew this would be their swan song, Emerick recalls nothing of the sort.
“That never passed through my mind,” he said.
“It was something to me that happened after Abbey Road was finished.”
“I was already working at Apple and Paul phoned up and said, you know, ‘We’re going to record a new album and come and do it.’
“I don’t know if he had any reservations… I asked, as diplomatically as I could, how things were between the four of them. He said he sorted out a lot of their problems.”
And did that prove to be the case? Only to a point, Emerick recalled.
“They were a bit better. At the time, first of all, I’d left EMI after being there six or seven years. There was a big managerial meeting as to whether they would allow me back in the building… My name was not supposed to be on the recording sheets or tape boxes.”
But EMI, the Beatles’ label and Emerick’s former employer, eventually agreed to allow their departed star engineer back in the studio – as long as an EMI employee, assistant engineer Phil McDonald, worked with him.
“When I couldn’t attend the sessions, Phil took over,” Emerick said.
But any thoughts that all four Beatles would return to normal studio work were quickly shattered.
“The first day we were in the studio it was announced John and Yoko had had the car accident,” Emerick said.
“We were in the (recording) process a couple weeks and then Yoko and John arrived.. and everyone said, ‘How are you?’ and usual stuff.
“Then the back doors of the studio and the bed was rolled in from Harrod’s.”
Yoko, wearing a nightgown, lay down on the bed, where she remained for the next several recording sessions, a microphone suspended overhead should she wish to comment.
After the shock wore off, Emerick recalled, “As far as I was concerned she became part of the furniture.”
The sessions were relatively free of open conflict, Emerick said. But true teamwork was rare.
“The camaraderie wasn’t really like it used to be,” he said. “If someone was to stay behind and do their solo work, the others left.”
But there were still moments of creative engagement. A special highlight, Emerick said, was when it came time to record the triple guitar solo that comes just before “The End,” the glorious climax to the album.
“That was Paul, George and John, in that order. They actually rehearsed it and decide who would do what,” Emerick said.
By this time, Yoko was back on her feet, and her habit was to follow John wherever he went — even to the “loo.”
“When they went of to do the take, Yoko went to follow John,” Emerick said. “He said, ‘No, not this time.’ So the three of them went into the studio.”
The three guitar-playing Beatles joyously peeled off their alternating solos live, in one take.
“The fun they were actually having, it was like a memory of what it used to be. It was like three young kids having a great time,” Emerick said. “And when they came out of the studio, it was like, back to how they were.”
For one last time.
The Beatles would never record another album together. Thankfully their final work is a worthy farewell.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” aside, Abbey Road captures the three songwriters at the height of their powers. George Harrison, in particular, shows that he can be John and Paul’s equal. “Something” is widely regarded as the best song on the album, and “Here Comes The Sun” is a classic in most anyone’s book. John contributed “Come Together,” a swampy groover-rocker, and the wonderfully obsessive “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Paul’s tribute to 50s ballads, “Oh Darling,” features one of his greatest vocal performances, and the Side Two suite he and producer George Martin knitted together hits a high note of sublime yearning. And “The End” is as fitting a denouement as exists in popular music:
And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to
The love you make
And despite Emerick’s observation that the Beatles often worked separately, their individual contributions to their fellow bandmates’ work shines brilliantly. What would “Come Together” be without Paul’s incredible, pulsating bass line? The same could be said for George’s “Something,” which features one of Paul’s prettiest bass performances. George’s multitracked guitars on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” are a key element to the buildup of tension that drives that song, and his bass (yes, bass) on “Golden Slumbers” is the definition of tasteful playing. As is John’s lead guitar on “You Never Give Me Your Money.”
Ringo’s drums — for the first and only time, mixed in stereo — are nothing less than ideal on each track. Even his simplistic solo rings true to the workingman drummer who always provides what the song, not his ego, demands. And, though it might seem to be damning with faint praise, “Octopus’ Garden” is definitely his best composition as a Beatle (though it was easily eclipsed by “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Photograph” and other solo pieces.)
Abbey Road also sounds different from every other Beatles album. It hangs together with a cohesiveness that, say, the White Album lacks. Some people say Abbey Road sounds softer than much of their other work. Emerick attributes that to a change in mixing boards, from the tube consoles used on every other album to the solid-state electronics on their new TG mixer used for the first and only time on Abbey Road. While the change robbed Emerick of some of the “punch” of earlier records, he said the result was “just nice, really. It was very open sounding album.” (For many more of Emerick’s memories of his Beatles days, purchase his excellent book.)
Some people prefer their Beatles rougher around the edges, a la the White Album, or more ground breaking and psychdelic, as in Revolver or Sgt. Pepper. To me, Abbey Road is the Beatles’ greatest achievement, for the reasons listed above. And one more…
Although Emerick didn’t consciously know it was the final album, I bet that the Beatles themselves felt it might be. And in no way did they want to finish their career together with the mess that became “Let it Be.” No offense to the music on that album, which includes a couple of Paul’s best ballads. But the atmosphere was so tense, the vibe so negative, that they couldn’t end on that sour note.
So instead, they reached for the top of the scale.