The Beatles' Abbey Road at 50: The Most Fascinating Revelations from the Expansive Box Set
The new "super deluxe" version of the Beatles' studio swan song features two discs of rare session outtakes and demos
The year 1969 was shaping up to be a disaster for the Beatles. The early months had been filled with unhappy sessions for what would become the Let It Be project, and the tension had been so great that George Harrison briefly quit. As winter turned to spring, drug busts and business woes also threatened to overwhelm the foursome, who were becoming more interested in being independent men than boys in the band. “After Let It Be, I really thought we were finished,” producer George Martin would recall. “So I was quite surprised when Paul rang up and said, ‘Let’s try to make a record like we used to. Would you come and produce it like you used to?’” The result is their most collaborative and cohesive record in years, and one of their most beloved. Rather than try to assert their individual personalities, they got back to where they once belonged and made an album that was (sorry) Beatlesque by design. In the end, they named their final unified effort for the place that had served as their creative laboratory and sanctuary for the previous seven years: Abbey Road.
Whether they knew it would be their last is up for debate. According to the traditional Beatle narrative, John Lennon announced his intention to leave the group during a September 1969 business meeting as Abbey Road was being prepped for release. However, a tape recently unearthed by Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn indicates that the band were still planning to follow it upwith a new album, plus a single for the lucrative Christmas market. Whatever the case, the history of their studio swan song is decidedly murky. The Beatles’ self-produced 10-hour Anthology documentary series spent only a few minutes on the making of Abbey Road, a record that many consider to be their finest.
The excellent new Abbey Road Super Deluxe box set shines some light on the album’s creation. Released 50 years after the original first hit shelves, the expanded edition features remixes by Martin’s son Giles and mix engineer Sam Okell in stereo, high res stereo, 5.1 surround, and Dolby Atmos, as well as 23 studio outtakes and rare demos — most of which have never been heard. The session discs and lavish 100-page hardcover book provide a wealth of information, yet it somehow makes Abbey Road‘s genesis all the more confusing. How did the Beatles craft an album brimming with goodwill and warmth during a time when relations were supposedly so chilly? The lack of bonus material (in comparison to the previous box sets for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and ‘The White Album,’ at least) speaks to their intense musical concentration, and the studio chatter is remarkably friendly, filled with jokes and encouragement. More than loving appreciation for a musical masterpiece, the Abbey Road Super Deluxe set offers a tantalizing look at what might have been if the four friends had managed to hold on. “It was a very very happy album,” Martin later said. “Everybody worked frightfully well and that’s why I’m very fond of it.”
Abbey Road saw the Beatles wholeheartedly embrace their identity and make an album that, for many, became a summation of all their era-defining music that came before. “I think it was, in a way, the feeling that it might be our last [album], so let’s just show ’em what we can do, let’s show each other what we can do, and let’s try and have a good time doing it,” Paul McCartney reflected. Perhaps more than any album they made, it felt like this one was truly a gift for the fans and Fab faithful. Intended or not, Abbey Road gave the public a jubilant memory to hold onto, forever freezing the foursome in time as harmonious, hilarious, and at the peak of their creative powers.
In honor of its 50th anniversary, here are some of the most fascinating revelations from the newly released studio outtakes.
The Revamped Demo of “Something”
Written during sessions for ‘The White Album’ in the fall of 1968, Harrison was still tinkering with the lyrics to “Something” when he first played the song for the other Beatles while filming the Let It Be documentary the following January. “I can’t think what attracted me at all,” he admitted to his bandmates. Lennon tried his best to help: “Just say whatever comes into your head each time — ‘Attracts me like a cauliflower!’ — until you get the word.” Harrison jokingly suggested, “Attracts me like a pomegranate.” Tragically, the line didn’t make the final cut.
The lyrics were finally in place on Feb. 25, Harrison’s 26th birthday, when he cut an early demo of what was to become his signature song, along with “Old Brown Shoe” and “All Things Must Pass,” during a session at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. Interestingly, he sings a set of half-finished lyrics over what would ultimately be the guitar solo. This demo was initially released in 1996 on Anthology 3 without the pair of piano parts he had overdubbed on top of his guitar and vocal performance. The piano tracks have been reinstated for the Abbey Road box set.
Billy Preston’s Wild Organ Solo on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
The outtake for the epic Side One closer contains two treasures. First is the amusing pre-take studio chatter, in which producer/engineer Glyn Johns is placed in the unenviable position of telling the Beatles to quiet down. The all-nighter session for one of the band’s most truly heavy tracks took place at Trident Studios, located in the heart of Central London. Despite the late hour, Lennon’s enthusiasm seems to be running high — certainly higher than the studio neighbors, who are kept awake by the noisy proceedings. “My boys are ready to go!” Lennon joyously announces, before Johns gingerly makes his request. “John, is it possible without affecting yourselves too much to turn it down a little? Apparently there’s been a complaint….from somebody outside the building.” McCartney can’t resist a joke (“It’s his own fault for getting a house in such a lousy district!”) but to Lennon’s credit, he decides to acquiesce — after one more try. “Well, we’ll try it once more very loud, and then if we don’t get it, we’ll try it quiet…OK, the loud one, last go. Last chance to be loud!”
The sessions disc take is spliced together with the concluding minutes of the final eight-track mix, minus the white noise that slowly engulfed the version heard on the finished record. Stripped of the static, this take reveals Billy Preston’s manic organ that cartwheels across the song as it builds to a terrifying crescendo. Instead of the jarring cut heard on Abbey Road, this rendition of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” winds down organically, concluding with a triumphant “Woo!”
The Gloriously Stripped Down Version of “Here Comes the Sun”
Composed in Eric Clapton‘s garden while was playing hooky from the increasingly fraught Beatle business meetings, Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” opens Side Two with the warmth of a long-awaited sunrise. Getting the deceptively simple song down on record would prove to be a complex endeavor, involving an orchestral score from George Martin and overdubs from an unwieldy primitive Moog synthesizer. Begun on July 7, Ringo Starr’s 29th birthday, the Beatles — minus Lennon, who was recovering from a car accident in Scotland — recorded a basic backing track with McCartney on bass, Starr behind the kit, and Harrison accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Martin declared Take Nine to be the master, but the band pressed on and Track 13 (superstitiously dubbed “Track Twelve and a Half”) was ultimately used.
Heard publicly for the first time on the box set, it’s easy to understand Martin’s fondness for Take Nine. Shorn of the synth, orchestra, and other studio adornments, the fundamental charm of the song is somehow underscored. What’s more, Starr’s masterful drum fills are front and center on the bridge.
An Early Take of the Majestic Mini Suite “You Never Give Me Your Money”
If the Side Two medley on Abbey Road was a grab bag of unfinished songs, then “You Never Give Me Your Money” contained even smaller musical fragments. The track that kicks off “The Long One” (as the medley was known during the sessions) consists of three titles from McCartney’s songwriting notebook: “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Out of College” and “One Sweet Dream.” These pieces were stitched together with a fourth passage (“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, all good children go to heaven”) to act as a bridge into “Sun King.”
Work on the song began on the afternoon May 6 at Olympic Studios, where 36 takes of the backing track were recorded in a marathon 12-hour session. Take 30 would eventually be the version used for overdubs. Heard on the box set for the first time, McCartney can be heard wearily announcing that day’s final attempt at “You Never Give Me Your Coffee” in the wee hours of the morning. “It’s exactly half past two and it’s 36…and here we go!” They may be tired but they still bring their all, and the chance to hear the complex song cycle performed live in the studio is thrilling.
George Martin’s Majestic Orchestral Scores for “Golden Slumbers” and “Something”
“The end of the Abbey Road album is for me one of the best examples of how rock music can work well within a classical format,” Martin said 30 years after helping craft it. Included on the box set are the orchestral tracks for “Golden Slumbers” and also for “Something,” which more than prove his point. Far from sounding incomplete, the arrangements stand alone as deeply affecting pieces of music.
The Lost End of “The End”
“The End” has a prime place as the last (formal) track on the final album the Beatles ever recorded. This lends it a certain cache in Fab Four mythology as the band’s parting message to the fans who had elevated them to the level of generational spokesmen over the course of the decade. In fact, early track listings for Abbey Road show that the sides were reversed, and “The Long One” was due to conclude the first half of the album — meaning that Abbey Road just might have closed with the abrupt slash cut that ended “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”! A simple change of mind resulted in one of the most poignant musical sendoffs in rock history.
The box set includes Take Three of “The End,” an early basic rhythm track prior to the triple guitar showdown between McCartney, Harrison and Lennon. Starr takes his 13-bar drum solo at the behest of Martin, who offers some kind words at the end of the take. “How are you feeling, Ringo? Hard work, isn’t it?” But most fascinating is the end of the song. Instead of the “A Day in a Life”-like orchestral crescendo that leads into the angelic “And in the end” coda, the band launches into an almost comically cliché bluesy guitar figure. Though not known for certain, it appears to be more of a tongue-in-cheek placeholder rather than an authentic attempt at a finale.
An Early Mix of ‘The Long One’ Medley That Incorporates “Her Majesty”
One of the best-known factoids about Abbey Road is that “Her Majesty” was supposed to be much more than a “surprise” hidden track. Early versions of “The Long One” had the brief acoustic ditty sandwiched between “Mean Mister Mustard” and “Polythene Pam.” The song was famously cut and the snippet was placed at the end of the tape reel as per studio practice, where it was promptly forgotten about. When the band listened to a rough edit of the running order, “Her Majesty” burst out of the silence 14-seconds after the final notes of “The End” died away. Always down for an audio prank (check the Sgt. Pepper run-out groove), the Beatles decided to go with it.
RELATED: Paul McCartney Remembers ‘Best Friend’ John Lennon’s Shooting at March for Our Lives Protest
Now, at last, a version of this early “Royal” medley is available to hear. The inclusion of “Her Majesty” made a certain amount of lyrical sense, as Mister Mustard was taken to meet the Queen by his sister Pam. But musically, the idea just didn’t work. The difference in dynamics between the instrumentally slight ode to HRH and the rocked-up character study that preceded it was just too jarring and it killed the momentum of the piece. Even so, the result is exciting to hear, as are the minor differences with the final version. “You Never Give Me Your Money” features alternate vocal harmonies before transitioning into “Sun King,” with a long organ drone where McCartney’s zipping tape loops should be. The outro of “Polythene Pam” features more Scouse ad-libs (“Fab bass. Feels good, that.”) and the solo-less passages on “The End” provide an opportunity to hear McCartney’s rollicking bass fills. It’s all interesting but, as usual, the Beatles made the right call.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney Playfully Tag-Teaming “The Ballad of John and Yoko”
Lennon was hot to record his direct-from-the-diary song recounting the travels and press palaver surrounding his marriage to Yoko in March 1969. But he had a problem: Starr was off filming The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers and Harrison was similarly indisposed. So Lennon tapped McCartney to fill the other Beatles’ instrumental roles. Recorded in a single session at EMI Road Studios on April 14, the pair sound it great spirits on the session tapes, particularly on Take Seven, as Lennon backed himself on acoustic guitar while McCartney handled the drums. “It got a bit faster, Ringo,” Lennon told McCartney. “OK, George!” McCartney laughed, playing along with the joke. While legions of overzealous Beatles fans would paint Ono as the wedge who drove the world’s most beloved musical partnership apart, it’s clear on these tapes that the camaraderie is still very much there.
Paul McCartney’s Acoustic Demo for the Non-Beatle Tune “Goodbye”
The rarest track on the box set is this solo McCartney acoustic demo, written for his protégé Mary Hopkin, a young Welsh folk singer he had signed to the Beatles’ Apple label after seeing her on a TV talent show. McCartney had already guided her to the top of the charts in the summer of 1968 by producing her version of the anglicized Russian folk song “Those Were the Days.” Eager to capitalize on the success of the 19-year-old chanteuse, he penned the winsome “Goodbye” as a hasty follow-up — so hasty, in fact, that he had little memory of writing it in later years. In February 1969 he recorded a demo of the song for Hopkin and arranger Richard Hewson in his London home. When it came time to cut the track in the studio, McCartney contributed acoustic guitar, bass, drums and even percussive thigh slaps. It went to No. 2 in the UK, kept from the top spot by McCartney’s own “Get Back.”