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Abbey Road 50th Anniversary edition

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The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record was in 2009, 40 years after its release. The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record, EMI still existed, but is now defunct, broken up, off its twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil. It is an ex-corporation. The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record, its producer, George Martin, was still alive. Then, we were told, it was a remastering, an improvement on the original CD release, which had been – we were now led to believe – substandard, rushed, whatever (even though The Beatles were among the last artists to release their music on CD, and then later on digital download). Of course, this is all just marketing. The real reason for a 50th anniversary “remix” is that they can renew mechanical copyright for another 50 years.

A remix is different from a remastering, how? Mastering is when you take the final mix and bounce it down to a stereo file, optimised for playback on consumer equipment, EQ’d to sound as sweet as possible, compressed and limited to sound loud but not too loud, with a dynamic range designed to fit within the limitations of the playback medium. Mastering is an art separate and distinct from record production and mixing. A mix engineer and a mastering engineer are often different people, different sets of ears listening for different things.

A remix, on the other hand, means a return to the multis, an opportunity to adjust the levels, to spread the stereo field. For example, the bass can be more prominent, or the bottom end more pronounced, or the instruments more cleanly separated across the channels. In 1969, still, the vast majority of music fans were buying the mono release; stereo was for nerds and millionaires, more or less.

And, lo, it came to pass, that there was a new Martin on the block, and although the kid was responsible for one of the worst things created in the Beatles’ name (the Las Vegas extravaganza, Love), he was once again allowed access to the vaults to tweak and twat about. 

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. Of course, the real ears behind this are those of the remix engineer Sam Okell, and the Martin name is a rubber stamp, a message of reassurance to tell us that this is okay, really.

Abbey Road was already one of the Beatles’ best-sounding records. Only Please Please Me really reveals its limitations, they always sounded great; and from A Hard Day’s Night onwards, really great. So did it really need a remix? Not really, although it makes a bit of sense to separate the duelling guitars on “The End” a little bit, or to give the thing a boost for what passes for modern music systems.

Does it sound better? Better than the 2009? Better than the CD before that? Better than the vinyl? I’m not one of those people who thinks he can really tell the difference. My hearing tops out at 16kHz these days, and I’ve always had a bit of bass blindness. Couldn’t hear the kick drum when I played live with a band (maybe it was nerves).

The truth is, the equipment I listen to music on now is much, much worse than that I used even back in the 1980s, and ever since my oldest was born I’ve been without what you’d call a proper stereo. But then that’s the story of my life. Completely obsessed with music but usually listening on substandard equipment. A mono record player that couldn’t even combine the two channels of a stereo record into one, so that I never even heard the guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” until some time after I first bought it. My dad had a second hand stereogram, with a melted front panel (from the heat of the valves), and it sounded warm and woolly. And then eventually I got myself a NAD turntable, amp, and speakers. Not the greatest components, but the best I’d ever had or have. But then, in the 1980s, we started buying CDs, and then we’re later told that those early generation CDs were bad, badly mastered, too rotten deep down in the bits. And so then we get the remasters and the “Mastered for iTunes” and…

It becomes problematic. If, in 1969, people were listening to Abbey Road on ropey old mono record players, in 2019 we’re largely listening to compressed music on cheap earbuds, or playing through a few bluetooth speakers dotted around the house. The car speakers. Apple airpods. I do have some grown up studio reference monitors, but these are not really for relaxing listening, nor are they convenient. While the industry has been after perfect sound, the audience has been looking for the cheapest, most convenient, most portable way to listen to music: and always has.

So who is this really for? It’s for the corporation that owns the new mechanical copyright; it’s for a new generation who don’t know the original and couldn’t tell the difference; and it’s for anyone who wants to spend some time thinking about this music.

Every ten years, we need to think about Abbey Road. Is it their best? Some have said so. Is it better than the sum of its parts? Definitely. I’ve always taken note of the semi-detached Lennon. I like “I Want You (‘She’s so Heavy’)”, but if you look at it sideways, it’s someone who can’t be bothered to write lyrics anymore. Put it together with “Don’t Let Me Down” from earlier that same year, and he’s a man in full retreat from Dylan’s listen to the words, man, and he’s playing games with repetition. He’s got that, and “Come Together” and then it’s all blink-and-you’ll-miss-it on Side 2. I love “Here Comes the Sun” but I’ve never been a big fan of “Something”, and there isn’t really a song on Abbey Road that I’d happily listen to, on its own, as a song. Which makes it a great album, because it needs, still, to be listened to as an album and not a collection of individual songs. “Polythene Pam” is as flimsy as cellophane, but it it slides between “Mustard” and “Bathroom” beautifully.

Back in 2009, the narrative was still that the group wanted to put out “one last” good record. That turns out to have been as much of a myth as the one about how Paul first met John at the Woolton village fête. Now we’re being told that they had no such thoughts about Abbey Road and this was just “the new record”, which only became, in hindsight, the last record. The way this narrative changes is interesting. It drifts with our “turns out” times. It still blows my mind that they recreated the Please Please Me cover shot in early 1969, the one that was later used on the Blue album. Something was in the air throughout that last year, from the day Ringo left the band during the White Album sessions, to that final bored/board meeting when the not-yet-thirty Beatles couldn’t agree on next steps.

In addition, this: part of the current narrative is that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is rubbish. It’s certainly the case that the song took a lot of takes over several days to record, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Paul’s genius for creating lyrics out of the vernacular – always his greatest gift – is evident here: “Can I take you out to the pictures, Jo-o-o-oan?” But also: “Painting testimonial pictures…” and the innuendo of “Late nights all alone with a test tube…”

Finally, the extra tracks and demos. Ever since the Anthology, it’s been clear that The Beatles weren’t Bob Dylan. They weren’t leaving any good stuff off the records in the way that he has done. So I’m happy enough grabbing a listen to a couple of them on the YouTube and don’t feel I’m missing out if I don’t catch ‘em all.

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