The Beatles: Abbey Road Changed Music History

The Beatles Abbey Road 50th Anniversary celebrates an end of an era, but the album marked the beginning of a new phase.

The BeatlesAbbey Road celebrated its 50th Anniversary amidst a flurry of activity. The band dropped a music video for “Here Comes the Sun.” Recently unearthed audio shows the band may not have been ready to call it quits. While it is true they still had the Let It Be album to release, Abbey Road was a step forward and a clue to a new direction. It is fitting the band named the album after the studio, because the Beatles progressed quickly during recording sessions and the Abbey Road sonic staff often rushed to keep up.

The Beatles grew from album to album, musically and lyrically, as songwriters and as musicians. Their voices were freed from the confines of pop as they demolished standards one record at a time. Their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is credited as the first “rock album.” It was the first album the band recorded after giving up touring to become a studio band. The album was produced by George Martin in a four-track studio. While some tracks on The Beatles (White Album) were recorded on eight-track reel-to-reel machines, Abbey Road was the first studio album where the band had the new instrument at their disposal. And yes, the Beatles used the studio as an instrument.

Let it Be had been an attempt to “Get Back” to their roots, played live with no overdubs. Abbey Road, on the other hand, was a studio album through and through. EMI’s Abbey Road Studio equipped itself with a TG12345 Mk I transistor recording console. The Beatles had recorded all their earlier albums on thermionic valve-based REDD desks. At first, Engineer Geoff Emerick didn’t like the solid-state transistor sound, according to Womack’s book. He thought it tamed aspects of the sound, like low-end distortion, which came through stronger with tube equipment. Emmerick came around, concluding the transistor softened the overall sound but brought out definition, clarity, and a deeper low-end. 

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The recording setup wasn’t the only new toy the band had to play with. George Harrison got hold of one of England’s first Moog synthesizers in November 1968. He learned it by recording his Electronic Sound album and included some of the original Robert Moog soundtracks which came with the machine. According to the new book about the making of the album by Kenneth Womack, Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and The End of the Beatles, this caused a small rift between Harrison and the inventor. But all the Beatles had fun with it. John Lennon created white noise for “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and used the synth as a lead instrument in “Because.” It plays melodic roles in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and brightens the guitars on “Here Comes the Sun.” 

By all accounts, Abbey Road was more enjoyable to make than the Let It Be sessions, but the band still had arguments. According to Womack’s book, a lot of the tension can be traced to a May 1969 band meeting where Paul McCartney flatly refused to let Allen Klein manage him. Lennon privately left the group, swearing biographer Ray Coleman to silence, before the album was released. McCartney publicly quit the next year. Harrison and Ringo Starr had already tendered resignations on previous albums. Starr wrote his song “Octopus’ Garden,” while he was out. Harrison wrote “Here Comes the Sun,” while playing hooky from the band. Even engineer Emerick quit working with the band because of the stress. He had to be lured back. Like Paul’s grandfather bound the band to him with promises to be good in A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles gave the young engineer the same assurances they’d given Martin.

Recording schedules were regularly interrupted. Lennon and Yoko Ono were in a car accident in June. McCartney took time off when his daughter Mary was born on August 28. Lennon and McCartney recorded “The Ballad of John and Yoko” in April, while Ringo Starr was acting with Peter Sellers in the film The Magic Christian. They were the only two Beatles on the song, which came out as a single and wasn’t included on the album. Lennon wasn’t at any of the sessions for “Here Comes the Sun.”  

Not all sessions for Abbey Road were held at the eponymous studio. Parts of “Something” and “You Never Give Me Your Money” were recorded at Olympic Studios in Barnes, West London, proving the band could make music anywhere. They’d actually considered the technical advances and sonic possibilities offered by Stax and other studios which caught specific dynamics EMI couldn’t replicate. The first session for the album was held at Trident Studios in Soho’s Wardour Street, on Feb. 22, 1969, three weeks after the Get Back sessions. The band recorded a backing track for “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” with Billy Preston on Hammond organ, and Lennon on guitar and guide vocal, and the rest of the band eager to tackle the intricate new material.

The Beatles’ 11th studio album was the culmination of the techniques Martin developed to accommodate the band over the past seven years. McCartney told Martin the group wanted to make an album “the way we used to do it.” While much has been made of the story the album was made as a proper note to go out on, while it was being made the Beatles were thinking forward, expanding and consolidating their talents as a unit. However seamless and unified the album appears, the band blew through genres, countrified guitars merge with blues, through pop, doo wop and progressive rock.

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Splitting the album into two distinct halves was a compromise between McCartney and Martin’s desire for a thematic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band approach and Lennon’s preference for distinct and unrelated songs. The first song to get the needle is “Come Together,” one of the great opening tracks on any album in rock history. From Ringo’s high-hat-tom-tom “pudding sound” run to Lennon’s understated “shoot me,” the song is instantly recognizable as a departure from the band’s earlier works. The bass and guitar interplay encapsulates the entire sound of the end of the 1960s, while the verses free associate each member of the band.

“Come Together” started life as “Let’s Get It Together,” a campaign song for Timothy Leary, who was running against Ronald Reagan for governor of California. Lennon wrote rough lyrics at the second bed-in event in Montreal. Lennon opened with the line “here come old flat-top,” which he got from Chuck Berry’s song “You Can’t Catch Me.” While Lennon saw it as a tribute, Berry’s publisher Morris Levy saw it as theft and sued. Lennon had to record three cover songs from Levy’s publishing portfolio as part of a 1973 settlement.

Harrison wrote “Something” during the White Album sessions after hearing Apple recording artist James Taylor’s song “Something in the Way She Moves.” Harrison had also written “Here Comes the Sun” after hearing Lennon’s song “Here Comes the Sun King” during the Let It Be sessions. Harrison’s melodic lead lines came from his “Lucy” 1957 Gibson Les Paul played through a Leslie speaker. Lennon’s piano was mostly mixed out, but can be heard on the middle eight right before the guitar solo. George reportedly accused McCartney of overplaying on the song, but Paul said in Anthology he was only doing what sounded best. Frank Sinatra called “Something” “the greatest love song ever written,” as well as being his favorite Lennon/McCartney song. Lennon is on record as saying “Something” is his favorite song on Abbey Road. The entire band’s least favorite song from the album followed.

McCartney introduced “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” to the band during the Let It Be sessions, and the film catches them running through it. He wrote the song in 1968 after the band’s meditative foray in India. Rejected from the White Album, because it was too complicated, McCartney brought it back and suffered the same kind of instant karma Maxwell wrought in the song. Harrison called it “fruity,” in a Feb. 1977 Crawdaddy interview. Lennon called it “granny music,” according to Womack’s book. Starr told Rolling Stone it was “the worst track we ever had to record” and sessions “went on for fucking weeks.”  

This writer sides with McCartney on this one. He said he wanted to do the song and that was a good enough reason to do it. Lennon told him to his face, as heard on the tape Mark Levisohn has been making remarks about, even McCartney couldn’t have liked it. He did. The song is sonically subversive. It has a singalong melody and a very happy chord structure. It’s even got side effects for the kids: Longtime Beatles assistant Mal Evans went “bang bang” on an anvil. But the song is about a serial killer and it was written by the “cute” Beatle. Putting violent intent in a corny sounding song is sheer brilliance. It’s not far removed from “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” in its irony. It feels similar to Country Joe McDonald’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” another singalong with dark overtones which was considered pretty hip at the time. Maybe Paul should have let Ringo sing it. They might have cut him some slack.

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The band first played McCartney’s “Oh! Darling” at the Get Back sessions. After it was re-recorded in April, McCartney recorded one lead vocal take a day to capture that raspy perfection. Lennon told interviewers he should have sung lead on it, but it gets the same full throttle attack McCartney gave on tracks like “Long Tall Sally” and “I’m Down.” The backing dips a doo wop chord progression in Louisiana swamp music.

Ringo wrote most of “Octopus’s Garden” after a trip to Sardinia on Peter Sellers’ yacht, not in a yellow submarine. As can be seen in the film Let It Be, the song was polished by Harrison. Ringo blew bubbles through a glass of water to capture the underwater sounds. To give the backing vocals the wobbly sound, Emerick fed them into a compressor and triggered it from a pulsing tone.

If “Revolution 9” and “Helter Skelter” didn’t prove the Beatles were far-removed from their mop-top pop origins, Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” does. Lennon’s lyrically simple ode to Ono puts more nails in that coffin than McCartney’s bare feet on the album cover put into the “Paul is Dead” rumors. It is dark, deliberate, and grand. Clocking in at 7:47, with intricate beats switching between 12/8 and 4/4, it is positively goth. The guitars sound like they can build forever. McCartney’s fingers are having so much fun on bass they turn the bottom into a hall of mirrors dark carnival ride. He doesn’t miss a fret. Emerick himself made the startling tape snip to end the song, engineer Alan Parsons, who went on to produce Pink Floyd and other bands, recounted for Womack’s book. The song went from a scream to a sudden silence to end side one of Abbey Road.

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In his memoir I, Me, Mine Harrison remembers writing “Here Comes the Sun” in Eric Clapton’s garden while taking a break from Apple Corps business meetings. The basic track was recorded on July7, according to Womack’s book, with Harrison singing and playing acoustic guitar, McCartney on bass and Starr at the drums. 

You can watch the “Here Comes the Sun” music video here:

Lennon rolled Beethoven over for another classic song about wonder. He came up with the arpeggio which frames “Because” after telling Ono to play the chords to “Moonlight Sonata” backwards. The beauty of the classical structure is further refined by the flawless three part harmonies, recorded three times by Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, to layer nine voices onto the final mix. George Martin plays the opening on harpsichord, Harrison plays the Moog synthesizer. 

The first track for the medley, “You Never Give Me Your Money,” catches McCartney happily bitching about Allen Klein’s ugly interloping over a beautiful and simple piano. The vocals begin sweetly, single-tracked, double-tracked and harmonized before Paul rips into his “Lady Madonna” voice. The song becomes more sonically complicated and fades out on the prayerful count-ups while the band’s three guitarists take turns on lead lines in a regal buildup.

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The transition to “Sun King” leads into flawless triple-tracked harmonies on nonsensical dialectic free form lyrics. The first of three Lennon mini-songs transitions from lush promise to surreal linguistic ironies. He amps up the silliness with the sublimely perverse pairing of “Mean Mr. Mustard” and his possible sister, “Polythene Pam.” There is great guitar work throughout the suite, and the instrumental buildup at the end is so exciting Lennon has to scream “oh look out” to put on some breaks. 

According to Womack’s book, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” was written after some of the “Apple Scruffs,” fans who made camp in front of the recording studios and occasionally the Beatles homes, slipped into McCartney’s place to try on his jeans and make off with some keepsakes. Don’t tell this to the Moody Blues, who maintain it was a groupie who wanted to shower with their flautist.

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McCartney got the lyrics for “Golden Slumbers” from a poem written by Thomas Dekker in 1603. He gives a bravado vocal performance on the track until all four Beatles help him “Carry that Weight.” The four Beatles singing in unison create an entirely new voice, which is discernible from any harmony work the band did. Lennon and McCartney sang in unison off and on throughout their recording career, sometimes as they traded lead lines and occasionally when harmonies overlapped, a third voice comes through. When you add Starr and Harrison, the sound is completely changed and yet incredibly familiar. “You Never Give Me Your Money” reprises with a chorus featuring all four Beatles.

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“The End” features the only drum solo Ringo ever recorded for the Beatles. Mixed across two tracks for a true stereo sound, it was recorded with twelve microphones. Starr performed the solo accompanied by guitar and tambourine, which were edited out during the mix. Supported by a steady propulsion of bass drum 8th notes, Ringo rides up and down the toms for the fills. Starr said he took note of Ron Bushy’s drumming on Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” The drum solo in the early metal classic goes on for two and a half minutes. Ringo does it all in an economical 15 seconds. According to Geoff Emerick’s book Here, There and Everywhere, the solo “was actually considerably longer than what eventually made it onto the album.” 

Solos are different than leads, and Starr doesn’t get the credit for the lead parts he played in quite a few Beatles hits. He is certainly playing a lead instrument in “Rain,” and takes a lead at the end of “Strawberry Fields.” Everyone’s playing, but you hear Ringo. It happens quite a lot in the band’s repertoire.

“The End” also includes the three-way dueling guitar solos, an idea which came from Lennon, who originally wanted to do the solo himself. Paul leads off, bending the strings on his Telecaster similarly to his leads in the song “Another Girl.” Harrison comes in second, gliding his fingers expansively on a Les Paul and leaving Lennon to steal the show with heavily distorted rhythmic bursts on his Epiphone Casino. According to Womack’s book, the three guitarists had a blast recording the solos and did it in one take. Lennon’s third and final solo gives way to the piano chords which support the album’s final couplet: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” 

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The album was almost called “Everest,” which was the name of the brand of cigarettes Emerick smoked. Rather than making the trek to Mount Everest for a cover shoot, the band went to the nearest crosswalk. Iain Macmillan photographed the Beatles walking away from EMI Recording Studios. It is the only album by the band which didn’t have their name on the cover.

At the Zebra Crossing, Lennon leads, followed by Starr, a barefoot and out of step McCartney, and Harrison, the only band member not wearing a Tommy Nutter suit. There is a white Volkswagen Beetle to the left of the band. Its license plate is 28IF, which almost added up to the “Paul is dead” rumor. He wasn’t. The same couldn’t be said about his band. After Abbey Road was released, the Get Back project became Let It Be and was the final album released by the Beatles. Lennon “divorced” the other Beatles on September 20, six days before Abbey Road was released.

When it first came out, Abbey Road got mixed reviews. The Times called it gimmicky. Rolling Stone called it complicated. The New York Times said the songs were nothing special. Melody Maker thought it was “a natural born gas.” Today some critics think it is the Beatles’ greatest album. While that may be opinion, the band’s progress on Abbey Road was as great as the leap they made between Rubber Soul and Revolver.

Abbey Road really changed everything, something the Beatles made a habit of doing throughout their career. Record production would continue to refine itself until it was replaced by 1980s overproduction. But we can hear snatches of Abbey Road on diverse offerings from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. Sgt. Pepper may have paved the way for the Who’s Tommy, but Abbey Road gave way to Who’s Next, it put the spray paint on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. It helped Marvin Gaye find a million voices for What’s Going On?

Abbey Road summed up the sound of the entire generation as it moved into a new phase. The record includes the feel of all the music which was going on at the time. Not only the genres, but the street beats and the trash talk of the decade’s end. It was the world as we heard it.

Today we know this was the band turning off the lights at the studio, but at the time they were only going their separate ways until they got back together in the studio. Lennon, Harrison, and Starr would each get together for short-lived collaborations after the breakup. McCartney would play all the instruments himself when he needed to. Those aspects of the Beatles phase started on The White Album. Hell, they started on the songs “Yesterday” and “Eleanore Rigby.” Even their solo careers came to fruition on Abbey Road, the band played as a band, and then would come in individually to make things perfect. Abbey Road may not be the best Beatles album, that honor changes depending on what’s being played at any given moment, but it is the most perfect. It wound up marking the end of the world’s favorite rock group, but it promised more to come.

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Spotify is celebrating the release of band’s last recorded studio album with an exclusive playlist, The Beatles Abbey Road Experience, which you can listen to here:

“Her Majesty” actually opens with the last chord of “Mean Mr. Mustard” and was placed before “Polythene Pam” in the initial rough mixes of the suite, but McCartney thought it flowed better without it. Second engineer John Kurlander cut it from the mix and attached it to the end of the master tape after 20 seconds of silence. It was slated to be left off but mastering engineer Malcolm Davies included it on a playback lacquer. When the Beatles heard it, they liked the effect of the false ending. The original pressings of the album didn’t list the song, allowing the Beatles to invent “hidden tracks.”

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.