“It was a straightforward performance of their stage repertoire. A broadcast, more or less,” the late Beatles producer George Martin said about the making of The Beatles album.
However, he wasn’t commentating about their last recorded album Abbey Road. Instead, he was reflecting on a time just six years earlier when The Beatles made their debut Please Please Me.
It is hard to comprehend now because of how revered and popular they still are, but The Beatles packed everything they ever did into just over six years. They went from four men who turned up to the Abbey Road studios the first time and made an album in the space of one day, to a band who would forever change the shape of music. A monumental shift from simply recording their live songs, to becoming pioneers of the studio.
As Abbey Road turns 47 years old, Moshcam looks back at how the final album the band would record was made. And how The Beatles ended their reign in the exact same place where it had begun just years earlier…
“Let it Be was such an unhappy record… Whereas Abbey Road was a very happy record to make. I guess it was happy because everybody thought that it was going to be the last” – George Martin
Months earlier, The Beatles had been bunkered down in the studio trying to record the follow up to The White Album. Originally titled the Get Back sessions, they were fraught with tension between bandmates and ultimately proved unsuccessful. Hurt by the process, it was at one time uncertain if the band would even get back together to record again.
“I really believed it was the end of The Beatles. I was quite surprised when Paul McCartney rang me up. He said, ‘We’re going to make another record – would you like to produce it?’ My immediate answer was, ‘Only if you let me produce it the way we used to.’” Martin continued.
“Paul said, ‘we will.’ So I said, ‘well, if you really want to, let’s do it.’”
The band reconvened in February 1969 and set to work on an album that would prove to be their last. Yet despite personal problems between the band members and producer being quelled, there were still issues behind the scenes.
The band’s business venture, Apple, was losing money at a terrible rate. While lawyers and accountants were a regular fixture in their London offices. ‘Here Comes The Sun’ was a song that directly resulted from these issues.
“One day I decided to sag off Apple and I went to Eric Clapton’s house,” George Harrison recalled.
“The relief of not having to go and see all those dopey accountants was wonderful. I just walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote ‘Here Comes The Sun.’”
Meanwhile, the McCartney penned ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ also referenced the band’s crumbling business venture and the resultant problems.
Alongside the exterior distractions though, there were technological advances that allowed the band to prosper. An eight track recording console was used for the first time by the band, while Harrison’s recently purchased Moog synthesiser was incorporated into a number of songs.
Perhaps the greatest example of this was in ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ which was the first song the band recorded during their sessions.
“I first heard about the Moog synthesiser in America. I had to have mine made specially, because Mr Moog had only just invented it,” Harrison said.
“It was one thing having one, and another trying to make it work. There wasn’t an instruction manual, and even if there had been it would probably have been a couple of thousand pages long. I don’t think even Mr Moog knew how to get music out of it.”
Since the inception of the band Harrison had always deferred to the more senior figures of John Lennon and McCartney. For one, they were older. But they were also more experienced and more successful than him when it came to the practice of songwriting. However, Abbey Road solidified his rise to their level.
‘Something’, which he wrote alone, gained universal praise from all the members in the band.
“I think that’s about the best track on the album, actually,” Lennon said. While McCartney declared it as the “best thing he’s written.”
“George had a smugness on his face when he came in with that one, and rightly so. He knew it was absolutely brilliant. And for the first time, John and Paul knew that George had risen to their level,” engineer Geoff Emerick told Music Radar.
However, the band weren’t quite so universally full of praise for every song on the album.
“It was the worst track we ever had to record… It went on for fucking weeks,” Ringo Starr said about ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ which took three days to record.
The McCartney penned track was originally brought to the band during the Let it Be sessions. But was then later returned to on its follow up, much to the rest of the band’s chagrin.
“It’s fruity,” was the somewhat more diplomatic response from Harrison.
Meanwhile, Lennon erred more on the side of Ringo.
“That’s Paul’s. I hate it…He did everything to make it into a single and it never was and it never could’ve been.”
Yet despite the band’s, at times, frosty reception to each other’s work and differing opinions there was clearly still a strong chemistry between the four of them.
When Lennon brought ‘Come Together’ to the studio, it underwent a transformation from its early rock and roll style. Penned originally as a campaign song for Timothy Leary, Lennon turned it instead into an abstract lyrical piece, as McCartney provided a mood altering bass line and Harrison a distinctive guitar riff to it.
“In spite of all things the Beatles really could play music together when they weren’t uptight,” Lennon told Rolling Stone a year after the band had split up.
“We’ve played together so long that it fits. That’s the only thing I sometimes miss. Being able to just sort of blink or make a certain noise. And they’d all know where we’re going on an ad lib thing.”
Evidence of the band working together was on the second half of the record which was made up by a 16 minute, eight song medley. More McCartney and Martin’s idea- the medley featured a range of songs written by different people, guitar solos by three of the Beatles, and even a reluctant drum solo from Ringo.
The majority of the songs were actually written a year earlier when the band had returned from their much publicised trip to India, where they had studied under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They were essentially leftover parts of songs which hadn’t yet been worked on until completion.
“My contribution to the medley is ‘Polythene Pam’, ‘Sun King’ and ‘Mean Mr Mustard’,” Lennon revealed. “We juggled them about until it made vague sense.”
The scrap bits undoubtedly joined together to create a whole that was far greater than the sum of its individual parts. The band worked to place them into some sort of order and recorded each one in a single take.
“Although it had overdubs we got to play the whole medley,” Harrison said. “We played the backing track and went from one arrangement to the next.”
After taking the whole of June off to go on holidays, the band returned into the studio at the beginning of July to finish the record. Lennon, however, was absent for the first week back after he had been involved in a car crash in Scotland.
The remaining trio continued to work on the songs in his absence until he eventually joined them, along with Yoko Ono, who was equipped with a bed inside the studio. She had been pregnant at the time of the crash and Lennon wanted to be near her while she recuperated.
The final months were spent tying up all the loose ends and finishing the medley. However, when reflecting back on the album the band members and people involved had differing opinions of its overall quality. This perhaps signified why after it was completed they split up and all went their separate ways.
“I liked the A side. I never liked that sort of pop opera on the other side. It’s junk. It was just bits of songs thrown together,” Lennon said.
However, Ringo thought very differently.
“After the Let It Be nightmare, Abbey Road turned out fine. The second side is brilliant. That last section is for me one of the finest pieces we put together.”
“I tried with Paul to get back into the old Sgt Pepper way of creating something really worthwhile. So we put together the long side,” Martin said. “Everybody worked frightfully well, and that’s why I’m very fond of it.”
Whatever difference in opinion the band had during both the making of it and indeed in the aftermath of it, their legacy was given a fitting finale by it. Full of inventive pop songs, childlike whimsies, studio experiments and rock gems, Abbey Road remains to this day one of the most loved and respected albums of all time.