Archive for September, 2009

Abbey Road

September 12th, 2009 by Collin Canright | No Comments | Filed in History, Music

I couldn’t resist. Went into Starbuck’s this afternoon for a coffee for me and a tea for my wife, and I saw Abbey Road on display in front of the cash register. The remastered version.

I bought it. I grew up listening to the Beatles. I vaguely remember Magical Mystery Tour arriving in the mail from the Columbia Record Club. I was seven. My brother and our friends played all the Beatles’s records over and over again.

Abbey Road was always my favorite Beatles album, a mix of new technology supporting nostalgic sounds, a clear ending that harkened back to the band’s beginning. We’d argue over which was better, Side 1 beginning with the whimsy of “Come Together” and ending in the hard rock blues of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Or Side 2 with the magnificence of “Here Comes the Sun” and the touching funny poignancy of the Beatles final, brilliant song cycle.

The sound quality of the remastered version is stunningly brilliant. The first thing that struck me was a new openness to the sound. I hear the driving funkiness of the organ on “I Want You (She’s so Heavy).” I don’t recall the organ being as prominent on the LP. The white noise and abrupt ending of the song, which I will always associate with the end of Side 1, is more startling and effective.

I was also struck by producer George Martin’s orchestrations and their balance and blend with the rock instruments and the strange and subtle buzzings of the synthesizer. The synthesizer is particularly eerie on “Because,” sounding moon-like, as synthesized tones often sounded in the 60s, but with a sharpness and distinction that comes out quite clearly on the new CD.

For track-by-track recording stories, read this interview of Geoff Emerick, the album’s recording engineer.

I’m interested, then, to read in the new liner notes on the incorporation of the Moog synthesizer into the album: “Remaining true to the spirit of musical adventure on their previous albums, The Beatles were one of the first pop acts to use a newly invented instrument. George Harrison had purchased one of only a few Moog synthesizers in existence and this large unwieldy contraption was transported to Abbey Road in August. ”

The Beatles use of electronic synthesizers–and especially their earlier use of tape composition techniques–earned them the respect of the original, university-based and classically trained electronic music computers. In 1975, Elliot Schwartz noted the influence of electronic composition on pop music, using the Beatles White Album and “Revolution No. 9” as the prime example:

Here we have the splicing of unrelated scraps of tape, tape reversal, variable speed changes, sequential loops–in fact, just about all of the devices used by (electronic music pioneers) Schaeffer and Henry, Leuning and Ussachevsky (Electronic Music: A Listener’s Guide, p. 178).

The story of Abbey Road appears in numerous media and blog accounts these days, but I went back and read it in the book with inside-reporting credibility from the time, Philip Norman’s Shout. Additionally, Norman captures the essence of the album in the context of its time and place:

Something had stopped the elements diverging, and restored them to their old unsurpassable balance. Abbey Road was John Lennon at his best, and Paul McCartney at his best, and George Harrison suddenly reaching a best that no one had ever imagined. It was John’s anarchy, straight and honest. It was Paul’s sentimentality with the brake applied. It was George’s new, wholly surprising presence, drawing the best from both sources. It was a suite of new songs, not warring internally, as on the White Album, but rounded and unified and performed with taut simplicity. It was a moment, caught again and crystallized, even in the flux of an expiring decade. It was hot streets, soft porn and hippydom fading into a hard reality. It was London here and now, and Liverpool then, and the Beatles, dateless and timeless in a sudden, capricious illusion of perfect harmony” (Shout, Philip Norman).

The newly remastered Abbey Road shows just how dateless and timeless the Beatles sound was and is, even in the flux of another expiring decade 40 years later, as hard reality once again calls us to reach a best we never knew we had.

A story on the Beatles remastering project appears in Goldmine magazine and a review of the remastered Abbey Road in Pitchfork.