Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Twelve)

It all started with a phone call.  Paul McCartney rang up George Martin one day to ask if he was interested in producing one last Beatles album.  Remembering the tumultuous Let It Be sessions, Martin agreed on one condition.  He would only do it if the band was willing to go back to the way they were used to working together.  They were, especially John Lennon.  Martin was on board.
That fateful decision led to the creation of Abbey Road, named after the street where the EMI Studios are located.  (The mass popularity of the LP no doubt inspiring the name change to Abbey Road Studios as it’s known today.)  Like “The White Album”, it’s an eccentric record featuring a mix of bluesy rockers and sweet ballads running at various lengths.  Pulling back a bit on the experimentalism that defined many of their late 60s offerings, it still finds room for new sounds, most notably a synthesizer that pops up on a few tracks.  Far from their best, it is nonetheless a very fine piece of work.
Originally conceived as a campaign theme for controversial professor Timothy Leary (who used the original version for his abbreviated 1969 run for Governor of California which was derailed after he was pinched for drug possession), Come Together opens the album on a strong, bluesy note.  With its eerie, subdued atmosphere and puzzling lyrics, the song is a far cry from earlier album openers.  Featuring one of Ringo Starr’s all-time greatest performances on the drums, the mostly low-key arrangement (based on Chuck Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me who successfully sued for plagiarism in 1973) allows plenty of room for Lennon’s self-assured vocals.  Despite the dense nature of a good number of the words, occasionally lucid lines of autobiography poke through like “Got to be a joker/He just do what he please” in verse one and “Got to be good-looking/’Cause he’s so hard to see” in verse four.  More than 40 years later, it’s still spooky to hear Lennon say “Shoot me” numerous times in between the verses.  It might not always make sense but the clever use of pseudo jive suits the melody.  George Harrison’s guitar work here is terrific as is Paul McCartney’s anchored bass playing.  The organ’s a nice touch, too.  It’s no wonder the song’s been covered so many times.
Also remade by numerous musicians over the years is Harrison’s Something (which Frank Sinatra mistakenly thought was a Lennon/McCartney original).  Reminiscent of a Phil Spector production with its lovely orchestral arrangement backing the band’s traditional rock instrumentation, it wouldn’t have been out of place on Let It Be.  Directly inspired by a James Taylor composition (the first two lines are a direct steal from “Something In The Way She Moves”), it’s a pretty love song with very straightforward lyrics.  Interestingly, though, despite the mutual infatuation that’s developing, the middle eight section reveals surprising doubts about a lasting, long-term relationship.  (“You’re asking me will my love grow/I don’t know, I don’t know/You stick around now it may show/I don’t know, I don’t know”)  Harrison’s guitar solo immediately follows and it’s the opposite of insecure.  It’s one of his best, actually. 
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is the most charming song about mass murder I’ve ever heard.  Maxwell Edison is a psychotic college student “majoring in medicine” who tricks Joan, a solitary, amateur scientist, into thinking he’s into her.  After successfully asking her out to a movie, he arrives at her door only to kill her with his unusual choice of weapon (the hammering is represented by Ringo banging on an anvil).  Later, he offs his teacher in the same manner for making him stay after class to write lines on a chalkboard (“Maxwell plays the fool again/Teacher gets annoyed”).  The guy is so demented, in the final verse he even knocks off the judge at his own hearing in the presence of two of his overly supportive groupies (“Rose and Valery, screaming from the gallery/Say he must go free”).  Deeply despised by George Harrison, who called it “fruity”, and John Lennon who dismissed it as “granny-style” music, it is easily one of the most underappreciated tunes in The Beatles’ catalogue.  Cheerfully depraved (McCartney nearly cracks up at one point but instantaneously recovers without missing a beat), the song bounces along as unashamed as its villainous title character.  The then-pioneering sounds of a Moog synthesizer after the first verse is unexpected and effective.  Superb lyrics on this one.
Channelling Little Richard, McCartney endlessly pleads for reconciliation in Oh! Darling, a song I used to dismiss as being routine.  Mostly set to a 6/8 rhythm, quick guitar jabs punctuate every line of the verses as he starts off with a warm tone before screaming like a maniac on the choruses.  He occasionally alternates the two styles when warranted in the second half.  Lennon believed he would’ve sang this better but he’s wrong.  McCartney was the right choice here.  In fact, his sometimes overwrought vocal performance enhances the less-than-original lyrics.  He sounds downright scary at times.
The country-sounding Octopus’ Garden, Ringo Starr’s sole songwriting contribution here, is in the sweet tradition of Yellow Submarine with its innocent tale of a young guy yearning to escape with his girlfriend from a world that interferes with their freedom (“No one there to tell us what to do”).  Comforting backing vocals (which turn gurgly during the guitar solo) swoon behind Ringo’s optimistic vocals.  The piano sometimes sounds like it was recorded in a saloon adding to the western flavour.  It’s a song begging to be animated.
Lennon’s burning desire for Yoko Ono is once again nakedly expressed in the epic I Want You (She’s So Heavy).  Clocking in at 7 minutes and 45 seconds, it’s one of the rare Beatle numbers that allows room for extended jamming.  With a succinct lyric that is anything but ambigious, Lennon is so horny for his muse “it’s driving me mad”.  He even lets out a frustrated scream at one point.  Lennon’s anguished vocal is well matched note-for-note with Harrison’s duplicated guitar playing.  In between the lyrical sections, an old-school organ maintains the sexual tension.  With a little over 3 minutes to go, the lick that opened the song is extended into a hypnotic real-time loop as Ringo wails away on his kit and a whooshing Moog synthesizer effect slowly fades in like an ominous sonic fog.  Then, it all suddenly cuts out.  Good song, even though I wonder if it could’ve been greater with a few more sexually charged lyrical ideas.  I understand the intentional economical approach but maybe it could’ve been more explicit, more daring.
The acoustically driven Here Comes The Sun, the second and final George Harrison contribution, is a soothing clash of differing musical ideas.  On the one hand, you have Harrison’s unplugged lead guitar, Ringo’s steady drumming and McCartney’s dependable bass playing.  On the other, you have a mix of classical instruments and a Moog synthesizer.  All of these sounds collectively give the song an unusual feel for a ballad, especially when the pace is quickened.  The uniformly positive sentiments expressed in the lyrics are hopeful and endearing.  Despite enduring “a long, cold, lonely winter”, there’s nothing but light at the end of a depressing tunnel.
The Moog springs up again in Because, a beautifully harmonized love song very reminiscent of The Beach Boys (but directly inspired by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata).  George Martin’s harpischord is the only other instrument heard here as Lennon, Harrison and McCartney vocally rhapsodize about the wonders of Earth.  Minus the middle eight section, it’s quite a lovely environmental anthem.
The rest of Abbey Road is divided into two, distinct medleys.  You Never Give Me Your Money commences the first one and, appropriately enough, it’s really three songs in one.  After the moving piano introduction, McCartney softly complains about his lack of financial compensation from EMI (“You never give me your money/You only give me your funny paper”).  Then, in the rocking second verse, with its saloon-style piano tinkling, he sings about the dreary existence of post-college life (“Out of college, money spent/See no future, pay no rent/All the money’s gone, nowhere to go”).  Finally, he’s longing to escape the rock star life for good (“One sweet dream/Pack up the bags, get in the limosine/Soon we’ll be away from here”).  All of this heavy subject matter is seamlessly covered in a little over four minutes.  A wonderful achievement.  Then, as the song fades out, the sounds of nature fade in as a crescendoing cymbal crash leads into Sun King.  Operating at a gentle gallop, it’s another showcase for George Harrison’s terrific guitar work.  Soon, more Beach Boy-style harmonies present themselves as Harrison, Lennon and McCartney once again put their voices together.  Lyrically, it’s pretty much a joke, particularly the mix of incompatible foreign words strung together at the end.  But it’s fun to sing along to, nonetheless.
Immediately following Sun King is the superb Mean Mr. Mustard, a fascinating albeit goofy one-minute character study.  Essentially, he’s an irritable, homeless man with a filthy mouth (“Always shouts out something obscene”).  His sister is Polythene Pam, the even quirkier protagonist of the next song.  “Attractively built” despite her manly features, she cross-dresses in a bag made of plastic (“Well, you should see her in drag/Dressed in her polythene bag”).  Originally a critic of these tracks, they zip along so quickly I wonder why it took this reissue to allow me the opportunity to finally embrace them.  Maybe I missed the humour, initially.
Polythene Pam charges into the easygoing She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, a bizarre, not entirely sensical tale about a wacked out rich girl, an overworked dancer working “15 clubs a day”, who breaks into a cop’s house for unknown reasons.  (Boredom, maybe?)  Curiously, he quits his job in pursuit of a more stable profession while this mysterious female tries to help him out by committing a felony (“She could steal…”) but then changing her mind (“…but she could not rob”).  Thanks to her patronage (“Protected by her silver spoon”), she’s able to avoid being arrested and somehow remain in the ex-police officer’s life.  Ok, it wouldn’t work as a film, but when matched to this irresistible McCartney melody, it somehow holds together.  It’s fascinatingly strange.
The second medley opens with the brief but lovely Golden Slumbers.  That heartbreaking string section returns as a piano-playing McCartney appears to be resigned about the inevitable end of The Beatles (“Once there was a way/To get back homewards”) while simultaneously attempting to get his child to go to sleep.  Then, with Ringo erupting on the drums, McCartney unleashes on the next two lines before calming down again.  Just before he does this, though, it’s amusing to hear him sing “Sleep, pretty darling/Do not cry/And I will sing a lullaby” in a more gentle manner.  How the kid could dose off while he’s belting out some of the words here remains anybody’s guess.  Nevertheless, the song gets to you.
It naturally seques into Carry That Weight which musically references You Never Give Me Your Money.  While the choruses clearly refer to the sadness enveloping the band’s state of affairs, the Money verse is more unclear.  Ringo Starr’s vocal stands out the most during the Carry That Weight portions.  George Harrison’s guitar lick leads right into The End, which picks up the tempo and once again, features a Paul McCartney vocal freak-out tinged with sexual energy.  Immediately afterwards, Ringo delivers his famous, often imitated solo.  Then, the band rocks out as Harrison, McCartney and John Lennon take turns soloing.  Finally, a piano cuts everybody off and the famous couplet “And in the end/The love you take/Is equal to the love you make” leads into the last round of Beach Boy harmonies.  Backed by that heartbreaking string section, that final lyric is devastating.
15 seconds later, the rejected medley cut, Her Majesty, cuts through the silence as McCartney breezes through this sweet little tribute to Queen Elizabeth.  It would’ve been nice if it had been fleshed out into a longer cut (you can imagine a verse consisting entirely of whistling) but in 23 seconds, it gets the job done.
Overall, this 2009 reissue sounds great.  It’s not too loud nor is it too soft.  I liked the original 1987 CD, myself, but those who hated the way it was mastered will have no such qualms about this update. 
Early pressings are enhanced with a brief documentary only accessible by a PC or Mac.  (For the former, you need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime.  Consult the back cover for more information.)  Each of The Beatles and producer George Martin are heard in brief voiceover snippets as various photos from the album’s sessions are shown along with clips from the Something video.  (All of this footage was included in The Beatles On Record TV special.)  Like the other reissues, the audio is quite glitchy, unfortunately.  Nothing terribly earth shattering is revealed but there are a few interesting bits.  It’s fun hearing John Lennon cursing after a musical miscue.  Immediately afterwards, Paul McCartney admits that he screwed up earlier but kept quiet about it.  There’s an interesting photo of Linda McCartney and Maureen Starkey watching Ringo Starr do his thing, something that was unheard of before 1968.  But the best moment occurs after the conclusion of The End when Paul quips, “Keep that one.  Mark it ‘Fab’.”.  Classic.  Other than that, you’ve seen and heard this material before. 
As for the liner notes, the usual Historical and Recording Notes, standard to all fourteen of these reissues, are here, as well as a series of photographs from the era.  (Check out some of the album cover outtakes.  They picked the right shot.)  Lots of good information here for newbies but longtime fans won’t learn anything new.  As for the photography, it’s interesting to gauge the mood of the band members in every shot.  Sometimes there’s smiling but in one stunning photo, there’s nothing but sullen expressions.  (Look for that one on the second page of the Historical Notes section.)
Abbey Road doesn’t come close to matching the excellence of Sgt. Pepper nor is it in the same league as Revolver or “The White Album”.  Blame its less sensical lyricism and toned down experimentalism.  Nevertheless, I like it even more now that I did in the mid 1990s when I first heard it.  I used to have problems with Oh! Darling, and several of the medley cuts.  No longer.  Because of their sheer craftmanship, these 17 songs add up to nearly 50 minutes of solid entertainment.  Despite the chaos behind the scenes, there’s nothing but beauty to behold here.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, February 12, 2010
12:22 a.m.
Published in: on February 12, 2010 at 12:22 am  Leave a Comment  

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