Gahh, so the Beatles have managed to part me from my cash once again. But how could I not splurge out on this wonderfully packaged remix/reissue of the great ‘Abbey Road‘, an album that still bewitches me even after living with it for three decades?
The original 1969 release was always on the slim side in terms of the overall presentation – indeed I think that was the intention. No gatefold sleeve, no printed lyrics, nothing in fact except a tracklist, and of course the iconic image of the Beatles themselves striding across that north London zebra crossing. It conveys a no-nonsense, we’re-just-a-rock-band vibe, an aesthetic carried over from the abortive ‘Let It Be‘ sessions in January of that year.
It’s sneaky in the way it unfolds. In contrast to the immediately scattershot atmosphere of 1968’s White Album, ‘Abbey Road’ is a deliberate slow-burn. It has by far the most low-key opener to any Beatles record, and for the first half-hour doesn’t sound a whole lot different to the garage stylings of ‘Let It Be’. Then the twenty-minute closing medley opens like a flower, making the album’s first act seem even grittier when thrown into relief against its bucolic, exuberant experimentalism.
The technology in Abbey Road (the studio) had evolved since the last Beatles sessions there, with eight-track tape and transistor-powered desks providing greater overdubbing capabilities and a smoother overall sound. For that reason there are naysayers who find the listening experience a bit on the soft side, but for my money the drum sound on ‘Abbey Road’ is the best you’ll find on any record from the Swinging Sixties.
Giles “son of George” Martin and his associate Sam Okell have walked an increasingly difficult line with the Beatles remix series. 2017’s fiftieth-anniversary edition of ‘Sgt. Pepper‘ was a welcome addition to the canon, since in Lennon’s own words “You haven’t heard ‘Pepper’ until you’ve heard it in mono”, and aimed to recapture the intricacy of the 1967 mono mix in a respectful, modern stereo incarnation. Last year’s White Album treatment generally replicated the original stereo mix, while sanding off its more jarring sonic edges.
But with the world in ’69 moving into the world of FM radio and home hi-fi, ‘Abbey Road‘ was originally released only in a stereo version which sounded bloody good in the first place, and certainly never got as dusty as the generally shonky and sometimes downright appalling stereo mixes of Beatles albums past. And so this fiftieth-anniversary edition seems to exist rather as object than artwork – a quality highlighted by the timidity with which the new mix has been approached.
This mix is really just an updated version of the original, not an attempt to re-interpret it. I continue to be baffled by Giles Martin’s insistence on panning the drums and/or bass rather than placing them in the centre, and this recalcitrance is no more obvious than in the final medley, where Ringo darts from the left to right speakers between “Bathroom Window” and “Golden Slumbers” as though he were being carted on his drum riser by thankless roadies. It’s odd that the remix team didn’t take the chance to fix something that always broke the end medley’s continuity.
There’s something else odd going on with the drums. Apart from “The End” they were recorded in mono, yet Martin’s team appear to have employed some Haas Panning techniques to create a false stereo impression. Haas Panning employs EQ-based delay, and was used in the Sixties to create false stereo mixes of albums that had only been finished in mono; it’s effective to a point, but can create a slightly bizarre audio impression similar to the “Uncanny Valley” effect produced by the CGI approximation of human faces.
You can hear this in the samples I’ve included of “Come Together” [intro], “Golden Slumbers” and “I Want You“. It feels almost as though you’re hearing two recordings of the toms and ride cymbals that are slightly out of sync: to my ears this is an artifact produced by the shunting of stereoscopic sound onto a signal that was originally recorded in mono. Listening on headphones makes the impression more marked, especially in “Come Together” where Ringo’s mid-tom can’t decide which side of the the stereo spectrum it wants to inhabit.
(The audio files included with this blog are a straight comparison between the 2009 stereo remaster of the original 1969 mix, and the new 2019 mix, in that order. They’re comparisons of the same passage of music, placed one after the other.)
I have another, more major problem with the new mix of “Come Together”. It opens ‘Abbey Road’ with a slinky, swampy, low-key atmosphere, in direct contrast with not only the White Album but every previous Beatles album. George Martin spoke about his belief in opening every record with “a potboiler“; in comparison to the likes of “Back In The USSR” or “A Hard Day’s Night” this song then sounds doubly mysterious and restrained.
Whereas the White Album is defined by its ingratiating sloppiness, I always felt ‘Abbey Road’ to be a devastatingly precise record. When I first heard “Come Together” at the age of nine I refused to believe it was by The Beatles: it just sounded so ruthlessly focussed, especially in the fade-out where the expected refrain of “come together” was replaced by a single world-weary sigh. And yet in the 2019 mix the refrain continues until the end, accompanied by some “woo-woohs” and general larking about. It sounds like a Sixties wig-out; it sounds less modern.
And modernity is surely the objective of these remixes. The ‘Sgt. Pepper’ anniversary re-issue felt like a mission to re-introduce that classic album to a new generation, and by-and-large it succeeded: I will certainly play the 2017 mix to my daughter when she’s ready to sit down and have her mind blown. And I think this new mix of ‘Abbey Road’ also largely succeeds, especially when listening on headphones: the intro of “You Never Give Me Your Money“, for example, uses the Haas Panning technique to far more pleasing effect to give the piano a proper space in the arena of the mix.
“You Never Give Me Your Money” is one of my absolute favourite Beatles songs, and I love this new mix for many reasons – chief among them the prominence of the staccato piano in the final third. I’ve always been bothered though by the needless stereo separation of the instruments, and was looking forward to a mix that would place the drums in the centre where every reasonable person would expect them to be. Forgive me but I always thought that a major reason to redress these Sixties stereo mixes was to make them sound more natural and remedy the bizarre, distracting hard-panning that always hamstrung them?
My final, much more serious problem occurs in the fade-out. George Harrison comes in for a solo while Paul is experiencing what sounds like hypertension during his final vocal note – and between bars eight and six of this solo the guitar in the 1969 mix is faded down, presumably because George didn’t really like what he was playing. This drop-out creates a call-and-response effect between the solo on the right speaker and the chiming guitar refrain on the left, while giving space to Ringo’s drums fills in-between. In the new mix the guitar solo just ploughs right on through, even beyond the point where it had long been faded out originally.
This may seem a small thing, and I suppose it is. But the point is that, just like the “Come Together” vocal fade-out, this was a deliberate creative choice made in the mixing stage, by the original creators, that’s been ignored. Giles Martin is an excellent technician, but I’m really not sure how much of a creative or even very musical person he is, when he doesn’t easily spot the reason for that guitar drop or the dynamics it produces in the instruments around it.
This lack of creativity pervades the new mix. Why not notice that guitar drop? Why not notice how the extreme separation of instruments destroys the illusion that the listener is being presented with a band as though in real life? I can’t answer these question for sure, but I’m pretty sure that these mix choices were informed by a reluctance to present a product too out-of-step with what people are already used to hearing.
This is both a weakness and a strength. Giving commercial new Beatles stuff to the world is a tricky business, since it’s music that’s so dear to the hearts of those that know it, that you can’t go too far. Conversely, the band prided themselves on pushing boundaries, and that makes this very workmanlike reissue a bit disappointing. Having said all that, when I introduce my aforementioned daughter to ‘Abbey Road‘ this mix is the one I’ll play, because it sounds objectively more appealing to modern ears, especially on headphones.
On balance: if you don’t own ‘Abbey Road’ (and if you don’t, I’ve no idea why you’ve read this far), then I can certainly recommend the single-album CD or download. The deluxe edition contains a 5.1 mix and outtakes, but they’re not essential. If you already own ‘Abbey Road’ I can’t urge you to buy this again: your original copy will continue to enthrall you just as much as its 2019 counterpart.