ALIGHTING at St John’s Wood tube station in London’s NW8 one unusually warm September day, I head for The Beatles’ spiritual home.
Five minutes later, I’m strolling across the world’s most famous zebra crossing, following in the footsteps of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Fab Four cross back to the Abbey Road studio on an original photo outtake[/caption]
Or should I say John (all in white), Ringo (business suit), Paul (bare feet) and George (double denim) in that order?
A few more seconds pass and I enter the unassuming Georgian townhouse set back from Abbey Road containing the magical Studio Two.
Fifty years ago, in that cavernous room, the Fab Four completed their final sessions together for what became Abbey Road, the album with its iconic cover photo.
It was one glorious last hurrah which saw them reunite with “fifth Beatle” producer George Martin, their calm, schoolmasterly guide, in a deliberate attempt to “get back to where they once belonged” in their familiar musical playground.
The ‘fifth Beatle’, the late George Martin and his son Giles[/caption]
Paul McCartney holds the building in great affection as he explains in his foreword to anniversary editions of the much-loved LP.
“Our first arrival (in 1962) was thrilling,” he writes. “We entered by the tradesman’s entrance — still not qualified to use the front door.
“Studio Two was bigger than anything we had worked in before and, as we set up our basic equipment, we marvelled at its grandeur.”
So, to celebrate a half-century of Abbey Road, I’m meeting one of today’s keepers of The Beatles’ flame, producer Giles Martin, son of the late Sir George.
He has a base dominated by a massive mixing desk at the rear of the house McCartney recalls as a warren of “studios, rooms, offices and cupboards filling every inch of its vast interior”.
Fifty years ago, in that cavernous room, the Fab Four completed their final sessions together for what became Abbey Road, the album with its iconic cover photo.After Giles’s sparkling efforts on remixed and expanded versions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album, he turned his attention to Abbey Road . . . despite rupturing an Achilles tendon playing tennis during the process.
“Yes, it’s funny telling people I’m working on Abbey Road at Abbey Road,” he reports.
He has a perceptive take on The Beatles synergy with their studio, used for every album save for the fractious sessions that eventually yielded Let It Be in 1970 (confusingly recorded before Abbey Road).
“The blank four walls of Studio Two made them paint beautiful pictures together,” he says. “Paul refers to The Beatles as a square with four corners and if you take away one, there’s no longer a square, there’s something else.”
Ringo and George with a Moog synthesizer, Abbey Road Studios, August 1969[/caption]
You could argue that taking away George Martin also meant “something else” as the bruising “Get Back” sessions which surfaced on Let It Be proved.
That album, overseen by American “wall of sound” guru Phil Spector, became a source of consternation to the great production stalwart. Giles says: “There was some jealousy and bitterness from my dad when they did Let It Be. He would say, ‘Produced by George Martin, overproduced by Phil Spector.’
“Spector is a genius but completely mad and so far away from my father in character. One was this hip guy, while the other wore a suit and tie. John phoned Dad once to tell him Spector had a gun!”
It’s clear, however, that Sir George had the last laugh.
Abbey Road sounds as fresh and vibrant as ever, bearing such timeless wonders as Here Comes The Sun, Come Together, Something and the epic 16-minute “medley”. There’s The Beatles’ second-longest track in the shape of Lennon’s grinding blues number I Want You (She’s So Heavy) about his muse Yoko Ono and McCartney giving his full Little Richard holler to Oh! Darling.
The Beatles upset George Martin by using ‘wall-of-sound’ producer Phil Spector for Let It Be proved[/caption]
Because, one of Lennon’s most exquisite songs, was written after he heard Yoko listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
And, of course, there are two lighter, comic and, to some, vaguely irritating songs — Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, which includes the sound of an anvil being struck, and Ringo’s second underwater odyssey after Yellow Submarine, Octopus’s Garden.
Finally, there’s the 23-second hidden ditty Her Majesty, chopped from the medley but preserved for ever at the very end of the album.
Not sure what our gracious Queen made of McCartney singing, “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, Someday I’m gonna make her mine.”
It’s strange to think that Lennon quit The Beatles on September 20, 1969, six days before Abbey Road was released to universal acclaim and went on to spend 17 weeks at No1 in the UK album charts.
Beatles with Yoko during a April 1969 photo shoot[/caption]
For the 50th anniversary, we get to hear a slew of out-takes, alternate versions and demos which add fascinating extra avenues to well-trodden territory. They feature amiable studio banter that contradicts tales of a band in turmoil despite Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr all soon going their separate ways.
Giles says: “It’s not as though I found any arguments and didn’t put them in. I try to put in all the speech I can because it’s so interesting.
“My dad was very fond of Abbey Road as an album. He always described how Paul phoned him and said he wanted to do a record like they used to.”
“And when Paul heard Abbey Road again, he said, ‘We were actually a really good band, weren’t we?’
“I think all of them, maybe reluctantly, wished at times they had each other on their solo records . . . but only if they were not The Beatles as that’s what they wanted to get away from.
“What they created in this studio together was very special.”
George Harrison (1943 – 2001), Ringo Starr, John Lennon (1940 – 1980), and in front, Paul McCartney[/caption]
Though his father’s contributions were immeasurable, too, Giles is mindful not to overplay Sir George’s hand. “Someone asking me about Abbey Road said, ‘Did they agree to obey your dad?’
“They never obeyed him. The best Dad could do was nudge them in a different direction without getting his hand bitten off!”
One of the most stunning aspects of Abbey Road is the full-flowering of George Harrison’s songwriting talent.
Two of the strongest tracks are his . . . Here Comes The Sun (most listened to Beatles song on Spotify) and Something (Lennon’s favourite song on the album).
I’m intrigued to learn about Harrison’s working relationship with George Martin, so I ask Giles for his impression of it.
The Fab Four pictured in 1969[/caption]
“Dad thought those two songs were amazing but I think his one regret is that he didn’t give George enough time and attention because John and Paul were the go-to people,” he explains.
“He always said George was like a tapestry weaver who would go away and work on things gradually whereas John and Paul were instant machines.
A clue to Harrison’s situation had come earlier in ’69. “George had written All Things Must Pass, a beautiful song but rejected for Let It Be. Then he brought in Something and Here Comes The Sun, which are incredibly well structured . . . and pretty modern-sounding compared to the rest of Abbey Road.
“George probably couldn’t wait to work with a producer who wasn’t looking at two other people at the same time, so he teamed up with Phil Spector straight away for his All Things Must Pass album.”
John Lennon and George Martin got together in 1980, a month before the star was killed died – just the two of them at the Dakota Building in New York.[/caption]
Though Lennon once described Abbey Road’s Side Two medley as “junk, just bits of songs thrown together,” it remains a wonderfully entertaining set piece and a triumph of sequencing by the band.
And Giles points out that Lennon “wouldn’t have agreed to do a whole half a record if he didn’t like it. He was John Lennon, hardly a shrinking violet.” The seamless song cycle begins with the acid You Never Give Me Your Money about The Beatles’ financial difficulties involving grasping manager Allen Klein.
It moves into dreamy Sun King then conjures up two seedy, typical Beatles characters, Mean Mr Mustard and Polythene Pam.
The home stretch kicks off with She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, inspired by “Apple scruffs”, hardcore fans who used to hang around Abbey Road.
Sir George Martin shares a seat with a statue of John Lennon in a park in Havana, Cuba,[/caption]
One in particular, Diane Ashley, outrageously did what the title describes at McCartney’s nearby St John’s Wood home.
Then it’s on to the majestic orchestral sweep of Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight, still a staple of McCartney’s live set, before finishing with The End, known for its rousing solos by all four
Beatles and the immortal payoff “and in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take”.
Giles says: “The second half of Abbey Road is what my dad thought they should be doing after Sgt. Pepper, to take things to a different level.
“He may have been wrong but that’s what he believed. But The Beatles rejected his approach and made The White Album.
Sir George Martin and Yoko Ono[/caption]
“I love the medley. It’s my favourite sequence of Beatles music even if someone burst my bubble by saying the songs weren’t finished so pieced together.”
Giles says the sequence reminds him of Radiohead’s masterpiece OK Computer.
“There’s a beauty in it. My father certainly had influence over the record but he didn’t put that medley together. The band did it.”
Of the album as a whole, he adds: “It’s Seventies- sounding, deliberately so. John heard Albatross by Fleetwood Mac and did Sun King. They were always listening to what was around.”
But he also suggests that it is “like a condensed version of all their influences and their career. It’s got the blues, the strings, the harmonies.
“For younger generations, Abbey Road is a gateway to The Beatles. It’s the perfect epitaph or final chapter.”
Soon after The Beatles split, Lennon had a very different take, calling some of the album “granny music”.
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Giles, however, is able to put those comments into perspective through conversations with his father.
“John said a lot of things afterwards. He slagged off The Beatles, slagged off Paul, slagged off my father.
“In 1980, a month before John died, he phoned Dad and they got together, just the two of them at the Dakota Building in New York. Yoko went out and left them alone.
“Dad said to John, ‘Why did you say a lot of things that really hurt me?’ and he replied, ‘I was high’.”
Giles says Martin senior found the chat “cathartic” and they even talked of working together again.
“Today, I get from Yoko that by the end, John was really proud of everything.
“And as Paul says, ‘There was just four of us and no one can ever change that.’”
Abbey Road (50th Anniversary Editions)
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