How The Beatles shocked themselves into making their greatest album
As Abbey Road turns 50, Beatles fan and Sky News reporter Mike Pegler discusses why he thinks it became their ultimate masterpiece
On 30 January 1969, The Beatles performed together in public for the last time.
It was the anti-climax of arguably their most difficult time as a group, after spending weeks working on what would eventually be released the following year as the Let It Be album, with an accompanying film.
The results of their efforts in the studio were shambolic, while the documentary film, instead of shedding light on the magical recording process, simply showed the group bickering, falling out and imploding.
The sessions for the Let It Be album (or “Get Back” as it was tentatively originally entitled) were indeed dismal. The cracks which had appeared during the recording of The Beatles (aka The White Album) the previous year were now positive chasms.
John Lennon, who was using heroin, retreated further into his artistic bubble with partner Yoko Ono, while Paul McCartney attempted to pull the group together.
This succeeded only in alienating the others, especially George Harrison. He had had enough and walked out, parting with the words: “See you around the clubs.”
There were also reports of serious arguments over music and burgeoning business problems, worsened by their lack of management and disagreement over who should actually take the task on.
Harrison returned on the basis that they would wrap the project up.
The problem was, despite having worked on some strong material – including McCartney’s outstanding Let It Be (the eventual title track) and The Long And Winding Road, during the sessions – the recordings had been painfully undisciplined and poorly executed by the group, lacking energy or enthusiasm.
Lennon later referred to it in typically concise and dismissive style, calling it “the s*******t load of badly recorded s*** with a lousy feeling to it, ever”.
Bemused producer George Martin recalled: “Let It Be was such an unhappy record. I thought I would never work with them again.
“I was quite surprised when Paul rang me up and said, ‘We’re going to make another record’.”
This became Abbey Road and is in truth a far more worthy swansong for the group than the lacklustre album which followed it.
As Ringo Starr observed: “When we were excited, the track is exciting.”
McCartney’s contemporary understatement that The Beatles were “a big act” may or may not have resonated with the rest of the group, but in any case, Lennon was in and so was Starr.
Even the sceptical Harrison accepted the consensus that “we ought to do one better album”.
The Fabs then set about recording their ultimate masterpiece.
Almost immediately, things were different. For a start, this time around all of the band were married.
Lennon had been married and divorced already, but on 20 March he married Yoko Ono. Eight days earlier, McCartney had married Linda Eastman, while Harrison had been married since 1966 and Starr since 1965.
McCartney has observed that The Beatles were like army buddies, saying: “One day we were going to go and kiss the army goodbye and get married and act like normal people.
“We always knew that day had to come.”
However, there were other factors at play, and it has been proved since (not least by McCartney himself), that groups can actually exist without members’ marriages necessarily triggering their dissolution.
The more general point here is that The Beatles’ own relationships with each other had been intense and focused on the brand. Now, their priorities were shifting.
During the album’s production in July of 1969, Lennon put out a single, the memorable Give Peace A Chance, which, although originally carrying a writer’s credit to Lennon-McCartney, had nothing to do with The Beatles.
He also performed live in Canada without the other three.
Each of The Beatles had worked independently on solo music or film projects in the previous years, but this time it was different.
Perhaps most devastatingly of all, six days before the release of Abbey Road in the UK on 26 September, Lennon announced privately to McCartney, Harrison and Starr that he was leaving the group for good.
By the time Abbey Road was spinning on turntables around the world, The Beatles had effectively ceased to exist.
The fact that they managed to record the album at all is extraordinary, for the sessions, although generally more professional than before, were not without their fractious moments.
Harrison in particular must have been seething as he participated in the umpteenth take of McCartney’s Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, while himself incubating some of the greatest songs ever written.
This really gets to the crux of The Beatles break-up.
Contrary to popular myth that somehow Yoko Ono was the cause of the band’s demise – which is unfair – the real reason the group split is that there just was not enough room in The Beatles for The Beatles.
Harrison called it “stifling” and Lennon pointed out that they would have to put out double albums frequently from then on in order to get all the material issued.
On Abbey Road, Lennon and McCartney showcase their talents with the usual variety and panache one had come to expect from a Beatles release.
Lennon’s Come Together, I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and Because are monumental examples of fine songwriting and flawless performance, while McCartney’s work on the album’s closing medleys is breathtaking in its scope and audacity.
The group are also on top vocal form; screaming through rock numbers or crafting complex harmonies – nothing is off-limits.
It is Ringo Starr’s finest hour with Octopus’s Garden and an unforgettable drum solo in the second medley.
But the two best songs on the record are Harrison’s. Love song Something is grown-up rock honed to perfection, while Here Comes The Sun is so catchy that once heard, you never forget it.
Frank Sinatra was so impressed with Something that he regarded it as “the greatest love song of the past 50 years” and also amusingly introduced it live as a Lennon-McCartney composition.
If this irritated Harrison, it certainly didn’t show, as he would later perform the song live using Sinatra’s own “stylistic embellishments” in the lyric (“Stick around… Jack”, anyone?).
Abbey Road is also the most modern sounding of all The Beatles albums.
This may be due to the fact it was mixed only in stereo (no mono version was produced) and the liberal presence of the Moog synthesizer in the mix which, rather than dating the record, complements and provides a unique unifying soundscape across it.
The record had the working title Everest, until someone pointed out that The Beatles might have to go to the Himalayas for a photo shoot, and a much easier alternative was found.
On 8 August 1969, The Beatles famously held up the traffic on the street outside the recording studio as they posed on the zebra crossing on Abbey Road, to create the record’s sleeve.
It has since become one of the most well-known and instantly recognised images in popular culture.
Fans immediately pored over it for special clues in the detail or some significance in the fact that Lennon was wearing a white suit, or McCartney was barefoot.
All absurd, but this was The Beatles and such was their fame that some people were convinced that everything they did must have some deeper, hidden meaning.
Less symbolic and more immediately obvious is the frosty tone of the photographs from 22 August, their last ever as a group, where each member looks so serious and bored that it must have been clear to everyone that the end was near.
This didn’t prevent Lennon, McCartney and Harrison musing over the possibility of another Beatles project, as a recently unearthed taped conversation from 8 September 1969 reveals.
Starr would later comment: “We weren’t sitting in the studio saying, ‘That’s it. Last record, last track, last take’.” This revelation really only serves to confirm Lennon’s recollection that The Beatles’ break-up was a “slow death”.
Like it says on the record: “And in the end/The love you take/Is equal to the love… you make.”
A fitting epitaph for the most significant and influential group in the history of recorded sound, if a little ironic given the prevailing acrimony which would fester and boil over a couple of years later on solo recordings, in the music press and in the courts.
One could adopt Lennon’s attitude, which was to say: “It’s only a rock group that split up. It’s nothing important.”
Another deliberate understatement, but he was wrong.
Like it or not, this particular “rock group” had become a cultural juggernaut which pulled the plug on itself at the pinnacle of its power.
Mega stars and rich men beyond their wildest dreams, the ex-Fab Four had an impossible legend to live up to.
Fame on that scale is a double-edged sword and John, Paul, George and Ringo would indeed carry that weight for a long time.