I've learned that sometimes remastering an iconic album can be a good thing— other times, not so much.
The new remastered version of "Abbey Road" offers some interesting alternate versions and mixes on the very last album The Beatles recorded — although it wasn't the last to be released.
"Abbey Road" topped the charts in both the U.S and England when it shortly after it debuted on Sept. 26. 1969. Now, a new remastered and remixed 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition has been released. Is it worth it? Yes and no.
I learned a long time ago remastering a classic album sometimes pays off — and sometimes it doesn't. Although sometimes previously unheard notes can be brought to the fore, that doesn't necessarily improve the listening experience.
When compact discs were first released, not every album was immediately available in the then-new format. Although they were touted to have improved sound, discerning listeners soon learned that many of the discs didn't sound as good as the vinyl they were supposedly replacing.
It took a matter of years for many albums to be converted to CD, with The Beatles — amazingly — among the last of the classic artists to have all their albums released as compact discs.
Since The Beatles were then, as now, considered by many to be among the greatest rock bands ever recorded, one would think that the first CD versions of their recordings would have pristine sound, right? Well, one would be wrong.
It took a few more years before CDs by The Beatles achieved the sonic clarity they deserved. Now, with a multitude of formats available, from streaming to whatever technology the future brings, discerning listeners can choose their favorite.
So what about the new mixes of "Abbey Road" conducted under the auspices of Jiles Martin, son of the album's original producer, George Martin?
While the Beatles were all master musicians — yes, I'm including vastly-underrated drummer Ringo Starr — they had another master at the helm during their career in the form of George Martin. He, working alongside John Lennon, George Harrison and especially Paul McCartney as well as recording engineer Geoff Emerick, mastered the original album to near-perfection in the first place.
A previously remastered edition of "Abbey Road" released in 2009 upgraded the sound to a Beatles-worthy level. So what does the 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition remix add? That depends on what level of minutia one wants to pursue.
Bringing up Ringo's drums arguably improve's John Lennon's "Come Together" — but not George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun."
The new "Abbey Road" is offered in one, two or three-disc sets. I'm going with the two-disc set, because it's available in most places beginning in the $18.97 price range, while the three-disc set is priced at $84.99, with extras including a book and other items. Still if you're thinking that's a lot to pay for a third disc, you're right.
The one-disc set is a remastered version of the original album, while the second disc offers the remastered original, along with a second disc of outtakes.
Are the outtakes essential? No. Are they interesting? Yes — but some more than others. Will you listen to them again and again? Not likely, with maybe a few exceptions. Are any of the outtakes better than the original? Nope.
George Harrison's studio demo of "Something" sounds a bit tepid for such a memorable song. Featuring just Harrison on acoustic guitar and overdubbed piano, it sounds as if Harrison is still a bit unsure of himself. That, of course, would be resolved with the help of his fellow Beatles and George Martin, on the fantastic "Abbey Road" official version.
Take 4 of McCartney's "Oh! Darling" is not quite the rave-up on the final version, but it comes close.
Ringo's Take 9 of "Octopus's Garden" is flowing along nicely, until he flubs some lyrics and cracks a joke.
One of the most interesting outtakes is the Trident Recording session of John Lennon's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", with much of the ominous wind-like white noise from the final version replaced by swirls of organ notes played by The Beatles' pal, Billy Preston. He must have been disappointed to find his contribution not included on the original recording's version.
Another highlight among the outtake is the instrumental version of "Because" — it's marvelous in its own right, even without the voices of The Beatles.
Alas, I wish the two-disc version had included McCartney's studio demos of "Goodbye" and "Come and Get It" —songs he respectively gave to Apple recording artists Mary Hopkins and Badfinger — which they both turned into hits. Those are included only on the three-disc set.
Oh yes, earlier I referred to the fact that although "Abbey Road" was the last album recorded by The Beatles, it was not the last album they released. That's because the very last album they released was "Let It Be" — most of it recorded before "Abbey Road", but held up for various reasons, including plans for a movie with the same title to be released along with it.
"Let It Be" — the album, not the single — was nothing near the sonic experience of "Abbey Road." At the time, as the film shows, the group's individual band members were sometimes bickering among themselves — as when McCartney tried to instruct George Harrison on how to play lead guitar on a song McCartney had written.
An obviously fed-up Harrison tells McCartney he'll play the passage like McCartney wants — or he'll play nothing at all if that's preferable. At anther point, John Lennon and Yoko Ono do an exaggerated waltz while Harrison plays one of his new songs, "I, Me, Mine", which has a passage in 3/4 time. It's been perceived by some as a put-down of Harrison's songwriting abilities. (Remember, both Harrison's wonderful double-shot of "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun" from "Abbey Road" had yet to be recorded at the time.)
By contrast, the studio banter on outtakes on the new "Abbey Road" show the guys back to joking among themselves and having fun.
Although "Abbey Road" was released on Sept. 26, 1969, and "Let It Be", produced by Phil Spector, not George Martin, was released on May 8, there's still debate over what was the last official album released by The Beatles.
One thing's for certain. The 50th anniversary of the "Let It Be" album will be rolling around in May of 2020. Does anyone doubt there will be a 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of that album next spring?
Contact James Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org