“Last chance to be loud!” jokes John Lennon to his fellow Beatles on one of the Abbey Road 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition’s bonus tracks. At the time, of course, he had no idea how right he was. But as even the least-fervent Beatles fan can tell you now, their 11th album also turned out to be their final studio collaboration. Thankfully — and fittingly, in light of Lennon’s line — they went out not with a whimper but with a brilliant bang. Cut in the wake of the frustrating film shoot that would spawn their literal swan song Let It Be, the original 17-song Abbey Road stands as both their final masterwork and highest-selling album. Hell, even the zebra-crossing cover picture is iconic. Now, almost five decades to the day after its release, the album is back in a deluxe box set that follows in the footsteps of the Sgt. Pepper and White Album sets by tastefully remixing the remastered original songs while adding dozens of outtakes, Blu-Ray audio expansions and a superb hardcover book that chronicles every moment of the action in exhaustive detail. Thanks to the generous folks at Universal Music Canada, one of the boxes arrived at my front door the day before the official release. Here’s a quick rundown: Step on the gas and wipe that tear away.
Disc 1 | 2019 Mix
Back in 2006, producer Giles Martin — the son of longtime Beatles producer and unofficial fifth member George Martin — boldly retooled the band’s music for the Las Vegas show Love, turning their universally familiar songs into fresh new works. Since then, he’s undertaken similar (if slightly less drastic) duties on several other titles, sonically refurbishing the catalogue while deftly tweaking their mixes to bring out previously hidden details and elements. If you’ve spent any quality time with the two aforementioned boxes, you know what you’re in for. The subtle but supple changes start in the first moments of Come Together, when Ringo Starr’s tom-tom fills pan from the right speaker into the centre instead of clinging to the side. Listen closely enough and you’ll hear something similar going on in pretty much every song. In George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun, the handclaps in the “Sun, sun, sun” refrain are brought forward in the mix to add a groovy undercurrent to the shimmering pop. In Something, Paul McCartney’s bassline is rounder and shifted a bit closer to the centre, while Ringo’s cymbal washes have more depth and colour. The clang-clang in Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is just a little more metallic and, well, clangier. Ringo’s drum solo in The End packs some extra thunder and rumble. And so on. I’ll let you find the rest on your own. To that end, I suggest you do what I did: Pull out an older version of the album — I used the 2009 version — and combine them so you can do before-and-after comparisons of each cut. It’s a real eye-opener (or should I say ear-opener?). Not only will you hear just how much cleaner and crisper these mixes sound, but you’ll also find yourself listening to these songs closer than you have for years, and hearing The Beatles with new ears. That’s what Martin brings to the table. And how he earns every cent of his pay.
Disc 2 + 3 | Sessions
Let’s face it: New mixes and remastered tracks are great, but rarities and unreleased tracks are what fans really want. And while this set isn’t quite as jam-packed with treasures as the six-disc White Album box, there are still some worthwhile treats in the 23 bonus cuts. Start with the organ-drenched version of I Want You (She’s So Heavy), which is indeed so heavy that the band get noise complaints from neighbours and agree to turn down after one final high-volume take (prompting the Lennon quote up at the top). Also rising to the toppermost of the poppermost rarities: Paul’s solo, acoustic home demo of the bittersweet Goodbye, which he wrote for Apple artist Mary Hopkin; George’s guitar-and-piano demos of Something and the shuffling B-side Old Brown Shoe; a playful two-handed version of The Ballad of John and Yoko with Lennon singing and strumming while Paul bashes the drums (“It got a bit faster, Ringo,” quips John. “OK, George!” responds Paul); McCartney’s demo of Come and Get It, penned for Badfinger; an epic, resequenced 16-minute edit of the Side 2 medley dubbed The Long One; the elder Martin’s string and brass sections for Something and Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight; and decent alternate takes or working versions of Oh! Darling, Octopus’s Garden and every other cut on the album. Personally, I never get tired of this stuff. When I listen to Take 27 of Polythene Pam, the only thing I think is: When can I hear the other 26 takes?
Disc 4 | Blu-Ray Audio
Honestly, I seldom get that excited by 5.1 audio mixes. I’ve only heard a few that really knocked me out, like the ones Jerry Harrison did for the Talking Heads’ Brick Box back in 2005. Other than that, most of them sound about the same to me: A guitar part gets or some backup vocals get moved to the back speakers, a solo bounces around and some effects pan from one corner to the other. Big deal. Having said that, I have absolutely no quibbles about the DTS-HD Master Audio mix here. It’s all very understated and refined, with no fancy trickery or effects. As for the Dolby Atmos mix, to me it just sounded really quiet — but I don’t have overhead speakers, so I’m missing the full effect. There’s also a high-res stereo version should that float your boat.
No paltry little mini-box, this. In fact, when I unwrapped it, I assumed they had sent me the vinyl version — the box is about the size of an LP, and features a thick, protective outer shell. Inside, there’s a 100-page hardcover coffee-table book with forwards and intros by McCartney and Martin the younger, historical essays, extensive track-by-track notes (some of which divulge new information that contradicts previous histories), and scores of photos (many by Linda McCartney), along with pictures of lyric sheets, drawings, studio paperwork and more. Don’t feel like shelling out $135 CDN for the CDs (or $110 for vinyl)? The two-CD and single-LP versions are just $30. In the end, you can’t argue with that.