The well-known photo of the Beatles crossing the street just outside of the studios at Abbey Road in London is in the news again. This time, the almost vacant street is being noticed for the fresh coat of paint it’s receiving. But behind all of this, there are great stories of a breakthrough Beatles album that will live on in music history.
Hundreds of thousands of fans visit the famous Abbey Road crossing each year and it was even declared a national landmark in 2010. Although we’ve heard stories about the making of the photograph that day, we haven’t heard nearly as much about what went on inside Abbey Road Studios.
Considered by Rolling Stone Magazine as the best Beatles album ever, Abbey Road was released in September 1969, although the very last album release by the band was “Let it Be” in May 1970.
Although it did not receive much critical acclaim upon its release, the album was eventually considered the best work of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. It’s technically a rock album (as opposed to “pop”) but is varied in style, arrangement, and appeal. The musical difference between “Octopus’s Garden” and “Something” is stark evidence of that. In the parlance of the day, Abbey Road was considered “far out, man.”
Up until now the recordings of the Beatles music were made on a 4-track machine. This gave them the ability to record a track of, let’s say the basic instruments such as two guitars, bass, and drums. Then they could overdub (record on top of) the basic track with piano and some percussion instruments. The third track likely would have been the lead vocal, usually sung by Paul or John. The fourth and final track was usually reserved for vocal harmonies from the group.
But the Beatles took things farther by creatively “bouncing” tracks together, allowing them to “virtually” create more than four tracks. Bouncing was a method of taking two tracks and “sub-mixing” them down to one track. So instead of the usual case in which only two more tracks were available for recording, there were now three tracks available.
Even without creative recording techniques, the Beatles has a sound all their own. It was a case in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Each of them had a distinct vocal sound, even better when combined. Each of them had musical chops that weren’t necessarily achieved by shredding or playing notes as fast as possible, but by creating perfect, integrated, instrumental pieces that fit together like a puzzle.
Without knowing all of this on a conscious level, the listener is treated to something that then – and now – can only be considered musical magic.
The Beatles were able to add more complexity and sophistication to their music by being one of the first groups to deploy eight tracks instead of the usual four. It makes the recording process itself easier by having more freedom to record without worrying about the track count. In addition to that, the bouncing possibilities are greatly expanded in size and scope. This translated to a “bigger” sound that went beyond the sonic capabilities you’d expect to hear from four lads from Liverpool.
The album was the first to be recorded on a console or mixing desk powered by transistor electronics as opposed to electron tube-style mixers of the past. This also added a new dimension to the sound and allowed recording engineer Geoff Emerick the ability to use individual compressors or limiters on each channel, controlling harsh peaks and smoothing out the overall sound.
You’d be hard-pressed to find music that stands the test of time more than the Beatles. On Abbey Road alone, songs from “Because” to “Here Comes the Sun” to “You Never Give Me Your Money” to “Come Together,” the highly original, dynamic songwriting coming from John Lennon and Paul McCartney has never been duplicated.
That fact, coupled with the unique audio soundscapes emerging from Abbey Road Studios, due in great part to the “fifth Beatle” George Martin, will make the Beatles stay on the top of the charts until “The End.”