Didn’t Anybody See?: Abbey Road Super Deluxe Edition Review

For a review of the original album, see my post here: Album Spotlight: The Beatles—Abbey Road

Abbey Road was the one Beatles album which needed no studio tinkering to improve its sound quality. It was the only album in their catalog recorded entirely in eight-track, and critics generally agree that it has the most polished and modern sound of any of their records. Nevertheless, EMI persisted, having already retooled Sgt. Pepper and the White Album. The Super Deluxe Edition of Abbey Road, complete with studio outtakes, was released September 27th, 2019.

Listening to the 2019 remix by Giles Martin (son of the Beatles producer) and Sam Okell, my immediate impression was that it sounded a lot brighter and more in-your-face. Backing vocals on most songs are louder, as well as the orchestra on Something, Here Comes The Sun and Golden Slumbers/The End. Where the original sounded almost laid-back in its slickness, the remix sounds more aggressive. It’s a disconcerting feeling.

If it were only that aspect, I could understand the desire to make the album sound more “modern” (never mind that it set the template for modern-sounding albums); however, as he did with the White Album, Giles has made some truly strange mixing choices. Come Together is missing John’s moan right after his two high-pitched “Yeah”s at the end, dialing it way down in the mix to bring out some studio yells from the other Beatles. Something’s organ is louder, as is the orchestra, making it sound much closer to a Phil Spector production like The Long and Winding Road from Let It Be. (Giles also had two perfectly cromulent mixes of these songs from 2015 [the 1 album release], but didn’t use them for some weird reason.) Oh! Darling’s backing vocals are so prominent that they accent the song’s doo-wop origins, making it much more of a parody and harking back to the White Album’s pastiches. I Want You (She’s So Heavy) has had the organ turned way up on the choruses, which admittedly showcases Billy Preston’s amazing work; however, during the white-noise finale at the end, the audible organ work which signaled that the song was just a few bars away from its abrupt cut-off has been eliminated. The bells and chirping which are the transition from You Never Give Me Your Money into Sun King come in much earlier, to the point where they obscure the fade-out on the former. Polythene Pam’s aggressive acoustic guitar opening has been muted, losing a fair amount of its power. Finally, the three dueling guitar solos on The End (from Paul, George and John respectively) have been separated into the right, left and center channels. I understand the intent here—to make it sound as they did in the studio—but in point of fact, it’s distracting. It makes the guitar solo as a whole lose its focus.

Whether or not a listener approves of these changes depends upon her point of view. I’m certain many will applaud it, citing a sonic improvement, especially those who spend the extra money for a 5.1 mix, included only in the physical release. (Disclaimer: I purchased the digital version.) In my opinion, however, I do not want a remix to make me stop and think, “Did I just hear that?” It takes me out of the experience. Things like this stand out like a sore thumb when I hear them. They’re annoying. They’re also a betrayal of the artists’ original intent.

I could understand the rationale behind remixing Sgt. Pepper (although I have a couple of similar issues with its remix), because the Beatles and George Martin were working with only four tracks, overdubbed multiple times. They couldn’t always get the clarity of sound which they would have come closer to with eight tracks. Abbey Road, however, didn’t have this problem. I think the final mix is the one the Beatles wanted, and they didn’t have many (if any) issues with not achieving their sound because of technical limitations. So why would you betray it by changing the sounds they put on the album? I don’t understand it, at all. As I’ve said elsewhere, my definition of a great remix is one which duplicates the basic sound of the original, but clarifies it and opens it up, without playing distracting sound games. You don’t bring out a recording element just because you can. You might as well erase the smile on the Mona Lisa and draw a mustache under her lip.

As is usual with these Super Deluxe Edition releases, the real delight is the outtakes. Happily, Abbey Road’s are much more listenable than much of the White Album material. Highlights include Paul’s homemade acoustic guitar demo of Goodbye, which he wrote for Mary Hopkin; George’s studio demo of Something, this version with piano as well as guitar; John and Paul’s banter at the beginning of The Ballad of John and Yoko (I won’t spoil the surprise); Paul’s run-through of Her Majesty; stunning early takes of Here Comes The Sun and Come Together; a gorgeous instrumental take of Because, which fits nicely with the a capella version on Anthology 3; John’s nod to the Who’s Tommy at the beginning of Polythene Pam; and the rough mix of the medley on Side Two, entitled The Long One, which replaces Her Majesty between Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam, as was the original intent. It’s easy to hear why they removed it right away: the transition from the hard rock of Mustard into the gentle acoustic finger-picking of Majesty stops the flow cold. And thanks to a studio engineer’s diligence in saving the discarded number, we now have the fun of Her Majesty as a (formerly surprise) bonus track. One can tell from the quality of the playing that the Beatles were much more comfortable in the studio for this record than they were for the White Album.

If I could, I’d recommend that listeners buy the outtakes without the remix, but alas, if you want The Long One, you’ll have to take it as a whole. The price is right, however, at $29.99 for 40 songs. I’m less enthusiastic about the cost of the physical package, but I’m certain those willing to pay for it because they want the book and the extra mix are well satisfied.

I’m looking forward to the release of Let It Be next year with the tie-in to the new Peter Jackson documentary, coming in May if they want to have a 50th Anniversary release. There should be a plethora of outtakes to choose from there. I hope we get some great ones.