50 years later, musicians still find magic in Beatles ‘Abbey Road’

Friday, November 1, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 44

The Beatles in happier times, arriving for the first time in the U.S. at JFK Airport on Jan. 6, 1963.

-- Pa Wire

“Sonic fairy dust” is a phrase stuck in my head the last few days as I returned to “Abbey Road.”

It’s an apt assessment that I adopted from one of the folks I interviewed, music masters of various degrees, who generally genuflected while agreeing the album – which has just been released in a remastered/remixed version for its golden anniversary – was “sprinkled with sonic fairy dust.”

Just to make sure, I consulted the infallible internet for definitions of “fairy dust.” Lexico.com says it is a hypothetical substance with magical powers. Definitions.net says those of us lucky enough to get dusted inherit the ability to fly. Urban Dictionary says it’s a glittery powder that can provide magical events, actions or dreams to happen.

All fitting definitions of the power of this, the best album of all time in any genre, according to me.

I first was engulfed in that sonic fairy dust on October 1, 1969, when I stopped at the record store – just behind the College Pipe Shop at the corner of Lincoln Way and Welch Avenue, just across from the Iowa State University campus and a few storefronts down from the XXX theater (there were such things back in the pre-home video and internet eras).

I was about a month or six weeks into classes in my journalism and mass communication major, and I almost daily stopped at the tobacconists for a fresh cigar, a recommendation on a new tobacco blend for my pipe or simply to talk with proprietors John and Clark – two older bald guys who looked like twins -- and enjoy the rich aromas. The kind gents knew me by name, as my late “Uncle Moose” (a farmer from Red Oak, Iowa) and I often enjoyed bowls filled with their hand-mixed custom tobacco blend of the day. On special days we purchased thick cigars we called “Ginsbergs,” named for our encounter with the great poet.

Anyway, as I walked up the hill from the cigar shop, heading out to The Towers dorms (since demolished, though they were new when I was there … course I’m approaching wrecking ball vintage, myself), I stopped at the record shop. I often did. Still would if there were any near me now. I’d finger through the albums (now referred to as vinyl LPs) to figure out what I wanted to buy with the cash left over after my frequent trips to Tork’s Pub, an historic and proud Ames, Iowa, landmark.

On this day, though, Oct. 1, 50 years ago, I was on a mission. I didn’t know it when I stepped in the door, but I was about ready to capture fairy dust. I had my $4 or whatever it was in my worn jeans pocket for one particular purchase: The new Beatles album, “Abbey Road.”

Often, I’d stop at the next building to visit an all-but-forgotten friend, a Black Panther of sorts, to discuss evolution, revolution and assorted. Not this particular Wednesday, though. I kicked my Chuck Taylors into relatively (for me) high gear and hiked the mile or so back to my dorm, where, as soon as I got into my room, I used my thumbnail to slice open the “mouth” edge of the album I immediately slipped on my turntable.

After the intro that lifted my heart and that you all know but which I can’t imitate here in Mr. Webster’s American-language written form, John Lennon began singing “Here come old flattop, he come grooving up slowly …”

I was splashed square in the face by fairy dust. That afternoon, on “Abbey Road,” I first visited a mental state where no music – not even the beloved “Sergeant Pepper” – had ever taken me.

No album since that time – and I’ve been known to fall in love with my music – has ever sent me into such monumental flight or dreams.

I felt that way again the other day when I first heard the 50th anniversary remastered/remixed version of “Abbey Road,” again filled with fairy dust, only with more bass.

Well, there are other differences in this new release, just as there were differences in the Beatles’ remasters of “Sergeant Pepper” back in 2017 and the so-called “White Album” last year. I’ll leave those differences to the music experts, some of whom you’ll meet below.

The new, or rather revised offering had Giles Martin – son of guru George Martin, who produced the Beatles from “Love Me Do” through “The End” – at the controls. And Giles does well by his dad’s masterwork. The late George Martin, you likely know, was somewhat startled when the Beatles – snarling at each other like Northern Teddy Boys – rang him up about “Abbey Road.”

The boys had been drifting apart, growing up, dealing with personal and professional issues and pressures. It had been a sometimes-hard road during the sonic (and psychedelic) journey from “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” – the breakthrough single in America – to John’s 1968 “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins,” with a cover (hidden by brown paper in the stores), featured the Beatles founder and leader standing naked with Yoko Ono.

Truth is, of course, that by then the Beatles all had strayed from the breakneck rock ‘n’ roll joy of their earlier recordings that featured four guys, all musical geniuses (yes, I do include Ringo) creating a joyful noise, actually joy-filled music, together in the same spirit that lifted them from their roots in the Cavern and the Kaiserkeller.

George Martin is quoted on this topic on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” webpage: “I was quite surprised when Paul rang me up and said, ‘We’re going to make another record, would you like to produce it?’ and my immediate answer was, ‘Only if you let me produce it the way we used to.’ And he said, ‘We do want to do that’ and I said, ‘John included?’ and he said, ‘Yes, honestly.’’’

The popular, though not necessarily the whole truth, “history” is that the Beatles knew it was to be their last album and were going to go out as a hard-charging, experimentally gifted rock ‘n’ roll band, with the emphasis on “band.” It’s not that easy, as there still were murmurs, even from Lennon, about continuing.

But if it was the ride-off-into-the sunset … or duck-into-the-English rain… end of the road, well, as George Harrison said: “We didn’t know, or I didn’t know at the time cos it was the last Beatle record that we would make but… it kind of felt a bit like we were reaching the end of the line.”

Paul McCartney – who actually was doing all he could to salvage the band and probably still would be trying to if a vile slug hadn’t gunned down Lennon almost 39 years ago and cancer hadn’t taken George Harrison almost 18 years ago – also is quoted about the band’s thoughts going into this project: “I think it was in a way the feeling that it might be our last, so let’s just show ’em what we can do, let’s show each other what we can do, and let’s try to have a good time doing it.”

My close friend Peter Cooper, a singer-songwriter and historian who works at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, addresses this grand-finale spirit: “It is interesting that at a time of real dissension, these people loved each other enough and cared about their music enough that they would come up with something magical that would stand the test of time,” says Peter, who owns the new remaster as well as the 2009 redo and the original version that in itself is almost sonically flawless.

“They got together and made something extraordinary and timeless,” Peter continues.

Peter – who writes and records solo stuff as well as works in a trio with Thomm Jutz and Eric Brace – then takes a look at the album, in its golden history, not just the new “version.”

“When you go into the studio as a musician, you make the decision either to be up to date and in the moment or to record in a way that will be timeless. And what they did, what was captured there for ‘Abbey Road’ were timeless tracks that you could remix every five years and come up with something else that sounds special.

“And it never sounds like 1970. It sounds like 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010 and 2020. The Beatles were always up-to-date and at the cutting edge and – unlike a lot of things that you would hear in the 1980s and 1990s – the music doesn’t sound dated decades after it was done.”

So, what is the value of owning each successive remaster when it can be argued by some old guy who owns them all that none are as good as the original vinyl bought behind the tobacco store?

“It’s a different camera angle to a gorgeous shot of the Grand Canyon,” Peter adds. “It’s another window into something beautiful and joyful and timeless.”

Bill Lloyd, venerable, talented and kind pop-rocker, jokes with me when I tell him I want to talk with him about this reissue “because of your Beatles affection.”

“I appreciate that you used affection rather than obsession,” says Bill, who admits to spending a lot of his free time lately with the remastered main album as well as alternate takes and studio outtakes captured on discs that supplement this “new release” if you want to pay extra.

“It’s not necessarily an improvement,” Bill explains.

“It’s a way to hear the mix in a way you didn’t hear it before. Maybe more hi-fi, you hear musical parts you didn’t hear before.

“I always enjoy hearing a mix other than the one I’ve listened to most of my life,” he says.

He compares the “new” version of “Abbey Road” to the same sort of treatment done for “Sergeant Pepper” and “White Album” remixes.

“‘Abbey Road’ is a tough one, because it is (in its original state), the most modern-sounding Beatles record,” Bill continues.

“You listen to the early, early Beatles, and it’s kind of distant. It’s 60 years old. It’s bright and infectious.”

But, he says, the later albums that – while not necessarily so bright and danceable as “She Loves You” and “I Saw Her Standing There” – showcase the sonic development that keeps them on turntables and in CD changers and on your telephone or streaming or wherever else when you’re living in this digital world.

Bill notes that on “Abbey Road,” George Harrison, who had been the No. 3 songwriter in the band for its lifetime, almost steals the show with “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” which he says is the most-popular Beatles song among millennials, gauging by the number of downloads.

“‘Here Comes the Sun’ was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen, all this signing accounts, and ‘sign this’ and ‘sign that.’ Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever; by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided – I’m going to ‘sag off’ Apple, and I went over to Eric’s (Clapton) house: I was walking in his garden. The relief of not having to go and see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I was walking around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote ‘Here Comes the Sun,’” George Harrison writes on page 144 of “I Me Mine,” his uncommon memoir.

“Sun” was a stunner even among old Lennonists who bought the album on day of issue and discovered it at the top of the amazing B-side.

Which brings up another note from my friend Mr. Cooper, who moved to Nashville from Spartanburg, South Carolina, (a surprisingly important music town if you ever take the time to look at who sprung from there … just ask ’em).

“Walter Hyatt was an amazing musician from Spartanburg, South Carolina,” Peter says. “He wound up leading a group called Uncle Walt’s Band, a forerunner of the music we now call ‘Americana.’

“Walter’s older brother, George, served in the military in the late 1960s.

“George came back to Spartanburg and asked his little brother what he’d missed during his time away. Walter sat George down, put headphones over George’s ears, and set the needle on the first song of the second side of “Abbey Road.”

“George heard ‘It’s been a long cold lonely winter … here comes the sun.’

“Decades later, George is still emotional when talking about that moment.”

Bill Lloyd says that Beatles fans who have lived a half-century loving the original album need to be prepared for perhaps mixed feelings.

When people hear the new version with the changes overseen by the original producer’s son, he says, you may “hate those or complain ‘it’s not what it used to be.’

“But if you really want to hear it, it’s worth delving in, and hearing some songs that are remixed. It gives you a fresh take on something you’ve always loved.

“The Beatles’ legacy is still the one that hangs over everybody,” he says. “They were the band that took pop music from being entertaining to being meaningful.”

Then Lloyd, whose latest album is “2GTRSBSDRMS: Bill Lloyd & The Tallymen Live At Blackbird Academy,” gives a very special nod to this latest reissue and to the original he bought in eighth grade: “All my records owe a debt to ‘Abbey Road.’”

Local honky-tonk hero Jon Byrd does a pedal-steel-heavy version of “Don’t Let Me Down” (from the tumultuous “Let it Be” album) as part of his blue-collar, Blue Ribbon and quite poetic set.

He asks not to be interviewed as any sort of expert – though he told me that his visit to Liverpool to see historic Fab shrines was a “life-changing experience” or something equally hyperbolic – for this story.

He loves the music and the recordings. He also admits to feeling a bit, well, small, when examining some of the great Beatles lyrics.

“There’s bands you listen to that make you say ‘I’m going to go take up being a woodworker. I can’t do that.’

“The Beatles put the bar high,” he says, speaking again as a songwriter. “You love them and you hate them for the same reasons.”

Alex McCollough, much-sought mastering engineer whose True East Mastering is in his Donelson home, pretty much hasn’t stopped listening to the new mix of “Abbey Road.”

He says this album and the prior remasters of “Pepper” and “White Album” suck in the listener even more than the amazing originals.

“They feel more immersive,” he says. “I listen in my mastering studio. I listen when I’m sitting down in the living room, on my headphones on hi-fi or from the other room while I’m making dinner. It can be just a high-res file that’s just filtering from another room and it sounds just incredible, more than the technology and format of the original recording.”

He notes that the Beatles were always “pressing” to do the best, to use the best, to be the brightest, to bust all barriers. They forever followed their early strategy to be “the toppermost of the poppermost,” as they used to chant in encouragement of each other when they began their cultural conquest.

“Everything I’ve read from Giles Martin, he talks about trying to stay true to the original mix. But I think this is the mix that would have been done if they had this technology at this point,” Alex acknowledges.

“If they had the technology to do this in 1968, so guitars sit in a different spot in the stereo image …” and etc. ... I’m not worthy of trying to completely state Alex’s genius engineer’s explanation, other than to add that basically he’s saying that if John, Paul, George and Ringo (and George Martin) had this technology available a half-century ago, they would have used it to break down even more sonic barriers. Think of where that fairy dust would be now, a half-century later?

Alex – no relation to the famous/infamous Magic Alex of Beatles/Apple lore – adds, though, that it’s really just the music and the musicians, stupid: “Where something sits in a stereo image isn’t what makes those records great. It’s the songs, and the music.

“It’s a testament that you can listen to it in mono, listen in a high-tech stereo file or a high-gloss mp3 on a phone (and be drawn in).

“That’s more a testament to the songwriting and performance,” he says.

As for the techno improvements on the new “Abbey Road,” well, this studio wizard says they are less noticeable than those on the remixes of “Pepper” and “White Album.”

“What they did is least noticeable on ‘Abbey Road,’ because ‘Abbey Road’ sounded so good and hi-fi to begin with. The low end is a bit clearer. I’ve heard some people say that the vocals on ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ don’t even sound like John Lennon. I don’t think they are right: It’s different, but they’re wrong.

Tim Ghianni leads his children, Emily and Joe, across the Abbey Road crosswalk in London in 2013.

-- Photo Provided By Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“What I tell people who complain that doing this to the Beatles catalog is ‘sacrilegious, they’re rewriting history’: ‘Well, it’s just another way of looking at it to me.”

Peter Rodman is the only full-grown man who has an “Abbey Road” shower curtain, at least by my reckoning.

And that alone makes me a bit jealous of the music guru and journalist, a kindly connected man who hosts “Peter Rodman Goes Off,” a weekly variety hour with interviews that airs at 10 a.m. Monday’s on WXNA-101.5 FM and online at WXNAFM.ORG.

He proudly admits to the shower curtain and adds that such, well, Beatles (and music in general) eccentricities may contribute to the fact he’s not married. Probably more than you needed to know, but he’s a helluva guy and the Fab Four flow not just in his bathtub runoff but in his bloodstream.

“I turned 17 the week it came out,” he says. “‘Abbey Road’ was transformative, because by this time they had trained us. It happened the first time with ‘Sergeant Pepper.’ In June of ’67, it came out and people came over and you’d sit in a room together and were blown away” by what we all heard.

“When ‘The White Album’ came out, I brought it into my senior (high school) art class. The teacher stopped everything and let us play it,” he says, taking pride in helping the former mop-tops hijack a slight piece of academia.

“When ‘Abbey Road’ came out, we didn’t expect much. We didn’t expect such a grand production,” Rodman recalls.

“The White Album,” as beloved as it is, really could be called a rough collage of rarities, from the painful gut-jab of ‘’Yer Blues” to the teasing “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” to the acid and otherwise tinged “Revolution 9” to the music-hall flavored “Martha My Dear” and beyond.

And, Rodman notes, expectations were fueled by the bootleg tracks that sneaked out of the recording sessions.

“We’d heard ‘Come Together’ and ‘Get Back’ (the latter ended up on ‘Let It Be,’ which though released later was recorded before ‘Abbey Road’). We’d heard some of the outtakes of the ‘Let It Be’ debacle (for info, search out the documentary film of those sessions), and so we weren’t expecting the sort of sophisticated sound.

“By the time you got to the medley on Side Two, you were like: ‘OH MY GOD! IT’S CRAZY!” (I should note for you, dear readers, that I almost never use all caps and exclamation points in my writing, but Rodman’s excited description of what we all felt back then deserves them.)

“We are so lucky,” he says. “This is something I like to remind people is that the Beatles were not just immense talents, each of the four of them, but the luck they had was the absolute care taken by the technicians around them, George Martin being the main one, but all of those engineers at Abbey Road (the studios).”

He says these engineers and the like were young and imaginative people who put their faith and their skills into the work of the world’s best-ever band.

“The Beatles were so lucky because George Martin happened to have an expertise in scoring (there are albums for those interested).

“If you listen to other pop records with strings on them it’s schlocky. Country with strings is the same thing, schlocky, the countrypolitan music.

“But here (with ‘Abbey Road’), you have this scoring and this sort of cutting-edge and polished sound” by four relatively young men, the most talented and most imaginative combo ever, and their sonic mentor in George Martin.

(A quick side-note here, all this discussion leapfrogs one U.S. album between “Pepper” and “White Album.” “Magical Mystery Tour,” a TV film soundtrack with great songs like “I Am The Walrus” and “The Fool On The Hill” was released as a double-EP in the UK and as an album in the U.S. It is an oft-ignored grab-bag, perhaps, but it is a goo goo g’joob good time.)

It was Doyle Davis who gave me the “sonic fairy dust” phrase when talking about the differences a listener can find on this particular remix of “Abbey Road.”

Doyle is co-owner of Grimey’s New and Pre-Loved Music, 1060 East Trinity Lane. (Co-owned with Mike Grimes, the store has previously existed on Bransford Avenue in Berry Hill and then on Eighth Avenue South, up the hill from Wedgewood.)

“Listen to the stereo mix, it has the extra elements. With ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘The White Album,’ there’s more detail and more celebration.”

He notes – echoing the thoughts of some of the other guys – that one thing different about this particular remix is “the bass is that much fatter.” (I believe it was Rodman who had told me that element may make it harder on old ears like mine, but I have survived. I will get by.)

“My opinions are that every Beatles record is just packed with classics,” says Doyle, sometimes aka “D-Funk” for his deejay abilities. He, too, has a WXNA radio show, “Groovy Potential,” 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays.

“‘Abbey Road’ has the medley. It has ‘Something.’ Everybody loves ‘Come Together’ and ‘I Want You.’

“It’s just got an allure to it. It’s really the most ’70s-sounding Beatles record,” he says.

“I’ve always thought all the Beatles records are engineered real well and sound good,” he continues.

“‘Abbey Road’ lends itself to be an audiophile experience. It comes through to everybody.”

He lists other albums that have followed that path, but it was a trail blazed by the Beatles.

“Abbey Road” has always been the top Beatles catalog seller for Grimey’s, and the new version is following suit, with “the young people opting for the single remix” of the original LP.

Older fans are opting for one of the multidisc versions and also for the CDs over the younger people’s vinyl.

Many of those older people, like me, began our treks down “Abbey Road” a half-century ago, after we slit the cellophane wrap with our thumbnails and discovered that Polythene Pam was attractively built and that Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say.

And when we listened to “Here Comes The Sun,” we didn’t realize that this was, in a very real way, the sunset for the band that changed the world, that we still love today.

I quote the last line from the medley on the second side often, most recently during the eulogy at my own father’s funeral. And as I listen to that on the latest remix of “Abbey Road,’’ it reminds me of all the other times it has played on my turntable, changer or in my head and heart since I bought the LP at the record store behind College Pipe Shop a half-century ago.

It’s why I hope someone remembers it when my time comes: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

It’s the sonic fairy dust of my life.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.