While Abbey Road wasn’t the last Beatles album to see a commercial release (that would be the problematic, Phil Spector-produced Let It Be, which came out about a month after the band’s breakup in 1970), it was the group’s final studio LP — and, it could easily be argued, their grandest achievement. All four band members were at the peak of their powers, with George Harrison contributing two of the greatest Beatles songs of all time, and Ringo Starr penning his best Beatles track, “Octopus’s Garden.”
And while it might be assumed that — following the chaos of the White Album sessions and acrimony of the Let It Be experience, and with the Beatles’ split imminent – the Abbey Road sessions were troubled and bitter, Giles Martin, son of late Beatles producer Sir George Martin, says that absolutely wasn’t the case.
“It always sounds a bit like fluff to say this, but the sessions are incredibly happy,” says the younger Martin — who oversaw the new 50th anniversary deluxe boxed set reissue of Abbey Road, just as he did in recent years for Sgt. Pepper and The White Album — when asked for his insight into the band members’ collective headspace after reviewing all the Abbey Road recordings.
“I think the Beatles always, always enjoyed being in the studio. I think that they enjoyed being in studios more than they enjoyed being ‘Beatles,’ funnily enough. I think a bit like a teenager wanting to leave home, they wanted to find their own sense of identity. I don't think they wanted to be known as a ‘Beatle’ anymore. They'd grown up, to a certain extent. They started off in a way — bizarrely, when I think about this — being in a boy band, really. They lived that life. What I got from listening to the tapes is actually synergy and compassion. All of the music on Abbey Road is played together as a band. And you can't really do that if there's huge [rift].”
It’s easy to hear the Beatles sounding still so very much at the peak of their powers on their farewell record, and wonder what might have been — if they had another great album or two in them. Martin looks at the impressive solo careers that all of the Beatles embarked upon after leaving their “boy band,” and he can’t help speculating himself to some extent. But as the man fortunate enough to get to spend so much time digging through the Beatles’ archives, he’s mostly just thrilled with the legacy that they capped off with Abbey Road.
“They all gave us so much. … I'm so lucky that I can walk into Abbey Road Studios and I can put a tape in the tape machine, and I can hear the Beatles — and they don't sound old. And they sound like they're in the next-door room. I'm so privileged to have that. It's nepotism rules,” Martin says with a laugh. “But the more I can get other people to be able to experience that, the more I feel like I'm doing my job in the right way. We live in a world where people hear and don't really listen anymore, so I think if I can get people to hear, then that's a good thing, because it's what touches your heart.”
Read on for more of Giles Martin’s thoughts on the Beatles’ final recordings, the evolution of Harrison as a songwriter, and if the band really could have continued after Abbey Road.
Yahoo Entertainment: I have heard that after the chaos of the White Album era, your father, George Martin, only agreed to come back and produced the Beatles again if they promised to be on their best behavior. Can you explain what was going on there?
Giles Martin: My dad always told the story where he said to John [Lennon], "You know, John, your guitar's not in tune." And John probably said something like, "Yeah, but I like it. We don't want any of your production crap on this record! " My dad didn't want to go through that. … The Beatles’ studio sessions were pretty hardcore, fairly long and arduous — and the earlier sessions weren't like that. So if you worked in studios under my dad, he probably wanted to get back to the way they worked before, where they were prepared. My dad was a man who liked everything to be just so. He was a perfectionist. He liked to measure everything out. And I think that the chaos of those [White Album] sessions didn't sit well with him.
My father said that when they started making [Abbey Road], Paul [McCartney] had asked him whether he whether he would produce a record that was going to probably be their last record, that would be like the record they used to make. And what Paul meant by that was that they would let him produce it, because John especially had rebelled against my dad's production work. … Paul phoned him up and said, "We want to go in and make one last record how we used to,” and my dad said to him, "How about John? Does he agree to this?" Paul said, "Yeah, I spoke with John. He wants to do this as well." And I think that's because before Abbey Road they'd been working on the Let It Be project, and Let It Be did have discord. It didn't finish well. I think they realized that the four walls that were constraining them, they were butting against them, but they needed them to certain extent because it was the one thing they all had in common. It's a bit like going off to college, having a crazy time, and then realizing you actually miss your mother's home-cooked meal.
You mentioned just now that all of the Beatles had their eye on not wanting to be Beatles anymore. And, of course, one thing that strikes me a lot about Abbey Road is even though there were only two George Harrison songs on it, they were two of the biggest hits off the album — and two of the best songs on the album, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” I think that was a sign of what was to come with George Harrison's massive, and massively respected, solo career. Do you any insight you have about George's evolution and how Abbey Road laid down the groundwork for that? Was he eyeing the door?
Oh, I think they were all eyeing the door. I mean, Ringo quit the Beatles during The White Album. So it was a pretty intense time for them. We have that Big Brother program over here [in England] and it was a bit like a Big Brother house. It was the ultimate test of human endurance being in a band like the Beatles, I'd have thought.
The thing about George is, my dad always felt he ignored George too much as a great songwriter — because, to begin with, John and Paul wrote fantastic songs. And George, by his own admission, didn't write great songs to begin with, but he developed as a songwriter. He was also much younger than the other Beatles. George played them “All Things Must Pass” and “Something” during the Let It Be sessions, and they didn't put them on that album. He wasn't necessarily keeping those in his back pocket, thinking, “I'm not going to play them for you." It was more of a situation of he was playing those songs for them and they were… not ignoring him, but I suppose there was a code of conduct and a way that they worked together. The majority of the songs were written by Paul and John, and it was probably very difficult for George to break through that. And I mean, he'd already written things like “Isn't It a Pity,” which is the most beautiful song, you know?
And yet, on their last album, George proved what a magnificent songwriter he was, and what a sensitive songwriter he was. And you actually wonder if the Beatles could’ve sustained themselves with three songwriters like that in the band. I mean, it's very unusual to have one good songwriter in a band. Can you imagine having a band with John Lennon and Paul McCartney in it? And then you add George Harrison, and his sudden ability to write beautiful, beautiful songs.
What Abbey Road song or songs would you say changed the most from the beginning to the finished version?
I think probably “Something.” My dad always said that George was like a tapestry-maker: He could sit quietly and work on one of his songs, like with intricate thread, and develop it. We had the demo of “Something,” which is on the box that you can hear, which is kind of beautiful because it's fragile. It's a bit rough-sounding. And then you have the final version, which is this iconic Beatles track with the orchestra. It's a great example of how you can develop a song and turn it into “Something.” Paul said to me once when we were doing the LOVE show in Vegas, "You know it's funny, you know, you write a song on the back of an envelope and it becomes this." And there's a beauty to that, as well. But I think “Something” is probably is the one that changed the most for me.
Pretty much from the minute the Beatles broke up, people were hoping they’d get back together. Do you think that could have been possible? They could have just focused on their solo careers for a while and then come back. Most bands do reunite, eventually.
Well, we'll never know. But I think it could have been more of a situation of them doing their solo work with the [other] Beatles playing on it. The Beatles had a sound to what they did which was unique, and the one thing that the Beatles would all agree on is they made each one of their records better. They played the right parts. They had a complete empathy with each other. So you'd probably could’ve had “Maybe I'm Amazed” with the Beatles on it, or John singing backgrounds or whatever. You imagine how it would be to have “All Things Must Pass” with Paul playing a much more complex bassline. But it's all going back to that teenager thing: I think that they wanted to be recognized outside of the Beatles.
Which makes sense. When you were listening to all these Abbey Road recordings, is there anything that struck you emotionally, that really just made you go, "Whoa"?
There’s the “I Want You (“She's So Heavy)” session, which they didn't do in Abbey Road but at Trident Studios in Soho. You hear someone complaining about noise they're making, outside on the street, and the response is very un-show-business-like. They Beatles are like, "OK, we'll turn down then. It might be better for us anyway to play quieter,” as opposed to, "We're the Beatles! We're the biggest band in the world! Who do they think they are, wanting us to turn it down?" I kind of love that, because it's human. The beauty in music is the humanity of it. We live in a world where so much is done by machines and by computers, but what the Beatles did was human. And that's why it's hard to replicate by anyone else, because it was just the sound of four guys that loved each other, making great music in the studio. And I just think it’s just great that you can hear these normal people.
And, going back to being a musician and just loving music, I go back to thinking about them doing “Because,” very simply — with my dad playing the keyboard, and Ringo, because there's no click track, almost banging out a click track with his drumsticks. And you think about this incredibly complicated vocal part, but it’s all three of them singing it at the same time live in the studio to get that sound. And then they record themselves; they track that three times, so there's a bit that’s like the Beach Boys' sound. And it's so difficult to do that. It's so hard to be that good — and to be that good exactly three times! It's that kind of stuff that I take home from working on this material and go, "Wow, they were just in every way one of the best bands in the world."
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