Perhaps one of the weirdest moments on the latest Beatles remix-and-outtakes collection is a bit where the boys have just crapped out on a take of “Maxwell's Silver Hammer,” and, as Paul McCartney requests another attempt at the song, George Harrison references — of all bands — the MC5. “'Kick Out the Jams,' take eight,” Harrison jokes. Ringo Starr then screams “Brothers and sisters!” like Wayne Kramer and starts wailing on the snare drum.
A couple things. One, that The Beatles were aware of the MC5 seems strange, even though it's evident from this tape that they were. It's funny somehow to picture Starr and Harrison getting into the radical left-wing proto-punk MC5 around the same time they were making “Abbey Road,” but there it is. Another thing is, you get the distinct sense that they'd rather be making gritty rock than subjecting themselves to another grueling session where McCartney made them play another of his fluffy tunes 50 times.
This isn't to knock “Maxwell's” as a song — it's a perfectly enjoyable tune that fits in well with many of the group's other children's-music-like songs — but one wonders, listening to the studio chatter on this 50th-anniversary package of “Abbey Road,” if the band knew just how close to the end they truly were. They had outgrown each other by this point, and it's incredible that they were able to make such an indelible creative statement on their way out the door.
As with the other Beatles reissues that have come over the past several years, the new mix of “Abbey Road” is stunningly clear and full-bodied, yet it's not really necessary. Truly, these fresh takes by Giles Martin (son of Beatles producer George) present the band in high-def. There are subtle textures that get brought out in new ways, making the sound more three-dimensional than ever. But the fact is that the Beatles' music was plenty stunning as it was. So, yes, there is a difference, but it's not so great as to make the album seem somehow different. The songs and the performances are still there, just with freshly-brushed teeth.
Once again, the headline is the outtakes. Listening to The Beatles at work is truly an enlightening experience for a fan. One gets to peek in on early, shaky takes that had yet to be refined. “You Never Give Me Your Money” goes from a majestic music-hall tune back in time to its primordial origins as a ramshackle dive-bar song. Take four of “Oh! Darling” finds McCartney singing in a soft, cracking voice that makes the future screamer resemble a somewhat generic Wings tune like the ones that would come later.
“The Long One” restores the astounding side-two medley of incomplete songs to its original intended form, with the snippet “Her Majesty” placed back into the gap between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam.” It's fascinating to hear, and it demonstrates that the decision to excise that bit was the right call, as it brings the whole Frankenstein's monster of a song down too much. Earlier on the track list, McCartney runs through three back-to-back-to-back takes of “Her Majesty,” and it's cool to hear just how much each version subtly differs.
“Abbey Road” is still a glorious final studio statement from The Beatles, though this new mix brings out its AM-Gold leanings and strongly suggests that a smoother Beatles wouldn't have been a great development as the '60s turned into the '70s. The real treasure here is the cutting-room-floor stuff, which shows a band that was still capable of making magic, but was just about out of rabbits to pull from its collective hat.
Artist: The Beatles
Album: "Abbey Road”
Recorded at: Abbey Road Studios, London
Produced by: George Martin
Personnel: John Lennon (vocals, guitar, etc.), Paul McCartney (vocals, bass, etc.), George Harrison (vocals, guitar, etc.), Ringo Starr (vocals, drums)
Tony Bennett reviews albums for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.