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Why the Beatles’ Abbey Road reigns supreme 50 years on

The interesting thing about the 1969 record is that it is bigger now than it was then. 

I’ve spent a lot of 2019 thinking about Abbey Road.

This was only partly because I was paid to. I was commissioned by the Beatles’ company Apple Corps to write an essay for the deluxe boxed-set reissue of the 50-year-old album. This enabled me to tell my family I was working for the Beatles. This impressed them in the way that few other things do.

My essay is not about the making of the record. Rather it’s about the afterlife of Abbey Road. It’s about what happened when the record came among us. I can actually remember back that far, which makes me, in pop music terms, a witness
to history.

Abbey Road was always the Beatles’ best-selling album, partly because it was their swansong and partly because it came along at a time when the market for long-playing records was exploding, much as the market for long-form TV is exploding today.

People didn’t buy it because it was their final one. At the time record buyers were simply sold on the one-two punch of “Come Together” and “Something” at the beginning of the first side. What brought them back was the medley on the second side that threaded together a number of unfinished songs into pop music’s biggest finish.

In some senses the Beatles seem more present today than ever. In June I didn’t go to see the film Yesterday. This was partly because the purist in me rebels at the movie’s central conceit, which as I understand it is that you could summon the Beatles’ genius if you had access to their songs. Abbey Road, which is one of their best records despite having hardly any of their best songs, disproves this. The Beatles were first and foremost recording artists, and it’s as such they should be judged.

In August I witnessed a bunch of Dutch musicians who perform under the name of the Analogues playing the whole of Abbey Road live at Abbey Road. Their commitment to verisimilitude was such that they wheeled on an actual anvil for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” to strike just twice. The Analogues understand that Abbey Road is imprinted on their audience to the extent that the minutest divergence from the original can be nearly upsetting. Being musicians they recognise one of the reasons Abbey Road is still so popular is that it has the most contemporary sound of all the Beatles’ records.

The interesting thing about Abbey Road is that it is bigger now than it was then. This is partly to do with the cover, which was improvised as a way of getting the job done with the minimum fuss. The unique charisma of what they came up with wasn’t immediately apparent. In the 1970s you could drive up and down Abbey Road without encountering the crowds who flock there these days to have their picture taken on what is now the only listed zebra crossing in the country. That didn’t begin to happen until the 1980s. The smartphone and social media have done the rest.

In September I interviewed Paul McCartney about the reissue. I took along my old vinyl copy and was amused to watch him handling the cover and reminding himself of what songs were on it. That’s the thing about albums. The listening public’s experience of them is fundamentally different from the experience of the people who made them. They know it by its components. We know it whole.

A couple of days later I went to see Mark Lewisohn – the man who is to the Beatles what Robert Caro is to Lyndon Johnson – previewing his two-hour presentation about Abbey Road. Emerging afterwards the members of this select audience, which included  Richard Williams, Mark Ellen and others who have spent inordinate amounts of time thinking about the Beatles, could be heard muttering “I never knew that” to each other. The following day a friend went to photograph the house which was formerly the home of the real “Mean Mr Mustard”. There’s always something you didn’t know about the Beatles.

Fifty years later the cover is a reminder of a vanished world. There were so few parking restrictions in St John’s Wood at the time that the same white Beetle, parked half on the pavement behind George Harrison, was left there for a week while the owner went on holiday. It’s now in a museum in Germany. McCartney confirmed to me that it was pure coincidence that he, John and Ringo all turned up wearing suits on the day. The fact that those suits were made by Tommy Nutter is another of those note-worthy accidents with which the Beatles story is strewn.

When the record first came out there were just three channels of television but there was a record shop on every street. It was the same year as Led Zeppelin II, In the Court of the Crimson King and the second album by the Band. Abbey Road went straight to number one and remained there for months. I have no memory of this fact being on the news.

The reissued Abbey Road did get on the news when it too went straight to number one. Who buys these things 50 years on? Anyone who likes the idea of buying a record whose quality was proven 50 years earlier. This time it finds itself in the same chart as Liam Gallagher’s Why Me? Why Not. and Taylor Swift’s Lover. Who knows? Maybe in 50 years’ time they too will be reissued with similar fanfare.

The sales of all chart records will be a fraction of what they would have been back in 1969. The world now has choices it didn’t have back then. The second National Album Day, a record-business initiative that seeks to promote the habit of long-form listening, will be held on 12 October. If the recent survey indicating that 15 per cent of music fans under the age of 25 didn’t recollect ever having listened to a complete album is anything to go by, they at least have a greenfield site to work on. They could do worse than start with Abbey Road

David Hepworth’s books include “A Fabulous Creation: How the LP Saved Our Lives” (Bantam Press)

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain