In the studio
Although The Beatles business problems needed attention daily, and tempers within the group could be fractious, when they came together in the studio the bond between them was as strong as ever. A year after Abbey Road’s release, at a time when the former Beatles were bitterly divided, John Lennon acknowledged how they understood one another as musicians.
In spite of all the things… the Beatles really could play music together when they weren’t uptight. And if I get a thing going, Ringo knows where to go. Like that. We’ve played together so long that it fits. That’s the only thing I sometimes miss is, is being able to just sort of blink or make a certain noise and I know they’ll all know where we’re going on an ad lib thing.
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner
The Beatles began 1969 with rehearsals and recording in Twickenham Film Studios and the basement of Apple’s office building. After the Let It Be sessions ended they also did some recording at Trident and Olympic studios in London, but from May 1969 onwards worked exclusively at Abbey Road.
During the album things got a bit more positive and, although it had some overdubs, we got to play the whole medley. We put them in order, played the backing track and recorded it all in one take, going from one arrangement to the next. We did actually perform more like musicians again.
Likewise with the vocal tracks: we had to rehearse a lot of harmonies and learn all the back-up parts. Some songs are good with just one voice and then harmonies coming in at different places and sometimes three-part work. It’s just embellishment, really, and I suppose we made up parts where we thought it fitted because we were all trying to be singers then.
While the album was recorded after the January 1969 sessions for Let It Be, there was no clear date for the beginning of the Abbey Road project. The songs were begun while work continued on Let It Be, and recording for Abbey Road only properly began in April 1969.
The Beatles performed early versions of 12 of the Abbey Road songs during the Let It Be sessions in January 1969. The only songs not to have been performed in any form were Come Together, Here Comes The Sun, Because, You Never Give Me Your Money, The End and Her Majesty.
Others had been written well before 1969. Demo recordings of Mean Mr Mustard and Polythene Pam were made at George Harrison’s house in May 1968, following The Beatles’ return from studying Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India.
My contribution [to the medley] is Polythene Pam, Sun King and Mean Mr Mustard. We juggled them about until it made vague sense. In Mean Mr Mustard, I said ‘his sister Pam’ – originally it was ‘his sister Shirley’ in the lyric. I changed it to ‘Pam’ to make it sound like it had something to do with it. They are only finished bits of crap that I wrote in India.
The first Abbey Road song to be properly recorded in the studio, as opposed to rehearsals at Twickenham or Apple, was John Lennon’s I Want You (She’s So Heavy). Work on the song began on 22 February 1969 at Trident Studios in London, although at this time it was unclear whether the song would be an album track or appear on a single.
As the sessions progressed, they also cut non-album tracks The Ballad Of John And Yoko and Old Brown Shoe, readied the Get Back/Don’t Let Me Down single, and oversaw the editing and mixing of the Let It Be tapes. Of the Abbey Road songs, The Beatles also worked on Something, Oh! Darling, Octopus’s Garden and You Never Give Me Your Money, before taking the month of June 1969 off for holidays.
Let It Be was such an unhappy record, even though there are some great songs on it, that I really believed that was the end of The Beatles, and I assumed that I would never work with them again. I thought, ‘What a shame to end like this.’ So I was quite surprised when Paul rang me up and said, ‘We’re going to make another record – would you like to produce it?’
My immediate answer was: ‘Only if you let me produce it the way we used to.’ He said, ‘We will, we want to.’ – ‘John included?’ – ‘Yes, honestly.’ So I said, ‘Well, if you really want to, let’s do it. Let’s get together again.’ It was a very happy record. I guess it was happy because everybody thought it was going to be the last.
When The Beatles regrouped in July they worked swiftly to complete the record. Studio Two at EMI Studios was block-booked between 2.30pm and 10pm from 1 July to 29 August, with the group committed to making the recordings worthwhile.
John Lennon missed the first of these sessions, having injured himself in a car crash in Scotland on 1 July. He never intended to attend the first session of the month, but the crash and his subsequent hospitalisation and recuperation meant The Beatles worked without him until 9 July.
Yoko Ono suffered worse injuries in the crash than Lennon, and was pregnant at the time. Keen to keep a close eye on her wellbeing, he arranged for Harrods to deliver a double bed to the studio, and had a microphone suspended above it for her to add her thoughts during the sessions that followed.
Abbey Road was The Beatles’ first album to be recorded exclusively using 8-track technology. The greater flexibility in the studio allowed them to experiment with arrangements and instrumentation, although the group mostly recorded with their customary restraint.
We never got past eight-track. All of The Beatles’ work was on two-track, four-track or eight-track. Sgt Pepper was four-track. By Abbey Road we had got to eight-track, and we thought it was too many! We thought it was too big a luxury.