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‘Abbey Road’: How the Beatles Made Magic on the Verge of a Breakup

At the height of their interpersonal strife, the band came together to create one more masterpiece

Amid personal conflict, the Beatles made one last masterpiece in 1969. Read the story of 'Abbey Road.'

Hans J. Hoffmann/Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

As part of our newly updated survey of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, we’re publishing a series of pieces on the making and impact of key records from the list. The BeatlesAbbey Road came in at number five. The following piece originally appeared in a Beatles special issue in 2011. 

In the midst of the conflicts that would define their final days, the Beatles pulled it together for one last, magnificent collaboration. It was the culmination of their seven-year partnership: four men who had grown up together and who were now growing apart, collecting the fragments of their unfinished work and arranging them into a shining monument.

At one point, it was going to be called Everest, and it’s one of the peaks of their career. Following the rancor of the White Album and the disastrous sessions that would eventually be pieced into their last album, Let It Be, in 1970, the Beatles needed a return to the familiar. On the verge of breaking up, they returned to their longtime producer, George Martin, and studios, EMI’s Abbey Road complex, to create a true final statement. “Let’s do it the way we used to,” Paul McCartney is said to have told Martin.

And so they did, sort of. Abbey Road actually came together bit by bit over the course of six months, partly elsewhere and at times without Martin.

On February 22nd, 1969, the Beatles reconvened with keyboardist Billy Preston (whom they’d known since their Hamburg days) at Trident Studios in London to begin recording a slow, throbbing rocker by John Lennon called “I Want You”; the song’s direct admission of desire evokes their earliest, easiest sentiments and in a sense it established the album’s homecoming mood. That was all they had time to accomplish as a group for the next couple of months, as they went off to work on separate projects. Ringo Starr was filming The Magic Christian; McCartney was getting married to Linda Eastman and producing records for Mary Hopkin and Jackie Lomax; Lennon and Yoko Ono were also getting hitched, traveling to Paris, then to Gibraltar for the wedding, back to France, then Amsterdam to spend a week lying in bed to promote the peace movement, and finally Vienna, before returning to London.

If that itinerary sounds familiar, that’s because Lennon almost immediately turned it into a Beatles single, “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” On April 14th, he and McCartney recorded it together in a single session at Abbey Road (George Harrison and Starr were absent). Amid all the chaos, Harrison had been maturing as a songwriter — although he was more modest about his gifts than Lennon and McCartney were about theirs. “Really, everybody can write songs if they want to,” he said in an October 1969 interview. “I just write a song, and it just comes out however it wants to. And some of them are catchy songs like ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ and some of them aren’t, you know … in my own mind, I don’t see what the fuss is.” The next Beatles session, on April 16th, was devoted to two of his songs, “Old Brown Shoe” and an early version of “Something.”

Over the next three weeks, the Beatles kept going into both Abbey Road and Olympic Sound Studios, with producer Chris Thomas and engineer Glyn Johns, working on bits and pieces of various songs: more of “I Want You,” McCartney’s “Oh! Darling,” Starr’s “Octopus’s Garden” (a holdover from the Let It Be sessions), a nearly eight-minute remake of “Something” (with Preston once again sitting in) and yet another pass at “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” a joke recording they’d begun in mid-1967.

When the Beatles stuck to music, they were basically fine. When they had to turn their attention to other matters, particularly their troubled business situation, it was a disaster. Their advisers were at odds, and they were embroiled in a losing battle to regain control of their own work. (The Beatles’ publishing company, Northern Songs, had recently been sold without their input, and a plan to buy it back collapsed after Lennon declared, “I’m not going to be fucked around by men in suits sitting on their fat arses.”) McCartney touched on the subject in a new song, “You Never Give Me Your Money,” but a few days after the Beatles recorded it on May 6th, they had a blowout argument over who would manage their financial affairs, and work on the new album came to a halt.

They scattered for a couple of months, taking off for vacations with their wives once again. McCartney and Linda flew to Greece, Starr and his wife, Maureen, traveled to New York, Lennon and Ono to Montreal for another “bed-in” — at which they recorded “Give Peace a Chance,” the first single released under the name Plastic Ono Band. It was still credited to “Lennon-McCartney” as songwriters, but that was even more of a formality than usual.

Finally, more than four months after they’d started recording, the Beatles committed themselves to making a record for real, with George Martin, booking time at Abbey Road nearly every weekday in July and August. Lennon was absent for the first week of recording — he’d been injured in a car accident while traveling with Ono in Scotland. That didn’t stop the other three from getting down to work: They touched up “You Never Give Me Your Money” and began McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight.” McCartney also recorded his solo snippet “Her Majesty,” which was intended as a link in what they’d decided would be a long medley on the new album. During this session, they also recorded Harrison’s masterpiece, “Here Comes the Sun.” Written while playing hooky from another miserable business meeting, its fragile optimism is especially poignant coming from the Beatle who often seemed most dissatisfied with his place in the band.

On July 9th, Lennon returned, bringing the still-recuperating Ono to the studio with him. (She was set up with a bed to rest in, with a microphone hanging overhead so she could comment on the goings-on if she felt like it.) Still, it wasn’t until July 21st that Lennon got fully back into action and the group recorded the basic groove of “Come Together,” his simple, funky call for political togetherness.

The next song the Beatles tackled — the album-ending medley — was a testament to their ability to make something coherent, even poetic, out of their fragmented artistic relationship. The “long one,” as they called it, which occupies most of the second half of Abbey Road, transmuted a bunch of unfinished song fragments (some of them dating back to the White Album era) into a grand, gorgeously played suite that culminates in a hymn to love. “Out of the ashes of all that madness, that last section is for me one of the finest pieces we put together,” Starr later said. Lennon, on the other hand, never had much use for it: “None of the songs had anything to do with each other, no thread at all, only the fact that we stuck them together,” he said in 1980.

McCartney’s songs dominated the medley, so he played the largest role in making it work. The Beatles took their first stab at the brief piece meant to wrap up the medley (then called “Ending,” later to be known as “The End”) on July 23rd, and the next few days saw recordings of “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” They still weren’t sure how the whole thing would fit together. Ultimately, it was a tape operator’s mistake — attaching the 23-second “Her Majesty” to the end of the medley — that gave them the sequence they liked best.

Lennon’s “Because,” started on August 1st, was the final new song added to the album; its three-part harmonies are one of the band’s great vocal showcases. The next three weeks were devoted to overdubs, edits and finishing touches. On August 5th, Harrison had a massive Moog synthesizer brought to the studio so that he, McCartney and Lennon could overdub its unearthly sounds on a few songs.

The iconic photo shoot for the cover took place on the 8th, a hot day in London (possibly the reason McCartney went barefoot). The Beatles were photographed while walking away from the studio they’d spent thousands of hours in over the years.

The album’s sequencing gave them another chance to wring meaning out of their final release. It was originally reversed from the sequence we know. Eventually, though, they decided Side One would close with the apocalyptic, chopped-off “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and Side Two would end with the big medley and its anti-coda, “Her Majesty.” Both sides of Abbey Road ended abruptly without resolution, and the band’s own ending was clearly coming — the only question was when. “It was a very happy record,” George Martin later said of the album. “I guess it was happy because everybody thought it was going to be the last.”

On September 12th, chatting with a few journalists, Lennon claimed that while he’d played with other people before, “if I wanted to make a record, I’d choose the Beatles,” and that they’d be recording again in January, around the time their in-progress documentary, Get Back, was due out. That same day, promoter John Brower invited Lennon to attend his Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival festival in Toronto (which featured Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others). Lennon impulsively offered to perform, too. He flew to Canada the next morning with an ad hoc Plastic Ono Band, played the show that night (released as Live Peace in Toronto 1969 three months later), and promptly decided to quit the Beatles.

On his return, he told his bandmates that he was leaving. They agreed to keep it quiet — Allen Klein was in the middle of arranging a lucrative new contract for them, and in any case, both Harrison and Starr had quit and returned before. A few days later, though, Lennon recorded the single version of “Cold Turkey” with the Plastic Ono Band (in this case, Starr, Eric Clapton and longtime Beatles associate Klaus Voormann) rather than the Beatles.

There would still be a bit more mop-up activity: a promotional film for “Something” (in which the band members never appeared together); another Christmas record for the fan club (for which they sent in their contributions separately); and a few final recording sessions for Let It Be (for which Lennon was absent). Abbey Road was, in many ways, the culmination of what the Beatles had been working toward as a band. But by the time it hit the shelves, on October 1st, 1969, the Beatles were effectively defunct.

From Rolling Stone US