The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’: Alan Parsons & Giles Martin on the Classic Turning 50


In the semi-animated video for the single "As Lights Fall" from his latest solo album The Secret, iconic prog-pop pioneer Alan Parsons is depicted as a sea dog on a pirate ship, swabbing the deck as four rogues who look like The Beatles monitor him in a stern manner. 

It's no random reference. After all, decades ago at Abbey Road Studios, a 19-year-old Parsons began his first professional gig as a tape operator.

"My time working on the Abbey Road album was an eight-week period and I did the sessions for the second half of that period," Parsons tells Billboard. "All the tracks had been done, so it was down to just doing overdubs of vocals, solos and that kind of stuff, and mixing of course. I was just a lowly button pusher and tape operator at the time. I was still fairly new to the game then; I had only been working at Abbey Road for six months when they started the album. But then again, I began with the Beatles during the Let It Be sessions as well, which had begun the previous January. Nevertheless, I was very much a green engineer in training."

With Abbey Road turning 50 today (Sept. 26), a half century has passed since Parsons was a quiet fly on the wall during the Fab Four's last year. It's fascinating to think the man behind arty sci-fi masterpieces such as I Robot and Eye In The Sky was present in the control room for their swan song, particularly when you consider the major role synthesizers played on the Fabs' final bow in the context of Parsons' own legendary career as a master of the recording studio.

"I think during this time he really was a lowly button pusher, and I know Alan well and saw him not long ago," jests Giles Martin, son of George and the visionary behind the current Beatles reissue program that continues with a deluxe Abbey Road out on Friday (Sept. 27). "But because you had the likes of Glyn Johns, who was involved in the Let It Be sessions, and Geoff Emerick, who was truly the wizard behind this record. God bless him and before his tragic death Geoff was fairly dismissive of the remixes I was doing, and I completely embraced his criticism. I think it's great he was still highly passionate about the work he had done on these records, and I know that Alan probably learned a lot from those sessions in the early stages of his career."

"Being there working on Abbey Road had a tremendous influence on my direction with synthesizers," adds Parsons. "I was there watching what they were going through in each moment. Sadly, I didn't get to see very much of them actually performing on the Moog, but the tape machine room was adjacent to the control room. So I was facing Geoff Emerick and George Martin while listening on headphones and getting that headphone mix correct for the band. It was a mix that came directly from the tape machine, so that was one little creative element that I was involved in. But I was kind of isolated. I'd be literally facing them when they came in to do playbacks, but I couldn't see down into the studio when they were actually recording the music when I was at my post. But it was a great opportunity, and I will never regret doing it. It was a truly magic time. Working under Geoff Emerick, his engineering style was certainly an influence on the way I developed as an engineer myself through the years as I began working with Pink Floyd and Roy Harper and Al Stewart. Geoff showed me how to place mics and what goes where."

As great as the session outtakes and demos are on this anniversary edition of Abbey Road, the true treasure of this new set is the remastered original album, which emphasizes just how crucial the Moog synthesizer was to the Beatles' final work. Thanks to the tireless, forensic-like board work of the younger Martin and mix engineer Sam Okell, sounds bubble up from the album like Ringo Starr blowing through a straw into a glass of water as he did on "Octopus's Garden."

"I think the bubbles were a bit of a legacy of my dad when he was producing comedy albums for Peter Sellers and Bernard Cribbins," recalls Martin. "He got to blow into a bucket of water to make those effects, and that's a bit of a salute to him from Ringo."

The elder Martin also played a key role in "Because." "The main sound you hear on 'Because' is the electric harpsichord, played by George Martin," Parsons tells Billboard. "The Moog is there as well, but the harpsichord is the main sound you hear prominently on the intro. I wish I had been there when they tracked that one, but I wasn't. But I'd wager a bet that George Harrison had something to do with the choice of notes used and such. He really took to synthesizers, and eventually bought one of those big Moog monsters, which practically took up the entire room."

According to the younger Martin, however, it was John Lennon who initially dreamed up the sonata-like intro of the song.

"John had heard Yoko trying to work out a bit of 'Moonlight Sonata' on a piano, which struck a chord with him," he tells Billboard. "One thing I've come to realize about Abbey Road is that there are a lot of arpeggios when you listen to 'Because' and the end of 'You Never Give Me Your Money,' the end of 'Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight' and most famously 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Paul [McCartney] was heavily influenced by modern classical composers like John Cage and [Karlheinz] Stockhausen. 'A Day In The Life' is a good example of that, which wouldn't have existed without Paul listening to those composers. And that's what The Beatles are very good at — they're very good at taking something, the Stockhausen approach, and then making it almost instantly popular by putting it in the middle of a great song."

In that context, it's easy to see how the fascination with this mysterious new entity at Abbey Road inspired their creativity, especially when you experience revelatory new mixes in the segue between "You Never Give Me Your Money" and "Sun King," or during Macca's macabre singalong "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."

"That does sound like a Tibetan singing bowl you hear at the end of 'You Never Give Me Your Money' doesn't it," Martin muses to Billboard. "It's actually a strange mix of synthesized crickets and real crickets going into 'Sun King.' It comes across almost like Tibetan bells, actually. But it's all the same sound effects loop they had built. It's more synthetic than you think it is."

"The Moog we used actually belonged to Mike Vickers of Manfred Mann," adds Parsons. "George Harrison eventually bought one, but this was the one we used for Abbey Road. And Mike was the only one who knew how to work it better than anybody else. It was quite a monster. It's amazing to think you could fit it all in a wristwatch these days. I remember being particularly impressed with Paul's solo on 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer,' which was played on this ribbon surface on the edge of the keyboard. It was a bit like playing a fretless instrument, like a violin or a cello in that you have to find the pitch of certain notes by listening to your hand in a certain place, and sliding up and sliding down to get the different notes you want to make. Paul had a really good feel for that."

While the vanguard of electronic instruments played a major role in Abbey Road, both Parsons and Martin agree the true magic behind the album is the rekindled chemistry between John, Paul, George and Ringo as musicians and players. That can be felt throughout the entirety of this new set, even in its sloppiest moments.

"The whole idea of Let It Be was that everything would be done in one take with one performance," explains Parsons. With Abbey Road, they went back to the perfection of Sgt. Pepper and being really fussy about every part and getting everything just right. They were pretty concentrated on the job at hand with this album."

"When I talk to Paul or Ringo about aspects of Abbey Road they always mention the playing and how much they got out of each other as musicians," adds Martin. "That's why I put 'The Long One' on this box set. I think what's also interesting about the medley at the end is that a lot of it was played live in the studio. I didn't know that, though some Beatles fans surely do. I mean, 'Sun King' going into 'Mean Mr. Mustard,' they played that. 'Polythene Pam' going into 'She Came In Through The Bathroom Window' wasn't edited together. It was played as it was intended to be. Because it's in the later stage of their career, people have this idea of there being discord and discrepancies. But they were still a great band in the truest sense of the word, which means they could play off each other so intuitively. There was one thing they'd always be sure of, is that no matter what the song or what they were doing or what their mood was, each member of the band would improve the song on their own terms."