There are several albums that are widely perceived as genuine classics. Albums which haven’t faded with the passing of time, but instead only seemed to become richer. Sometimes you might feel as if you never need to hear these again due to their over familiarity, and yet, a chance encounter with Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of The Moon’; The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’, or a favourite Beatles album only serves to remind you how good they still sound, and remind you of why you loved them in the first place.
It takes brave souls to take a genuinely classic album and re-work it as an all-star studio project, but the fear of a potential critical mauling hasn’t stopped Matthew Sweet from instigating this tribute to The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ for Cleopatra Records. In fact, since the label has already shared “re-imagined” Pink Floyd albums with the help of Graham Bonnet and members of Dream Theater, they obviously don’t buy into the idea of sacred cows, and this tribute to some rather well known Liverpudlian lads takes a similarly broad swipe at the material, for better or worse. Does it work? Yeah, sometimes; provided, that is, you’re able to approach the songs on their own merits. Is it as good as some of the label’s other tribute records? “As good” is relative; previously, their prog tributes were helmed by prog-centric musicians. With this tribute to one of pop’s finest acts left in the hands of some of rock’s second division talents, it’ll certainly be more divisive.
Sweet adds various guitar parts, vocals and some bass to all tracks, so is very much the bandleader here, but as with most tribute discs, it’s the vocalists and other special guests that end up taking a dominant role. ‘Come Together’, one of The Beatles’ moodiest rockers – previously covered by Aerosmith and Paul Weller’s Smokin’ Mojo Filters – features the vocal talents of Durga McBroom, previously known for fronting dance act Blue Pearl and touring as a backing vocalist with Pink Floyd. Her lead on the track is huge, but she doesn’t always make the best of her voice. Now sounding a fair bit lower than her 90s self, she grumbles through the nonsense lyric with a menace that brings out the sinister edge of the piece, even if it loses a little of the original’s melodic edge. Nevertheless, it’s a fairly good stab at the track, and when McBroom hits the lowest notes going into the guitar solo, she sounds as if she’s really feeling the darkness in her delivery. The music isn’t too inspiring, though: the lead guitar lacks Harrison’s bite, and the bass, although solid, is too low in the mix. It’s saved a little by a funky keyboard occasionally wandering through, as if on loan from a prog band, but it isn’t enough to make this cover as good as it could have been.
‘Something’ fares far better, purely due to the musicians daring to make it their own. Harrison’s smooth ballad is transformed into a semi-funky soul jam, as if inspired by Billy Preston. Vulfpeck’s Charles Jones shares an amazing vocal. His soulful tones show how well The Beatles’ best songs can be moulded into different genres, and here, his tribute to both the Fab Four and sounds from the Motown label circa 1972 is spot on. Contrasting his smoothness, a busy keyboard gives the number a great rhythm (something the original lacked, but never needed) and blues man Sonny Landreth drops in with a fine crying lead guitar. Honesty, even if you think you might be interested in this due to the presence of a couple of classic rock/prog rock heroes elsewhere, this is the standout track. It, arguably, mightn’t be the best track on the original ‘Abbey Road’ – that could be debated for hours, of course – but in terms of this collection, the Vulfpeck man wipes the floor with almost everyone.
After that, hearing Jellyfish/Lickerish Quartet man Roger Manning Jr hammer his way through ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ as traditionally as possible feels like a huge step backwards. He’s been left with ‘Abbey Road’s turkey, but at the same time, since it is the most Jellyfish tune here with its unashamed rumpty tumpty rhythm, it’s perfect for him. Despite the piano and vocal never quite conveying McCartney’s enthusiasm, this cover comes with a great guitar solo that sounds like a 10cc vintage (presumably the work of Sweet) and a nice punchy bassline to keep everything buoyant. It works, despite being a fairly terrible song, and Roger should be commended for making one of Macca’s rare misfires as enjoyable as it’s ever likely to be. Roger’s bandmate Eric Dover takes the reins for the 50s pastiche ‘Oh, Darling’ and aside from a slightly grubbier guitar sound and indeterminable backing vocals, plays it also as straight as possible, creating a pleasing deviation from the original recording. It’s solid enough, but you’ll definitely find tunes of greater interest on this set.
Brian Auger and Matt Axton take the bones of ‘Octopus’s Garden’ and turn out a bluesy shuffle that is inoffensive, but doesn’t have much that stands out beyond a nice southern rock guitar tone. If that sounds like a back-handed compliment, it’s easily preferable to the ugly ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’. Lennon’s original never cared for subtlety or melody and was far too long, but nobody deserved to hear it being mauled by tone-deaf pensioner Arthur Brown. He approaches the lack of tune as if he’s being tortured, placing his limited voice between a theatrical boom and ugly heavy metal squeal. Hitting precious few enjoyable notes between the extremes, this would border on eight minutes of torture if not for some heavily phased blues rock guitar from the very talented Steve Stevens. A track to endure once out of morbid curiosity but borne for the skip button thereafter, this is the album’s absolute nadir.
Into side two and its onward and upward, with Bumblefoot applying some unexpected pop tones to ‘Here Comes The Sun’. His guitar sounds like a cross between a heavily filtered electric and an 80s guitar synth at times, and that works well against some bright bell percussion and a few uplifting vocals. There’s so much optimism here that the recording can even sustain a flat drum sound and some synthy strings. It’s not a classic cover by any means, but coming after Arthur Brown has its advantages…
The big medley introduces a massive raft of talent, some of whom suit the material very well. On a version of ‘Because’ that utilises a very 90s rhythm and faint world music influences, Rebecca Pidgeon delivers a really floaty vocal that’s immediately appealing, but aside from a few half buried harpsichord sounds, ex-Yes man Patrick Moraz’s contribution isn’t that notable. Despite any disappointment that Moraz might be phoning in his studio time, this is rather lovely, as is Rick Wakeman’s tasteful piano work on ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, on which he lays down some rather crisp sounding notes against an understated Graham Bonnet vocal. Despite Bonnet having carved out a career on the rock/metal scene since his employment in Rainbow, this is an effective reminder of his pop past, since the buoyant elements of the number’s second half end up sounding like a distant cousin of material from his ‘Back Row In The Stalls’ debut. He has one of those Marmite voices, and it can feel strange to hear it applied to something this familiar, but this quickly becomes another one of ‘Abbey Road Revisited’s standout cuts.
Albert Lee, Geoff Downes and James Booth give the ethereal ‘Sun King’ an interesting twist when they reimagine the music as if it were closely related to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’, before Great White’s Jack Russell attempts a slightly wobbly Lennon voice on ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’ and Matthew Sweet’s takes the tempo of ‘Polythene Pam’ and slows it slightly, making it more of a hazy psych rocker. Within this arrangement, loaded with fuzzy guitars, fans will easily spot the heart of Sweet’s own sound, and the tones that made his ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘100% Fun’ albums so good. It isn’t the best cover here by any stretch of the imagination, but along with ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’, it’s the tune that would’ve most likely worked best in his capable hands.
‘Bathroom Window’, meanwhile, is left to Matchbox Twenty’s Adam Gaynor who absolutely wrecks the track with a horribly affected vocal where he’s clearly tried to imagine McCartney as a weird southern rock throwback. The guitar playing’s all pretty good, but it doesn’t save face. Luckily, it’s a short track, and it isn’t long before the legendary Terry Reid arrives for ‘Golden Slumbers’. Reid’s voice shows the signs of age at this point, but that only throws more focus onto the fragility of the main melody, and his aching wobble sounds quite affecting set against piano and strings. Gregg Bissonette joins him for ‘Carry That Weight’ which – as per the original’s dictation – revisits a couple of the melody’s earlier themes en route, before Angel’s Frank DiMino teams up with Steve Hillage on ‘The End’. It’s an unlikely pairing, but Hillage applies a few great lead runs to the track, occasionally hitting his old ‘Green’ tone, and although Frank doesn’t have much to do, his limited input suggests he’s still in possession of some good vocal pipes. …And the excised ‘Her Majesty’? That’s here too, of course, in some brand new clothes. Gary Wilson has taken the liberty of adapting Macca’s original acoustic sketch and applying a full band arrangement. He gives it a slightly rootsy stomp, but instead of sounding like a lost piece of Americana, it ends up sounding like the soundtrack to a live action clip from a 70s visit to Sesame Street. It comes as a surprise on first listen, but it’ll leave you smiling.
Obviously, as good as this is, most of it isn’t on a par with the Beatles’ originals – in terms of musicianship, ‘Abbey Road’ captured McCartney and Harrison at their musical and creative peak – but its best bits are a million times better than they had any right to be. ‘Something’ is superb; ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ shows musicians with a great scope, and ‘Sun King’ is atmopheric and lovely. This won’t necessarily appeal to those who worship the original album; this is far more a collection filler for those who enjoy the musicians involved…but those fans, with some goodwill, will discover a collection that’s can be great fun. It can feel a little inconsistent, yes – let’s be honest, nobody really needs Arthur Brown to turn up for these gatherings, even though he often does – but the good very much outweighs the bad here, making this an interesting listen for those able to keep enough of an open mind.