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Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles
Posted By David Loftus On April 22, 2007 @ 8:27 am In Music,Non-Fiction Reviews | 30 Comments
Oh, no—the cry is almost involuntary—not another Beatles book! What more could anyone possibly say? The lads from Liverpool have been by far the most chronicled musical entity of our time.
From the first “authorized biography” in 1968 by Hunter Davies (which in a few short years Lennon would label crap) through the meandering account of “house hippy” Richard Dillelo (The Longest Cocktail Party), the richer personal account of Peter Brown (The Love You Make), the first study of the business catastrophe that was their record company (Apple to the Core), the memories of ex-wives (A Twist of Lennon) and more savage biographical attacks (Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon); not to mention the catalogs of recording sessions, bootlegs, Beatles memorabilia, scholarly musical dissections, and what have you, the list goes on forever.
Over the years I’ve read many of these accounts, but I’m happy to report there is indeed more to say and learn, beyond the partying, drugs, touring, lawsuits, and seemingly endless musical trivia.
By amazing luck, Geoff Emerick was in his second day of employment at EMI Studios in London as a 15-year-old “assistant engineer” (hardly more than a go-fer), when an unknown band from Liverpool came in for their very first recording. He got to sit in on many of their early studio sessions, and in a few short years, Emerick would become their sound engineer (at the ripe age of 19!). Though he would quit EMI in the middle of the rancorous White Album sessions, he helped out on later songs and was called back for the boys’ final project together, Abbey Road.
So Emerick is in a unique position to throw light on the band’s creative process as well as their personalities from the beginning to “The End,” so to speak. Apart from George Martin and snippets from the boys themselves, few have been in a position to discuss the Beatles’ studio work from the inside.
Much basic info on recording sessions—dates, who composed and played and sang what, and studio tricks—has long been available from various sources, but the virtue of Here, There and Everywhere is that it places these facts into the human context: the reader learns which constraints, whose brainstorms, and what tensions led to “the act you’ve known for all these years.”
Wisely, the book opens with Emerick’s first day as head sound engineer for the Beatles: April 6, 1966, when they started work on Revolver with a Lennon composition that would push further musically than they had gone before: “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Emerick had just replaced Norman Smith, the older, more experienced EMI sound engineer who had been sound engineer on all the Beatles’ previous records. (He aspired to be a musician himself, and indeed as Hurricane Smith would score a hit with “Oh Babe, What Would You Say” in 1973 but he also wanted to be a producer, which the author suggests was a threat to Martin.) “Make me sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop,” Lennon requested. And Emerick proceeded to do just that within the confines of a studio.
The story circles back to make short work of the author’s childhood, his discovery of what he wanted to do by the time he was 15, and his campaign to convince a school counselor who, incredibly, got him an interview at EMI.
Revolver and Sgt Pepper get the most sustained discussion in the book, of course (Emerick devotes 60 pages to the latter, which took 700 hours, across 4-1/2 months, to record; “A Day in the Life” alone gets 16 pages), but before those recordings he was occasionally able to work closely with the band. For example, he was assistant engineer one Sunday in September 1964 when the boys came in to the studio and—get this—did the finishing touches on “Eight Days a Week,” then recorded “Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” “Mr. Moonlight,” “I Feel Fine” (in which, years before Hendrix, Lennon introduced amp feedback to the world), “I’ll Follow the Sun,” “Everybody’s Trying to be My Baby,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and “Words of Love”—all in one session! Unfortunately, a job promotion took Emerick out of the Beatles’ orbit for 18 months and he largely missed the Help! and Rubber Soul sessions.
Fans and trivia buffs will find riches galore to delight. Not only are Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, and Brian Jones in the singalong on “Yellow Submarine,” but that’s Patti Boyd Harrison (Clapton’s Layla herself) screaming in the party under the second verse. Martin wasn’t satisfied with Harrison’s solo guitar work on his own song, “Taxman,” so he decreed that McCartney would play it, which he does.
Paul was resistant to strings on “Eleanor Rigby”—he feared it would sound too “Mancini”—so Emerick close-miked them to make them more “biting,” per McCartney’s wishes (and then Martin had to remind the nervous musicians to stop backing off the mikes). Close-miking was an Emerick innovation that was subsequently used on a lot of the Beatles’ studio work.
George was the only other Beatle that participated with John in the recording of “Revolution #9.” After reading about all the fights that went on over “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (Lennon called it more of McCartney’s “granny music shit”; McCartney shouted at Martin, who raised his voice back for the first time Emerick could ever remember), it’s a wonder the song turned out as fresh as it did.
Audiophiles with high-end equipment will find gems to track down on their albums, if they were not already aware of them: an accidental shoe squeak by Ringo near the end of the long chord fade-out of “A Day in the Life”; Paul cursing “fucking hell” after fluffing a piano chord at the start of the third verse of “Hey Jude,” just between the lines “The minute you let her under your skin/Oh, then you begin”; author Emerick’s voice saying “take two” on “Revolution 1.”
The brass band on “Yellow Submarine” was added late at night as a substitute for a Harrison guitar solo, when “everyone was too knackered—or stoned” and they couldn’t have gotten live horn players in. Martin had an assistant pull Sousa marches from the EMI library, make a tape copy of a sequence that was in the right key, and then snip it into pieces, toss them in the air, and splice them together in the random order that resulted in order to avoid copyright issues. “That’s why the solo is so brief, and that’s why it sounds almost musical but not quite,” Emerick writes. “At least it’s unrecognizable enough that EMI was never sued by the original copyright holder of the song.”
The team would do the same William Burroughs-style cut-up with calliope music for “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” on Sgt. Pepper a year later, but Martin evidently has forgotten he first used the idea on Revolver, Emerick says.
The Lennon remark during the “freak-out” ending to “Strawberry Fields Forever” that conspiracy theorists took to be “I buried Paul” is nothing more than “cranberry sauce,” according to the author: the recording was done at Thanksgiving and the crew had been discussing turkey and trimmings just before the take.
The fact that “Strawberry Fields” consists of two different recorded takes that were originally in different keys and at different tempos, and were electronically manipulated and stitched together into a relatively seamless whole, has long been known. Since Emerick had to do the actual hard thinking and dirty work to come up with that solution, he is able to add detail to the story. Lennon fussed and fretted over the song, insisting on doing it over again after one laborious version had been completed. The team spent more than 30 hours recording the second full take. Then Lennon decided he preferred the beginning of the first version and told the engineers to put them together.
Martin nearly exploded but, Emerick says, “we knew that the word ‘no’ did not exist in the Beatles’ vocabulary.” Today electronic manipulation of sound is a snap with computers, but at that time “all we had at our disposal was a pair of editing scissors, a couple of tape machines, and a varispeed control.” Luckily, though they had been recorded a week apart, the two “Strawberry Fields” takes were close enough in tempo and pitch that Emerick could get them to sound nearly the same by speeding up the first and slowing down the second. For a less-than-obvious place to cut from one to the other and thereby achieve the illusion of a seamless whole, he chose the word “going” at the beginning of the second chorus (“Let me take you down/’Cause I’m going to”), about sixty seconds in. Further to blur the distinctions without ruining the song, he only gradually speeded up the first part with varispeed to the editing point, so as not to lose all the “laconic” mood of Lennon’s vocal. When it was done, the singer/composer couldn’t tell where the jump had been made, so he was well pleased with Emerick’s achievement.
For “A Day in the Life,” the band didn’t know what it would put into the 24-bar break in the middle of the song (it would become the first orchestral climb leading into McCartney’s “Woke up/Fell out of bed”). Fully confident that the dreamy Lennon composition was a masterpiece in the making, and not yet knowing what McCartney would come up with for filler either, they simply recorded the song with a 24-bar rest counted off by Mal Evans and punctuated by an alarm clock that Lennon had brought in for a joke—both of which bled onto the take. Emerick tried in vain to eliminate those intrusions, but the alarm turned out perfectly to fit McCartney’s lyric, chosen and recorded a day later.
Though Emerick quit during the White Album sessions and went to work for Apple Corps, which ate up most of his energy in construction of a new, state-of-the-art recording studio (he was not involved in recording “Hey Jude” or just about any of the Let It Be album), he occasionally popped back in for individual projects. “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (all recorded without George or Ringo) was “one of those magic times when everything went right and nothing went wrong.” The song was recorded in just a few hours on a new 8-track recorder, and the two-man band of John (lead vocal, lead guitar, rhythm guitar) and Paul (bass, piano, percussion, drums, and backup vocals) did the job with rare good humor and speed.
The author is honest about having been closest to McCartney. He does seem to side with and defend Paul much of the time:
Looking back on it now, it’s funny how most people thought of John Lennon—the hook-nosed lead singer on that first song—as the leader of the Beatles. It might have been his band in the beginning, and he might have assumed the leadership role in their press conferences and public appearances, but throughout all the years I would work with them, it always seemed to me that Paul McCartney, the soft-spoken bass player, was the real leader of the group, and that nothing got done unless he approved of it.
He is convinced that McCartney’s leadership, however resented by the others (quite obviously so in the “Let It Be” film), kept the band going longer than it otherwise would have:
…it’s obvious that Paul saw a vacancy in leadership after Brian [Epstein] died, and he stepped in. Perhaps that ultimately led to the band’s breakup, but the fact of the matter is that someone had to. Surely Ringo and George Harrison couldn’t, and between his drug use and unfocused mind, John simply wasn’t capable of it at that point in his life. As I see it, Paul saved the band. …Sure, he made mistakes, but he kept the greatest band in the world going at a time when they could have easily crumbled. I reckon he deserves a lot of credit for that.
Emerick does give the strong impression that as a musician Paul was conscientious, disciplined, and organized, and John more intuitive and experimental—and at times less self-confident and stable. For better or worse, McCartney increasingly managed the band’s creative direction, and one wonders where Lennon’s composing might have gone without the others to guide it (and occasionally, rein him in).
Lennon hated his own voice, and was forever trying to get Emerick to distort and muffle it. One abortive experiment involved trying to get an “underwater” vocal for “Yellow Submarine,” which included John trying to sing while gargling, then lobbying for a tank to be brought into the studio from which he would try to vocalize, and finally, having a microphone waterproofed with a condom and placed inside a milk bottle and submerged. As Lennon cracked, “we don’t want the microphone getting in the family way, do we?”
Though Emerick successfully achieved the “Dalai Lama from a mountaintop” vocal effect Lennon wanted for “Tomorrow Never Knows” by running his voice through the spinning speakers and amp of a Leslie box (strictly part of the distinctive Hammond organ system at that point), on a later song Lennon still wanted to try his original idea of singing the vocal while swinging past the microphone from a ceiling-hung rope. The crew “forgot” to set up this idea and his short-term memory conveniently moved on.
In this multi-multi-track age, when sounds can be filtered through and altered by hand (that is, on a keyboard and mouse), it is nearly unfathomable that the Beatles recorded everything up to the White Album on 4-track machines. The work tended to divide up between bass and drums on one track, John and George’s guitars on the second, all vocals on the third (Emerick assures us that the lads’ sweet and sharp vocal harmonies were no studio trick), and catch-all sweeteners on the last. Of course this did not rule out re-recording to add further layers, though that inevitably degraded the quality. And the studio wasn’t above doing a lot of patching: “Thank You, Girl” consists of six different takes by the band stitched together by the engineers, Emerick reveals.
This is not a tell-all insider’s account. There are only a few passing, casual references to drug use and virtually no sex. Emerick is mostly kind, fair, and almost gentlemanly in his judgments, but there is enough honesty to generate some sparks. On the band’s first day, he thought Lennon sang “without much enthusiasm,” and Harrison was “somewhat fumble-fingered.” During a discussion of “Only a Northern Song,” he says casually, “the more time we spent on George’s songs, the worse they got” (an exception being “Within You, Without You,” though both Emerick and Martin tried hard but unsuccessfully to talk Harrison out of including the canned, derisive laughter at the end). Though he makes no editorial comment, Emerick notes that despite other forms of camaraderie, none of the Beatles ever shared food or offered any of their crew a ride from the studio. “That bitch!” Harrison exploded when Yoko (who was already in everybody’s face by being lodged permanently in the studio in a bed and tiara) casually reached for one of his McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits.
In the area of his expertise, Emerick is calmly exacting. Though he praises the two lead composers’ singing skills in general, “the singing on some early Beatles recordings (songs like ‘I’ll Get You,’ ‘From Me to You,’ even ‘Please Please Me’) sounds a little shoddy, especially on the CD rereleases, where you can hear the individual words more clearly.”
Among the mild surprises in the book are the criticisms directed at men who, in most previous accounts, could do no wrong. Although he took an instant liking to George Martin, Emerick does find fault at times with the man who, technically, was his boss. Over time, Emerick found that Martin was prone to power games, and embarrassing subordinates in front of others—especially the Beatles—to maintain his position. The author also faults the courtly producer for never having taken a stand against the Beatles’ increasingly erratic behavior and abuse of EMI staff toward the end. In fact, the author baldly accuses Martin of lacking adequate leadership skills, and says the producer tended to hog all the credit and hide the team from outsiders.
The other surprise is Ringo, who takes a number of hits—not so much for his behavior but for his limitations. “Ringo had a definite talent and style, but little imagination.” Emerick observes that “to describe him as quiet would be an understatement. In all the years we worked together, I honestly don’t remember having one memorable conversation with Ringo.” Starr could be very cutting, the author adds; “I always felt he used sarcasm as a defense mechanism to cover his insecurity. . . .”
Starr gets damned with faint praise for his rendition of Lennon’s “Good Night,” the ballad-lullaby that closes the White Album. Apparently, Lennon’s original demo of the song has been forever lost, which Emerick keenly regrets: “I really don’t think Ringo did the song justice. Nonetheless, it was one of the best vocals he ever did.” Emerick also praises how hard the drummer worked—a little man who hit hard, to achieve effects that came easier to massive drummers like John Bonham—yet always bounced back the next day, ready for more. Starr also hated drum solos; he would never have done one if the others hadn’t coaxed him to it.
And, humble, courteous Ringo, not George or John and Yoko, was the proximate cause of Emerick’s resignation from Apple. Less than a year after the world-class recording studio in which Emerick was to preside was finished, Ringo had it torn down because he wanted to build a film scoring suite. The demolition occurred, but the new project never was finished; and Emerick jumped ship.
There was a lovely coda to his era with the lads: Emerick got to rejoin his best friend in the band in Lagos, Nigeria to record the Band on the Run album. The project started badly when McCartney was robbed at knifepoint his first week in Africa, and all his demo tapes and notebooks stolen. The local studio manager explained chillingly that if Paul had been black, he would have been killed: Nigerian blacks believe whites can’t tell them apart, and if they had thought he could ever identify them, they would have finished him off. Ever the optimist and professional, McCartney said, “I think I can remember how most of the songs went. And those that I can’t remember . . . well, I guess I’ll have to write some new ones.”
This is a book about Emerick’s work with the Beatles, so he says very little about the many other artists he’s recorded: from Marlene Dietrich and Burt Bacharach in the early 1960s to The Zombies, Robin Trower, Jeff Beck, Elvis Costello, Leiber and Stoller, Stealer’s Wheel, Cheap Trick, Art Garfunkel, the Climax Blues Band, Little River Band, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra later on. He expresses strong regrets about the betrayed promise of Badfinger—heavy drinking, two paranoid managers, a string of producers (including Harrison, Emerick, and Todd Rundgren), generally toxic studio politics, and eventually the suicides of its two lead singers. There’s a sweet story of an hour alone with his idol Judy Garland when she sat with teenaged Emerick in the lacquer cutting room and made polite small talk while waiting for the playbacks to get made.
So many individuals have either been nominated or puffed themselves as “the Fifth Beatle,” from George Martin to Murray the K, but from a purely creative standpoint, I’d say Emerick has as good a claim as any. He was never an equal of the lads, and he would never claim to be; he was a subordinate, a servant, a glorified studio go-fer, but an incredibly tireless and inventive one, who more than anyone (at least as much as Martin, I think) helped them realize and color their unique sound.
Rating a book of special interest like this one is always tricky. Confirmed Beatles fans (which obviously includes me) will readily award it five stars. For the general reader, I would say the sturdy writing and level of interesting content is probably more likely at the four-star level.
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