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Entries in Engineering (1)

Friday
Jan042013

Geoff Emerick's book: bringing The Beatles back to life

The Beatles

As a young whippersnapper I was, like a lot of other young whippersnappers, obsessed by the music of The Beatles (and indeed the band themselves). They were a terribly bad influence on me though: they inspired me to pick up a guitar and write music. Possibly not the most sensible thing for a young chap to be doing really, and certainly an activity that would make the chance of getting rich quick much less likely, but there you go.

The other thing that the band did was inspire me to pick up lots of books - namely, books about The Beatles. From the age of ten up until my early twenties I devoured any Beatley tome I could get my mits on. Ian McDonald's Revolution in the Head; Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon; the Anthology book; Mark Lewisohn's various diary-style accounts of their career...and many, many more.

This voracious reading of Fab Four-related books resulted in a few interesting things happening: first, as a ten-year-old I encountered lots of detailed accounts in Beatles biographies of 'knee-tremblers' and other sexual antics during the band's stint in Hamburg that required explanations from a clearly embarrassed and obfuscating father who wasn't expecting the sex-ed chat for another couple of years. Then, I became much in demand at pub quizzes during the music round. And finally the elders in the village heard of my wonderous knowledge of all things Beatley and would call me up any time there was a Beatles-related clue that had them stumped in a crossword.

As I got older and more into recording equipment (yes, an interest in girls developed along the way somewhere too, but that's another and possibly less exciting blog post) my Beatle nerdiness turned to studio nerdiness. The Beatles books gathered dust on the shelf as I started reading Sound on Sound magazine and very technical books by its editor, Paul White, on how to put grey foam on the walls of a home studio. Precious few references to knee-tremblers in there but I must say I learned to love a bit of grey foam.

But recently, I came across a book which seemed to appeal to both the Beatles and studio technology anoraks in me: Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles by Geoff Emerick (co-written with music journalist Howard Massey). Now, as any proper Beatles fan will tell you, Emerick is the guy that engineered a truckload of their music, including the Revolver, Sgt Pepper's and Abbey Road albums; he was present at the first ever Beatles recording session and was involved in some way or other with nearly all of their output. And I have to say that this is probably the most interesting book about the band I've read.

Whereas most other people writing about the band have had to rely on conjecture or second-hand accounts to paint a picture of what went on the studio, Emerick's account of their recording sessions is a completely first-hand, fly-on-the wall affair. Emerick spent much of the sixties holed up in the same room as the world's most influential rock band as they recorded their most important work, and as such he is able to provide a unique, intimate warts-and-all portrayal of the group - a portrayal that almost leaves you feeling like you were 'there at the time'. As you read the book you get an incredibly vivid sense of The Beatles' personalities; and what's interesting about this is that rather than warming to the band members, you start to dislike them. Many other authors of Beatles history indulge in hero-worship, to the point where the band are god-like individuals that can do no wrong, musically or otherwise; however, Emerick is not afraid to point out that The Beatles were assholes a lot of the time. According to Emerick, they were frequently stand-offish; they wouldn't share their food (particularly digestive biscuits); they had huge egos; they were selfish; and they were snobbish towards the Abbey Road staff. And occasionally, Emerick is pretty critical of their musical skills: for example, George Harrison is portrayed throughout much of the book as a very average guitarist who took ages to get any solos right. Ringo is depicted as a fairly disinterested sort of individual who didn't have that much musical input into anything.

Emerick has interesting things to say about George Martin too; namely, that he wasn't half as important to proceedings as he is generally considered today. In the book Emerick describes him as more of a string arranger than a producer, who was reluctant to give any of his engineering team any credit for their work; he also states that from 1966 onwards he was viewed by the band as a bit superfluous to the recording process. It's also remarkable to discover that the place where this recording took place - Abbey Road Studio 2, so revered by Beatles fans all over the globe - was actually intensely disliked by the band and many of the EMI staff who worked there (who considered it a dank, dark sort of a place).

And then of course, there's the accounts of the technical side of the recordings. The danger with this aspect of the book was that the passages on the actual sound engineering would be a turn-off to the reader who is not really interested in familiarising themselves with the ins and outs of valve compression and microphone placement, but somehow Emerick, with his co-writer's help, manages to make this sort of thing entertaining for the non-technically minded reader. His description of how he engineered Tomorrow Never Knows, which involved a giant tape loop going all around Abbey Road (via white-coated staff members holding up pencils for the tape to spin upon) is particularly fascinating, not to mention very humorous.

Now, as authors of these sorts of books tend to do, Emerick is writing history to suit himself and doesn't hold back from portraying his own contribution to the Beatles' recordings in a very positive light. Sometimes this feels a little too self-congratulatory, and an engineer who worked alongside him, Ken Scott (who later went on to be a famous producer, best-known for his work with Bowie), completely disputes Emerick's version of events and largely dismisses the book as fantasy. It's an interesting spat, which you can read about here. There do certainly seem to be some factual errors here and there (Scott would argue here, there and everywhere), and it does seem a bit suspect that Emerick is magically able to recall exactly what the Beatles said in specific recording sessions well enough to quote them verbatim, i.e.,

"We can't hear ourselves onstage anymore for all the screaming," Paul interjected earnestly, "so what's the point? We did try performing song songs off the last album, but there are so many complicated overdubs we can't do them justice. All we want is to raise the bar a notch, to make our best album ever."

Well, Sir Paul might have said something to that effect, and I suppose creating a sentence and putting it in quotations does help drive a narrative - however, it's a bit silly to present stuff like this as sentences that were actually uttered by the band.

But despite these gripes - Ken Scott's or my own - I feel that Emerick's contribution towards the Beatles' recordings was so significant (his groundbreaking work on Revolver and Pepper was arguably more production than engineering), and his vantage point so unique within their history, that his take on thing deserves a fair hearing. Maybe the passage of time, along with his lack of a diary / detailed notes of the Beatles recording sessions has led to some inaccuracies creeping into proceedings, but I don't get the sense that Emerick is making stuff up for the sake of it. Besides which, his accounts of what went on in the studio chime fairly consistently with the stories of other important Beatley witnesses. Regardless of how accurate Emerick is on the technical side of things though, or on the exact dates on which various events occurred, what's really captivating is the basic insights you get into the personnel involved in the sessions; it's very refreshing to see people routinely described throughout rock history as geniuses who can do no wrong come in for fairly robust criticism. The Beatles become real people rather than rock gods, and as such, you can identify with them more.

So all in all, this is book is seriously worth a read, even for the most jaded of Beatles nerds. Emerick is a huge player in and important observer of Beatles history and this book takes you right inside this history, so much so that when you've finished reading the book, you feel like you've just spent the 60s in a recording studio with a grumpy, chaotic, egotistical but extraordinary talented rock band.