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Entries in George Martin (3)

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.
Thursday
Oct092008

The Beatles didn't break up

Post Beatles break-up, John Lennon said that those people clamouring for a Beatles reuninon could just put their own Beatles album together - one track from a Lennon solo album, another from one of Paul's, one from George's and so on...

In this age of iPods this is now an intriguing possibility, and putting together 1970s Beatles albums is surprisingly satisfying. To my ears, for example, the first 1970s Beatles album, possibly called 'Instant Karma', would have had the following tracks on it:

Side 1
1 Instant Karma
2 Every Night
3 Isolation
4 My Sweet Lord
5 Junk
6 Jealous Guy
7 Maybe I'm Amazed

Side 2
1 Too Many People
2 Love
3 Imagine
4 Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey
5 All Things Must Pass
6 The Back Seat of My Car
7 Oh My Love

And I think it would have made a good album too.

This little exercise got me thinking about why Lennon and McCartney's 70s solo albums ended up being inferior to their Beatles ones. Rock critics usually attribute this to the lack of the Lennon-McCartney dynamic and intra-band competition; I think this is partly true, but I also have a slightly different angle on it.

As a proper solo artist (i.e., not seven-writers-on-my-record James Blunt), you have to write 10-14 songs on your own. But whilst in the Beatles, John and Paul only had to contribute 5 or 6 tracks to each album (and let George get a couple in). Obviously it's much easier to write 5 good songs a year than 14, and you can devote more time to producing them. When the Beatles broke up, the demands of putting out one solo record a year (or sometimes two) meant that John and Paul had to fill whole albums with material - something that is much more difficult to do and which they weren't used to. Which invariably led to fillers like Lennon's Oh Yoko (which has the same melody as Three Blind Mice), or McCartney songs with titles like Single Pigeon (classic).

But when you take 5 or 6 of their better efforts from their solo albums and put them in the same pot, as I did above, you do end up with a record that shapes up pretty well, and had George Martin been at the wheel, might have sounded damn good. Don't think Single Pigeon would have ended up on a 70s Beatles album somehow though.

Feel free to post your own 1970s Beatles albums below.

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Thursday
Jun192008

Your very own White Album

I was reading a book recently by a chap called David Quantick called 'Revolution' which is about the making of The Beatles' White Album. It was entertaining, but ultimately not very enlightening, and certainly wasn't in the same league as Ian MacDonald's similarly-formatted 'Revolution in the Head'.

In any event it reminded me that this year is the 40th birthday of the record.

I first heard The White Album in Cologne, when I was 11 or 12. At that point I'd absorbed all the Beatles albums that happened to be in my parents' record collection or which they had copied onto tapes (tapes, remember those?) . They had all of them except The White Album and Abbey Road (more on the latter another time).

We were in Cologne because my parents were during a tour of Europe of sorts - my dad is an academic, and at the time we were driving round Europe in a blue and white VW camper van, stopping off at various university towns so that he could be suitably professorial (I'm sure he would put it differently, but you get the gist). We had stopped off at my uncle Ciaran's place, who at the time was in his mid-20s and living with a bunch of slightly eccentric Germans. One of them had the White Album on a couple of cassettes.

Well God, I didn't know what to make of the album (nor did the Germans when I woke them up with it every morning for a week). I loved 'Back in the USSR', misheard the lyrics of 'Sexy Sadie' as 'Sex is easy' (very exciting that for a 12 year old, I must say), and was utterly bemused by Revolution 9.

And I still don't know what to make of it. There are some fantastic songs on it, but as a whole it leaves me somewhat cold, or bemused. I think that I agree with George Martin's initial assessment, that the band should have opted for what would have been an incredible single album, rather than a double one. To my ears, the record sounds like a load of amazing songs interspersed with a load of bootlegs; indeed, much of the Anthology stuff that came out years later could have happily sat on the White Album - it certainly reminded me of it.

Many will swear by The White Album in its entirety. For those of us who are less gone on tracks like 'Wild Honey Pie' or 'Don't Pass Me By', it presents us with a fascinating (and fun) opportunity: to edit it down, and make our own 'single' album version of it. The idea being to reduce the 30 songs to, say, a more manageable 12-14. After some reflection, here is my perfect White Album - if you've got your own, I'd love to hear about it.

My ultimate White Album:

1. Back in the USSR
2. Dear Prudence
3. Happiness is a Warm Gun
4. Martha My Dear
5. I'm So Tired
6. Why Don't We Do It in the Road?
7. I Will
8. Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
9. Sexy Sadie
11. Revolution 1
12. Cry Baby Cry

I know, it's sacrilege. But it would have been bloody good, eh?

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