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Backing up the Beatles

It took equipment and talented engineers to create the novel sounds the band dreamed up.

By CHRISTOPHER AVE Times Staff Writer
Published May 27, 2007


It has been 50 years - a half century! - since Paul McCartney met John Lennon at a church party. Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the most influential albums ever.

Millions of words have been written about the Beatles. Almost every aspect has been covered: the personalities, the social impact, the drugs and, of course, the music. So what more could be said about the Fab Four?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

Two recent books focus on the records the group made. In different ways, both add significantly to understanding how the two primary composers, together with guitarist George Harrison and drummer Ringo Starr, recorded that classic music.

To say that Geoff Emerick was there during some of the Beatles' greatest musical achievements would be faint praise. As chief sound engineer for several of the Beatles' most lauded albums, Emerick helped the group create many of those sounds.

His book, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, co-written by music journalist Howard Massey, is an uncomplicated narrative that shows how the Beatles got by with more than a little help from their studio friends.

Hired at EMI's Abbey Road studio at only 15, Emerick began at the very bottom of the studio's hierarchy. But he was a fast learner with a penchant for experimentation; by age 19 he had already engineered a No. 1 song. When the Beatles' chief balance engineer, Norman Smith, left the group to become a producer, the company asked Emerick to replace him.

Emerick began with one of the Beatles' most groundbreaking recordings, Tomorrow Never Knows from the Revolver album. Lennon asked the studio staff to make him sound like the Dalai Lama chanting on a hillside. Emerick's solution: recording his voice through a Leslie organ speaker. The eerie, swirling effect provided the sound Lennon was looking for.

Emerick also helped the Beatles use bits of tape-recorded sound, a precursor to modern loops. The song included sped-up and backward tape loops.

Emerick soon began changing other recording practices that were established at stodgy Abbey Road. One example: He moved the microphones right next to the instruments of a string octet in Eleanor Rigby, resulting in a strident, bow-on-string sound that perfectly mirrors the wintry loneliness of the lyric.

His book also offers quick but telling portraits of each Beatle.

Paul was the hard-working diplomat who gradually took control of the group as the years went by. John was brilliant but unstable and increasingly withdrawn. George comes across as lacking in confidence at first, struggling with his early solos but blossoming into a seasoned musician by the end. And Ringo perhaps had the hardest job, pounding the skins for take after take until the others were satisfied.

Recording the Beatles, by contrast, was written by people who weren't there. But through a full decade of research, including lengthy interviews with Emerick and dozens of other Abbey Road insiders, the book's authors give readers an all-encompassing view of the recording process.

Even for true Beatle geeks, the 540-page book provides countless never-before-explained details about the techniques and equipment the Abbey Road staff and the Beatles themselves used.

Such an encyclopedic account will prove tiresome to some. But it shows in clear terms how limited recording technology was in the early 1960s and how the group and the studio staff conspired to overcome such barriers to produce the era's most enduring popular music.

The book is also full of amusing nuggets. In one small example, the Beatles came back to Abbey Road crowing about a "black box" they'd seen at another studio that decidedly improved the sound of anything recorded with it. The miffed studio crew built their own black box and promptly patched it into the Beatles' recording system.

The group praised the results - even though the box contained nothing but an "in" plug and an "out" plug.

Recording the Beatles was self-published by the authors, who are charging $100 for the photo-packed, coffee-table-sized book. If anyone doubted the public's enduring thirst for all things Beatle, the first run of 3, 000 copies was quickly snatched up, and the second printing is nearly sold out, co-author Kevin Ryan says.

Taken together, the two books underscore the importance of the Abbey Road staff, who worked hard and creatively to achieve the group's vision. They also capture the "failure is not an option" optimism of the 1960s, when men would go to the moon and the greatest group of the rock era would take the rest of us on quite another kind of trip.

Christopher Ave can be reached at 727 893-8643 or cave@sptimes.com.

 

 

Here There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles

By Geoff Emerick and Howard Massey

Gotham, 387 pages, $26

Recording the Beatles: The Studio Equipment and Tech- niques Used to Create Their Classic Albums

By Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew

Curvebender, 540 pages, $100