Geoff Emerick Remembers the Beatles and “Painting a Picture with Tonality”

Geoff Emerick at NAMM Show 2018 at the Anaheim Convention Center on January 25, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images Getty Images for NAMM)

One of the many highlights of the 2018 NAMM show in Anaheim, CA was having the opportunity to hear legendary recording engineer Geoff Emerick speak at the TEC Track Keynote, as he took part in a two-hour, multi-media-filled interview with music journalist Howard Massey, who co-authored Emerick’s 2006 book, Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles.

A packed house – which included keyboard player Morgan Fisher from Mott the Hoople and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen – was treated to a far-ranging discussion that touched on all things Beatles. Emerick began working at Abbey Road Studios three months shy of his 16th birthday (!), and on his second day on the job witnessed the Beatles’ first recording session for Parlophone Records. When discussing the early years, he related that, “[Beatles engineer] Norman Smith carried the first few sessions because [Beatles producer] George Martin couldn’t relate to a pop band.” Later in the interview, he further explained that “George Martin’s [forte] was working on vocal harmonies.”

Prior to the Beatles’ 1962 debut single “Love Me Do” reaching number 17 on the British charts, Martin had convinced the band – against their wishes – to record a version of “How Do You Do It,” a song written by British songwriter Mitch Murray. Even though Martin was sure it was a hit-in-waiting, to a man the Beatles were unimpressed with the tune, and their lackluster performance (eventually officially released as part of the Beatles’ Anthology 1 collection in 1995) bears this out. The Beatles fought hard to ensure that two Lennon/McCartney originals made up the band’s first single instead, and Emerick remembered John Lennon forcefully arguing against “How Do You Do It,” saying with typical bluntness, “We don’t want to record this crap. We want to record our own songs.” (Martin’s instincts turned out to be correct, as fellow Liverpudlians Gerry and the Pacemakers would hit the top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic with the song.) Emerick called the pairing of Lennon and McCartney “a completely beautiful combination,” which drew applause from the crowd.

Even during the early flush of Beatlemania, Emerick told the crowd that Paul McCartney displayed the perfectionist traits that would come to the forefront and cause friction later in the Beatles’ career: “Paul was always pushing for 100%.” (To illustrate this point, tapes of the recording session for the song that broke the Beatles in America, 1964’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” find Paul forcefully telling Ringo to “attack” the drums on the first few bars of the song. Emerick served as assistant engineer on the track, as well as on the iconic “Hard Day’s Night.”)

In 1966, Emerick was promoted to first engineer for the Beatles when Norman Smith gave up his seat as engineer to produce an up and coming UK act called Pink Floyd. 1966 was also the year that saw one of the first tunes Emerick engineered, Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo,” hit #1 in the UK. Emerick’s debut as the Fab Four’s first engineer occurred when he was still a teen – and on the Revolver album, no less. The first session for the album took place in April 1966, and it was a doozy: John Lennon’s experimental, acid-soaked classic “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Lennon famously wanted his voice to sound like the Dalai Lama standing on top of a mountain, so Emerick came up with the masterstroke to manipulate the lead vocal by feeding it through a Leslie speaker and by doing so “created a masterpiece,” as Massey noted. Emerick wryly remarked, “The only way I can create anything new is to abuse the equipment.”

Further equipment trickery took place later in 1966 and also during 1967, as Emerick and the Beatles set to work on painting psychedelic masterpieces such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life.” On the former, two different takes of the song were intertwined together by speeding up the first version and marrying it to the second version, which had to be slowed down. Somehow everything ended up in the same key, and when Emerick played the tune for the assembled at NAMM and noted where the edit had taken place, he credited “varispeed and scissors” for assisting with his handiwork.

On “A Day in the Life” – which he told the crowd was his “personal favorite” of the Beatles tracks he worked on – Emerick explained how he took the skins off the bottom of Ringo Starr’s tom-toms and placed the microphones inside the drums, accounting for the full, booming timbre heard on the record. Emerick also singled out John Lennon’s singing on the track for special praise, calling it, “One of the most amazing lead vocals I’ve ever heard.” He also enthused, “When we played it back on the monitors that night [after we finished it], it was like going from black and white to technicolor.”

Emerick noted how the Beatles’ interest had started to wane just a bit when compiling the Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine records – “Let’s shovel that shit sideways,” he laughingly remembered them saying – and he also recalled the tension-filled atmosphere of the White Album sessions, which caused him to walk out midway through the recording. “It was such a nasty experience working on the White Album,” he said, “that I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

Emerick returned for the final album the Beatles recorded, 1969’s Abbey Road, and found it to be a much more pleasant experience. “As soon as they got behind the vocal mic, they were kids again,” he told the NAMM crowd. He also remembered the one take, live guitar solos that Lennon, McCartney, and George Harrison played on “The End,” and how for one of the few times during the recording of the last few Beatles records, John Lennon didn’t allow Yoko Ono to stay by his side when he recorded his solo section: “Not this time, luv, you stay here,” Lennon told her.

During the course of the interview, Emerick also discussed George Harrison’s guitar playing (“’Free as a Bird’ is one of the nicest guitar solos George has ever done”), working on Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom and Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You,” and being called in to rebuild Apple Studios on Savile Row after Beatles’ associate/self-proclaimed electronics whiz Magic Alex didn’t deliver. It was a lively, entertaining and educational two hours, with Geoff Emerick sharing stories about a magical time in his life and a career spent “painting a picture with tonality,” as he so aptly put it.

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