The teenager who shaped the Beatles
Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick remembers
By Todd Leopold
The Beatles. Geoff Emerick would work with them from "Revolver" through "Abbey Road."
THE GEOFF EMERICK FILE
Born: 1946, London, England
First records beloved: A cache of classical recordings discovered in his grandmother's basement.
Models: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (Elvis Presley, the Coasters; Emerick later worked with them on a Stealers Wheel record); Mickey Most (Animals, Nashville Teens, Donovan, Herman's Hermits); Joe Meek (Tornados, Honeycombs); Phil Spector; Motown; Stax/Volt.
Beatles albums engineered: "Revolver," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Magical Mystery Tour," "The Beatles [White Album]," "Abbey Road." (Emerick also engineered the new songs that appeared on "The Beatles Anthology.")
Albums produced include: "No Dice," Badfinger; "Straight Up," Badfinger; "Band on the Run," Paul McCartney and Wings; "Dizrhythmia," Split Enz; "Imperial Bedroom," Elvis Costello and the Attractions; "Songs from the Film," Tommy Keene; "All This Useless Beauty," Elvis Costello and the Attractions; "Get Away from Me," Nellie McKay.
If he hadn't been in the music business: In "Here, There and Everywhere," Emerick talks about a school counselor who wanted to get him into a dependable field. The job? Installing telephones at the Post Office.
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- John Lennon had a new song. It was a droning, trippy affair with lyrics adapted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and he knew exactly what he wanted.
"I want my voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop," he told Beatles producer George Martin as Martin's new engineer, a 19-year-old handling his first Beatles session, listened in. It would be the engineer's job to make Lennon's wish come true.
Welcome to the world of the Beatles, Geoff Emerick.
Emerick managed to fulfill Lennon's request (he ran the Beatle's voice through a Leslie, an amp with two spinning speakers) on what became "Tomorrow Never Knows." Over the next few years, he was Martin's right-hand man for the majority of Beatles recordings, including "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Abbey Road."
He recalls his adventures with the group -- and his participation in other albums, including Paul McCartney and Wings' "Band on the Run," the Zombies' "Odessey and Oracle" and Elvis Costello and the Attractions' "Imperial Bedroom" -- in a new book, "Here, There and Everywhere," written with music writer Howard Massey (Gotham).
Sitting in a cozy dining room in his 1920s Laurel Canyon bungalow, you'd never suspect that Emerick -- a lanky Englishman whose accent still suggests his middle-class North London youth -- participated in some of the greatest recordings in pop music history.
The house is almost devoid of Beatles paraphernalia, save a poster on a living room wall. His Grammys -- including a special technical award for his lifetime of work -- sit unobtrusively among an array of other knickknacks and honors atop a nearby credenza.
Though Emerick wrote the book in part to share his memories of the Beatles' work -- to say, because many listeners aren't aware, that he played an important role in their development -- he's remarkably self-effacing in person.
"It was the right place at the right time," he says. "It could have happened to anybody. ... At the time of doing those albums we never realized it was going to develop into what it developed into." (Watch the slide show.)
'Images' and 'colors'
Emerick drew from a wealth of memories in writing the book, putting himself back in EMI's Abbey Road studio control room in the late '60s.
"I can just go back to the control room when we're doing certain tracks and look down and see them doing 'Because' or 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' or 'Day in the Life' or whatever," he says. "They're just images."
Emerick came to EMI in 1962 as a 15-year-old kid with a fascination with sound and music. In his childhood he was equally drawn by records -- particularly the new rock 'n' roll singles -- and recording, writing in the book that "what I really wanted, more than any musical instrument, was a tape recorder."
In his early years he was a "button-pusher" -- an assistant to the primary sound engineer -- but he quickly moved up. By 1966 he was engineering sessions for Manfred Mann, including the band's hit "Pretty Flamingo," which featured some unusual instrumentation. When the Beatles began recording what became "Revolver," Emerick -- who had actually sat in at the band's first EMI session in 1962 during his first week at work -- was asked to engineer.
In recording terms, engineering is much to producing as, in movies, cinematography is to directing, Emerick explains. The engineer takes direction from the producer and musicians as to the sound desired, helps pick out microphones, arranges their placement, plays with tone and timbre, makes sure technical specifications are correct and balances the instrumentation.
"I'm just hearing the sounds as basically colors and stuff in my mind, which is really blending tonalities together," he says. "You sort of play around and something sort of merges and complements -- one tone of one instrument might complement a tone of another sound and so forth."
The Beatles, always fond of new sounds, threw all kinds of challenges at their production team. To achieve the group's desires, the creative Martin, Emerick and some colleagues tossed away the "book," placing microphones practically on top of stringed instruments ("Eleanor Rigby"), down the bells of horns ("Got to Get You Into My Life"), incorporating early synthesizers ("Strawberry Fields Forever") and allowing a striking degree of distortion ("Revolution").
At staid EMI, where some studio employees wore white or brown lab coats depending on rank, this kind of experimentation wasn't always appreciated.
"I had to be a bit careful because I was changing the sort of techniques and the studio layouts that the other engineers had been used to for all those years," Emerick says. "I had to just tread very carefully, you know."
The group also suffered because of the quality of EMI's equipment wasn't always up to the Beatles' longings. In the vinyl age, a record had to be literally "cut" -- grooves scored into plastic -- and if a phonograph couldn't handle the grooves, the recording would have to be remastered.
"I don't know which single it was ... but [EMI] pressed about a quarter of a million copies and they jumped cause they used to test them on the cheapest little record player. ... So they had it remastered again, and we slashed all the bass out of the tape," Emerick recalls. "And the ruling after that was any Beatles single had to be reduced [on the low end]. ... It was a ridiculous thing to be doing."
'It was like a hospital'
Emerick has little love lost for EMI in general. The label was not in the habit of crediting its engineers in the '60s, so few people are aware of Emerick's contributions. And Emerick notes that, though many of his colleagues became good friends, the facility itself, despite some fine acoustics, "wasn't a nice place to work."
Indeed, during the Beatles' unpleasant "White Album" sessions, fraught with bickering, Emerick walked out. "[And] John was in the studio, and said, 'It's not you, it's this,' looking at those brick walls and all that stuff hanging down from the ceiling. It was horrible. ... It was like a hospital, with that green paint and the old wooden flooring."
It's no accident, he adds, that the Beatles' picture on the cover of the "Abbey Road" album shows them walking away from the studio.
Emerick has taken some criticism for his recounting of events in "Here, There and Everywhere." His fellow engineer, Ken Scott, wrote a scathing open letter (Emerick's response is here) accusing his former colleague of inaccuracies. Scott defended George Harrison, who appears to come off poorly early in the book, portrayed as unfocused and unable to get his parts down.
But Emerick says he remembers Harrison as being appalled by some of the craziness of Beatlemania, and that his guitar playing and songwriting improved through the years. After all, Harrison -- like all the Beatles -- was only human, and the Beatles had their fair share of blown takes and bad notes.
"A lot of people think I'm being hard on George. But I haven't glossed anything over. It's my memory, it's the way I perceived, from my situation, the way we went through those albums," he says.
Emerick remains active. He produced Nellie McKay's "Get Away from Me" a few years ago; he's thinking of producing a "Beatle-y" American band. But he still can't help but feel a thrill about, once upon a time, recording the world's biggest group.
"When I was asked by George Martin, 'Do you want to do the Beatles?' I was just terrified, and the little eeny-meeny-miney-moe thing [in my head], it stopped on 'Yes, I'll do it.' ... I felt really honored to be asked," he says.
Nevertheless, it's not like he constantly plays the records at home, reliving the past. He likes his peace and quiet.
"It's too much like work," he says. "I love doing it when I'm doing it ... but the last thing I want to come home and listen to is records."
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