Monday, May 09, 2016

Round And Round

I'd eyed Geoff Emerick's book--Here There And Everywhere: My Life Recording The Music Of The Beatles--when it came out a decade ago, but only recently did I read it from cover to cover.  While it makes a stab at his life story, and other artists he worked with, the vast majority is about making the Beatles' music, which is at it should be.  He engineered a lot of their music--doing a great job--and if he hadn't, it's doubtful anyone would have wanted a book from him.

He grew up loving music and loving to record music, so even before he turned 16 he was interviewing for a job as an assistant at EMI, the British music company.  And no sooner had he started in late 1962 that he was assigned to a session with an exciting new group, The Beatles.  He was there--as a lowly button-pusher--through their early years of development.  Unfortunately, he was given different assignments by EMI in 1965, so he missed maybe their greatest year, when they recorded Help! and Rubber Soul.

However, in 1966 Emerick was called in to talk to George Martin, the Beatles' producer, and asked if he'd like to be the engineer on their next album.  Their engineer up to that point was the fairly experience Norman Smith (nicknamed "Normal Smith" by John Lennon) but he was moving on.  It's not entirely certain, but Emerick believes he was chose--still not yet twenty--over other engineers with much more experience because the band wanted someone who'd be more open to new ideas, especially Paul McCartney, who took care of the technical side of recording more than the others, and whom Emerick had a good relationship with.

Whoever was responsible, it was a dream job, but also a tremendous responsibility.  The Beatles, by this time, were pop royalty who did whatever they wanted, working late hours and making huge demands.  But they were also the most talented band around, and were stretching the boundaries.  They had become more sophisticated in their songwriting, but now they wanted to start exploring what could be done in the studio--they wanted new sounds (that often couldn't be duplicated in concert--1966 was the year they stopped touring).

And it was up to Emerick, more than anyone, to make it happen.  When John Lennon said about "Tomorrow Never Knows" that he wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama on a mountaintop, Emerick had to translate that into something technical.  He also miked the band differently, giving, for instance, the drums a sharper, more direct sound that pleased Ringo quite a bit.

Every song would present new challenges, and luckily, Emerick was up to it.  He was willing to break the rules when necessary, presumably in ways older engineers wouldn't have dared.  And out of all this came the classic Revolver.

Emerick paints a picture of each Beatle during this period.  There was John, supremely talented but with almost no technical knowledge, who could only describe what he wanted in vague ways.  John was also conflicted, down deep insecure if he had what it took.  Then there was Paul, the most musically talented--while the public may have seen John as the leader, Paul more than anyone was the band member who ran things in the studio.  The two junior partners, George and Ringo, had less interaction with Emerick.  In fact, George rarely spoke to him (and, surprisingly, Emerick wasn't that impressed with his guitar playing), while beloved Ringo could sometimes be fairly unpleasant.

There's also producer George Martin, the fifth Beatle. In the early recordings, he was the Beatles' boss, making them change arrangements and even deciding what to record.  By the time of Revolver, he was more a facilitator, helping to get the band to where they wanted to be. In fact, as the band evolved, Martin had less and less power, by the end just trying to hold things together.  Emerick's portrait isn't always kind--he feels Martin separated the band from his staff so he could get all the credit.

After Revolver came Sgt. Pepper, where the band topped themselves.  Every time John or Paul (not so much George) would come in with a new song, there'd be excitement in their air--they were writing amazing things, and were demanding amazing technique to bring the songs to fruition.  The band and crew worked together to create something special each track, and made an album that shook the world.  Emerick's memories of recording Revolver and Sgt. Pepper are the high point of the book, and perhaps the high point of the band.  They would never again work together so closely, or be so innovative.

Then their manager Brian Epstein died, and the band was never the same.  Paul tried to keep them going (he was the main forced behind the Magical Mystery Tour film) but the Beatles never had the same spirit.  Other factors--drugs, money, George Harrison's growing interest in Indian music, friends growing apart, Yoko--changed the band.  Whereas once they were on an exciting musical journey together, now they sniped at each other.  During the "White Album" sessions things got to unpleasant that Emerick simply quit working for the band.  They were already quite demanding, but they also started getting demeaning.  He also wasn't invited to work for them on Let It Be, which be all accounts was even less pleasant.

The Beatles around this time founded their company Apple, and they wanted to bring in Emerick to create their studio.  Emerick was getting tired of EMI (which had a new guy in charge whom no one could stand) and decided to take the plunge.  It meant more money, even if by the time he joined Apple was no longer hippy dippy, but was run by the thuggish new Beatles' manager Allen Klein.

The band decided to make another album and promised to be on their best behavior.  There was still tension, but it wasn't as bad as Let It Be, and they ended up with Abbey Road, one of their most beloved works (though not necessarily by me).  It was recorded back at EMI since the Apple studio wasn't ready.  EMI had switched by this point from tubes to transistors--more efficient, perhaps, but it gave a mellower sound.  This would have been bad for earlier albums, but actually worked better on Abbey Road.  (The title, by the way, wasn't a tribute to the studio there.  The Beatles didn't have much love for EMI, in fact.  Rather, they were thinking of calling the new album "Everest" and shooting the cover in Tibet, but when the time came, they preferred to go outside and get a photo on the street.).  The band seemed grateful the old recoding team was reassembled--if you look at the back cover of the album, you'll see them thanking Geoff.

The Beatles broke up, and after doing work at Apple for a few years, Emerick moved over to George Martin's AIR studios. Once he did he got a call from Paul McCartney--Paul hated Allen Klein and stayed away from Apple in those years.  He wanted Emerick to help make his new album, and he wanted to record at the EMI studios in Lagos, Nigeria.  A bizarre idea (and two members of his band, Wings, quit before recording started), but out of it came what's widely considered McCartney's best album, Band On The Run.

Emerick would go on to producer or engineer a lot of other work, including Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom (Elvis wrote the book's foreword).  Things came full circle when Emerick listened to all the old Beatles' tapes for their Anthology collection.  And just as those tapes brought back memories to Geoff, so does reading this book bring the amazing work of the Beatles.

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