Late Monday night, word came through that Geoff Emerick, legendary engineer whose work with the Beatles helped shape their legendary musical output, had passed away at the age of 72.
In remembrance, here’s an interview writer Ken Sharp conducted with Emerick in the past … may he rest in peace.
Coming aboard as chief engineer for The Beatles’ landmark 1966 album Revolver, Geoff Emerick was a sonic magician in the studio, translating the Beatles’ often obtuse and experimental ideas into larger than life cinemascope sounds and lush textures. Listen to his groundbreaking work on such seminal Beatles compositions as “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Rain,” “A Day In The Life,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Lucky In The Sky With Diamonds,” and “I Am The Walrus” for a taste of his studio wizardry.
After The Beatles disbanded in April of 1970, Emerick went on to spin the dials on a series of albums by Paul McCartney; he won a Best Engineering Grammy for Band on the Run, and also worked on Macca’s London Town, Tug Of War, Give My Regards to Broad Street and Flaming Pie records. Most significantly, he came full circle and wound up engineering the two new Beatle cuts, “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love” that appeared on the Beatles Anthology albums.
Rock Cellar: You came in as the head engineer for the Beatles’ album Revolver.
Geoff Emerick: I was eighteen and I was just terrified. Norman Smith, who was the Beatles’ original engineer, was planning to leave to become a producer. He later worked with Pink Floyd. They needed a replacement recording engineer. I’d been promoted about six months prior to when I took over on Revolver. I didn’t sleep the night before going in to do the first session on Revolver. I wasn’t sure if George (Martin) had told the Beatles that Norman had left and I was the new engineer. I remember George went into the studio and I was in the control room and there were some discussions going on with John, George and Ringo and Paul sort of wandered over. I think Paul knew that Norman had left and I was going to take over. They knew they had to get on with work so it was accepted.
And John wanted that vocal sound on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which was the first session I did with them for Revolver. John wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama on a mountain miles away. The Leslie speaker was there, so I tried to put the vocal through the spinning speaker. I think it was only used on the last chorus or last verse. It wasn’t there from the beginning of the song. John was in awe of the sound of that, so I was sort of accepted.
Rock Cellar: What went through your mind when the first task you’re asked to do is come up with a way to achieve John’s Dalai Lama vocal sound?
Geoff Emerick: You’ve gotta imagine that I was just petrified. I felt terrible, especially with them knowing I was taking over and going, “So where’s Norman?” Luckily God was looking down on me and we got that vocal sound. Then Ringo’s drum sound started to emerge and Ringo was well over the moon because of what the drums were beginning to sound like. I’ve always had the idea of the sound in my head for drums, how they needed more impact. The front skin came off the bass drum and I wanted to move the mic closer to the bass drum because we weren’t allowed to put it any closer than two feet because of the air pressure damage in the microphones. I started to break the rules. I didn’t want to do things too differently, so I started with Norman Smith’s original mic set up. But gradually I would go, “Oh that sounds good”.
We put the drums through the Fairchild limiter to give it more splash. I was ignorant of all that so I was breaking all the rules. That’s how all that started.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said that your strongest memory of the Revolver sessions was that they were “draining.”
Geoff Emerick: Draining from the sense of the input mentally that was going into those Revolver sessions. I was young and often second-guessed myself a lot. Each day we’d typically work twelve hours or longer in the studio. In those days that was a long time. No other acts at EMI were working those sort of hours. We were probably the first ones who worked into the night.
Rock Cellar: Paul’s bass playing really blossomed on “Sgt. Pepper.” He was able to lay down parts on his own after the basic track was recorded.
Geoff Emerick: When we were in a position to be able to overdub the bass guitar, we would spend two or three hours sometimes, especially on the Pepper sessions and possibly the Abbey Road sessions. We’d go late into the night and Paul went on and on playing these bass parts purely to get perfection. We’d play the track and he’d get ideas. We’d keep playing the track, maybe six, seven, eight times and he’d start to come up with ideas. You’d play it again and he’d get even more ideas and then we’d start laying it down. We’d drop in parts to get it perfect.
Rock Cellar: Was Paul the best natural musician in The Beatles?
Geoff Emerick: Oh yeah, undoubtedly. Paul’s talent is amazing. It’s not favoritism. Being in the position I was in to observe what was going on, that’s how I see it. Although they were the Beatles and seen as icons and so forth, you’ve gotta realize that everyone was just a human being. We weren’t in some cocoon where we could wave a magic wand and it would be brilliant. They were all human beings. That’s the way work is. Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s easy. Paul was the one who persevered all the time. John didn’t have a lot of patience.
But Paul just persevered and persevered with things until they were right.
Rock Cellar: Were there any sessions you oversaw that you said to yourself, “I can’t believe how great this song is”?
Geoff Emerick: “A Day In The Life” I guess. That was the one that put shivers down my back. “Strawberry Fields” was a challenge. We didn’t know how big the challenge would get because of editing those two different versions of the song together. As it progressed and every overdub happened, no matter how weird it was, you realized exactly what you had there with the backwards this and the backwards that. It became what it became. The clincher to me was John wanted to splice those two different versions together and the splice did work.
Rock Cellar: From your perspective, who was the leader of The Beatles?
Geoff Emerick: Paul appeared to be the leader of The Beatles because he was the one with the patience and the one who persevered with ideas. John didn’t have the patience. Ringo didn’t say a lot and George did have some ideas but Paul just persevered with ideas in a quest for perfection. If we were doing overdubs or doing a track and if there was something slightly wrong, maybe not audible to us, Paul would still persevere with it until it was just perfectly right.
Rock Cellar: On a sonic level, why do “Rain” and “Paperback Writer” sound much better than previous Beatle records?
Geoff Emerick: That was because leading up to that point in the mastering rooms there were certain problems with EMI with the bass level on records. This was politics. Tony Clark, who was my mate there, was into mastering and he had a younger perspective. Our objective was to get as much of the bass that I put on the tapes for “Rain” and “Paperback Writer” onto the record. This was an ongoing problem with EMI. I think this box, which had all these flashing lights on it, was called ATOC. What it did, God only knows. Tony used it when cutting “Paperback Writer” and “Rain.”
It was about the only time it was ever used. I think it sort of fizzled out after a few months. If someone else had cut that record it wouldn’t have sounded as forceful as it did. The only way you can hear that is by listening to the vinyl mono single. That’s the only way to experience the impact of those two songs. When you listen to “Rain” and “Paperback Writer” on CDs you’ve got no idea now.
Rock Cellar: John and Paul were obviously the driving creative forces in the Beatles. Did you get a sense that they looked down at George’s efforts as being sub-par in comparison to their own songs?
Geoff Emerick: Yeah, I sensed it and so did George Martin. George (Harrison) at that time was not as prolific as Lennon and McCartney. It’s as simple as that. George found it hard because he wanted to be accepted like he was as good as them. Looking back at what was going on with him, George really didn’t want to be part of it anymore. He wanted to do his own thing with Indian music and be his own individual person and not be part of that. I think it started on Revolver. It was just a sense I’ve had. I think he wanted to go out and do his own thing.
As we progressed through Revolver, George was gradually getting better and better as a writer and player. He was definitely becoming more confident and that confidence grew. As we were getting on to the Abbey Road stuff it just shines through. It’s a great story in a sense to see someone looking up to John and Paul and gradually coming out on tops at the end. It’s a human story.
Like on “Something,” George played that guitar solo live with the orchestra because we had no more tracks left. Can you imagine George doing that on Revolver? No way. George wouldn’t stand there with a huge orchestra and play a guitar solo. You see this young kid who went from the way he was playing guitar to this guy at the end of the book who’s playing this great solo with an orchestra. It’s a beautiful solo. Note for note the solo that he did with the orchestra was the same solo that we used as the guide solo. But there was an emotion in his playing on the solo that wasn’t on the original take and it was what George wanted.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said that Paul emerged as the de facto producer on “Sgt. Pepper.”
Geoff Emerick: Paul came out of that as the de facto producer because he was the one who was after the perfection. The harmonies are more perfected and the playing is more perfected. Again, John was more impatient and would not spend the time needed to get things perfect. George (Harrison) wasn’t impatient, he would take more time. But George used to get frustrated with himself because perhaps he couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel when he was attempting to do something. Paul had a goal in his mind of where he wanted to get to whereas probably George didn’t.
I’m visualizing George now in the studio. He always looked as he was somewhere else. When he came in with “Within You, Without You”, it was like, “This is where I am.” At the time it wasn’t my favorite track. Now listening to it over time, I hear it in a different light. It shines through as its own thing.
Rock Cellar: John spoke about never liking his voice.
Geoff Emerick: I remember when I heard him singing “A Day In The Life” for the first time and it was like shivers down your back. Every John song was magic. It was the tonality within his voice and the way he phrased his words. There was an emotion within him that was coming out, which was possibly suppressed sometimes. John always wanted you to do things to his voice. That became part of his sound, especially with a little bit of that tape repeat echo. Basically his voice didn’t need anything done to it. You would never think knowing John as a person out of the studio that he could come up with the emotion that he did in his songs. He could be quite aggressive.
When I was getting that distorted guitar sound while working on The White Album, he said to me in a nasty manner, “About three months in the army would have done you good.” That was the cruncher to me on The White Album. I thought I’d needled him somehow. I don’t know why. That was like one of the last insults for me. A few days later I decided to walk out of The White Album sessions.
Rock Cellar: Was John unpredictable in terms of moods in the studio?
Geoff Emerick: Yeah, it was very hard. He was having some drug problems around Sgt. Pepper. He had that starey look in his eyes. We were totally unaware of the drug thing anyway. I was so naïve. I never saw the band do drugs in the studio. It was always covered up as best they could if it was going on. From Pepper onward they set up their own territory down in the studio and that was their little domain. It was like a little office built out of screens, a table and a lamp. Not many people dropped by sessions. I remember Micky Dolenz of The Monkees came by. It was more a closed session. They didn’t like people around when they were recording.
Rock Cellar: You have fond memories of the session for “The Ballad Of John & Yoko.”
Geoff Emerick: It was only John and Paul in the studio doing that. John rushed in and had this song. It was a quick session. Paul played great drums on that. We had the luxury of the new eight-track console which was in Number Three Studio Abbey Road. This was done after The White Album and there was a great vibe, which surprised me. I think John went to Paul’s house before the session to routine it. When the two of them came into the studio there was lots of bubbling energy. I put a mic underneath the snare and I got a great sort of crack on the snare.
Rock Cellar: You’ve been vocal about not liking The White Album, why?
Geoff Emerick: Yeah, I don’t like The White Album because the bad memories it brings to me. That’s the reason why I can’t listen to it. Without looking at the list of songs, some of the songs are fine. I just can’t listen to it. There’s so many bad memories of that album and all the fighting. It was horrible to see the band just crumbling in front of my eyes. It wasn’t the most pleasant of surrounding for them. They were probably tired of being in that studio for God knows how long. It was the culmination of everything. They’d just been recording, recording, recording. They hadn’t been on the road of course. They were at each other’s throats a lot during those sessions. They were just pissed off with each other. Paul kept doing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” over and over again. And he was swearing at George Martin. I’m trying to wreck my brain coming up with new sounds and John had a go at me about joining the army.
John was really getting fed up when we were doing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” He came in one night really out of it and he shouted at the top of the stairs, something about “This bloody song again!” He went downstairs and started thumping away at the piano and he came up with the intro that’s used on the record. By then we’d recorded that song like seven times. Suddenly it comes to putting on the vocal harmonies and John, Paul and George put the headphones on. They were like three different people again. They were like school children having a great time as soon as those headphones went on and there’s a bit of a tape echo on there. It all spins back in their heads. We’ve done the vocals and they’ve all had a great time. They’re all laughing and joking and they take the headphones off they’re back to square one again, arguing and fighting and not liking each other.
But it was a place of work and they were human beings.
Rock Cellar: How difficult was it for you to walk out of The White Album sessions?
Geoff Emerick: Oh, horrendous. I said to George Martin, “I can’t carry on.” I was on the verge of a breakdown. George asked me, “Can you stay until Friday?” This was on a Tuesday afternoon. I said, No way, I have to leave.” I went downstairs and the boys knew something was going on. When I told them I was leaving, John came out with the nasty remark, “Sgt. Pepper was a load of shit. It was the most horrible record.” He said this in front of Paul to get at Paul. John said to me, “It’s not you, it’s this place,” his arms pointing to the walls in frustration.
Rock Cellar: But you came back and worked on the Abbey Road album.
Geoff Emerick: Yeah. Paul had asked me to go to Apple and sort out their studio there. We ended up gutting the one that “Magic” Alex had built. So we built a new studio and it worked as a commercial studio. During that time the Abbey Road album took place. This took place shortly after I left. I was treated as an outsider. I’d worked at Abbey Road for like nine years but they treated me there like an outsider. George Martin said he’d produce the album if it was like the old days. That’s why I think there’s a lot more vocal harmony work on that album.
Rock Cellar: What are your memories of recording the Abbey Road album?
Geoff Emerick: John’s involvement was minimal on Abbey Road. Paul was the driving force on the album. He sort of kept it together. When it came to the overdub sessions, in the past they’d all stay ‘round the person doing the overdub and give input or backup. But now they would just go home and leave the person doing it. The team effort wasn’t there like it was in the old days. I think a lot of the songs were Paul’s as well.
Before we started the sessions John and Yoko had a car accident. That happened the week we were due to start the sessions. So they came in about two weeks after we started. There was a bed put in the studio. It arrived one afternoon. We didn’t know it was coming. Yoko came in and was recovering from the accident. She was put to bed in the studio. You’ve gotta imagine that anything was possible at any of those songs. You had to go along with it, but it was hard. Yoko was in the studio lying in bed recovering from her injuries. She wanted to be with John. So while we were recording she was in the bed. It was a strain on everybody. After a few weeks we sort of ignored it. It was part of the furniture. She was there in the bed and that’s it.
Rock Cellar: Why does Abbey Road sound so different on a sonic level from other Beatles albums?
Geoff Emerick: Abbey Road was the first album where we used the new transistorized mixing console. From the very start, as soon as I started to listen to Ringo’s drums, I couldn’t get the same impact from the snare or the bass drum. It didn’t sound as powerful as it did with the tube equipment. Ringo was a little perturbed about this and so was I. He said, “It doesn’t sound like the snare used to sound.” Within three days we knew we had to get on with the job so we accepted the sound and quality of the drums. The guitars lacked a little bit of bite. Because of the transistors, the texture of those original rhythm tracks we laid down when we started to record, they were slightly softer.
That’s why there’s a softer texture to that album. If that album had been recorded through the tube mixing console that we were used to it wouldn’t have sounded anything like that. The album sounds beautiful.
George Harrison was at his peak then on Abbey Road. He didn’t care what the other’s thought. He knew he was now on top. He could do what he liked and knew whatever he wanted to do was going to be good. There was none of this “I’m not sure” anymore. George just shined on that album. I remember a moment on “Something” when Paul was overdubbing the bass and he was getting a little bit too busy with his notes. George told Paul, “No, no no, I want you to simplify it.” That would never have happened years prior. It was great to see George in that commanding position after all those years.
Rock Cellar: You’ve cited the Beatles’ vocal work on “Because” to be a highlight for you.
Geoff Emerick: When we recorded “Because,” there were nine-part harmonies on that. The writing of the song took quite a long time. When we actually came down to the recording of it, they were seated in a little semi-circle. There was John, George and Paul. Ringo sat on the end to be part of it although he didn’t sing. The reason for the semi-circle was Paul was on one end so George and John could see his mouth movements to get the tricky timing of the words spot on. John’s lack of concentration would have made him give up. Paul could have carried on and on and on. It was that day that I saw them at their finest. We used to use compression to help squash stuff up. I rode all the levers manually. There are no compressors on it. It’s as pure as it can ever be.
Rock Cellar: With Jeff Lynne as producer, you engineered the sessions for the two new Beatles tracks, “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love” done for The Beatles Anthology.
We recorded “Free As A Bird” at Paul’s studio. It was an odd situation. There’s Ringo, there’s George Harrison, there’s me, and there’s Paul. It was like we’d left the Abbey Road sessions four weeks ago. It was as though it was a continuation of those sessions. All that space of time from 1969 all the way through to whatever year it was done only felt like four weeks ago. We decided that we had this cassette with John’s voice on it and he’d gone away on holiday and left us the cassette and said, “Okay lads, finish it.” We had a brilliant time. Everyone did their thing and got on with it and had a good time. Paul and George got along well for the session.
There was a little bit of tension, nothing nasty. The only thing that annoyed me once was when we were doing George’s guitar solo on “Free As A Bird.” There was a little discrepancy over one of the notes that should have been in the solo. The solo was on about three tracks. There was one note that shouldn’t have been in there and it was just switching a note. They were good sessions to be honest with you. They just got down to the job at hand and did it. It wasn’t like The White Album. They talked a little bit about what John would have done musically because there was still a little bit of stuff to sort out on those songs.
Jeff Lynne took charge of those sessions and did a great job. I’ve got more memories of “Free As A Bird” than “Real Love.” I don’t think “Real Love” was as good as “Free As A Bird.” That song was harder to do because of the timing on some of the vocal things on the cassette that John had left. Jeff’s friend computerized it and got the vocal lines in time more.