RECORD­ING THE BEA­TLES

IT WAS 50 YEARS AGO TODAY THAT SGT. PEP­PER TOLD THE BAND TO PLAY. AS THE BEA­TLES’ MAG­NUM OPUS NEARS A NEW MILE­STONE, ONE OF THE MEN RE­SPON­SI­BLE FOR CAP­TUR­ING ITS SOUND LETS US PEER INTO HIS MEM­O­RIES.

Australian Guitar - - Contents - BY EMILY SWAN­SON

It was 50 years ago today that Sgt. Pep­per told the band to play. As an­other mile­stone nears for The Bea­tles’ mag­num opus, Emily Swan­son gets down to busi­ness with one of the men re­spon­si­ble for cap­tur­ing its iconic, inim­itable sound.

By late Au­gust of 1966, The Bea­tles faced a very cu­ri­ous set of cir­cum­stances. They’d spent the bet­ter part of the decade tour­ing the globe, deaf­en­ing screams fol­low­ing them from Mu­nich to Manila, yet they hung up their cus­tom an­kle boots fol­low­ing a mon­u­men­tal gig at San Fran­cisco’s Can­dle­stick Park. Over the next few months, The Fab Four were granted some­thing of a sab­bat­i­cal from record­ing in the wake of Re­volver’s re­lease. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds had landed in May and Paul McCart­ney was struck with a di­vine sense of one-up­man­ship.

Re­volver was al­ready be­ing praised by crit­ics and fans alike for its sonic ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, yet the revered song­writer felt there was more ground left to break. With nei­ther time nor money to stand in their way, The Bea­tles found them­selves in a wholly unique po­si­tion. When the no­tion of a song in­volv­ing an Ed­war­dian-era military band first struck him, McCart­ney likely didn’t re­alise he’d just set the wheels in mo­tion for The Bea­tles’ first con­cept record. Nor would he have known that Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would her­ald the be­gin­ning of the golden era of the al­bum. While the stu­dios at Abbey Road were largely closed off to the pub­lic, there were sev­eral key fig­ures who had the chance to sit in on the kind of record­ing ses­sions you’d sell your soul to wit­ness, even just for a mo­ment. One of those men was Richard Lush, who, along­side engi­neer Ge­off Em­er­ick and pro­ducer Ge­orge Martin, is to thank for the rev­o­lu­tion­ary rock record. Be­fore he jour­neys to Mel­bourne for a 50th an­niver­sary panel talk along­side Em­er­ick, we picked Lush’s brains in an at­tempt to grasp how one of mu­si­cal his­tory’s great­est ever records came to ex­ist.

How did you get your foot in the door with Abbey Road?

In­ter­est­ingly, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left school; my father had passed away and it was all a bit chaotic. I hap­pened to have a Shad­ows al­bum and it had a writer on the rear sleeve of the vinyl of a record­ing ses­sion so I thought, ‘Oh! That sounds in­ter­est­ing’. I didn’t have a tape recorder and didn’t re­ally know what went on, but I went along for an in­ter­view and they said, ‘Well we don’t ac­tu­ally have a job at the mo­ment but we’ll put your name on file’ and they rang up about three months later and said to come in for an­other in­ter­view. The rest is his­tory.

What was your first in­tro­duc­tion to The Bea­tles?

I can’t re­mem­ber the ac­tual first ses­sion, but I re­mem­ber I worked on Re­volver and I worked on a track called “Good Day Sun­shine”, that was one of the first songs I did start­ing from scratch.

How in­volved was the band on the tech­ni­cal as­pects of the record­ings?

I mean, John [Len­non] not so much. He was very im­pa­tient; he just wanted things to be done re­ally quickly. Paul [McCart­ney] would be the one that would labour over back­ing vo­cals and songs and would take a lot longer than any of the oth­ers. Ringo [Starr] of course just did what he was told, and Ge­orge [Har­ri­son] just did his one song for each al­bum; he came in and nor­mally did that on his own. But par­tic­u­larly Sgt. Pep­per…, they did want that to be their pièce de ré­sis­tance and they weren’t tour­ing so they didn’t have to worry about per­form­ing it live. I think Pet Sounds had come out round about the same time, and that sort of blew Paul away, and he said, ‘Well we’ve got to do some­thing bet­ter than that’ so we just spent hours and hours and hours in the stu­dio. There was no bud­get as such; you just kept work­ing un­til… I mean, the peo­ple at the record com­pany didn’t know what we were do­ing, the only per­son that came in from out­side was Dick James the pub­lisher. Ba­si­cally there was Ge­off [Em­er­ick, engi­neer] and I, Ge­orge Martin, two road­ies and then friends would pop in, but there weren’t any man­age­rial peo­ple that came in to check on them or any­thing.

What were some of the unique tricks you used on th­ese record­ings that weren’t in com­mon use at the time?

Record­ing back then was very ba­sic. Most artists on the EMI or Par­lophone la­bel used to… they would be tour­ing, be it Billy J. Kramer or Her­man’s Her­mits, all th­ese peo­ple would be tour­ing most of the time, so they would come into Lon­don and they would have a day to make a record. The first Bea­tles al­bum was in fact done in a day, but then once we came to Sgt. Pep­per, they sort of stretched the en­ve­lope and wanted to try ab­so­lutely every­thing. You know, ‘We wanna try dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments, we don’t just want it to be us play­ing gui­tars like ev­ery other band that has a record out, we want it to be dif­fer­ent’. And that was the bench­mark, re­ally.

Is there any mod­ern tech­nol­ogy that you think could have made th­ese ses­sions even bet­ter?

Not re­ally [ laughs]. It was a whole new world then, I mean now, the tech­nol­ogy you have in the­ory makes it bet­ter; you’re able to edit it, you’re able to do this, you’re able to do that, but there’s no spon­tane­ity in it any­more. I find that a lot of records today are pretty bor­ing; they have a click track so the tempo’s the same at the be­gin­ning and the end, but there’s no vari­a­tion in it. It’s all very cal­cu­lated. I have an as­sis­tant when I record and he sits there star­ing at the screen and then he wants to move things around be­cause he sees things that are out of time. And I say, ‘Well is that be­cause you’re look­ing at it or is that be­cause you’re hear­ing it?’ ‘Oh, be­cause I can see it’. I said, ‘Well the peo­ple that buy the record don’t see that’. And that’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween get­ting a great feel and hav­ing it all pic­ture per­fect. Peo­ple say, ‘Oh well that’s what the pub­lic de­serves now’ well I’m not one of those that re­ally agrees with that. Cer­tainly back then, there were mis­takes and lit­tle bits of tun­ing here and there, but it gives it char­ac­ter.

What do you hear on those old record­ings that peo­ple who weren’t in the room might not tweak to?

We had a thing called flang­ing or dou­ble track­ing, and that was where we sent John’s vo­cal in par­tic­u­lar be­cause he loved it, we’d send John’s vo­cal to a tape ma­chine and dou­ble track it and that sound was unique be­cause it was in­volved with tape ma­chine vari­a­tion, so the tape would vary in speed and that was kind of un­der my con­trol to do with it what I liked. I mean, that’s some­thing that can hap­pen now with tech­nol­ogy, but it’s not… you haven’t got the vari­ables that you had back then and it was all sort of cut­ting edge; we were break­ing bar­ri­ers back then by mak­ing records dif­fer­ent from what other peo­ple were do­ing at the time. Whereas now, ev­ery­body’s got a Pro Tools rack. They’ve all got th­ese same plug­ins, and every­thing sounds the same.

Were the ses­sions of­ten based around trial and er­ror?

Yeah, and some­times the band would be run­ning through a song and Ringo would do a fill or some­thing, and that would spark some­body else to do a dif­fer­ent feel. A lot of things hap­pened that wouldn’t have hap­pened had you mapped them out on a com­puter. They hap­pened be­cause they were four peo­ple play­ing to­gether and that’s what makes it unique. I like to think we were, at the time, break­ing new ground, and no­body else that was record­ing at Abbey Road used the tech­niques we did, so the records were con­se­quently dif­fer­ent.

What were the most chal­leng­ing ele­ments from a tech­ni­cal stand­point in record­ing The Bea­tles?

If you look at the songs, most of the peo­ple at the time were sing­ing about love and blue skies, whereas John was tak­ing it to ex­tremes, you know,

“Lucy In The Sky With Di­a­monds”, he was ob­vi­ously on a trip when he wrote the lyrics for that; it’s a com­bi­na­tion of the pe­riod in time it was recorded and it won’t re­ally hap­pen again. You’re un­der dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances now un­for­tu­nately. I’m not say­ing it’s wrong what’s hap­pen­ing now, it was just unique what hap­pened then and it was unique be­cause we tried to do dif­fer­ent things that weren’t avail­able to ev­ery­body. I know for a fact that when Phil Collins heard “A Day In The Life”, he heard the drum fills and went, ‘Wowwww! God, they’re outta this world! I would never have played fills like that’. So there were a lot of mu­si­cians at the time who were very… I guess they were en­vi­ous in the sense that we had all this time to ex­per­i­ment and they only had a week­end to do an al­bum and then they were off to Manch­ester to do a gig. We’d just come in an­other day, and come in an­other day. It was hard work for us, but the prod­uct was bet­ter for it.

Of the 100 ses­sions you par­tic­i­pated in, is there one that stands out as a high­light?

Oh gosh, it’s hard to say. Prob­a­bly “A Day In The Life” with the or­ches­tra. The or­ches­tra on “All You Need Is Love”, mainly be­cause it was a mo­men­tous oc­ca­sion and there were 400 mil­lion peo­ple tun­ing in to watch it live, so I guess that was pretty ex­cit­ing. There’s other funny lit­tle quirky songs that were done, the “Sgt. Pep­per Reprise” was done in the huge Stu­dio One, and Ge­off man­aged to get it to sound quite tight by putting in all th­ese screens. And they were re­ally fir­ing and they were sort of su­per hyped up for that, so con­se­quently it comes across in the play­ing. It was a mo­ment where you can go, ‘Oh wow, I was there when that ex­cite­ment hap­pened’.

Were there any par­tic­u­larly dis­as­trous ses­sions you could talk us through?

Oh gosh… Not that I can think of [ laughs]. We did a song, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, we did that over and over and over again. I know we used to come in and go, ‘Oh gosh, I hope we’re not do­ing that song again’ ‘cos it wasn’t sort of one of Paul’s best and that seemed to go on for weeks and weeks and weeks, and then fi­nally he liked it, so it got put to bed. It wasn’t a dis­as­ter, but for some rea­son it was like hav­ing teeth out do­ing that song.

In terms of the equip­ment you used in th­ese ses­sions, was there any­thing you’d con­sider a se­cret weapon or a must-have?

See back then it was all new, so we had 4-track, I guess at the time we thought, ‘Oh gosh, it must be great to have 8-track’ but then we did 4-track to 4-track copies, so that gave us an­other four, and we did that maybe three times on some songs, so we kinda cheated there. And I guess maybe at the time we thought it would be great to have more tracks. I mean, you al­ways want more tracks. I spoke to a mate of mine the other day and he’s teach­ing at an au­dio school and this guy came to him with 91 tracks for a band. I said, ‘You’re kid­ding’. So it’s sort of got­ten a bit out of con­trol now. We couldn’t do that back then, we had dis­ci­pline, so you only kept some­thing that was re­ally good. You pur­sued the course of the jour­ney un­til it got bet­ter. Whereas now, well you put a whole lot of stuff down and then pick one that you like. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily the ul­ti­mate vo­cal, if you know what I mean. It’s kind of cheat­ing a bit. The dis­ci­pline of sing­ing, the dis­ci­pline of get­ting a great per­for­mance, that’s what makes a great record – a great vo­cal per­for­mance. If you’ve got all th­ese thou­sands of tracks, I’m not con­vinced that you ac­tu­ally choose the best vo­cal nec­es­sar­ily. If you’ve only got one track, you kind of keep a verse when you do a cho­rus, then you might go back and do one line again be­cause John wanted to do it again, so it’s kind of a patch­work quilt, but you can hear it. I think be­cause we had dis­ci­pline, it made for a bet­ter record. You pinched your­self at the time, but it was sort of just a job in the end. It just hap­pened that they wrote re­ally great songs – I didn’t think I’d be talk­ing about it all 50 years later, yet here we are.

Ge­off Em­er­ick and Richard Lush

Phil Ra­mone and Richard Lush

Ge­off Em­er­ick

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