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.
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