Here, There and Everywhere
Here, There and Everywhere
My Life Recording the Music of THE BEATLES
Geoff Emerick and Howard Massey
Foreword by Elvis Costello
Number Three Abbey Road
Meeting the Beatles
A Hard Day’s Night
Innovation and Invention: The Making of Revolver
It’s Wonderful to Be Here, It’s Certainly a Thrill: Sgt. Pepper Begins
A Masterpiece Takes Shape: The Pepper Concept
All You Need Is Love…and a Long Vacation: Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine
The Day I Quit: The Making of the White Album
The Calm After the Storm: Life After the White Album
An Anvil, a Bed, and Three Gunslingers: The Making of Abbey Road
And in the End: The Final Stroll Across Abbey Road
Fixing a Hole: The Apple Years
Drainage, Lizards, and Monsoons: The Making of Band On The Run
Life After the Beatles: From Elvis to the Anthologies
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy
• Foreword •
by Elvis Costello
It has been ten years since Geoff Emerick and I last worked together. One of my favorite memories of that last occasion is Geoff politely cursing the recording desk when it proved impossible to make it distort in an attractive and interesting fashion.
So many of the sounds in today’s recording studios come out of little boxes that merely imitate the sonic innovations of the past. The range of choices is vast but, in unimaginative hands, it seems to create fewer surprises.
Despite all the endless theorizing about pop music of the 1960s, the contribution of a small handful of engineers is still not fully appreciated. Inspired by particular musicians, these innovations brought about a change in the very nature of the recording studio, from a place where musical performances were simply captured in the best available fidelity to an experimental workshop in which the transformation and even the distortion of the very sound of an instrument or voice became an element in the composition. Not that you would ever hear any of this grand talk from Geoff Emerick. You could not meet a more modest and self-effacing man.
When we first worked together in 1981, I had decided to take a very different approach to the recording of what would become the album Imperial Bedroom. My first album had been recorded in a total of twenty-four hours of studio time; the second took eleven days. Now the Attractions and I had booked AIR Studios for twelve weeks and granted ourselves the license to work on the sound of the record until it reflected the mood of the songs. We would hire anything that seemed to help: a harpsichord, a trio of French horns, or even a small orchestra. If we were not to be railroaded to that deadly place called “Geniusville,” where every passing notion in the mind of the musical submariner is mistaken for sunken treasure (believe me, the recording studio can have more than a passing resemblance to the depths of the ocean), we would need someone to retain perspective, to bring some kind of order, and to occasionally act as a referee.
This is how I met Geoff Emerick, a tall, gentle man with a resonant voice and, at that time, an occasionally jittery pattern of speech that I put down to his almost constant intake of vending-machine coffee that blended nicely with the taste and aroma of melted plastic. Over our weeks in the studio, an instrumental tone or sonic effect that seemed fleetingly familiar would suddenly appear, but we never got the impression that Geoff was shaping the sound from a clichéd “box of tricks.” The songs and the moods of the performance always took precedence over the way they might be filtered, altered, or changed on their way to tape. By the end of our time together, we found that Geoff had helped us produce the richest and most varied-sounding record of our career to date.
I had made the band promise that they would not pester Geoff for Beatles stories, but as we got deeper into the process of recording and mixing, the occasional anecdote would emerge. These tales never sounded worn out or rehearsed. There was never a hint of self-aggrandizement or boastfulness about them. They were usually used as examples of how a problem might be solved. The fact that the “problem” might have generated the sound of “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” seemed merely incidental.
Well, now we can all enjoy Geoff’s reminiscences about his most famous work. Without meaning any disrespect to George Martin, I think I could find many contemporary musicians and record makers who might agree with me that Geoff Emerick would be regarded as the coproducer of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by modern definitions. What makes this memoir so entertaining to read is that these fabulous inventions and innovations always seemed to be made out of elastic bands, sticky tape, and empty cotton reels. It was the stuff of the hobby shop or do-it-yourself enthusiast rather than the computer-assisted boffin, and always in service of a brilliant musical idea rather than in place of it. None of this is told with any sense of pomp or portentousness, although there is certainly plenty of youthful enthusiasm, described in the accounts of Geoff’s work as a teenage assistant engineer on the very first Beatles’ sessions.
The fact that four young musicians from Liverpool were assigned to the EMI comedy imprint, Parlophone, and staff producer responsible for the comedy output, gives us a glimpse of a number of casual regional assumptions and the hierarchies of early ’60s England. American readers may only be able to equate the class-bound stiffness of Abbey Road to something out of Monty Python. I remember Geoff telling me about the staff engineer’s Rebellion of the White Coats, in which they donned ludicrously mismatched sizes in response to a management directive that they once again wear these garments—last seen in the days when they had to handle the more volatile wax medium of recording—just as hair started to creep over collars that were now sporting floral ties.
The book captures the mood of claustrophobic England that was suddenly illuminated by such imaginative music. It was still postwar England, in which the buses stopped running very shortly after the pubs shut. If I had to give a précis of the contents, it would be in the sentence, “We recorded ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and then I went home and had some nice biscuits.”
Geoff would be the first to say that none of the sonic flights of fancy that he helped shape in the music of the Beatles would have been possible without the incredible apprenticeship and experience offered by working at Abbey Road in the early to mid-sixties. How else could anyone find themselves working with Otto Klemperer and a symphony orchestra in the morning and Judy Garland in the afternoon, with chances of a late session with The Massed Alberts? Needless to say, it will always be the sessions with the Beatles that arouse the greatest curiosity. For once, you are not hearing an account of the events from someone with a vested interest in your agreeing with their mad theory. This is the view of a contributing participant, one who offers unique anecdotes and some surprisingly critical opinions.
I’ve had the experience of arriving early for a session and overhearing Geoff lost in playing the piano for his own amusement. He plays very well, in an elaborate, romantic style. However, it takes a very unique temperament to sit behind his other instrument, the mixing desk. It seems best if you have enormous patience, good judgment, generosity, and a self-deprecating sense of humor. You will find all of these qualities in the pages of this book. I am very glad that Geoff has gotten to tell his tale.
• Prologue •
Silence. Shadows in the dark, curtains rustling in the cool April breeze. I rolled over in bed and cast a weary eye at the clock. Damn! Still middle of the night, exactly four minutes later than the last time I looked.
I’d been tossing and turning for hours. What had I let myself in for? Why on earth did I ever take George Martin up on his offer? I was only nineteen, after all. I shouldn’t have a care in the world. I should be out with my mates, meeting girls, having a laugh.
Instead, I’d made a commitment to spend the next months of my life cloistered in a recording studio day and night, shouldering the responsibility of making the most popular group of musicians in the world sound even better than they ever had before. And it would all be starting in just a few hours’ time.
I needed to get some sleep, but I couldn’t turn off my brain, couldn’t ease myself into slumber. No matter how hard I tried to fight them off, bleak thoughts consumed me. That Lennon, with that sharp tongue of his, he’ll have my guts for garters, I just know it. And what about Harrison? He always seemed so dour, so suspicious of everyone—you never knew quite where you stood with him. I pictured the four of them—even friendly, charming Paul—ganging up on me, reducing me to tears, banishing me from the studio in disgrace and shame.
Dinner began repeating on me. I knew I was working myself up into a state, but I was powerless to stop either the stomach churning or the mental agitation. Just hours before, in the bright sunshine of daylight, I’d been confident, even brash, certain that I could handle anything the Beatles might throw at me. But now, in the darkness of night, sleep-deprived, alone in my bed, I could only feel fear, anxiety, worry.
I was terrified.
How had it all come to this? I began reflecting on the events that had led up to this point, like a tape rewound and played back over and over again. As the sweet arms of Morpheus began to embrace me, I was carried back to a rainy morning just two weeks previous.
“Give us a ciggie, will you, mate?”
Phil McDonald was bumming a smoke from me as we sat in the cramped, brightly lit control room, waiting for yet another recording session to begin. Forced to adhere to a strict dress code, we were both dressed conservatively in shirt and tie, despite the fact that most of the rest of our generation were parading around Swinging London garbed in brightly colored Carnaby Street “mod” gear. Just a year younger than me, Phil had been at EMI Studios for only a few months (it wouldn’t be called “Abbey Road,” after the Beatles’ album of the same name, until 1970) and so was still serving his apprenticeship as an assistant engineer. We’d developed a good camaraderie, though once the tape started rolling, I became his boss. In the lull between the time we’d set up the microphones and the moment the doors would burst open with the loud bustle of musicians arriving, we’d quietly share a cigarette, making our personal contribution to the stale, smoky air that permeated the EMI complex.
The phone beside the mixing console rang loudly, shattering the peaceful atmosphere.
“Studio,” Phil answered crisply. “Yes, he’s right here. Do you want to speak with him?”
I began to walk toward the phone, but Phil waved me off. “Okay, I’ll tell him.” Turning to me, he reported with the slightest twinkle in his eye, “They want to see you in the manager’s office, sharpish. I reckon you’re in deep shit for something. Don’t worry, I’ll do a good job replacing you as EMI’s latest boy wonder.”
“Yeah, right—once you figure out which end of the microphone to stick up your arse, you’ll make a fine engineer,” I retorted. But as I headed down the corridor, I had a growing sense of unease. Had someone reported me for messing about with the wiring or for using a nonstandard microphone positioning? Was I in some kind of trouble? I’d been breaking so many rules lately, it was hard to think of which transgression was getting me called on the carpet.
The door to the studio manager’s office was ajar. “Come in, Geoffrey,” said the imperious Mr. E. H. Fowler. Fowler, who was in charge of day-today operations for the entire facility, had originally been a classical music recording engineer and was generally an innocuous figure, though he had a few quirks. At lunchtime he used to wander around the studios and turn all the lights off to save electricity; at 1:55 he’d come back and turn the lights back on. There was something in the tone of his voice that told me I wasn’t in trouble after all.
I stepped inside. Seated beside Fowler’s desk was George Martin, the lanky, aristocratic record producer I had worked with for the past three and a half years on sessions with the Beatles as well as with Cilla Black, Billy J. Kramer, and other artists in the Brian Epstein fold. George was well known for getting to the point, and he didn’t beat around the bush that morning. Without waiting for Fowler to say a word, he turned toward me and dropped a bombshell.
“Geoff, we’d like you to take over Norman’s job. What do you say?”
Norman Smith had been the Beatles’ regular engineer since their very first artist test, back in June of 1962. He had manned the mixing console for every one of their records since then, including the hit singles that had launched them to international stardom. Norman was an older man—probably George Martin’s age, though none of us ever knew exactly how old Norman was, since it was common practice to lie about your age on job applications in those days—and quite authoritarian. He certainly knew his stuff. I had learned a great deal assisting for him, and there was no question that he was an integral part of the Beatles’ early success. In all my dealings with the band, I had gotten the sense that they were quite happy with the work he did for them.
Norman was ambitious, though. He was an amateur songwriter and he had dreams of being a recording artist in his own right. But most of all he wanted to become a producer; there was gossip that he even had aspirations of eventually taking over George Martin’s role. We had heard rumors through the studio grapevine that Norman had been lobbying top management for a promotion throughout the Rubber Soul sessions in the fall of 1965, but with a catch: he wanted to be a staff producer for EMI and continue engineering for the Beatles at the same time.
George Martin, who was also head of the Parlophone label, put his foot down: that was not going to happen. Either Norman could continue to be the Beatles’ engineer or he could be a staff producer, but not both. With one eye on a promising young band he had spotted in a London club and hoped to sign to the label—they went by the name of Pink Floyd—Norman decided to leave the engineer’s chair for good, even though it meant parting ways with the biggest act in the world.
Once Norman became a producer, the studio needed an engineer to replace him, and for reasons I still didn’t quite understand, I had gotten the promotion, despite the fact that I was only eighteen years old at the time. Perhaps I was given the position simply because I was more popular than some of the older, more experienced assistant engineers; so much of the job had to do with diplomacy and studio etiquette. Certainly George Martin and I had gotten along well during the times I had assisted him. Frequently, we had found ourselves thinking the same thought at the same time; we could almost communicate without speaking.
But this time around I found it impossible to read his mind. What he was saying to me was simply unfathomable: even though I had less than six months of experience in the job, he was asking me to become the Beatles’ engineer.
“You’re joking, right?” was all I could stammer in response. Blushing furiously, I immediately realized that it was a pathetic reply.
“No, I’m not bloody joking.” George laughed. Sensing my discomfort, he continued in a rather softer voice. “Look, the boys are scheduled to begin work on their new album in two weeks’ time. I’m offering you the opportunity to engineer it for me. Even though you’re young, I think you’re ready. But I need your answer now, today.”
I looked to Fowler for guidance, but he was preoccupied, absentmindedly cleaning his glasses with a tattered handkerchief. Easy for him, I thought. He’s not the one being put on the spot. My breathing began to shallow; panic set in. Sure, there were times when I’d daydreamed about recording the Beatles—they were, after all, not only EMI’s biggest act, they were the most famous band in the world. I knew that the offer George was making was potentially the fastest way to advance my career. But could I really handle that kind of responsibility? As George Martin studied me impatiently, I began playing an “eenie, meenie, minie, moe” game in my head. Incongruously, I thought, If it lands on “moe,” I’ll say yes. To my dismay—or was it to my delight?—it did. Or perhaps I just rigged the game that way.
Feeling strangely removed, as if I were observing this awkward, gangly teenager instead of actually inhabiting his body, I somehow managed to get out four words.
“Yes, I’ll do it.”
But all I could think was I hope I don’t screw this up.
The first session for what would ultimately become the album known as Revolver was due to start at 8 P.M. on Wednesday, April 6, 1966. At around six, the two longtime Beatles roadies—Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans—rolled up in their beat-up white van and began hauling the group’s equipment into EMI’s Studio Three.
Earlier that day, I had been pleased to learn that Phil had landed the job of assisting me on the project. Now he and I busied ourselves in the studio, directing the maintenance engineers to set up the microphones in the same standard positions that Norman Smith had always used. As each mic was plugged in, Phil walked around and uttered the time-honored phrase, “Testing, one, two, three,” while I sat in the control room making sure the signal was arriving at the mixing desk without noise or distortion.
Shortly before eight o’clock, George Martin arrived and stuck his head in. “All right, Geoff?” he asked casually.
“Fine, George,” I replied, trying to sound just as casual—but probably failing miserably.
“Right, then,” he said as he headed out to the canteen for a quick cup of tea. Moments after he disappeared, the studio door swung open and the four Beatles walked in, laughing and joking as usual. Their hair was a bit longer, and they were dressed casually instead of wearing their usual tailored suits and skinny ties, but other than that they seemed unchanged by the phenomenal success they’d enjoyed since I’d last seen them. Mal ran off to fetch George Martin, and I got on the intercom to alert Phil—who was in the machine room, ready to operate the tape recorder—that the session was about to start.
Battling the butterflies in my stomach, I lit what must have been my fiftieth cigarette of the day and leaned back in my chair, savoring the stillness. It was a moment that had become ritual to me, but this time it really felt like the calm before the storm. My entire life is about to change, I thought. The only thing was, I didn’t know if it was about to change for the better or the worse. If all went smoothly, my career would probably take off like a shot. If it didn’t…well, I preferred not to think about that.
I assumed, naturally enough, that the four Beatles knew that Norman Smith was out and that I was to be their new engineer, and I wondered how they felt about the switch. Lennon and Harrison were the two that I feared the most; John because he could be caustic, even downright nasty, and George because of his sarcastic tongue and furtive nature. Ringo was generally bland, just one of the lads, really, though he had a strange sense of humor and was actually the most cynical of the four. Paul, on the other hand, was usually friendly and amiable, though assertive when he needed to be. He and I had established the closest relationship since I’d first started working with the band back in 1962.
My quiet contemplation was interrupted by George Martin opening the control room door, cup of tea in hand. “Everything ready to go?” he asked me.
“Yes, Phil is standing by and all the mics are up and working,” I answered dutifully.
His response floored me. “Well, I suppose I better go out there and tell them the news.” George carefully placed his cup of tea on the small producer’s table beside the mixing console and walked out.
Tell them the news?? My jaw dropped. They didn’t know after all! My God, why had I ever agreed to do this? I looked out through the glass window that separated the control room from the studio. Lennon and Harrison were tuning their guitars, while Paul and Ringo were clowning around at the piano. Through the open microphones, I could hear the conversation as George Martin entered the room.
“Afternoon, ’enry,” said Lennon in his flat, nasal voice. Because there were two Georges involved in the recording sessions—Harrison and Martin—George Martin was usually referred to as “George H,” since his middle name was Henry. It was an arrangement I always found a little odd, since George Harrison was also a George H. John was the only one of the four who was actually cheeky enough to call the schoolmasterly Martin solely by his middle name, which he tended to do when he was especially exuberant…or especially irritated. Paul and Ringo greeted their producer with a much more respectful “Hello, George H, how have you been?” As the pleasantries were exchanged, I started to feel a sense of relief—at least everyone seemed to be in a good mood.
Everyone, that is, except George Harrison. Peering sullenly over his guitar, he dispensed with the niceties and spat out two words that shot like an arrow through my heart.
“Where’s Norman?” he demanded.
All four pairs of eyes turned to George Martin. The brief pause that followed seemed like an eternity to me. Perched on the edge of my chair in the control room, I stopped breathing.
“Well, boys, I have a bit of news,” Martin replied after a beat or two. “Norman’s out, and Geoff’s going to be carrying on in his place.”
That was it. No further explanation, no words of encouragement, no praise for my abilities. Just the facts, plain and unadorned. I thought I could see George Harrison scowling. John and Ringo appeared clearly apprehensive.
But Paul didn’t seem fazed at all. “Oh, well then,” he said with a grin. “We’ll be all right with Geoff; he’s a good lad.”
Another pause, this one a bit longer. I allowed myself to breathe again, but I could hear my heart pounding.
Then, just as abruptly, it was over. John shrugged his shoulders, turned his back on the others and continued tuning his guitar; Ringo returned his attention to the piano. With an ominous glare, George Harrison muttered something I couldn’t quite make out but then joined Lennon at the guitar amplifiers. Paul got up and began walking toward the drum kit, looking quite pleased with himself. In fact, with the passage of time I’ve almost convinced myself that he and George Martin exchanged winks.
Looking back all these years later, it seems to me that the change in engineering seats was probably done with Paul’s advance knowledge and tacit approval. Perhaps it was even done at his instigation. It’s hard to imagine that George Martin would have made that kind of momentous decision without discussing it with any of the group, and he seemed to have the closest relationship with Paul, who was always the most concerned about getting the sound right in the studio. And while I’d like to believe that Paul had fostered a friendship with me since our earliest years of working together because he liked me, it’s also possible that he had an ulterior motive, that he was scouting me out as a possible replacement for Norman.
There were certainly other engineers at EMI more experienced and qualified than I was, but they were almost Norman Smith’s age. Perhaps Paul simply wanted someone a bit younger, someone closer in both age and outlook, especially since the band was growing by leaps and bounds musically and starting to experiment more. John, Ringo, and George Harrison didn’t care about details like that the way that Paul did, so I could see how George Martin opted to avoid controversy by keeping it secret from them for as long as possible.
But sitting in that control room, waiting to see how I would be received, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was simply a jumble of emotions: filled with nervous excitement, worried that I would screw up, horrified that George Martin was springing this on them at the last moment…and fearful that the group would reject me out of hand.
With the issue resolved, the Beatles soon settled down to business. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I decided to venture into the studio to find out what it was we were going to be working on that evening.
“Hello, Geoff,” Paul said brightly as I walked in the room. The other three basically ignored me. John was deep in discussion with George Martin; clearly the first song we were going to be working on was one of his. He had no title for it at the time, so the tape box was simply labeled “Mark I.” The eventual title—“Tomorrow Never Knows”—was actually one of Ringo’s many malapropisms. It belied the deep nature of the lyric, which was partially adapted from The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
There’s a misconception in the public’s mind that John and Paul always wrote songs together. Perhaps they did in the early days—which is why they had agreed to credit all their songs to “Lennon/McCartney” and split the royalties equally—but by the time the Revolver sessions began, they were more usually writing separately. Each would critique the other’s work and offer suggestions; sometimes one would contribute a middle section to the other’s song, or rewrite a verse or chorus. But pretty much every song they recorded was written individually. Almost without exception, the main writer of the song took the lead vocal.
“This one’s completely different than anything we’ve ever done before,” John was saying to George Martin. “It’s only got the one chord, and the whole thing is meant to be like a drone.” Monotonic songs were becoming increasingly popular in those early, heady days of psychedelia; I suppose they were meant to be listened to while you were stoned, or tripping. To my mind, that was really the only way they could be appreciated. But my musical tastes didn’t matter here: my job was to give the artist and producer the kinds of sounds they wanted. So my ears perked up when I heard John’s final direction to George: “…and I want my voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away.”
That was typical John Lennon. Despite the fact that he was one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll singers of all time, he hated the sound of his own voice and was constantly imploring us to make him sound different. “Can you squeeze that up there?” he would say, or “Can you make it sound nasally? No, I’ll sing it nasally—that’s it.” Anything to disguise his voice.
John always had plenty of ideas about how he wanted his songs to sound; he knew in his mind what he wanted to hear. The problem was that, unlike Paul, he had great difficulty expressing those thoughts in anything but the most abstract terms. Whereas Paul might say, “This song needs brass and timpani,” John’s direction might be more like “Give me the feel of James Dean gunning his motorcycle down a highway.”
Or, “Make me sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop.”
George Martin looked over at me with a nod as he reassured John. “Got it. I’m sure Geoff and I will come up with something.” Which meant, of course, that he was sure Geoff would come up with something. I looked around the room in a panic. I thought I had a vague idea of what John wanted, but I had no clear sense of how to achieve it. Fortunately, I had a little time to think about it, because John decided to start the recording process by having me make a loop of him playing a simple guitar figure, with Ringo accompanying him on drums. (A loop is created by splicing the end of a section of music to the beginning so that it plays continuously.) Because John wanted a thunderous sound, the decision was made to play the part at a fast tempo and then slow the tape down on playback: this would serve not only to return the tempo to the desired speed but also to make the guitar and drums—and the reverb they were drenched in—sound otherworldly.
The whole time, I kept thinking about what the Dalai Lama might sound like if he were standing on Highgate Hill, a few miles away from the studio. I began doing a mental inventory of the equipment we had on hand. Clearly, none of the standard studio tricks available at the mixing console would do the job alone. We also had an echo chamber, and lots of amplifiers in the studio, but I couldn’t see how they could help, either.
But perhaps there was one amplifier that might work, even though nobody had ever put a vocal through it. The studio’s Hammond organ was hooked up to a system called a Leslie—a large wooden box that contained an amp and two sets of revolving speakers, one that carried low bass frequencies and the other that carried high treble frequencies; it was the effect of those spinning speakers that was largely responsible for the characteristic Hammond organ sound. In my mind, I could almost hear what John’s voice might sound like if it were coming from a Leslie. It would take a little time to set up, but I thought it might just give him what he was after.
“I think I have an idea about what to do for John’s voice,” I announced to George in the control room as we finished editing the loop. Excitedly, I explained my concept to him. Though his brows furrowed for a moment, he nodded his assent. Then he went out into the studio and told the four Beatles, who were standing around impatiently waiting for the loop to be constructed, to take a tea break while “Geoff sorts out something for the vocal.”
Less than half an hour later, Ken Townsend, our maintenance engineer, had the required wiring completed. Phil and I tested the apparatus, carefully placing two microphones near the Leslie speakers. It certainly sounded different enough; I could only hope that it would satisfy Lennon. I took a deep breath and informed George Martin that we were ready to go.
Setting down their cups of tea, John settled behind the mic and Ringo behind his kit, ready to overdub vocals and drums on top of the recorded loop; Paul and George Harrison headed up to the control room. Once everyone was in place and ready to go, George Martin got on the talkback mic: “Stand by…here it comes.” Then Phil started the loop playing back. Ringo began playing along, hitting the drums with a fury, and John began singing, eyes closed, head back.
“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…” Lennon’s voice sounded like it never had before, eerily disconnected, distant yet compelling. The effect seemed to perfectly complement the esoteric lyrics he was chanting. Everyone in the control room—including George Harrison—looked stunned.
Through the glass we could see John begin smiling. At the end of the first verse, he gave an exuberant thumbs-up and McCartney and Harrison began slapping each other on the back.
“It’s the Dalai Lennon!” Paul shouted.
George Martin shot me a wry grin. “Nice one, Geoff,” he said. For someone not prone to paying compliments, that was high praise indeed. For the first time that day, the butterflies in my midsection stopped fluttering.
Moments later, the first take was complete and John and Ringo had joined us in the control room to listen to it. Lennon was clearly bowled over by what he was hearing. “That is bloody marvelous,” he kept saying over and over again. Then he addressed me directly for the first time that evening, adopting his finest snooty upper-class accent. “I say, dear boy,” he joked, “tell us all precisely how you accomplished that little miracle.”
I did my best to explain what I had done and how a Leslie worked, but most of it seemed to go over John’s head; all he really got out of it was the concept of a rotating speaker. In my experience, there are few musicians who are technically savvy—their focus is on the musical content and nothing else, which is as it should be—but Lennon was more technically challenged than most.
“Couldn’t we get the same effect by dangling me from a rope and swinging me around the microphone instead?” he asked innocently, throwing the others into paroxysms of laughter.
“Yer daft, John, you are,” McCartney teased affectionately, but Lennon persisted. In the background, I could see George Martin shaking his head bemusedly, like a schoolteacher enjoying the naivete of one of his young charges.
Lennon was not to be dissuaded quite so easily, though. The following year, when we were doing the Sgt. Pepper album, Beatles roadie Mal Evans was actually dispatched to go out and buy a rope strong enough to support John from the rafters of the studio ceiling so that he could be swung like a bell. Fortunately for us all, Mal would be unsuccessful in his quest—or perhaps, cognizant of the danger (and foolishness) of the notion, he deliberately avoided carrying out his employer’s wishes. In any event, the idea was quietly dropped, although Lennon continued to search for new ways to disguise his voice, often referring to the way “our Geoffrey” had levitated him up to the mountaintop for the recording of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Later that first evening, John gave me a friendly grin and began a casual conversation—his way of showing that I was accepted and had passed his personal muster. “Have you heard that new Tiny Tim record?” he asked.
I hadn’t, but I was determined to present myself as being both knowledgeable and hip. “Yeah, they’re great,” I bluffed.
Lennon burst out in derisive laughter: “They’re great? It’s just one bloke, don’t you know even that? Nobody’s really sure if it’s actually a guy or some drag queen.”
I turned beet red and slunk out of the studio, tail between my legs. I had learned one important lesson: you couldn’t pull the wool over John Lennon’s eyes.
While they were listening to the first playback of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” John and George Harrison had been excitedly discussing ideas for guitar parts. Harrison eagerly suggested that a tamboura—one of his new collection of Indian instruments—be added. “It’s perfect for this track, John,” he was explaining in his deadpan monotone. “It’s just kind of a droning sound and I think it will make the whole thing quite Eastern.”
Lennon was nodding his head; you could tell he liked the idea, but he wasn’t about to say so. Most of the time he treated his younger bandmate more like a kid brother or even as a subordinate. It was rare when John gave George the respect he deserved.
But my attention was drawn to Paul and Ringo, who were huddled together talking about the drumming. Paul was a musician’s musician—he could play many different instruments, including drums, so he was the one who most often worked with Ringo on developing the drum part. Paul was suggesting that “Ring” (as we usually called him) add a little skip to the basic beat he was playing. The pattern he was tapping out on the mixing console was somewhat reminiscent of the one Ringo had played on their recent hit single “Ticket To Ride.” Ringo said little, but listened intently. As the last of the four Beatles to join, he was used to taking direction from the others, especially Paul. Ringo made an important contribution to the band’s sound—there’s no question about that—but unless he felt strongly about something, he rarely spoke up in the studio.
While Paul was focusing on the drum pattern, I was concentrating on the actual sound of the drums. Norman’s standard mic positioning might have been fine for just any Beatles song, but somehow it seemed too ordinary for the unique nature of this particular track. With Lennon’s words rolling around my brain (“This one’s completely different than anything we’ve ever done before”), I began hearing a drum sound in my head, and I thought I knew how to achieve it. The problem was that my idea was in direct contravention of EMI’s strict recording rules.
Concerned about wear and tear on their expensive collection of microphones, the top studio brass had warned us never to place mics any closer than two feet to drums, especially the bass drum, which put out such a wallop of low frequencies. It seemed to me, though, that if I moved all the drum mics in closer—say, just a few inches away—we would hear a distinctly different tonal quality, one which I thought would suit the song. I knew I might get a bollocking from the studio manager for doing so, but my curiosity was piqued: I really wanted to hear what it would sound like. After a moment’s thought, I decided, what the hell. This was the Beatles we were talking about. If I couldn’t try things out at their sessions, I probably would never get the opportunity on anybody else’s session.
Without saying a word, I quietly slipped out to the studio and moved both the snare drum mic and the single overhead mic in close. But before I also moved the microphone that was aimed at Ringo’s bass drum, there was something else I wanted to try, because I felt that the bass drum was ringing too much—in studio parlance, it was too “live.” Ringo, who was a heavier chain smoker than the other three, had a habit of keeping his packet of cigarettes close at hand, right on the snare drum, even while he was playing. In some ways, I think that might have even contributed to his unique drum sound, because it served to slightly muffle the drumskin.
Applying the same principle, I decided to do something to dampen the bass drum. Sitting atop one of the instrument cases was an old woolen sweater—one which had been specially knitted with eight arms to promote the group’s recent film, which was originally called Eight Arms to Hold You before it was renamed Help! I suppose it had since been appropriated by Mal as packing material, but I had a better use for it. As quickly as I could, I removed the bass drum’s front skin—the one with the famous “dropped-T” Beatles logo on it—and stuffed the sweater inside so that it was flush against the rear beater skin. Then I replaced the front skin and positioned the bass drum mic directly in front of it, angled down slightly but so close that it was almost touching.
I returned to the control room, where the four Beatles were gulping down cups of tea, and unobtrusively turned the mixer’s inputs down so that they wouldn’t overload when Ringo resumed playing. Then it was time for me to put into action the final stage of my plan to improve the drum sound. I connected the studio’s Fairchild limiter (a device that reduces peaks in the signal) so that it affected the drum channels alone, and then turned its input up. My idea was to purposely overload its circuitry, again in direct violation of the EMI recording rules. The resulting “pumping” would, I thought, add an extra degree of excitement to the sound of the drums. At the same time, I was saying a silent prayer that the mics wouldn’t be damaged—if they were, my job would probably be on the line. I have to admit to having felt a little bit invulnerable, though: in the back of my mind, I assumed that John Lennon—ecstatic over his new vocal sound and still raving about it to anyone who would listen—would probably rise to my defense if management did threaten to fire me.
As the band reassembled in the studio to make a second attempt at recording the backing track to “Mark I,” I asked Ringo to pound on each of his drums and cymbals. Happily, none of the mics were distorting. In fact, the drums already sounded great to my ears, a combination of the close miking and the Fairchild working away. There was no comment from George Martin, whose attention was diverted elsewhere; he was no doubt thinking about arrangement ideas. My fingers tightened over the controls of the mixing desk; I was tingling with anticipation. So far, so good—but the proof would come when the whole band began playing.
“Ready, John?” asked Martin. A nod from Lennon signaled that he was about to begin his count-in, so I instructed Phil McDonald to roll tape. “…two, three, four,” intoned John, and then Ringo entered with a furious cymbal crash and bass drum hit. It sounded magnificent! Thirty seconds in, someone in the band made a mistake, though, and they all stopped playing. I knew from my assisting days that Lennon would want to start another take immediately—he was always impatient, ready to go—so I quickly announced “take three” on the talkback microphone and the group began playing the song again, perfectly this time around.
“I think we’ve got it,” John announced excitedly after the last note died away. George Martin waved everyone into the control room to hear the playback. This time around, I was far less nervous—I felt I had come up with exactly the drum sound that worked best for the song. Ten seconds after starting the tape playing for the four Beatles, I knew my instincts were correct.
“What on earth did you do to my drums?” Ringo was asking me. “They sound fantastic!”
Paul and John began whooping it up, and even the normally dour George Harrison was smiling broadly. “That’s the one, boys,” George Martin agreed, nodding in my direction. “Good work; now let’s knock it on the head for the night.”
It was after 2 P.M., and though, to my great relief, the evening had ended in triumph, my primary feeling was exhaustion. Everyone else was in high spirits; I was just plain knackered.
In the now-empty control room, Phil McDonald and I took a few moments to have a smoke and reflect quietly on all that had transpired. “You did it, Geoff,” he said softly. “You completely won them over.”
And indeed I had; even George Harrison had given me an uncharacteristically friendly “Take care, be safe” on his way out. Stubbing out my cigarette in the beat-up old ashtray on top of the mixing desk, I slowly made my way down the hallway and climbed into the car that was waiting to take me to my parents’ North London home, the faint glow of dawn beginning to appear on the horizon.
In the depths of my grandmother’s damp, musty basement awaited hidden treasure, the box that was to literally change my life.
Not that I had any idea what was inside—after all, I was only six years old. As an only child, I had grown accustomed to spending long hours on my own. My father worked from dawn to dusk in his butcher shop, and my mum, who was a full-time housewife despite having been trained as a court dressmaker (as a young woman, in the prewar years, she had made clothes for the Royal Family), seemed to always be busy puttering around the house doing one thing or another. On this particular chilly afternoon in the spring of 1953, I had decided to while away the hours indoors, poking around in the nether regions of my grandmother’s house, where my parents and I lived. To anyone else’s eyes it was a gloomy, airless basement filled with spiders and cobwebs, dust and junk. But to my young eyes, it was a secret inner sanctum that contained untold mysteries, exotic relics of a prewar era I had never known.
The war was something that everyone in Britain still talked about in hushed tones. There was evidence of it everywhere, from the battle-scarred veterans you saw on the streets, to the bomb sites that still remained as mute testimony to the horrific pounding London had taken. In fact, there was a bomb site just up the road from where I lived; in our innocence, all the neighborhood kids used it as a makeshift playground, a mysterious place where we formed secret societies. But though the war was unreal to me, I knew at an early age that it had affected my life. For one thing, it was the reason why my dad had to spend Sundays hunched over the kitchen table sorting through the ration coupons he had received during the week, quietly filling out all the proper government forms. It was also the reason why we lived where we did. The neighborhood where my parents grew up and met—Clerkenwell, in central London—was being bombed so heavily during the war years that they had been forced to flee and move to my grandmother’s home in the relatively unscathed North London suburb of Crouch End.
I was raised in that house, a small Edwardian terrace on a hilly street. The view was dominated by the past and the future: the bygone splendor of Alexandra Palace, atop which sat a huge and ugly BBC television transmission tower—the first in all of Britain. Our house was plainly decorated yet bright and cheerful, and it still sported gaslight fittings, though we had electricity by the time I was born. The kitchen range was the old-fashioned black galvanized iron type that had probably been there since the house was first constructed; my mother would spend long hours standing over that stove preparing meals for us, humming softly along with the sounds of light orchestral music emanating from the radio in the front room. The radio was almost always on in our house, a cheerful, comforting presence. My dad enjoyed the sound of big bands—he was a Gene Krupa fan, and he used to drum along on the tabletop with a couple of spoons whenever “Drum Boogie” would come on the air.
It was a happy enough middle-class existence, marked by eccentric neighbors (the aptly named Mrs. House, who lived next door, was so obsessed with keeping her garden tidy that she sometimes swept the lawn with a broom) and childhood pranks. All in all, I suppose I led what most might call a normal childhood, though I was soon to develop a number of interests that would lead me to pursue a career that was far from ordinary.
For one thing, I always was attracted to music, even though none of the members of my family had any particular musical talents. My great-uncle George had an old piano in his front room—it was built in Paris in the 1850s, before there was electricity, so it had a pair of built-in brass candlesticks that stuck out in front. His house was dark and forbidding, with heavy curtains to keep the draft out, but I was always happy to visit, because it gave me an opportunity to tinker on that piano. Much to my parents’ amazement, I found myself able to pick out simple tunes I had heard on the radio, playing solely by ear. I have no explanation for how I was able to do it; for some reason I just knew where the notes fell, and it was only a matter of going from one note to another to make up the tune.
That must have gotten my parents thinking, because one year their Christmas gift to me was a bright red toy record player (known in those days as a “gramophone”). My eyes were big as saucers as I pulled it out of its wrapping, and within moments, I was playing the two tiny records it came with, singing and clapping along to the children’s songs that magically floated from thin air. In the weeks to come, I would spin those two records over and over again, until their grooves were nearly worn out.
Then came that fateful afternoon in my grandmother’s basement. Pushing aside the pile of gas masks that sat atop the mysterious box, I excitedly tore the lid open, hoping that within I would find a pot of gold…or at least a pile of comic books.
“Mum! Come look at this!” No answer. I raised my shrill voice up a notch: “Mum!!”
Above my head I heard chairs creaking and the unmistakable footsteps of my mother approaching the basement stairs.
“Whatever is it, Geoffrey? What’s got you so excited?”
I was literally jumping up and down, unable to contain myself as I begged her to ask Nan if I could have what I had found.
Inside the box were dozens of old gramophone records. I had never imagined that so many records even existed…and I couldn’t wait to hear what they sounded like.
My grandmother must have wondered what on earth a six-year-old would want with a collection of old classical and operatic records, but she quickly gave her assent. My dad was enlisted to haul the heavy box upstairs, where, to my delight, I discovered that my toy player could accommodate grown-up records, too. Probably with a sense of relief that he would never again have to listen to another chorus of “Pop Goes the Weasel,” my father carefully blew the dust off the record on top of the pile and gently placed it on the green felt mat of the turntable. As the needle dropped down, the scratchy sounds of “Un bel di,” the famous aria from Madame Butterfly, filled the room.
Instantly, rapturously, I was in love.
I spent the next several months playing those records endlessly—Pagliacci, “The Volga Boat Song,” Rhapsody in Blue, even the Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 (a composition that would serve to inspire Paul McCartney years later when he was recording “Penny Lane”). And the more I played them, the more I got out of them. The music would not only evoke emotions in me—joy, sadness, longing, excitement—but also conjure up images in my mind.
At the time, I was attending Rokesley Infant School (the equivalent to an American kindergarten) and my ears perked up when our teacher announced that a professional musician named Leon Goossens—a famous oboist—would soon be making a visit. The talk he gave made quite an impression on me. After describing the hard work and determination it took to follow his dream, Goossens showed a short film of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in concert. As I watched the film, I found my attention focusing on the conductor. It began to dawn on me that it was he who was responsible for how fast or slow they were playing, and as I followed the arc of his baton I realized that he was coaxing various sections to play louder or softer, too.
At home, I began listening to my beloved records differently. Using a pencil as a baton, I began imitating the movements of the conductor, urging the imaginary musicians in my room on to new heights of performance. If only they could play faster here, I would think. If only the violins could be louder, the flutes softer, the trumpets less harsh. In my childish naivete, I found myself increasingly frustrated that the orchestra on the recording refused to respond to my urgent summonings. I began wishing there was some way I could affect the sound I was hearing.
At the time, I had no idea what role a producer or recording engineer played; I didn’t even know that such jobs existed, much less what a recording studio was. But I am convinced that those long hours up in my room, waving a pencil at phantom musicians playing through a tiny speaker in a toy gramophone, served as the catalyst that eventually propelled me toward a lifetime of making records.
In addition to my growing appreciation for the aesthetics of music, I was beginning to develop an interest in the technical aspects as well. I would stare at each record as it spun around, totally absorbed, observing how the needle was bouncing along. I didn’t quite understand how it all worked, but I instinctively realized that there had to be some connection between the way the needle was moving and the sound I was hearing.
Encouraging my keen interest in all things musical, my father came home from work one day and presented me with a radio of my own: a crystal set called a Cat’s Whisker. It was tiny, consisting of a delicate tuning device and a small set of earphones for listening. I kept it in my bedroom, and I’d play it late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping.
That little radio, primitive though it was, made a big difference in my life. The only commercial station in those days was the rather exotic Radio Luxembourg, broadcast from the European mainland. Their disk jockeys played exciting skiffle and rock ’n’ roll records instead of the bland music of my parents’ generation, and, like so many other British youths of my generation, that was how I discovered pop music. Each Sunday night at 11 P.M. I would silently rise from my bed and carefully tuck the Cat’s Whisker under my pillow, then, checking to make sure there was no one at my door, don the earphones. With bated breath and a trembling hand, I would methodically search the crystal for just the right spot that would allow me to hear that week’s Top Twenty.
Those records sounded raucous to my classically tuned ears, but there was something exhilarating about them, too. They were like a breath of fresh air, and I found myself drawn more and more to pop records, though I still retained my appreciation for classical and operatic pieces. Somehow my musical tastes were broadening, not just shifting.
The big breakthrough for me, as well as for millions of other young people in England and America, came when Bill Haley and the Comets exploded onto the scene. Their rough, driving sound made an impact on me that was almost indescribable. When “Rock Around The Clock” would come on, I could feel my pulse quicken, and my feet would start to move to the beat, as if they had a mind of their own. It was a visceral, emotional response—one that was different from what I felt when I listened to more “serious” music, but no less compelling.
By this time, I had successfully lobbied my parents into buying me a more grown-up gramophone. It was still a windup model, but it was made by HMV, the big music chain in England. It had a more austere, respectable look to it than my first one: black instead of childish bright red, it sported a nifty dog-and-trumpet logo, and it had a greatly improved sound, too.
I was also starting to explore my own musical ability. In junior school, we were encouraged to take up a musical instrument. With memories of Leon Goossens’s visit still lingering, I decided to learn to play the recorder. I eagerly looked forward to the lessons each week, and I also discovered to my delight that, just as on the piano, I was able to play the recorder by ear, picking out familiar melodies with ease. I even fancied myself as a bit of a composer; at one point, I wrote down a random series of notes and presented it to our teacher, Miss Weeds, as a finished composition, requesting that she play it. She took one look at my chicken scratch and declared it totally unplayable.
Undeterred, my musical progress continued, not least thanks to the generosity of my uncle George, who had decided to give us his old piano in order to encourage my playing. On the day it was due to arrive, I stood on the street corner, anxiously eyeing every lorry that drove up the street. When the big truck finally pulled up in front of my house, I ran over to the delivery men, supervising their every move as they carefully carried the piano into our front room.
“Play us a tune then, lad,” demanded the burly foreman as he set it down in the designated spot, wiping the sweat from his brow.
Obligingly, I plunked out the familiar first few notes of Beethoven’s Ninth. He rudely interrupted me.
“Nah, what’s that lot? Play us some real music!”
Unabashed, I pounded out a furious version of Chopsticks, then crossed my arms and gave him what I thought was a look to kill…which only had the effect of sending him into a fit of laughter.
Clearly, he was no aficionado of the finer things in life.
Something else of significance happened to me when I was a child: I saw a spaceship. It only happened once, and, no, there were no little green men, and, no, I wasn’t abducted and flown off to Mars. It sounds crazy, but I know what I saw, and the memory is indelibly etched in my consciousness.
It was about nine o’clock in the evening on a cold winter night; the moonless sky was pitch-black and clear. I was alone in my bedroom, standing near the window, when this huge thing suddenly appeared out of nowhere, hovering directly overhead. Irregular in shape and full of craterlike indents, it was pulsating and glowing a fiery red. There was no sound associated with it, which made the whole experience all the more surreal. After a moment or two, it shot off at a high rate of speed and off in the distance I could see it making rapid, sharp maneuvers, moving in ninety-degree directions. Obviously, someone or something was steering it.
Torn between fear and an intense desire to see what it did next, I stood rooted to my spot for a good minute or two before I decided I needed to alert my parents. Running downstairs at full speed, shouting at the top of my lungs, I burst into the kitchen, where they were doing the washing-up. Dismissive yet curious, they followed me back up to my bedroom, but of course by this time all traces of the spaceship—or whatever it was—had disappeared.
My parents arrived at the only sensible conclusion: that I had been having a nightmare and had imagined the whole thing. But I am certain that I was fully awake the entire time. When they were unable to convince me otherwise, the matter was quietly dropped in the Emerick household…until a week later, when the local newspaper came out. In the letters to the editor section, there was a query from a man who lived just down the road from us—he was not a neighbor we knew well, but it was an address I recognized. On the night in question, he wrote, he had seen something odd outside his window and was inquiring as to whether anyone else had also seen it. His description of the alien craft and its bizarre movements fitted mine perfectly. For a few days, I contemplated knocking on the fellow’s door to assure him that he wasn’t going mad, but in the end I decided against it. As grown-up as I may have felt, deep down I realized that I was still only a child, and I thought he might not take me seriously.
Seeing that UFO had no great effect on my life—it was just something that happened, something for which I have no explanation. Years later, when I was in the studio working with the Beatles, I had the opportunity during a late-night break to relate the story to Paul and John. John, as was his wont, was immediately dismissive, even derisive, but Paul was sympathetic; he believed me then, and I think he believes me to this day. We had a long conversation that evening, at the end of which Paul and I concluded solemnly that there simply are some things in this world that are beyond our ability to comprehend. “Bollocks,” snorted John as he headed off for a cup of tea.
I have often wondered if John Lennon felt any different after he himself spotted a flying saucer hovering over the East River while living in New York City in the mid-1970s. Sadly, I never got the chance to ask him.
By my preteen years, my interests had expanded significantly beyond playing records and listening avidly to the radio. I was beginning to become more visually oriented, spending long hours tinkering with my camera, experimenting with various lenses. Unlike most of the other kids my age, I was never too keen on sports, though. At one point, I was asked to play on the school rugby team simply because I was tall, but it didn’t last for long because my limited skills were costing the team too many points.
As I grew older, I also began developing a growing appreciation for the cinema. After I saw the movie The Eddy Duchin Story, I briefly began fantasizing about becoming a classical concert pianist. But I soon realized that I had neither the native ability nor the willingness to put in all the hours of training and practice that were required, and the idea faded. It was an inspiring film, though, and it did spark me into starting to think about my future, about what I wanted to make of my life. My dad made no secret of his desire for me to follow in his footsteps. His father had been a butcher, and so had his father’s father. But there was no way I could face a lifetime of chopping up raw meat. The very thought—and smell—of the blood and guts made me feel physically ill. To his credit, my dad never pushed me into it. Once he saw that I intended to take my life in a different direction, he provided me with quiet encouragement to do whatever it was I wanted to do.
The problem was, having decided that I was going to be neither a concert pianist nor a butcher, I had no idea what I did want—and there seemed to be an impossibly wide range of choices between the two. It really wasn’t too early for me to begin thinking about my future, either. In the English system, you completed school when you were fifteen or so, and either left to pursue a trade or—if you had good grades, money, and/or connections—went on to university, something that wasn’t an option for me.
Then one hot summer afternoon, in the middle of the school holidays, I discovered my calling. For some time, I had been intrigued by the tiny television in our front room, even though the BBC was the only channel on the air. I was especially fascinated by the experimental stereo broadcasts their technicians ran on Saturday mornings, when presumably they thought few people would be watching. Viewers were instructed to position their radio left of the TV in order to hear the stereo effect, with the radio speaker playing the left channel of the accompanying music and the television speaker playing the right channel. It was a clever, though primitive, idea, and I was captivated by the full, rich sound that resulted.
That’s why my eye was drawn to an advert in the local newspaper announcing the dates and times of the upcoming annual Television and Radio Show, held in the cavernous Earl’s Court in southwest London. This was a trade show, open to the public, in which the various manufacturers showed their wares—the newest models of televisions, radios, and record players on the market. Bored and looking for something to do, I decided to attend, even though none of my mates were interested in accompanying me, preferring to spend their summer afternoons chasing a football in the park. I didn’t really know what to expect; I thought I might catch a glimpse of a real-life TV camera and perhaps gain a little insight into some of the hobbies I was interested in. But what I discovered that day was to have a profound impact on the rest of my life.
The BBC, naturally enough, had the largest display area at the show; in fact, they were doing a live orchestral radio broadcast on the day I attended. I jostled my way to the front of the queue and watched, wide-eyed, as a dapper, mustachioed announcer dressed in a formal tuxedo stepped before a microphone.
As he introduced the programme, he pointed out the numerous microphones situated in and around the orchestra, explaining that their purpose was to capture the sound. The signal from those microphones, he said, traveled down electrical wires into something he called a “mixing console.”
My attention shifted to the huge electrical apparatus he was indicating, behind which stood a stocky fellow in a white coat, wearing clunky earphones as he fiddled with various mysterious-looking knobs and dials. On the wall behind him were two illuminated signs, one of which read “On Air,” and the other which read “Control Room.” Control room. Of course! This was where the magic all happened, and it was all under the control not of the conductor, but of the mysterious fellow in the white lab coat. What was it the announcer called him again?
Oh, yes. The sound engineer.
For the next hour I stood rooted to that spot, mouth agape, as the broadcast commenced and the BBC Light Orchestra—two dozen or so bored looking musicians also incongruously clad in tuxedos despite the sweltering heat—played their way through a medley of show tunes. But I paid them almost no mind, so transfixed was I with what the sound engineer was doing. With his every gesture and turn of a knob I strained to hear the difference he was making in the thunderous sound emanating from the huge speakers mounted overhead—far clearer and far more overwhelming than anything I had ever heard coming from my radio or television at home.
When the broadcast concluded, I was filled with an excitement I hadn’t known since I had first discovered that cache of gramophone records in my grandmother’s basement. But there was to be yet another important discovery that day. As I slowly worked my way past the crowds in the aisles, I began noticing that some of the booths had mysterious boxes that weren’t television sets and weren’t radios or even gramophone players. Pushing my way up front for a closer look, I noticed that these boxes had two things spinning on them, but they weren’t record platters.
“What’s the matter, sonny, haven’t you ever seen a tape recorder before?” One of the demonstrators at the booth was addressing me, studying me with wry amusement.
“Er, no, sir,” I stammered. “What’s it for?”
“You use it to record the sound of your own voice, or that of your mates,” he replied. “You can even use it to record music right off your radio.”
Record music off the radio? I was flabbergasted. For the next fifteen minutes I watched excitedly as the technology—primitive by today’s standards, but positively mind-boggling at the time—was explained and demonstrated. It seemed so incredible yet somehow I seemed to grasp the concept almost right away. It was amazing, sheer serendipity. In one afternoon I had not only discovered what a sound engineer was, but I also learned how recording worked. In the closeted little world I lived in at the time, that was quite a revelation.
Over the next few years, I made a point of attending the TV and Radio Show every summer, sometimes going two or three days in a row, always by myself. I’d take my time going from booth to booth, watching demonstrations, chatting with the salespeople, trying things out. I’d return home with a pile of glossy product brochures, which I would read and reread before organizing and filing them carefully away. All these technical innovations seemed to dovetail nicely with my keen interest in music of all genres, and slowly but surely I began thinking that what I wanted to do with my life was to somehow be involved in the creation of recorded music. Somehow, I wanted to be in the place where the magic happened.
When I was twelve I began attending the all-boys Crouch End Secondary Modern School. I was a generally indifferent student, though I did fairly well in math and history, and I developed an affinity for art, technical drawing, and chemistry. My love for music continued unabated: though I was resistant to the idea of formal music training, I enjoyed singing in the boy’s choir because it gave me an increased appreciation for harmony. The local lending library also gave me new opportunities to expand my horizons in listening. They didn’t have any pop records—that would have been way too progressive for the era—but I was able to take home quite a few classical and operatic pieces that I’d never heard before. For some reason, I leaned toward the more obscure recordings; somehow, the less popular the piece, the more interested I was in hearing it.
With my increased maturity came increased responsibility. My parents were giving me a modest weekly allowance, but my dad wanted me to learn the importance of self-reliance and so he had a word with the local greengrocer. Before I knew it, I had an after-school job stocking shelves and packing orders for customers. I didn’t mind the work, actually—it provided me with extra pocket money, some of which I spent on chemistry and film developing supplies, but most of which went toward buying records.
There was “Rock Around The Clock,” of course—I had to have that. And the latest singles from American artists such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Platters, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as English favorites like Cliff Richard and the Shadows. For some reason, I never used to listen to lyrics all that closely. Perhaps it was because of my taste for opera and classical music that the vocal always seemed like just another instrument to me. I was attracted to it solely for the way it fit in with the backing, not for the words that were being sung. Lyrics simply never sold me on a particular song—it was the overall sound that did.
There was a secondhand shop in our neighborhood that became one of my favorite places to visit because I never knew what I’d find there. One day when I was about thirteen I wandered in and saw that they had an old cream-colored drum kit on display. It was fairly tatty, although when it was new, it probably would have been a great piece of gear. But the price was right—three pounds, complete with cymbals—so I bought it on the spot. Fortunately for my parents, I didn’t have room for the drums at home, so I brought them round to my mate Tony Cook’s house, where I banged away on them for a few weeks before losing interest. Years later, when I was working with the Beatles and other bands in the recording studio, I’d sometimes reflect on that experience and think that even if I couldn’t play drums, at least I knew how to make them sound great.
At some point I bought an old Hofner guitar from that shop, too, and I tried to learn to play it, but with no better results. One problem was that its electronics didn’t work. I ended up trying to rebuild it; I veneered it in mahogany and spent a great deal of time trying to smarten it up.
Funnily enough, although I loved the sound of bass, I had no interest in learning to play that instrument, mainly because you couldn’t really hear it clearly in those days. There wasn’t the necessary equipment to get it on vinyl properly in England at that time, so it didn’t seem to have that much importance, and if you heard it on TV or on radio, it was coming through a tiny speaker and so was nearly inaudible. Quite ironic, considering that so much of my later reputation as a recording engineer came from the bass sounds I devised with Paul McCartney.
Eventually I realized that what I really wanted, more than any musical instrument, was a tape recorder. The modest salary from my after-school job wasn’t nearly enough to cover the cost, so I made the difficult decision to sell the train set my parents had bought me the previous Christmas and soon became the proud owner of a shiny new Brenell two-track model, complete with a microphone and an instruction book that explained the procedure for using a razor blade to cut and splice sections of tape together. After a little bit of practice, I became fairly proficient at splicing and was soon eagerly taping songs off the radio, cutting out the announcer’s intruding voice, and piecing them together in the order I wanted to hear them—much like the process of sequencing an album. The Brenell also came with a Superimposition button, which disabled the erase head so you could add new parts on top of preexisting recordings. Just for a laugh, I’d tape myself playing some chords on the piano and then add a melody and a bass part. To my young ears, it sounded almost like a record!
My enthusiasm rubbed off on my friends, too; within a short time they all got tape recorders of their own. We’d swap tapes and talk enthusiastically about which songs we were planning on purloining from which radio programs. Interestingly, that was almost a precursor to today’s downloading.
Despite my aversion to taking formal lessons, during my last year in school, I actually began participating in music classes. I had gotten into the habit of sneaking into the piano practice room after school hours to play Rhapsody in Blue and other favorite tunes, just to amuse myself. Unbenownst to me, the school’s music instructor, Mr. Salter, decided to stay late one afternoon, and stuck his head in to see who was making all the racket. Lost in my own private rhapsody, I failed to notice him for several minutes. My self-absorbed performance must have made a favorable impression on him, because instead of giving me detention, he proposed that I begin accompanying the class on piano as they sang. It soon became apparent to me that his offer wasn’t altogether altruistic: as I sat behind the piano at the front of the classroom doing all the work, he would use the time to sit in the back of the room and grade exam papers, saving himself the bother of bringing them home. It was all good fun, though, and I soon got my mate Howard Packham to play duets with me. We’d start with songs from the school repertoire but, to the class’s delight, would inevitably end up performing bawdy songs. After a few weeks of perfecting our routine, we figured we might as well get something for our trouble, so, even though we were underage, we took our double act to the local pub, where we’d play on their beat-up old piano for pints of lager on a Saturday night.
Mr. Salter would also bring records to school and play us things like Ravel’s Bolero, which I loved, and Holst’s The Planets. More significantly, he’d play recordings of different orchestras playing the same piece, one after another, making me aware of slight variations in both musical approach and recording technique and thus further honing my burgeoning critical listening skills.
Another instructor who had a big influence on me in secondary school was Mr. Stonely. He was a physical education teacher who taught history as well. He also had an interest in opera, and so he arranged a school trip one evening to see Pagliacci at the famed Covent Garden Opera House. It was an optional trip, but I eagerly volunteered, anxious to see my first live opera. Only about fifteen of us went on the bus, making it rather a solemn occasion, with few schoolboy hijinks. Of course, we did all get one fit of the giggles during a quiet passage, invoking the disdain of the audience members around us who attempted to shush us—making us laugh all the harder! But the entire event completely awed me, from the moment we entered the imposing theater to the very last curtain call. It was the first time I heard a full symphony orchestra playing in person, and I was stunned by the sound of it.
Unfortunately, instructors like Mr. Salter and Mr. Stonely were the exception, not the rule, and before long I realized I had better begin making preparations for finding some kind of gainful employment in the real world. I had no intention of continuing on in university; there was simply no way I could face more years of staying in school. Fortunately, my parents were fine with my decision. Not only didn’t they mind my leaving school, they didn’t mind my continuing to live at home, either…as long as I found some kind of work.
My parents were lobbying for me to become an architect, which they considered a “proper” job. I considered the idea briefly, then abandoned it when I learned that it involved continuing education. I also gave some thought to a career in the film industry, though I knew even less about that than I did about the music industry. But after some deliberation, I finally decided that what I really wanted to do in my heart of hearts was to be involved in the creation of music. I realized that I was never going to get the proper training to become a professional composer or an accomplished musician, but I wanted to somehow make a contribution. I had only the vaguest of ideas about what a producer or arranger actually did, but, thanks to my experiences at the TV and Radio Show, I had a fairly clear sense of the role of the sound engineer, and that seemed to be the best fit of all my interests.
The question was, how did one go about getting such a job?
Our school had a full-time career counselor by the name of Barlow. Though I didn’t know it at the time, he was to become my guardian angel. A few months before graduation day, he addressed our class assembly, advising that we begin writing letters of inquiry to prospective employers. The idea had never occurred to me; I simply had no idea how one went about securing a job, other than walking into a shop and asking the owner, or perhaps, as my father had done for me at the greengrocer’s, counting on your parents’ connections. Of course, my father knew no one in the record business, so that wasn’t going to work this time around. Mr. Barlow had given me a potential way in. But who exactly should I be writing to?
I was pondering that question as I walked home from school one afternoon. As usual, I passed John Trapp’s, the neighborhood record store, where I had so often stopped in to listen to the latest pop hits and perhaps even spend some of my hard-earned money on them. Sudden inspiration struck me: perhaps the store manager could give me advice on who I should write to.
Luckily for me, the shop was empty, and the manager seemed eager to chat. What’s more, he was all too happy to share with me everything he knew about the business—which was considerable. Even though there seemed to be dozens of labels, he explained, they were all owned by just four record companies: Philips, Decca, Pye, and EMI. For example, the Parlophone label (headed, though I didn’t know it at the time, by George Martin) specialized in spoken word and comedy records and was actually part of EMI. What’s more, each of England’s four record companies also owned their own recording “studios”—special places where the musicians went to make records, places where the recording engineer, answerable only to the producer, reigned supreme.
Eventually a customer wandered in and my crash course in the music business came to a close. Thanking the manager profusely, I literally dashed out of the store, eager to begin putting some of my new knowledge to use.
The next morning, before heading off to school, I sat down with my dad’s telephone directory and looked up the phone numbers of each of the four record companies, relieved to discover that they were all based in London. I carefully dialed each number on the list and asked the receptionist for the company’s address. That evening, I hunched over the small desk in my room and began my quest for gainful employment.
“Dear Sir,” I carefully wrote in my youthful scrawl—making the assumption in those pre–politically correct days that there would be no women in positions of authority—“I shall be graduating from Crouch End Secondary Modern School this coming July and I am interested in working for your company, perhaps,” I added hopefully, “in your recording studio. If you have any positions available, please let me know. Sincerely, Geoffrey Emerick.” After carefully addressing and stamping the four envelopes, I bicycled down to the neighborhood post office and cast my fate to the winds.
For the next two weeks, I’d return home from school each day and burst through the front door in hopes that some news had arrived. Each day I would receive the disappointing answer. Finally a response came from Decca, nestled inside the self-addressed stamped envelope I had carefully included. I tore it open, heart racing…and then, to my dismay, saw that it contained a form rejection letter, not even properly signed. A few days later, letters arrived from EMI, and then from Philips, both with the same bad news: no vacancies, no apprenticeships being offered. I don’t think I ever even got the courtesy of a reply from Pye.
As I was to learn later, it was precisely because there were only four labels and four “proper” recording studios in the entire country that each was besieged by letters from aspiring teenagers who had dreams of breaking into the business. But I didn’t know that at the time: all I knew was that I had been rejected, and my hopes of a career in the music business appeared to have been dashed. For a few days, I moped around, wondering what to do next.
Then one morning my teacher announced that each of us would be meeting with the career counselor individually; my own appointment was scheduled for the next day. I began to feel some glimmer of hope: perhaps there was something he could do to help me.
“Mr. Emerick, I believe?” The voice emanated from behind a stack of career brochures piled high on an enormous oak desk. Mr. Barlow shifted slightly in his seat, lowered his glasses, and peered out at me. For a moment I felt as though I were in the presence of the Wizard of Oz.
“Yes, sir,” I stammered.
“Come on in and have a seat, son. Now, tell me, are you planning on applying to university, or will you be seeking employment upon your graduation?”
“Employment, sir. And,” I blurted out nervously, the words coming in a rush, “I’ve decided that I want to be in the record business. I want to be involved with making music; I want to work in a recording studio.” He seemed taken aback, but I persisted.
“I really love listening to records and taping music off the radio,” I explained, “so I think I’d be quite good at it. In fact, I’ve written letters to four record companies, several weeks ago. Three of them have turned me down, and I haven’t heard anything from the fourth one.” Carefully I produced the rejection letters from my book bag and placed them on his desk.
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