An interview with Geoff Emerick

By Bill DeYoung

Q: Very few of the Beatles intimates have actually written books over the years. What made you decide to do it?

A: It’s something I’ve been toying with for many years, really. It was a culmination of still being in contact with a lot of the guys I used to work with, because we used to start talking about the old days. And they said ‘Come on, you’ve got to write a book.’ Everyone’s been sort of waiting for it: What really happened on the sessions, what was it like. And Howard Massey had done an interview with me for EQ Magazine, and I liked the way he’d written it.

Q: I always thought you would have had an implicit agreement, that you never write about them.

A: I never felt like that. I felt it was just time that people would enjoy the experience as to what it was like on those sessions. It’s been good fun to do it.

Q: In the day, did you keep notes or diaries?

A. No, it’s all from memory, really. They’re so vivid. The weird thing was, when we were doing the book, these memories had been so vivid, and once we’d talked about it and discussed it, they sort of disappeared from my mind. It was as though it was something that had been building up over the years, and this was like a release valve. And some of them were gone. But it was very vivid because it was very memorable, especially working on Pepper and Revolver and stuff.

Q: EMI was so clinical, so scientific, so sterile. Why would they bring you in as a 16-year-old?

A: That’s how we started then. We were school-leavers, and with my insistence and whatever transpired with the careers officer, I got in there to be an assistant. It was important because you didn’t sweep floors and you didn’t work in the library, you were operating the stereo tape machines. A lot of the sessions were multi-track, and if you pressed the wrong button and wiped something, that was it, you just didn’t do it.

Q: I enjoyed the chapter about the "Abbey Road" LP, because no one has ever really talked about it in more than general terms. To your mind, after "Let it Be," why did they do it?

A: Paul was trying to get the band back together into some sort of ‘as it used to be.’ Without any of the bickering. And I was working at Apple at that time; I’d left Abbey Road. Paul said to George Martin ‘will you produce another album?’ after what had happened on the other stuff. And George said yeah, I’ll do it under a few circumstances: It’d be great to record like we did in the old days, with the good vibe in the studio and a lot of camaraderie. He said if that’s what happens, I’ll do it.

Q: They’d recorded at other studios, and you point out that they didn’t like the stale atmosphere at EMI. Why couldn’t they have just gone somewhere else?

A: Paul wanted to muster us all back together again, because he knew it was a great team of people, and he knew that we were good at our jobs. And he knew that the others were going off at tangents, I guess. It was one final big thing from Paul. And I said I would do it. It got off to a little shaky start because John and Yoko had had the car accident, and she ended up in the bed in the studio.

Q: You don’t have a lot of kind words –- at least in the beginning -– for George Harrison.

A: I don’t mean to be unkind. I didn’t want to gloss over anything. Rather than writing ‘The Beatles Record in the Studio,’ like they were icons, this was like four human beings going through normal problems with recording. And I sort of criticize George’s guitar playing to begin with, which wasn’t too great. And I’m not the only one to have said that. And as the book goes through, George sort of comes out shining. To me, it’s a more human story. As you know, they didn’t spend as much time recording George’s tracks – his songs weren’t as good as Lennon and McCartney’s. George felt a little bit put out, and he tried and tried, and he always looked as though he were somewhere else. As we were writing the book, it dawned on me that from an early stage, probably even on "Revolver," that George really wanted out. He was looking for his own thing. And that was Eastern music, Indian music, you know? It was great to see him go through the whole thing. We did "Within You With You," which was great, and of course he wrote "Something" and got all his confidence back. He recorded the guitar solo live in the studio with the orchestra. His confidence was building and building over those years.

Q: Were you ever friends, or always employees? Was there a line never crossed?

A: You could never get too close, obviously. We never discussed personal, private stuff obviously. They were taking control towards the end, anyway. They’d set up their little area in the studio – it was horrible for them, in a way. It was like being incarcerated.

Q: So, again - why not record somewhere else?

A: I think it got back to the fact that all the great records had come out of Abbey Road. Although they used to go to Trident and Olympic, or another studio, they always ended up coming back because they possibly couldn’t get the same drum sound, or they couldn’t get this or that. And the fact was that we knew all their little quirks. And we didn’t have to speak a lot; we knew by the looks on their faces whether things were going good or bad. It was just knowing their vibe and stuff. It’s not the same in a strange studio.

Q: Any recordings that you’re most proud of?

A: So many things. I can’t particularly pick one. "A Day in the Life," because as soon as John started to sing that we had shivers down our backs. It was basically all live. It was unbelievable, the emotion that was coming out of his voice. And the bass sounds on "Rain" and "Paperback Writer." And "Strawberry Fields."

Q: Didn’t they always stress that each record not sound like the last one?

A: Exactly. And this put tremendous pressure on us as well, because of the technical limitations of what we had as toys, for want of a better word, to enhance anything. We just had to mike stuff stupidly, do anything. It was just crazy, but it was great, looking back on it.

Q: Certainly "Tomorrow Never Knows" was a different direction.

A: That was the first track I ever recorded with them as an engineer. There’s not a lot of chord changes or note changes; it’s like a drone. And I’m still not sure whether they knew that Norman Smith had left; I can still see Harrison through the studio glass saying, "Where’s Norman?" I think Paul already knew. I won John over by doing the vocal through the Leslie speaker, then by getting a different drum sound. So gradually I’d got accepted. It was hard for me -- you can imagine, Jesus.

Q: Is it possible that karma played a role in this – that Norman, after "Rubber Soul," wasn’t the one to take the next step?

A: We knew Norman was leaving to be a record producer, which he wanted to do. He found the Floyd and stuff. He wanted to carry on engineering the Beatles, also, and George Martin said no. But then I realized that Norman wouldn’t just be the engineer and George Martin the producer, but Norman would have been a producer as well. Which made a very awkward set of circumstances. There would be two producers on the session, and George Martin said no, you can either do one or the other – engineer the Beatles or go and become a producer.

Q: It’s well known that everything through ’68 was mixed in mono. Why?

A: England was way behind with stereo. Our rules and regulations at EMI were that you monitored through one loudspeaker, which was the one of the right-hand side. As a treat, late at night, we might switch the mono signal and parallel it to both loudspeakers, just to get a bit more power out of it. Even "Pepper" was monitored through one loudspeaker.

Q: So the stereo "Pepper" mix is inferior?

A: We took three days on that, and three weeks total on the mono. The thing was, it’s very easy to record two guitars left and right, but when they’ve got to find their own place coming out of one sound source … it used to take me a long time to sort of craft, and nip and tuck, and put the right EQ and the right echo on. It took a couple of hours, you know?

Q: So you’d advise fans to go with the mono?

A: That’s the way the mix was, and that’s the way that all the fine detail was put it. Richard Lush, my assistant and I used to have a bit of fun doing the stereo mixes, because sometimes we’d overdo some of the effects like a few little bend-y vocal things. Because without ADT you could sort of bend the notes, or play them like a guitar. You could do more with it than you could today.

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