Although George Martin is generally credited with shaping The Beatles’ sound, the Abbey Road sound engineers were key in helping the group realise their visions. Arguably none were as influential and crucial as Geoff Emerick, who worked with The Beatles between 1966 and 1969.
The Beatles were in the right place at the right time. There was an anti-Establishment thing in the air, and everybody was looking for a youthful leader to latch onto. Everything came together. It just happened, really. And I could never see that happening again.
Emerick was born in London on 5 December 1945, and joined EMI at the age of 15. He sat in on The Beatles’ second EMI session on 4 September 1962, on his second day at work in the studios, and witnessed them recording How Do You Do It and Love Me Do.
He first worked with the group on 20 February 1963, when he was tape operator on an overdub session for ‘Misery’ and ‘Baby It’s You’. He assisted on a number of sessions for Please Please Me, With The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night, before moving into EMI’s disc-cutting team.
The studio manager called me to his office and asked whether I’d like to be The Beatles’ engineer. That took me a little bit by surprise! In fact it terrified me. I remember playing a game in my head, eeny meeny miney mo, shall I say yes, shall I say no? The responsibility was enormous but I said yes, thinking that I’d accept the blows as they came.
Emerick took over from Norman Smith, who had worked with The Beatles on almost all the sessions from ‘Love Me Do’ to Rubber Soul. Emerick’s youthful age and willingness to experiment with recording techniques dovetailed perfectly with The Beatles’ quests for new sounds.
Geoff walked in green but because he knew no rules he tried different techniques. And because The Beatles were very creative and very adventurous, they would say yes to everything. The chemistry of George and Geoff was perfect and they made a formidable team. With another producer and another engineer things would have turned out quite differently.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
Being responsible for the innovative sounds on Tomorrow Never Knows would have daunted any new engineer, but Emerick rose to the challenge spectacularly. He went on to receive Grammy awards for his work on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road.
I spoke to Geoff Emerick, the engineer, and he had a good idea. He said, ‘Let’s try putting his voice through a Leslie speaker and back again and re-recording it.’ A Leslie speaker is a rotating speaker, a Hammond console, and the speed at which it rotates can be varied according to a knob on the control. By putting his voice through that and then recording it again, you got a kind of intermittent vibrato effect, which is what we hear on Tomorrow Never Knows. I don’t think anyone had done that before. It was quite a revolutionary track for Revolver.
Geoff Emerick used to do things for The Beatles and be scared that the people above [in the EMI hierarchy] would find out. Engineers then weren’t supposed to play about with microphones and things like that. But he used to do really weird things that were slightly illegitimate, with our support and approval.
The night we dubbed in the orchestra on ‘A Day In The Life’, there was a kind of party in the studio. I set up a rough monitor mix to play for everybody, and Ron Richards, who was the producer for The Hollies, was in the control room. When I played back the rough mix, Ron just put his head in his hands. And he was serious. There was silence after we finished playing it back. It was like you were watching a black-and-white film, and suddenly there was color and Cinemascope. The feeling in that control room was just amazing. Nobody had ever heard anything like it in their lives..
Despite his creative wizardry being invaluable to the group, Geoff Emerick became increasingly unhappy with the often tense atmospheres during the sessions for the White Album in 1968. He quit working with The Beatles on 16 July, while the group were recording ‘Cry Baby Cry’.
I lost interest in the White Album because they were really arguing amongst themselves and swearing at each other. The expletives were really flying. There was one instance just before I left when they were doing ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ for the umpteenth time. Paul was re-recording the vocal again and George Martin made some remark about how he should be lilting onto the half-beat or whatever and Paul, in no refined way, said something to the effect of ‘Well you come down and sing it’. I said to George ‘Look, I’ve had enough. I want to leave. I don’t want to know any more.’ George said ‘Well, leave at the end of the week’ – I think it was a Monday or Tuesday – but I said ‘No, I want to leave now, this very minute, and that was it.
Emerick did, however, mix songs for the Yellow Submarine album, and engineered the orchestral recording sessions for the soundtrack in October 1968. However, he didn’t work with The Beatles again until 14 April 1969, when he engineered a session for ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’. He returned full-time in July, while the group were making Abbey Road.
I started working with them again at Paul McCartney’s request, just a week after I had left EMI to run Apple Studios. I went back to Abbey Road as the first freelance engineer that had walked in the building.
After The Beatles split up, Emerick worked with artists including Paul McCartney, Judy Garland, Elvis Costello, Art Garfunkel, Cheap Trick, Split Enz and Jeff Beck. His work on McCartney’s Band On The Run album won him a Grammy, and he was awarded another in 2003 – his fourth – for lifetime Technical Achievement.
In 2006 Emerick’s memoir, Here, There And Everywhere: My Life Recording The Music Of The Beatles was published. It was co-written with music journalist Howard Massey. The book received some criticism for its dismissal of the contributions of George Harrison and Ringo Starr, and his assessment of Rubber Soul as “not especially noteworthy” and the White Album as “virtually unlistenable”.
This is the true story of the Beatles in the recording studio as I and many of my colleagues remember it. As The Beatles’ own Anthology project proved, put four people in a room and you will get four differerent recollections of the same event. That is simply human nature. Nonetheless, my co-author and I took great pains to ensure the accuracy of all that is stated in the book.
In 2007 Emerick led a project to re-record Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with contemporary artists including Oasis, The Killers, Travis and Razorlight. The new versions, mostly recorded on Abbey Road’s original equipment, were broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on 2 June to mark the album’s 40th anniversary.
In a 2007 interview for Netscape, Emerick spoke of his distaste for the Love album.
I won’t listen to it. People have told me about it. Look, the four artists were present when we did the mono mixes of the original records. And the recordings were fresh in our minds when we did the stereo mixes: even if the Beatles weren’t present, they were involved. It’s their record – and now it’s been messed around with. The original records are iconic, they’re pieces of art. Would you go and repaint the Sistine Chapel? You don’t. Just leave it alone.
Geoff Emerick moved to America in 1984, and lived in Los Angeles. He died on 2 October 2018.
Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Geoff Emerick, who has sadly passed. Geoff’s work as audio engineer on their music was integral, resulting in multiple highly deserved Grammy Awards. pic.twitter.com/PWKO5i2EIc
— The Beatles (@thebeatles) October 3, 2018