Who was Geoff Emerick?
‘We’re never going to tour again and we’re going to make an album that’s going to have sounds on it that no one’s ever heard before’. And everyone looked at me.
Geoff Emerick on how John Lennon announced The Beatles new approach to recording in a session at Abbey Road in 1966
Five Young Men
On the 5th of June, 1962 a sixteen-year Geoff Emerick started work as an Assistant Recording Engineer at Abbey Road. The following day four more young men made their debuts at Studio 2: John, Paul, George and Pete. Best would exit the Beatles story soon after but Emerick would be there at the end.
From 1966 Emerick was the chief sound engineer at Abbey Road. His role was to enable the musician to convert their musical ideas into a form that could be recorded. This was often a daunting task as none of The Beatles could read music and only McCartney was adept at expressing what he wanted in conventional musical terms. Lennon often made a point of not doing so (“make it sound like an orange, George!”)
In the early years George Martin used his expertise and experience to find the best forms to express The Beatles musical ideas. Increasingly, however, the band was testing the limits of what had been previously tried in a studio. As McCartney has said, Emerick rose to the challenge
He grew to understand what we liked to hear and developed all sorts of techniques to achieve this. He would use a special microphone for the bass drum and played it strategically to achieve the sound that we asked him for. We spent many exciting hours in the studio and he never failed to come up with the goods.
These “goods” included astonishing technical innovations. An early example was in response to John Lennon’s baffling request to transform his vocal into sound of “thousands of Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain top”.
George Martin suggested using tape loops run backwards, a technique that had been experimented with in avant garde classical composition. Emerick set to work and a pioneering sonic masterpiece ‘Tomorrow Never Knows” emerged from a sea of magnetic tape.
Later technical marvels included the miraculous fusing of the two sections of ‘Strawberry Fields’ and the extraordinary final chord of ‘ A Day in the Life’. Emerick would later claim with some justification that “The night we put the orchestra on it, the whole world went from black and white to colour,”
Such experiments eventually lead to a Grammy Award for Emerick but they caused many raised eyebrows in the still very patrician world of EMI. Emerick bent the rules to breaking point “to get some of the things on Revolver I had to abuse the equipment, and got into trouble sometimes with the management”
Why did Emerick quit?
When The Beatles were dealing ‘the suits’ there was initially a concealed deference. This was true with Brian Epstein and much more so with George Martin — who they mistakenly assumed came from an upper class family. With other staff at Abbey Road, the reverse was true.
Geoff Emerick came from a similar social background to themselves but was a few years younger. Though greatly admired for his technical abilities, Emerick was always aware that he ranked low in the hierarchy of Beatle World.
After Brian Epstein died in August 1967 recording sessions became increasingly tense. Paul became frustrated with a lack of application from the others, while they resented his bossiness. Resentment manifested itself in endless bickering between the musicians.
For Emerick, the low point came during the recording of Revolution. It was the first time that Yoko Ono had sat in on a session and Lennon was being particularly obnoxious. On the advice of his fabulously incompetent technical advisor, Magic Alex, he insisted on playing his guitar at ‘ear-splitting’ volume. Emerick politely pointed out that the resulting distortion was ‘leaking’ but Lennon grandly insisted that it was a sound engineer’s job to resolve this.
Remarkably, Emerick did come up with an acoustic solution but his own internal red light was flashing. There was a limit to the amount of appalling behaviour he could tolerate.
The final straw was came on 16 July, 1968 during a recording session for 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. …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.
It was in his absence that The Beatles were forced into a fuller appreciation of Emerick’s technical expertise. In 1969, Magic Alex’s new Apple Recording studio at Saville Row was discovered to have a fatal flaw – it didn’t work. This left The Beatles with one album, Let it Be, in no fit state to be released and the material for another they could not record.
To save the day, Paul McCartney personally invited Geoff Emerick and George Martin to work on Abbey Road. For once the other Beatles raised no objections, leading to the astonishingly calm and productive recording of the album.
In 1973 McCartney again called on Emerick for another rescue mission in even more bizarre circumstances. This time he had taken his new band, Wings, to Lagos, Nigeria to record their new album. Unfortunately two key band members bailed before they reached Heathrow Airport and the EMI Lagos recording studio was hopelessly rudimentary. A first night mugging did little to lift the mood.
Luckily, McCartney had made one inspired decision in an otherwise bonkers plan. Suspecting that there might be some technical glitches, he had included Geoff Emerick in the visiting party. The engineer set to work and somehow managed to convert the antiquated studio into one capable of recording one of the albums of the decade, Band on the Run.
Geoff Emerick. (1945–2018)