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 cliched "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.