Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Behind-the-scenes tales from Beatles' glory days

Geoff Emerick was 15 years old in 1962 when he began working as an assistant engineer at EMI Studios in London. Talk about timing. On his second day on the job, a new band came in for its first recording session for the label. The band was the Beatles, their sound shook the world, and the kid from North London took it in from ground zero. There have been hundreds of books about the Beatles, but only a handful from insiders. And for seven years, Emerick was a witness to history who worked alongside the Fab Four and producer George Martin on nearly all of their major recordings. The highlights and lowlights are documented in Emerick and Howard Massey's "Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles" (Gotham $26). Emerick said Elvis Costello and other recording artists encouraged him to tell his story. "I wanted to wait for what I felt was the right moment to do it," he said from his Los Angeles home. "It's been building up over the years. It's nearly 44 years." Though Emerick didn't keep a diary during his time with the Beatles, the book is richly detailed, including conversations with and between the bandmates. He tells the back stories behind landmark albums such as "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." "Because of what I was going through, especially working on those sessions, the visual images are so vivid in my mind still," Emerick said. In 1966, at 19, Emerick was promoted to main recording engineer for the Beatles. The band was just starting work on what some critics now consider their greatest album, "Revolver." The very first song Emerick worked on in his new role was John Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows." The complex composition, partially based on "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," was a droning, mind-spinning piece of pure psychedelia, light-years ahead of its time. Emerick knew he had his work cut out for him when he heard Lennon tell Martin: "I want my voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away." Emerick said he was under tremendous pressure. "They said, We don't want it to sound like anything we've ever recorded before.' I thought, well, here we go. But I won John over when we got that sound through the Leslie speaker on his vocal." Emerick's new sounds for the Beatles were revolutionary in an era when studios were simple, and mono still ruled the day. In his foreword to the book, Costello writes: "What makes this memoir so entertaining 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." The engineer, who later won the first of four Grammy Awards for his work on "Sgt. Pepper," assesses each man in the band. While he can be excessively giddy in his praise for Paul McCartney (they worked together after the Beatles' breakup) and paints a primarily flattering portrait of Lennon, Emerick portrays Ringo Starr as quiet and mostly bored during the recording sessions. And he's especially tough on George Harrison, panning his pre-1967 songwriting and guitar playing. "George had Paul and John there, writing some of the best songs ever, as we were later to find out," Emerick said, "and he obviously felt he could never match that in this stage. I used to see this vacant look on his face." After the Beatles, Emerick manned the studio for dozens of other artists, including Costello, Kate Bush, Cheap Trick, Jeff Beck and Nellie McKay. He's looking forward to working with the Story, a new band from Cincinnati. Emerick said he misses most the old ways of engineering and still tries to bring something of its creativity into his work.


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