The Beatles: End of the Road
Originally published in Guitar World, November 2009
It was the Beatles’ final studio work, but it was the start of a new era in recorded music. On the 40th anniversary of Abbey Road, Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick tells the story behind the songs and sounds on the group’s groundbreaking album.
On a warm August morning in 1969, the Beatles walked across Abbey Road and into history. The site of their famous crossing took place just outside of EMI Studios, the site of nearly all their recording sessions, in St. John’s Wood, north London. Photographer Iain Macmillan, on assignment to shoot cover photos for what would become the Beatles’ 12th album, took pictures of the group as it made its way the short distance over the zebra stripes, walking almost in lockstep and heading away from the studio. It was an unassuming image for an album with an unassuming title: Abbey Road. But almost immediately upon the record’s release that September, the image became iconic, to be copied over the years in tourists’ photographs and by recording artists for their own album covers. Apparently, even EMI Studios took inspiration from it. Within months of the record’s release, the facility officially changed its name to Abbey Road Studios.
“The irony of it all is that the Beatles hated EMI,” says Geoff Emerick, the engineer who manned the studio console for Abbey Road, as he had for the entirety of two prior Beatles albums: Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “They’d been incarcerated in there for so long, recording all the time, and it was a really institutional kind of place, very strict and cheap as well. So to me it seemed like an odd title for them to choose.
“But, of course, in the photograph they’re walking away from the studio rather than toward it. They’re leaving it. Which is what happened after that record, when they broke up. When I saw that photo, it was the first insight I had into the possibility that this would be the Beatles’ last album. Because when we were making it, no one knew it would be their last. Certainly I didn’t.”
September 2009 will be the 40th anniversary of Abbey Road, an album that marked not only the end of the Beatles but the decade as well. The Beatles had defined pop culture for much of the Sixties, and it seems fitting perhaps that they made their exit just as a new decade dawned. But it is also ironic that the group, known for pushing the limits of recording equipment in its pursuit of new sounds, was leaving just as a new crop of audio tools was arriving. Recording technology was changing rapidly in the late Sixties, giving producers and engineers a broader range of sonic control than ever before. New audio tools like Dolby noise reduction, as well as effects and instruments such as the Moog synthesizer, were coming into use. State-of-the art transistorized mixing consoles and multitrack tape decks were also changing how records were made and, just as significantly, how they sounded.
Abbey Road was the first album recorded at EMI Studios to use some of this new technology, a fact that explains why, of all the Beatles’ albums, it is the most modern sounding—if one can refer to a 40-year-old album as “modern sounding.” Certainly, Abbey Road tracks like John Lennon’s “Come Together,” Paul McCartney’s “Oh! Darling” and George Harrison’s “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” demonstrate a level of audio finesse exceeding that of any previous Beatles recording. Unquestionably, Abbey Road has the most polished production and tones of any Beatles record. In retrospect, it can be regarded as having defined a professional-audio standard for the music that would follow in the Seventies and beyond.
It was Geoff Emerick who helped make these new sounds possible, just as he had when the Beatles made the groundbreaking 1966 album Revolver and 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As he described in his 2006 autobiography Here, There and Everywhere, Emerick had been friendly with the group, in particular bassist Paul McCartney, since early in the Beatles’ career. Inventive, and quietly rebellious toward EMI’s arcane regulations, Emerick began to craft an entirely new sound for the Beatles during the making of Revolver, by placing microphones closer to instruments than EMI permitted, applying massive amounts of compression and limiting to the instruments and vocals, and using other revolutionary techniques. His innovations took the band to even more extreme audio realms on Sgt. Pepper’s and resulted in some of the group’s most fun and spirited recording sessions.
But by the time the group returned to EMI to record their 1968 double album, The Beatles (a.k.a. the White Album), the mood had soured. Tensions between the band members were near the breaking point. Lennon and McCartney assumed greater independence from the band and from each other, often working on their songs in separate studios within EMI. Ringo Starr, the most easygoing member of the group, quit for a brief time when he felt his services as a drummer were being taken for granted, and McCartney aggravated the others with his repeated attempts to re-record his song “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” After weeks of toiling in the worsening atmosphere, Emerick walked out and didn’t return.