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.
“I was on the verge of a breakdown during the making of the White Album,” he explains. “The emotional stress was too much for me. I’ve got to be honest with you: I’ve never sat down and listened to the album from end to end, and I never will. It was too depressing a time for me.”
The Beatles carried on without him. After the White Album’s November 1968 release, the band attempted to reconnect by recording a new set of songs live in the studio. The “Get Back” recordings, as they were known, proved even more difficult for the Beatles and wouldn’t see the light of day until 1970, when they formed the basis for the group’s posthumous release, Let It Be. During the rehearsal and recording sessions, which together ran for nearly all of January 1969, Harrison and McCartney bickered, and Lennon spent much of his time in the company of his soon-to-be wife, Yoko Ono. George Martin, the Beatles’ producer from their first recording session forward, was all but an observer to the proceedings, looking on as the band fractured.
Emerick, despite his bad feelings over the White Album sessions, had not walked away from the Beatles entirely. McCartney, with whom he had developed a warm relationship, asked him to oversee construction of the group’s studio being built at their new record label, Apple. Emerick says, “Paul and I obviously liked each other. There was a lot of respect there.”
Soon, though, he found himself drawn back into the studio with the group and George Martin. Although the Get Back sessions ended on January 31, the Beatles began recording new songs within a month, even though they had no specific plans at the time to make another album. Unlike Get Back, the new sessions were fairly productive. Over the next four months, the Beatles showed some evidence that they were still a functioning group as they continued writing and recording tracks for new songs, many of which would ultimately end up on Abbey Road, including “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Oh! Darling,” “Octopus’s Garden” and “You Never Give Me Your Money.”
But the music seemed without purpose, and McCartney was growing restless. He began lobbying his band mates to return to the studio and make a proper album, just as they used to. Harrison and Starr apparently needed little persuading, but Lennon was less than enthusiastic. He’d been enjoying his new life with Ono and working on their experimental music projects. Eventually, he grudgingly agreed to participate. Says Emerick, “I believe they had some private meetings and tried to bury the hatchet and work together as a group.”
Next, McCartney had to persuade George Martin to produce the record. Emerick recalls, “George Martin said he would do it only if he could record it like we used to, having a bit of fun and without all the bickering going on in the studio. Paul told him that was the way it was going to be, and they sorted out a lot of their problems.”
When McCartney approached Emerick about engineering the album, he accepted immediately. “I could hardly refuse, seeing as I was employed by them at the time building their studio,” he says, laughing. His duties on Apple’s studio, however, meant Emerick would not be available to the Beatles all the time, and his duties on Abbey Road were shared with EMI engineer Phillip MacDonald.
George Martin booked the Beatles in EMI Studios for the months of July and August. Returning to the control room of the facility’s Number Two studio, Emerick got a surprise. In recent months, EMI had updated the room with the studio’s first transistorized mixing console expressly built for recording, the TG 12345. (It was preceded by the RS147, a small solid-state mixer installed in a room used for remixes.) Previously, every electronic recording made at EMI Studios had been made with tube consoles and decks. But by 1969, tubes were out and transistors—then state-of-the-art technology—were in. Unlike tubes, transistors could be cheaply mass-produced and within reasonably similar tolerances. They offered other advantages too, mostly of a technical nature. But whatever their benefits, they didn’t sound like tubes. And for a group that had spent the better part of its career crafting its sounds with tube recorders and consoles, the new mixer was an unwelcome modernization.
“We had trouble getting the same kind of sounds they were used to,” Emerick says. “So there were a lot of long faces for the first few days. But there was no way the old mixing console could be brought in, so we went along with it.”
Once Emerick and the Beatles adjusted to the new sounds, however, the results were simply stunning. Though the sound of the transistorized console lacked the fullness, richness and depth of tube equipment, it was smooth, airy and transparent. And those qualities worked out brilliantly for Abbey Road.
Emerick says, “The new recording console, that specific one, gave the original rhythm tracks a certain texture that wasn’t as aggressive and upfront and hard as the tube desk would have given us. And that sound was well suited to a lot of the songs they brought in for the album. In addition, because the original rhythm tracks were sort of more subdued, the overdubs were a little softer and less harsh as well. Everything sat together a little easier in the mix. So to me that’s why that album has got the texture it’s got. Had we done it through that tube desk, I think it would have sounded a lot different.”
In addition to the new console, Emerick was able to use an eight-track tape deck on a Beatles recording for the first time since he began working with the group. Like the new console, the eight-track opened up all sorts of new creative possibilities. Emerick says, “It was actually the greatest step ever. It gave me a great deal more flexibility with positioning things in the mix. Before, when we were recording with a four-track, I’d end up with, say, two guitars, keyboards and bass guitar on one track. But with the eight-track, for the first time I could record drums in stereo and spread the instruments out properly.”
The drums and bass benefited most from the new technology. The console’s clarity produced more distinct low-end tones, allowing the pieces of Starr’s kit to be heard individually and capturing the supple tones of McCartney’s bass without muddying the bottom end of the frequency spectrum. The benefits for McCartney are most evident on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and especially on “Something,” where his bass lines move in smooth counterpoint to Harrison’s vocal, shadowing, rather than competing with or overpowering them. Starr’s drums, for that matter, never were quite so present on any of the Beatles’ previous albums. And when he pounds away at his kit, as he does for his solo on “The End,” the sound is loud and clear, yet it doesn’t overwhelm the listener.
The effect of EMI’s new console is less obvious on Harrison’s guitar work, perhaps because the guitarist’s tone is itself so compelling. Though he had shown himself to be a competent and at times inventive soloist on previous Beatles recordings, Abbey Road demonstrates that Harrison’s facility on the instrument had grown by leaps and bounds since even the Get Back sessions just months earlier, as if he had followed after Robert Johnson and made his own deal with the devil. Harrison’s slide work, in particular, is outstanding on Abbey Road. His mellifluous lead lines were more expressive than anything he’d done before, demonstrating a newfound confidence and connection with his instrument and creative muse. To enhance those liquid tones, Harrison used a Leslie rotary speaker cabinet, which, together, with his slide work, formed the basis of his new signature sound.
Emerick says, “George really came into his own on Abbey Road. For the first time he was speaking out and doing exactly what he wanted to do. And, of course, he wrote those beautiful songs, and we got a great new guitar sound.”
Harrison’s songwriting, like his guitar playing, had rapidly matured. In addition to “Something,” he contributed “Here Comes the Sun,” another of Abbey Road’s standout tracks. For Emerick, who had previously seen Harrison as the band’s least confident and at times least involved member, it was a sea change. The guitarist’s confidence was especially evident when he recorded his guitar solo for “Something.” Days after he first tracked it, Harrison decided he was unhappy with his tone and phrasing and asked to redo it. “But we only had one track available,” Emerick explains, “and we had to use that for the orchestral overdubs.” Undeterred, Harrison said he would cut a new solo live, with the orchestra, onto the one remaining track. “He certainly rose to the occasion and pulled it off brilliantly,” Emerick says.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine precisely what guitars, basses and amps were used on Abbey Road. Few photos were taken at the sessions, and even Emerick can’t recall what was played. “I was too busy setting up mics and getting sounds,” he says. Considering the short amount of time between the Get Back sessions and Abbey Road, it’s likely that the group used the same gear. That would include for Lennon an Epiphone Casino and Martin D-28; for Harrison his Gibson Les Paul, Fender Strat and Fender Rosewood Telecaster; and for McCartney his 1963 Hofner bass, Rickenbacker 4001S, Martin D-28 and Casino. Amps likely included silverface Fender Twin Reverbs and a Bassman, as well as Harrison’s Leslie 147RV cabinet.
In addition, there was one new piece of gear at the Abbey Road sessions: George Harrison’s Moog synthesizer. At the time the unwieldy instruments were made up of modules that had to be patched together manually to produce sounds, and a fair amount of technical knowledge was required to create even the most basic sounds. Emerick says, “Mike Vickers of Manfred Mann had one of those as well, and he came into the studio to show George how it operated and how to get sounds. We used it for the first time on ‘Because’ to create that French horn sound on the song—which was absolutely amazing for that time. It was the first time we’d ever heard that sound coming from anything but a French horn.”
To the Beatles’ and Emerick’s credit, the Moog was used sparingly and almost always in a musical way—for the playful solo on McCartney’s “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” as a shimmering texture on “Here Comes the Sun” and as a complement to McCartney’s bass guitar on “Mean Mr. Mustard.” Emerick says, “All the synthesizer sounds on Abbey Road integrate so well with the instruments. You never think of them as synthesizer sounds but as just another instrument.”
The sole exception to this was Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” As the song moved toward its climactic conclusion, Lennon asked to have a wash of white noise from the synthesizer applied over the track until it nearly drowned out the instruments. “John was into his experimental music with Yoko, and into her conceptual artwork,” Emerick says. “And ‘I Want You’ is an instance where he brought that in on Abbey Road.”
By any account, Lennon’s interest in the sessions was cursory. In the week before recording began, he and Ono had been in a car accident while on vacation. Although Lennon was virtually unscathed, Ono had been injured, and in the course of her treatment the couple learned that she was pregnant. Afraid to leave his wife alone, Lennon had a bed brought into the studio so that he could be near her. Though his band mates attempted a show of tolerance in the face of the intrusion, Lennon was often ill-tempered toward them and made his displeasure with the sessions evident. “I honestly don’t know what his frame of mind was at that time,” Emerick says. “I know he wasn’t 100 percent into the album. And I didn’t realize at the time that he was taking heroin, which almost certainly affected his state of mind.”
Lennon was particularly grumpy when it came to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” McCartney’s vaudevillian-style contribution to Abbey Road; Lennon called it “granny music.” Emerick recalls, “John upset Ringo at one point when he complained about his drum playing on ‘Polythene Pam.’ ” By the end of the session, Starr had figured out a new approach, but Lennon refused to continue working on the song. “Ringo got pissed off and took off for a couple of days,” though he eventually recut his drum part.
Most of all, perhaps, Lennon was unhappy with McCartney’s plan for the 16-minute medley that extends from track nine, “You Never Give Me Your Money,” to track 16, “The End.” “Oh, John hated the medley,” Emerick says. “He was totally against it,” though he came around after McCartney asked him to contribute some songs to it. Lennon responded with a trio of compositions: the gentle “Sun King,” the bluesy “Mean Mr. Mustard” and the all-out rocker “Polythene Pam.”
Despite Lennon’s protests about the medley, by all accounts he enjoyed recording the sequenced guitar solos that bring “The End” to its climax. “Paul went first, then George, then John, and they repeated the sequence in that way twice,” Emerick explains. “They knew they had to finish up with something big, and the solo was just the thing. Originally they couldn’t decide if John or George would play it. Eventually they said, ‘Well let’s have the three of us do it.’
“Hearing that performance was unbelievable. And it was all done live, in one take. They rehearsed it beforehand, and the execution of it was absolutely on the money. And when it came time to record it, Yoko, who was in the control room, started to follow John into the studio, and he said ‘No, love, not this time.’ He wanted it to be just him and his mates.
“When they were finished, everyone beamed. I think in their minds they went back to their youth and all those great memories of working together as a band. Suddenly there was just this great vibe in the studio. It was just superb.”
Paul McCartney’s promise to George Martin—that the Beatles would make an album the way they used to, without all the fighting—was fulfilled, if only at this session. Years after Abbey Road’s release, George Martin recalled that, “It was a happy album because everybody knew it was going to be the last.” It’s a statement that vexes Emerick to this day.
“How did he know it was going to be the last one?” he asks. “I can’t remember anyone on any session saying it was going to be their last album. For that matter I was still buildingtheir studio at Apple, which at that time was not going to be a commercial enterprise—it was going to be their studio, for them and the acts they signed to Apple.”
Whether it was intended to be the Beatles’ swansong or not, Abbey Road heralded the start of a new age in recording, a masterpiece recorded on the cusp of a new technological era. Emerick received two awards for his efforts. One was a Grammy for Best Engineering. The other was an album credit, his first on a Beatles album: “On the back of the record jacket, it says, ‘Thanks to George Martin, Geoff Emerick and Phillip MacDonald,’ though it doesn’t say who did what. But the very fact that any of us were mentioned—that came from the Beatles, not from EMI.”