Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Sounds of Things

Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles
Geoff Emerick "and" Howard Massey

As a record collector, Anglophile, and pop culture scholar, I have read more books on the topic of the Beatles than any other single one event, group, or individual -- OK, maybe World War II pips them by a nose, if you count all the Enigma code books. Somehow I've missed out on this one, which isn't is as wide circulation as some more detailed but way more pedantic books by Mark Lewisohn et al. Emerick is one of the very few genuinely famous sound engineers (as opposed to producers) in pop music history -- other than a few engineers posing as real musicians, like Tom Scholz, Alan Parsons, or Billy Corgan. He did in fact produce many records after his time with the Beatles, including three of the four and a half good albums Paul McCartney made as a solo artist and Elvis Costello's chilliest one, no mean feat. Due to the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon of the Beatles, Emerick remains most famous for what he did (stunningly, between the ages of 15 and 23) at EMI studios as first an assistant and then lead engineer under George Martin.

Some basic flaws in the book make getting started, after the teaser of an introduction regarding the creation of the "Tomorrow Never Knows" drum sound, harder than it should be. Emerick's ghost forces unnecessary literary devices where his narrator's pure access and authenticity ought to be enough. They have a particular disconnect when it comes to Emerick's attempt to verbalize what he does as engineer; each time a metaphor begins to extend you grimace a bit. But this wears off quickly as the story quickly moves through the subject's childhood, with an efficient, major-bullet-points treatment that suits Emerick's taciturn character. Obsessed with sound and home taping from a young age, he knew what he wanted to do relatively early on and caught a lucky break when his middle school guidance counselor got him an interview at EMI. He only gets his job, he implies, because his appearance is clean-cut and he strikes a suitably respectful tone with two half-asleep classical producers in their sixties. He is able to keep it, however, because his years spent honing his listening abilities, learning how to single out each instrument in the sound field, make him well-suited to the career.

By another amazing, magical coincidence, Emerick ends up attending the Beatles' first recording session at EMI his first week on the job, shadowing an experienced assistant engineer (button-pusher) as he learns the ropes. To the authors' credit, the book holds to form as a biography of Geoff Emerick rather than yet another retelling of the Beatle myth here. He would work on bits and pieces of With the Beatles and Hard Day's Night (and is, historical fact, the first teenaged person to have his mind completely blown by the feedback intro to "I Feel Fine") but the career ladder at the venerable studio was strictly defined and after distinguishing himself as a button-pusher Emerick was duly moved on up to mastering. He would only experience Help! and Rubber Soul as other fans did, albeit somewhat earlier and on superior speakers. The book really gets the good stuff in 1966, when Emerick is unexpectedly promoted again -- at nineteen! -- to balance engineer and assigned to work the boards for Revolver, only the single best non-Phil Collins related album in the history of rock.

What's interesting about the psychology of Emerick's meteoric rise is how natural an intermediary he makes between the aristocratic George Martin (not our narrator's favorite person) and the Beatles, who if not all working class lads certainly liked to maintain such appearances. Geoff speculates that Paul McCartney may have agitated in particular for his promotion -- the two had become friends over their mutual love for Little Richard, and McCartney would visit Emerick in the mastering lab regularly when the Beatles were at Abbey Road. The Beatles were beginning to chafe under the particular, regimented way Martin and their first engineer Norman Smith made records, putting microphones in proscribed places and ignoring pleas for louder bass and weirder effects. Ironically, Smith left his engineering chair to produce Pink Floyd. John Lennon to Syd Barrett -- seems at best a lateral move, from a conservative recording engineer's perspective.

So Emerick made Revolver with the Beatles, working the boards for every song. Increased workload made it impossible for him to personally engineer all of Sgt. Pepper, but he was the technical mastermind behind everything from the chicken turning into a Stratocaster to the chopped up calliope samples. Paradoxically, the passages describing the major accomplishments of Emerick's career are the least interesting, as this stuff has been picked apart to hysterical detail by 40 years of intense Beatle studies. The real hook to Here, There and Everywhere, despite Massey's limitations as a ghostwriter and Emerick's own biases, are the interpersonal politics of the most famous rock group ever from one of the very few people who formed his first impressions of them by meeting them, not reading about them in dime magazines.

This is fascinating. For all the lack of insight some of the florid passages regarding the art of sound balancing give into Emerick's character, his distinct renderings of the famous four make up for it. Some of his perceptions are understandably skewed -- he always viewed McCartney as the leader of the band, but characteristically Paul was the only one to make a real effort to befriend the engineers and tape operators when the Beatles recorded. Hunter Davies has a much more nuanced take on the way Paul and John's spheres of influence expanded and contracted, even writing with the incomplete picture he had. Emerick has a nasty habit of grabbing on to first impressions and never letting go. He disliked George Harrison from the first, and evidently grew to really loathe Ringo Starr. He had an odd fannish pity about John -- Lennon was mean and nasty to everybody sometimes, but Emerick seems to grant Lennon a double standard because he considered him a higher grade of musician than Ringo or George. He's surprisingly neutral on some of the crazier John moves of the later years, and amazingly Yoko-tolerant (until she starts making mixing suggestions).

Some of Emerick's biases betray him. As open-minded as he was an engineer, he has some surprisingly stale musical opinions. His dismissive attitude towards George's guitar playing (early on) and Ringo's singing, for example, reflect an utter lack of knowledge of the country and western music that influenced both. His terse dismissal of the entire punk movement (on his way to bragging about his work on one of Elvis Costello's least successful early 80's albums) is undercut by his rather unimpressive 70's body of work as a producer, which peaked with Band on the Run. It's strange that neither author notices the disconnect between repeatedly boasting of drunken vandalism incidents with the younger engineers and then tut-tutting about the Beatles' drug use a few pages later. Emerick grows to appreciate Harrison's Indian influences, partly for the technical challenge of recording the nonstandard instruments but also because he sees how difficult they are to play.

It's funny, having read so many different accounts over the years, trying to triangulate all the different shadings of opinion and guess where the reality might lie. George Martin, for example, had a great deal of admiration for Ringo as a player, since he barely ever lost his place (once he was taught his part by Paul). Emerick, who had to sit in a steaming, cramped room manually starting, stopping, and reloading tape recordings for most of his formative years and was never much of a musician, must have felt Ringo had it relatively easy. And as two very quiet people, they must have grown to resent each other going all those years working closely together without either ever starting a conversation.

Naturally, the extroverted McCartney, the craftsman and closest listener of the band, took the most interest in Emerick. Our narrator seems a little shaken, even after many years, that his steady work with Lennon, Harrison, and Starr individually ceased after the nasty breakup. He took a job building a new studio at Apple headquarters, in part to have an excuse to beg out of some portion of the increasingly unpleasant task of recording the contentious Beatles, and found himself isolated when his advocate McCartney withdrew to begin gathering lawyers. Despite the chaos, Emerick made the recording and mastering subsection of Apple the only profitable element of the entire disastrous venture. Then Ringo decided to knock down the building, leading ultimately to such unforgivable career decisions as working for Supertramp.

The most interesting part of Here, There and Everywhere to this audiophile was the part of the detailed Sgt. Pepper chapters that explains how Paul McCartney would stay on into the early morning after everyone else checked out to work for hours on his bass parts. He and Emerick had a shared fixation on getting the right sound out of the instrument, which they had wrestled with unsatisfactorily for years. Beginning in the 1966-67 period the Beatles turned their backs on an entire recording career's worth of established practice and started recording rhythm tracks without bass, instead overdubbing the instrument at the end of the process. This allowed them to isolate it and for Emerick to shape the whole mix around making each note perfectly clear.

As a bass player, I owe a lot to Geoff Emerick -- if it weren't for the records he made, every rock album would still be mastered with the bass completely inaudible. But reading this passage helped me nail down another reason why I've just never completely connected with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, as vast as its myth may be, certainly not remotely in the way that I know every note, chord, lyric, and harmony from Revolver, A Hard Day's Night, and Abbey Road. It just doesn't sound enough like a rock record, and now I realize after reading Emerick's book and giving the vinyl an umpteenth headphone airing with special focus on the electric bass that McCartney's woefully overthought bass playing, intricate counterpoint throughout, betrays the proper function of the instrument in the band dynamic. The tunes from Revolver are rock and pop songs, skillfully arranged and performed. The basslines are innovative -- constantly so, "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Taxman," "Got to Get You Into My Life" -- but they perform the function of the electric bass in a rock band, which is to hold the basic shape of the song together between the drums and guitar by emphasizing rhythms and basic chord structure. If you're constantly doodling around with sixths and ninths over blues changes, you better have a damn good reason.

On Revolver, some of the most groundbreaking tunes have few instruments behaving at all conventionally -- besides the bass, which keeps the shape together. "She Said, She Said," where the cymbals are awash in so much gain that the pulse becomes lost, would fall apart without McCartney's repeating triplet pattern. Having all the time in the world to make Sgt. Pepper, versus Revolver where the band was up against a tour schedule, worked against it in my insignificant estimation. I'm all for the creative use of the recording studio as an active element of the recording process -- hey, XTC don't tour. But if you have an infinite amount of time to perfect an unlimited amount of parts, sometimes forest-tree situations arise. Recording quickly, the Beatles had to have a solid rhythm section sound or the few overdubs they did wouldn't work. When they took their sweet time about things, certainly innovation resulted. But also a certain kind of overanalytical fussiness in big-budget rock music, one Emerick alludes to when he criticizes the digital recording techniques of today, has its roots there as well.

1 comment:

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