Geoff Emerick is one of the unsung heroes of The Beatles’ saga. Inveterate reader of liner notes that I am, I’ve been aware of his name for some time, but it tended to blend into the amorphous blob of names of other guys on the periphery of The Beatles story, like their roadies Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans. I wasn’t all that clear on what his role was. Eventually I figured out that George Martin was the producer and Emerick the engineer on most of The Beatles’ records – whatever that meant.
Emerick has cleared it up in a memoir written with Howard Massey, its title borrowed from one of Paul McCartney’s songs on Revolver. As it happens, that was the first album on which Emerick was the recording engineer, a role he was to hold for most of the rest of the Fab Four’s career.
I’ve read a lot about The Beatles since they first came to my attention in 1963. I was a big fan from Day 1, and in addition to collecting their music I’ve made it a point to read a lot of books by and about them. Emerick’s is something different, and it sheds a different quality of light on the band and its life and times. Emerick plays the role of a third-person narrator of The Beatles’ recording career. It really is carefully set up as Emerick’s story of his life as a recording engineer, with a particular focus on its intersection with John, Paul, George and Ringo. But for the most part, we only see The Beatles when the come to the studio. If you want to learn about their personal lives or their concerts, or dissect their songs, there are other books that cover those things.
Only a few years younger than The Beatles, Emerick grew up in a comfortable if not luxurious home in post-war London. He was obsessed with music from a very young age, gleefully listening to his parents’ and grandparents’ records on their gramophones and even dabbling in a few instruments himself. But his real interest was in those records and how they were made, and he eventually dropped out of school and went to work at EMI’s Abbey Road studios at the age of 15. On his second day on the job as an assistant engineer, he got permission to attend (without pay) an evening recording session of a new pop group who were cutting their first single.
Emerick goes on to tell how he worked as an assistant engineer on both classical and pop recordings but eventually gravitated more toward pop, and even got to assist on some of the overdubbing sessions for The Beatles first album Please Please Me. He worked on Beatles sessions off and on over the next nearly three years, as he continued to learn the ropes of engineering. Then in 1966 while still a teenager he was promoted to engineer and appointed to record the sessions for what became the groundbreaking Revolver.
From there the book is off and running. Throughout, Emerick gives just enough technical detail about the recording process to make it understandable to a lay person, but never shows off with lots of jargon. He has plenty of juicy stories of the goings-on in the studio as The Beatles become the biggest pop recording stars in the world and learn to flex their muscle with the often-stodgy management at EMI. Emerick narrates the whirlwind sessions that created Revolver and the months-long slog that gave birth to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; and the gradual process by which The Beatles came apart through the so-called White Album, the acrimonious sessions for Let It Be, and the more peaceful but atomized sessions that produced their swan song Abbey Road.
It’s an entirely different angle on the making of The Beatles’ records. All of the other books and articles I’ve read emphasize how The Beatles’ and George Martin were creative forces in the studio, experimenting and tinkering until they got the sounds they were after. Emerick in Here, There and Everywhere emphasizes the role of the recording engineer in taking the ideas that the musicians have and turning them into something concrete. Lennon saying he wants his voice to sound like he’s singing from the Moon, for example, and Emerick deciding to route the vocals through the rotating speaker of a Leslie organ cabinet. Some might find the engineer’s narrative to be self-serving, but it rings true to me. He always gives the musicians their due, but also make sure that the guys on the technical staff get their share of the credit.
The most interesting thing about the book to me is Emerick’s revelation that he has synesthesia: he sees sounds as colors and images. It makes a lot of sense that he was always willing to break with rules and traditions of the studio to help the musicians get on tape the sounds they heard in their heads, since their music was exciting not just his own auditory system but his visual cortex as well. It certainly raises the question of what The Beatles’ recordings would have been like with anyone else at the console.
Emerick has lots of opinions about each of The Beatles and others in their world, and isn’t afraid to voice them. He’s quite uncomplimentary about George Harrison’s skills as guitar player and singer in the early years; in his opinion, Harrison wasn’t much of a musician until he started learning Eastern music. From his point of view in the control room, it appeared that drummer Starr remained an outsider in the group throughout its entire history. And Emerick gives plenty of examples of John Lennon’s behavior, which ranged from tender to caustic, playful to drug-addled.
But he’s careful to emphasize that The Beatles were an incredibly tight band, both live and in the studio, that they worked incredibly hard to follow their artistic visions, and that Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were amazingly good at singing complicated three-part harmonies. But also that the four Beatles plus their two roadies were a tightly sealed unit that didn’t let anybody else in, not even the producer and engineers with whom they spent months and years in the dank, tattered Abbey Road studios. Emerick got along best with McCartney and tends to give him a pass throughout; Paul was the only Beatle to ever really get to know Emerick as a person rather than just a knob-twiddler, and Emerick went on to work on several of McCartney’s solo and Wings albums.
He’s been criticized for some alleged factual errors and for some of those opinions, especially about Harrison. I don’t have an opinion about that, other than to say that anyone’s autobiography of course has lies, mistakes and omissions in it. I’m a big fan of The Beatles and their work, but not a nit-picking obsessive. The book is clearly and engagingly written, and it adds immensely to the reader’s knowledge of the recording process, what goes on in a studio, and what it was like to be involved in the studio when these young men from Liverpool were growing in a few short years from scruffy rockers to the most popular musicians on the planet.
If you’ve got a moment or three, here’s an Australian TV interview with Emerick from just last year during the Sgt. Pepper 50th anniversary to-do.