Looking back with Geoff Emerick as the classic ‘Revolver’ marks its golden anniversary
Geoff Emerick arrived at EMI studios in London as an assistant engineer right around the same time The Beatles inked their first recording contact. While George Martin gets credit for being the “fifth Beatle,” Emerick was also there from the beginning and had just as much influence over the band’s evolving sound.
As chief engineer on the most groundbreaking recordings The Beatles made, beginning with Revolver—which turns 50 this month—Emerick pioneered recording techniques like tape loops and backwards recording, helping usher in the modern recording era.
During a recent talk at the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi in Cleveland, Emerick drew back the curtain on some of the band’s most important recording sessions.
John Lennon’s independent streak was already showing at their first session.
Producer George Martin booked the group’s debut recording session to record the Mitch Murray tune, “How Do You Do It?” But John Lennon had no desire to release a cover song as their first single, and he suggested to Martin that they record one of their own: “Love Me Do.” The band made a few passes, but they didn’t take. Martin booked another session a few weeks later, and they recut what would become their first A-side.
“Love Me Do” hit the airwaves in October 1962. Just a few months later, when they went back to record “She Loves You,” their popularity had begun to surge. Hundreds of fans mobbed the studio, running amok through the recording and mastering rooms, hiding in cupboards and even grabbing Ringo Starr in the melee.
“When you listen to that record,” said Emerick, “there’s so much energy in that performance because it’s basically a live performance.”
‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is the first pop song built on a drum loop.
Emerick’s first session as chief engineer for The Beatles was “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the psychedelic closer to Revolver and a 180-degree turn from Rubber Soul hits like “Drive My Car” and “In My Life.” The song was instantly in another category, thanks to its rolling rhythm loop.
“John wanted a sort of hypnotic drum track, and Ringo couldn’t quite hold the hypnotic timing, so we made up a drum loop. That was the first time [that had been done] as far as I was concerned within the confines of that studio complex.
“We only had two stereo machines in the control room, but we needed six just to play these loops. Luckily, the other rooms in the studio were vacant that day.” He recruited all the assistant engineers and anyone else he could find, connected the tape machines from the separate rooms together, and had each one cue up a loop.
“That was the beginning of creating new sounds, which was basically abusing the equipment. I could have easily been fired in anyone found out what I was doing.”
The strings on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ had a creepy origin.
The instrumentation that brings Paul McCartney’s stark musing on loneliness from Revolver to life came from an equally dark place. When Martin suggested using strings, McCartney said he didn’t want a lush, romantic sound. That’s not what Martin wanted, either—his vision of menacing, stabbing strings took inspiration directly from the famous shower scene in the 1960 thriller “Psycho.” It was up to Emerick to figure out how to make it happen.
“Paul and I were discussing how we would record the strings, and I was experimenting all the time with microphones and instruments. [We had] a double string quartet. I was putting the microphone right where the bow was hitting the strings to get as much as ‘bite’ as possible.”
Their technique bothered the performers so much that they began moving away from the mics, causing the sound to change gradually during the track. Emerick eventually figured it out and fixed the problem, though, and the result is still an unsettling experience 50 years later.
Photo credit: Rory Doyle/GRAMMY Museum Mississippi