Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick on Abbey Road
A track-by-track walkthrough
by Joe Bosso
Thu 10 Sep 2009
Forty years ago (on 26 September 1969, to be exact) the world first saw an album cover featuring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr strolling across a zebra-striped street called Abbey Road, located in St John's Wood in north London.
It is an image as memorable as the moon landing - and one copied by tourists on a daily basis. (Even a few bands have paid homage, most notably Booker T & The MGs.)
Ironically, that picture was a last-minute decision. During the recording of what was to be their swan song, The Beatles toyed with several titles, and Everest, a reference to the brand of cigarettes their chief engineer, Geoff Emerick, smoked, was the favorite.
"But the band decided they didn't want to trek to the top of Mount Everest to shoot the cover," says Emerick, with a laugh. "So Ringo said, 'Why don't we just shoot the cover outside and call it Abbey Road?' Like many a Ringo suggestion, it won out."
During his tenure with The Beatles, Emerick had a few good ideas of his own - many of his sonic innovations, starting with the album Revolver, broke new ground and established techniques that are emulated to this day.
But Emerick almost sat out Abbey Road. Having begun his career at EMI Studios at the age of 15 in 1962 as a lowly tape copier and becoming, under the stewardship of George Martin, one of The Beatles' most-trusted sound architects, he quit working with the band during the recording of the double-LP The Beatles aka 'The White Album.'
"The group was disintegrating before my eyes," says Emerick. "It was ugly, like watching a divorce between four people. After a while, I had to get out."
A year later, however, he was drawn back to work with Martin and The Beatles with the promise that the band would be on their best behavior. Emerick missed a few sessions for the album that would eventually rename EMI Studios, but in the end, he says, "I'm glad I came back for the final bow. To have missed being a part of the Abbey Road album, I'd still be kicking myself."
Things must have been pretty awful during 'The White Album' for you to up and leave. Walking out on The Beatles - not many people would have done that.
"Oh, it was a nightmare. I was becoming physically sick just thinking of going to the studio each night. I used to love working with the band. By that point, I dreaded it. Getting out was the only thing I could do."
Even so, you returned because the band promised to make nice and get along for Abbey Road.
"That's right. It came about through a conversation George Martin had with Paul. I had left EMI, but I was employed by The Beatles and was overseeing the construction of a new studio for them at Apple.
"After Let It Be, which I understand was not very pleasant for anybody, Paul was very keen to make a record the way the band used to. He wanted George Martin and I behind the console and everybody working together. He said things would be better than what they had been."
Did you take Paul at his word, that there would be a spirit of harmony?
"Yes, I did take him at his word. And John said the same thing to George Martin. In the back of my head I might have had some reservations, like, 'Well, we'll see…' But I was surprised and pleased at how everybody got along."
Did you have any idea while you were cutting Abbey Road that it would be The Beatles' last album? Was anything said to that effect?
"I didn't think it would be the last one. And nothing was said to indicate that, at least not to me. As far as I understood it, we'd be working on another record in the new studio I was building at Apple. The band was getting along better. The mood wasn't bubbly and fun all the time, but it was a hell of a lot better than during the previous year.
"The only hint they gave me or anybody was on the album cover, where they're walking across the street. For people who don't know the geography, they're actually walking away from the EMI Studios - or Abbey Road, as everybody knows it now. This was intentional on their part - they didn't want to be seen as walking toward the studio. When I saw that photo, I did think to myself, 'They're sending a message.'
"By that time, they'd been literally incarcerated at EMI. They grew to truly hate the place. It certainly wasn't the most luxurious studio in the world. It was cold and quite uncomfortable, and EMI was always quite slow to embrace new technologies - we were the last to get four-track and eight-track recording decks. In fact, Abbey Road was the first album where I got to use an eight-track console."
I'm curious: The Beatles were the biggest band in the world - still are, really. Couldn't they have told EMI, "We want a better consoles, better accommodations"?
"No, it was against the rules at EMI. I remember at one point they wanted some covered lights in Studio Two, a bit of mood lighting, and the word they got back was 'We can't do that sort of thing.' So the band ended up setting up their own little area in Studio Two, with little lamps of their own and things to make it more homey."
Ringo's drumming is extraordinary on Abbey Road, his tom fills especially. But there's a different sound to his drums as well; they envelope the songs.
"I chalk that up partly to the technology. For the first time we were using a transistorized mixing console. Up to this point, all the albums had been recorded on a tube desk. But this luxurious transistorized desk had a limiter and compressor on every channel and selectable frequencies - it was quite a change.
"Regarding Ringo's drums, this was the first time I was able to record his kit in stereo because we were using eight-track instead of four-track. Because of this, I had more mic inputs, so I could mic from underneath the toms, place more mics around the kit - the sound of his drums were finally captured in full.
"I think when he heard this, he kind of perked up and played more forcefully on the toms, and with more creativity."
He was still draping tea towels over his drums, something he started around the time of Hey Jude and 'The White Album.'
"That's right. He did that on a couple of things. Come Together, Something…those are the ones that come to mind.
"You know, now that I recall, the transistor desk wasn't without its problems. It delivered a bit of a softer sound - the guitars, the bass, the snare and the bass drum were all a bit softer and warmer. It took a little bit of time for the guys to get used to it.
There wasn't the kind of out-and-out fighting and bickering that you witnessed in '68, but there was tension. Didn't Ringo walk out again, as he did during 'The White Album'?
"Yeah. that was because John wasn't happy with the drumming on Polythene Pam. He had some problems with Ringo's performance and Ringo got pissed off and split for a couple of days. But he came back and redid the track and John was pleased.
"That was the only bit of real tension - well, except for the fact that John absolutely hated Maxwell's Silver Hammer. My word, that song drove him totally mad, and he certainly made everyone aware of how much he hated it." [laughs]
The Moog synthesizer was a new addition to The Beatles' lineup of instruments on Abbey Road. Do you recall any new guitars or drums coming in?
"No. I really couldn't pay attention to that side of things, although I was quite fascinated with what they were doing with the Moog. I was more concerned with tones and getting sounds right. Don't forget, before then, everything was being monitored in mono; this was the first album we recorded in stereo."