Geoff Emerick (1945-2018)

Geoff Emerick (b.1945 – d.2018)

To understand Geoff Emerick’s contribution to the Beatles remarkable output, it helps to understand the environment that was EMI Studios in the early 1960s.

The studio, that would later become known as Abbey Road, was as process driven as any factory. Every element of the recording process had a designated individual responsible for ensuring that their particular element was carried out as intended. The guidelines were rigid, and there was an ‘EMI’ way of working. Management would take studio staff to task for even the most minor deviations. The engineers even wore white lab coats over their shirts and ties - a far cry from the typical jeans and T-shirt attire so common in studios today.

In 1962, at the age of 15, Emerick was made aware of a vacancy at EMI and quickly found himself as a fly on the wall at the very first Beatles recording session for EMI, albeit as a lowly apprentice to Richard Langham, assistant engineer on the session. The session would yield the band’s very first hit – ‘Love Me Do’.

As Emerick’s rigorous EMI training progressed, he would cross paths with The Beatles, assisting on various sessions whilst learning the ropes. But it wasn’t until 1966, at the request of producer George Martin, that Emerick - now fully schooled in the EMI fashion - would graduate to engineering Beatles sessions. This was a relationship that would continue off and on until the recording of ‘Abbey Road’ with the band as a whole; the relationship would continue even longer with Paul McCartney, who would later invite Emerick to work on a number of his solo projects including ‘Band on the Run’ and ‘Flaming Pie’.

At just 19 years old, Geoff Emerick found himself as lead recording engineer on ‘Revolver’. Whilst he had been honing his craft, The Beatles had been enjoying unparalleled success, and with the recording of ‘Rubber Soul’ were finding themselves in the unique position of being able to challenge the rigid working methods at Abbey Road. American pop records of the time were bursting out of the speakers and setting the standard in a once British dominated area. The Beatles were inspired and desperately seeking new ways of developing their sonic palette.

Emerick’s first session as Beatles’ recording engineer was working on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. His pioneering recording techniques are well documented, but in short, John Lennon requests that he be suspended from the ceiling and spun around a vocal mic in an attempt to sound like ‘a thousand Tibetan monks chanting’. Geoff Emerick instead suggests putting Lennon’s vocal through a Leslie (a rotating Hammond organ speaker) and Lennon is very happy with the results.

In the equally well documented incident of Lennon wanting to splice different versions of ‘Strawberry Fields’, it was Emerick that was faced with the seemingly impossible task of combining versions of different tempos and keys – a feat that would remain difficult to pull off convincingly even in 2018 with all the bells and whistles of today’s digital audio workstations, let alone on tape in 1966.

Again when recording drums during the Revolver sessions, Emerick flouted studio rules by placing microphones closer to Ringo’s drums than was permitted by studio management. He received a stern reprimand, but was later given written permission to engage in this practice – but only on Beatles sessions - as such was the bands’ purchase at EMI in 1966. This close-miking technique has remained the standard in live and recorded drums ever since.

It was his willingness to tear up the rulebook and say ‘yes’ that endeared Emerick to the band and George Martin.

Having ‘retired’ from touring in 1966, The Beatles were no longer faced with the daunting task of having to perform their recorded works out in front of an audience. This liberating prospect left the band free to layer complex arrangements and take the relatively new practice of overdubbing to new levels. Emerick and Martin’s ability to commit each Beatle’s vision to tape would set the benchmark in using the studio as an instrument and form a partnership that would result in one of the most successful albums of all time, both commercially and critically. When ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was released in 1967, it spent 27 weeks at number one in the UK and was praised for its innovation and artistic direction. It remains one of the highest selling albums of all time.

Emerick had the good sense to get out of the firing line during the fraught White Album sessions, but returned to work on Abbey Road which was very nearly titled ‘Everest’ after Emerick’s chosen brand of cigarettes.

Geoff Emerick will undoubtedly be remembered as ‘The Beatles Engineer’, but leaving aside the Beatles canon for a second, his work with Kate Bush, The Zombies, Elvis Costello and Supertramp alone would still leave an impressive legacy.

Hear the impact of his work:

The Beatles – Taxman (McCartney’s reversed guitar solo)

The Beatles – Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!

Kate Bush – The Man with the Child in his Eyes

The Zombies – Time of the Season

Stealers Wheel – Stuck in the Middle with You

The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever (1.00 minute mark for the splice)

The Beatles – The End (Ringo’s drum solo in stereo)

Supertramp – Give A Little Bit