Geoff Emerick: The Real Beatles Producer?

Geoff Emerick working with Paul McCartney

Beatles fans are spoilt for choice when it comes to books about the band. But a particularly interesting one to explore is Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles by Geoff Emerick (co-written with music journalist Howard Massey).

Now, as any proper Beatles fan will tell you, Emerick — sadly no longer with us, having passed away in October 2018 — engineered a significant chunk of their very best music, including the Revolver, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road albums; he was present at the first ever Beatles recording session and was involved in some way or other with a huge number of their songs.

And Here, There and Everywhere is a rather unique telling of The Beatles story: while most other people writing about the band have had to rely on conjecture or second-hand accounts to paint a picture of what went on the studio, Emerick's account is based entirely on first-hand experience. He spent much of the 1960s holed up in the same room as the world's most influential rock band as they recorded their most important work, and accordingly he is able to provide an incredibly intimate warts-and-all portrayal of the group — a portrayal that almost leaves you feeling like you were there at the time.

(In a way, reading the book is a bit like watching Peter Jackson's Get Back documentary, which gives you a similarly immersive, fly-on-the-wall experience.)

As you go through Emerick's retelling of events, you get an incredibly vivid sense of The Beatles' personalities; and what's interesting about this is that rather than warming to the band members, you actually start to dislike them.

Many other authors of Beatles history indulge in hero-worship, to the point where the band are godlike individuals that can do no wrong, musically or otherwise — but Emerick is not afraid to depict them as being assholes on numerous occasions.

He recounts that the band members were frequently stand-offish; they wouldn't share their food (particularly digestive biscuits); they had huge egos; they were selfish; and they were snobbish towards the Abbey Road staff.

And occasionally, Emerick is pretty critical of their musical skills too: for example, George Harrison is portrayed throughout much of the book as a very average guitarist who took ages to get any solos right. Ringo is depicted as a fairly disinterested sort of individual who didn't have that much musical input into anything.

(For the record, I feel that Ringo's musical contribution was key to the creative success of a huge number of their songs — but that's another blog post.)

Emerick has interesting things to say about George Martin too; namely, that he wasn't half as important to proceedings as he is generally considered. Emerick describes him as more of a string arranger than a producer, reluctant to give his engineering team any credit for their work; he also states that from 1966 onwards Martin was viewed by the band as a bit superfluous to the recording process.

It's also remarkable to discover that the place where all this recording took place — Abbey Road's Studio Two, so revered by Beatles fans — was actually fairly disliked by the band and many of the EMI staff who worked there (they considered it a dank, dark sort of a place).

And then of course, there's the accounts of the technical side of the recordings. The danger with this aspect of the book was that the passages on sound engineering would be a turn-off to the reader who is not really interested in the ins and outs of valve compression and microphone placement, but somehow Emerick, with his co-writer's help, manages to make this sort of thing entertaining for the non-technically minded reader.

His description of how he engineered 'Tomorrow Never Knows,' which involved a giant tape loop going all around Abbey Road (with white-coated staff members holding up pencils for the tape to spin upon) is particularly fascinating, not to mention very humorous.

But nothing is real?

Now, as authors of these sorts of books tend to do, Emerick is writing history to suit himself and doesn't hold back from painting his own contribution to The Beatles' recordings in a very positive light. Sometimes this feels a little too self-congratulatory, and an engineer who worked alongside him, Ken Scott (who later went on to be a famous producer, best-known for his work with Bowie), completely disputes Emerick's version of events and largely dismisses the book as fantasy. It's an interesting spat, which you can read about here.

There do certainly seem to be some factual errors here and there (Scott would argue here, there and everywhere), and it does seem a bit suspect that Emerick is able to magically recall exactly what The Beatles said in specific recording sessions well enough to quote the band verbatim, i.e.,

"We can't hear ourselves onstage anymore for all the screaming," Paul interjected earnestly, "so what's the point? We did try performing song songs off the last album, but there are so many complicated overdubs we can't do them justice. All we want is to raise the bar a notch, to make our best album ever."

Well, Sir Paul might have said something to that effect, and I suppose creating a sentence and putting it in quotations does help drive a narrative — however, it's a bit silly to present stuff like this as sentences that were actually uttered by the band (and 'earnestly' at that).

But despite these gripes — Ken Scott's or my own — I feel that Emerick's contribution towards The Beatles' recordings was so significant, and his vantage point so unique within their history, that his take on things deserves a fair hearing.

Geoff Emerick as producer, not engineer

Regardless how accurate his account of proceedings is, you could argue that Emerick is as worthy as anyone of that much-bandied-about 'Fifth Beatle' title. He played the studio like an instrument and a huge number of the classic sounds that we hear on Beatles' records were his.

Putting Lennon's vocal through a Leslie loudspeaker on 'Tomorrow Never Knows;' sticking sellotape over the tape heads when recording 'Lovely Rita' to get a wobbly piano sound; close-mic'ing the drums on Revolver (with close-mic'ing being a forbidden pratice at Abbey Road at the time); using a speaker as a microphone to record the bass on 'Paperback Writer'...these are just a few examples of the incredible ways that Emerick used and abused recording equipment to shape the songs of The Beatles. Songs that wouldn't sound remotely the same — or as good — without his contributions.

Ultimately I find it very hard not to see Emerick's groundbreaking work on Revolver and Pepper as more production than engineering — and there's a strong case to be made for Emerick being credited as a co-producer on these albums rather than as an engineer.

There is no question that the 'official' Beatles producer, George Martin, was an incredible arranger of music and shaped The Beatles' work in all sorts of amazing ways, but I'm not sure that he would have been so quick to remove the bottom drumheads to put mics inside the drums; mic the bass amp from a distance; or put tracks through three Fairchild compressors sequentially...that was all down to Emerick, and crucial to the production process.

Bringing The Beatles down to earth — and back to life

Now back to the book. Perhaps the passage of time, along with his lack of a diary / detailed notes of The Beatles recording sessions, has led to some inaccuracies creeping into his memoir, but I don't get the sense that when sharing his story, Emerick was making stuff up for the sake of it. Besides which, his accounts of what went on in the studio chime relatively consistently with the stories of other important witnesses to the development of The Beatles' music.

And it's refreshing to see people routinely described as geniuses who can do no musical wrong come in for fairly robust criticism. In the book, The Beatles become real people rather than rock gods, and because of this, you can identify with them more.

So all in all, Here, There and Everywhere is well worth a read, even for the most jaded of Beatles nerds. Emerick was a huge player in and an important observer of Beatles history and this book takes you right inside this history — so much so that when you've finished reading it, you feel like you've just spent the 60s in a recording studio with a grumpy, chaotic, egotistical but extraordinary talented rock band. 

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About the author

Chris Singleton is the songwriter in Five Grand Stereo and a regular contributor to this blog. When not writing music — or about it — he edits a popular blog about ecommerce and web design, Style Factory.

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