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Friday, November 16, 2018

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

5 Times Geoff Emerick Saved The Beatles In The Studio

9:25 AM Posted by Nicole M

The Beatles world has lost another major figure with the passing of Geoff Emerick on October 2, 2018. Geoff served as George Martin's right-hand man in the studio as The Beatles' recording engineer, and played a critical part in helping the band achieve the sounds they wanted. It would not be incorrect to say that, without Geoff Emerick, many landmark Beatles recordings would not have the "signature sound" that they do.

Here are five instances in which Geoff Emerick's ideas and influence in the studio were critical to the finished recordings:

Yellow Submarine

In his book Here, There and Everywhere, Emerick says that The Beatles wanted the sounds of water, boats, and marine life to help shape the "Yellow Submarine" recording. With George Martin out sick for this recording session, it was Emerick who oversaw the recording of various sound effects, like blowing bubbles in a glass of water through a straw.

When John Lennon decided that he wanted his voice to be "recorded underwater to simulate being in a submarine," Emerick "thought to get a bottle of water and put a microphone in the water and get him to sing to that." Recognizing the danger this posed (electronics and water don't usually mix), Emerick "put the mic in [a] condom and put it in the bottle." That particular take didn't end up getting used on the final record, but now you know: John once sang a vocal through a microphone wrapped in a condom, submerged in water!

Paperback Writer

Paul McCartney had been listening to a lot of American records prior to the recording of "Paperback Writer," and he loved the heavy bass sound that these recordings featured. As Emerick recalls, Paul came to him and said "[Paperback Writer] is really calling out for that deep Motown bass sound ... so I want you to pull out all the stops this time." 

Emerick's solution? "It occurred to me that since microphones are in fact simply loudspeakers wired in reverse ... why not try using a loudspeaker as a microphone?" With that, Emerick re-wired a loudspeaker, "conducted a few experiments," and discovered that "I was able to achieve a good bass sound by placing it up against the grille of a bass amplifier, speaker to speaker, and then routing the signal through a complicated setup of compressors and filters."

"Paperback Writer" owes its signature bass sound to Geoff Emerick's creativity.


John was proud of his new song, "Revolution," and wanted the guitars to be particularly crunchy, loud, and nasty. Nothing Emerick had been able to do in the studio up to that point had satisfied John, until finally Emerick hit upon an idea that could easily have gotten him fired: "no amount of mic preamp overload had been good enough for [John] ... I decided to try to overload two of them patched together, one into the other ... I knelt down beside the console, turning knobs that I was expressly forbidden from touching because they could literally cause the console to overheat and blow up."

Emerick found the distortion sound that John wanted, a sound that set the bar for future distorted guitar effects, and all because he was willing to push the limits and "come up with the maximum amount of overload the board could take without bursting into flames."

Strawberry Fields

John's signature song has a signature sound that owes a lot to Geoff Emerick. "Strawberry Fields" had been recorded in dozens of different takes over many weeks, and in the end John liked the beginning of one take, but liked the end of another take. He wanted the two takes spliced together, which normally would have been no problem, except that the two takes had been recorded at different tempos, and different speeds.

The splice would have been obvious. The song would suddenly be playing at a faster speed, in a different key. As Emerick explains, in today's technological age "a computer can quite easily change the pitch and/or tempo of a recording independently of each other, but all we had at our disposal was a pair of editing scissors, a couple of tape machines, and a varispeed control."

But with a demanding John Lennon leaving the problem in his lap with a flippant "you'll figure it out, Geoff," Emerick rose to the challenge: "After some trial-and-error experimentation, I discovered that by speeding up the playback of the first take and slowing down the playback of the second, I could get them to match in both pitch and tempo."

Tomorrow Never Knows

Perhaps Emerick's most recognizable contribution to a Beatles recording is his work on "Tomorrow Never Knows." John wanted his vocal on the final verse to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a faraway mountain, and it became Emerick's responsibility to figure out how to make that happen.

At one point, John even insisted that Emerick suspend him upside down from the ceiling with a rope, and swing him in a circle around the microphone while he sang!

Happily, Emerick found a more creative solution: "The studio's Hammond organ was hooked up to a system called a Leslie – a large wooden box that contained an amp and two sets of revolving speakers ... nobody had ever put a vocal through it." With a bit of re-wiring, Emerick was able to feed John's vocal through the Leslie's rotating speakers, giving it that distinctive sound that is heard on the final recording.

Rest in peace, Mr. Emerick. "Your name liveth for evermore."

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Beatlefan Review of 'Ringo Starr and the Beatles Beat'

8:47 AM Posted by Nicole M
Article by John Firehammer and originally published in Beatlefan magazine (P.O. Box 33515, Decatur, GA 30033)Adapted with permission.

By Alex Cain and Terry McCusker
Matador, hardcover edition, 416 pages

From the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to Buckingham Palace, Ringo Starr is – finally – getting his due.

And this book, first published electronically and now in hardcover, is one of the best tributes of all.

Ringo’s abilities as a drummer have been debated for years. He was stereotyped for years as “just lucky,” a mediocre musician who landed the best gig on earth. Much of this is due to his lack of flashiness as a player – people are impressed by drum solos, even when they’re as musical as a car wreck – and his own self-deprecating personality.

But most people who know anything about playing drums will say, without hesitation, that Ringo was great. And here two drummers detail many of the reasons why.

Cain and McCusker, both Liverpudlians, cover just about every percussion-related topic in Beatles history, including Ringo’s predecessors in the band. There are descriptions and photos of Ringo’s various drum kits and McCusker’s entertaining firsthand recollections of seeing the Beatles in action in the Cavern, including an anecdote about the time Ringo almost ran him over outside the club in his Ford Zephyr.

But the real meat of the book is the song-by-song examination of the Beatles’ catalog and the percussion parts featured on each. Even the songs on which Ringo doesn’t play drums (the most famous case being “Back in the U.S.S.R., featuring Paul pounding the skins) and the songs with no drums at all, such as “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby,” are analyzed for their rhythmic properties.

There’s interesting information here that will get you listening to the Beatles’ music in new ways. I was struck by how, even early on, the band was experimenting with different percussive techniques and instruments. “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” for example, features not just drums, but echo-drenched overdubs of Ringo pounding two drumsticks together, creating an unusual and ear-catching effect. And on “Don’t Bother Me,” Ringo plays an African djembe drum joined by John on tambourine and Paul on woodblock.

Musical notation of Ringo’s drum parts is featured throughout, along with the time signature(s) of each tune. We see how, recording in the days before drum machines, the Beatles’ shortened and stretched the meter of their tunes to accommodate their lyrics, or just make the songs more interesting. The opening bars of “Drive My Car,” for example, are in 9/8, while “Good Day Sunshine” shifts between 4/4, 3/4 and 5/5. Ringo made it all make sense.

And, finally, we also get this perfect description of Ringo’s musicianship, taste and contributions to the Beatles’ songs: “It wasn’t simply what Ringo played, it’s how and when he played. Ringo possesses a sensitivity and empathy that enhances each song without dominating.” Exactly.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Beatles "White Album" Showdown: The Final Round

8:51 AM Posted by Nicole M

Our Beatles "White Album" Showdown has finally arrived at the end, the final matchup, the round that will determine which of the 30 tracks on "The White Album" double LP is the best of the bunch.

The Final Round

#4 Helter Skelter vs #3 Happiness is a Warm Gun

Paul wanted to write the heaviest song ever put to record, something sweaty, nasty, loaded with loud guitars, thudding bass, crashing drums, and screaming vocals. He succeeded with "Helter Skelter," and is often credited with inventing the "heavy metal" genre in the process.

The song is about an amusement park slide, and appropriately, begins with a shrieking guitar note that slides down the scale into immediate dissonance, as the riff works its way backwards through a "Secret Agent Man" type of chromatic lick. From then on it's a banger, and Paul's raucous vocal is perhaps one of his finest "shredders" captured on tape.

The high, wailing background vocals add a thrill factor and do plenty of their own "sliding" around throughout the song.

It's a tour-de-force and easily one of the best songs on the album.


John's multi-faceted "Happiness is a Warm Gun" is likewise heavy, but in a more grinding and even-paced fashion, slightly less hyper than "Helter Skelter." The opening is lyrically fascinating, with its talk of multicolored mirrors, hobnail boots, lizards on window panes, soap sculptures being eaten, and the touch of a velvet hand.

The middle section is equally compelling, with low and distorted guitar riffs, driving the song into a near frenzy of repeated exclamations, "Mother Superior, jump the gun!"

And then suddenly it's in doo-wop territory, but with an almost jarring background vocal: "Bang, bang, shoot, shoot!" John delivers one of his best vocal performances in this final phase of the song, screaming, "I feel my finger on your trigger, I know nobody can do me no harm!" The shivering high falsetto ending just puts the icing on the cake.

This song, too, is one of the best of the album.

But in the end, a winner must be declared, and so the victory goes to ...

[drum roll]

[screeching guitars]


Yes, the honor of Best Song on "The White Album" goes to "Helter Skelter." That raw energy, sustained for so long, is absolutely unbeatable.

Now that we've completely disassembled this epic double LP, be sure to put it all back together again soon and give the whole thing another listen, in its entirety. Make an event out of it. Enjoy the photo collage, crank up the volume, and experience the saga again with fresh ears.

The final word goes to Paul McCartney, quoted from Anthology: "You know, I'm not a great one for that -- you know, 'maybe it was too many,' or that -- look, what do you mean? It was great! It sold, it's the bloody Beatles White Album, shut up!"

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Beatles "White Album" Showdown: Rounds 3 & 4

8:29 AM Posted by Nicole M

The Beatles "White Album" showdown continues! In the previous two rounds, we'd taken all 30 tracks from The Beatles' famous double LP (released 50 years ago this November) and matched them against each other, tournament style, resulting in our arrival this week at the Elite Eight and the Final Fab Four contests.

As we near the conclusion of the tournament showdown, we'll push through two rounds in this installment, and save the final championship song-vs-song matchup for next week.

Here we go, then, with ...

The Elite Eight 

(click the image to enlarge)

#1 Back in the USSR vs #9 While My Guitar Gently Weeps
None of these are easy matchups, and Paul's hard-rocking, tongue-in-cheek celebration of life in the Soviet Union is met blow-for-blow by George's philosophical observations backed by once-in-a-lifetime guitar riffs. In the end, "USSR" wins the match with just an extra kick of excitement and drive.

#4 Helter Skelter vs #12 I'm So Tired
Did I say none of these were easy matchups? This one is fairly easy. "Helter Skelter" wins in decisive fashion. "I'm So Tired" is a great song (aren't they all?), but "Helter Skelter" comes out of the gate swinging, and it just never lets up until you're left, sweaty and spent, wondering what just hit you.

#2 Dear Prudence vs #7 Sexy Sadie
John vs John, Sadie vs Prudence, a guitar masterpiece vs a beautiful piano piece. It's a close call all the way, but "Dear Prudence" is more lyrically compelling, more musically interesting, and overall just has that extra "something" that "Sadie" doesn't quite have. But wow, these are both really, really good songs. Some people are inclined to think of "The White Album" as John's album, and it's material like this that makes it hard to argue. "Dear Prudence" goes on to the next round.

#3 Happiness is a Warm Gun vs #6 Blackbird
"Blackbird" stuck around for a few rounds, as it should have, but ultimately it has to yield here to John's little operetta. You just don't find lyrics anymore like "a man in the crowd with the multicolored mirrors on his hobnail boots," or "a soap impression of his wife which he ate and donated to the National Trust." So we say bye, bye to "Blackbird," and "Happiness" advances.

The Final Fab Four

(Click the image to enlarge.)

The excitement builds! Four songs left standing out of the original 30! At the end, we will be left with just the two best songs remaining.

#1 Back in the USSR vs #4 Helter Skelter
Rockin' Paul vs Rockin' Paul. How do you even declare a winner here? This matchup nearly needs to go into overtime, so closely matched are these two songs. But from the opening scream of distorted, dissonant guitar, right on through to the breathless, drum-pounding, finger-blistering end, "Helter Skelter" is a Category 5 Hurricane of Awesome, and it wins the matchup, upsetting the Number One seed.

#2 Dear Prudence vs #3 Happiness is a Warm Gun
The previous matchup featured Paul vs Paul, and this one features John vs John in a real nail-biter. The background vocals are even neck-and-neck at this point: "Look around, round, round ... round, round," and "Happiness ... bang, bang, shoot, shoot!" Another matchup that requires overtime and extra listening, it has to be "Happiness" that wins, but barely. George's mini-solo in the middle of the song probably gives it the push necessary to win. Two upsets in a row!

And now we have arrived. Next week, the ultimate showdown: "Happiness is a Warm Gun" squares off against "Helter Skelter" for the championship title, the award of "Best Song on the White Album."

Don't miss the thrilling conclusion!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Beatles "White Album" Showdown: Round 2

8:39 AM Posted by Nicole M

Welcome to Round Two of The Beatles "White Album" Showdown! Last week, we spent a good deal of time ignoring the yard work that needed to be done, and instead pitted the 30 individual tracks on The Beatles (aka "The White Album") against each other in head-to-head matchups, resulting in 16 tracks being declared winners. A splendid time was guaranteed for all, and the resulting bracket looked like this (click to enlarge the image):

This week, because there is still yard work to be done, those 16 tracks will be further narrowed down to an Elite Eight. Highly scientific methods were employed here: musical structures were evaluated against lyrical content, production value was taken into consideration, and then ultimately it was decided that this seemed like a lot of work, and flipping a coin was easier.

So let's get to it!

#2 Dear Prudence vs #18 Why Don't We Do It in the Road?
Paul McCartney's fun little novelty song about committing acts of indecent exposure was fun while it lasted, but John Lennon's masterpiece wins this round easily, not least because of some seriously cool guitar picking in the intro and outro. "Prudence" advances.

#1 Back in the USSR vs #17 Piggies
Both songs employ the use of clever sound effects, but Paul's send-up of Chuck Berry-style lyrics and Beach Boys-style vocals is fantastically clever, and a driving good rocker to boot. "USSR" wins hands down, with a paper bag on its knee.

#9 While My Guitar Gently Weeps vs #8 I Will
A very close matchup, right down to the final buzzer. "I Will" is one of the sweetest love songs ever written, but "Guitar" has a special claim to fame: it was the final song George Martin ever scored for orchestra strings. (See the version on the Love album.)

#4 Helter Skelter vs #13 Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
Two rocking tunes, lots of screaming, an overdose of dirty guitar -- this is one close contest. Have you ever listened to the shrieking background vocals in "Helter Skelter," though, especially in the mono version? Absolutely spine-tingling. "Helter Skelter" emerges victorious. See you at the bottom!

#12 I'm So Tired vs #5 Revolution 1
Let's face it: the faster, heavier version of "Revolution" was cooler. And "I'm So Tired" has that weird mumbled bit at the end that, when played backwards, reveals clues about Paul McCartney's death. "Tired" was never going to lose this round.

#10 Julia vs #7 Sexy Sadie
John's surly take-down of the Maharishi in "Sexy Sadie" is crammed full of quotable lines, set to a catchy tune and capped off with that memorable, haunting falsetto "oooooh." It's tough to beat, and in this contest, "Sadie" wins.

#3 Happiness is a Warm Gun vs #14 Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Yes, Paul's bouncy little jingle is happy and go-lucky, but John's three-part opus is legendary, and features some sizzling guitar work by George Harrison in the middle section. "Happiness" wins without much of a struggle.

#22 Honey Pie vs #6 Blackbird
Does "Blackbird" have what it takes to win here, with its fancy guitar work, simple tap-tap percussion, and hopeful lyrics? Obviously. "Blackbird" moves on to the next round.

For those keeping score at home, then, the Elite Eight of The Beatles "White Album" are these:

  • Dear Prudence
  • Back in the USSR
  • While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  • Helter Skelter
  • I'm So Tired
  • Sexy Sadie
  • Happiness is a Warm Gun
  • Blackbird

Next week, we'll narrow these down to the Final Fab Four, the Semi-Finals, and -- drumroll, please, Ringo -- the ultimate winner, the without-a-doubt best song on the entire album. I'm certain we'll all agree on the results!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Beatles "White Album" Showdown: Round 1

10:23 AM Posted by Nicole M

This whole thing started with a fairly innocent question: can The Beatles' double-LP, commonly known as The White Album, be reasonably trimmed down to a single, cream-of-the-crop disc? George Martin famously said in The Anthology that he wished they had done exactly that, but we're talking about throwing away half of the 30 songs on the album here. It can't be done! Or can it?

And that's when this innocent little question somehow got bit on the arm by a zombie and became an un-dead monster with a life of its own. Not content with devouring 15 of the 30 songs, the query became "What if 15 songs become eight, and what if eight became four, and WHAT IF WE HAD A BRACKET-STYLE TOURNAMENT TO DETERMINE THE ALL TIME GREATEST SONG ON THE WHOLE WHITE ALBUM?!?!?!"

It might just be the most awesome thing ever, especially if adult beverages are involved. The tournament bracket looks like this (click to enlarge the image):

So here we go with the opening round, in which both "Back in the USSR" and "Dear Prudence" get a bye, and the rest of the songs just thrash it out until we're left with a one-disc album.

#16 Martha My Dear vs #17 Piggies
Animal song against animal song, sheep dog versus swine, big cheery brass taking on baroque harpsichords and strings. It's a close one right down to the wire, but the piggy sound effects and "one more time"-plus-big-strings-coda push "Piggies" over the edge into victory.

#9 While My Guitar Gently Weeps vs #24 Savoy Truffle
This is a tough one. On the one hand, you've got a beefed up saxophone section driving a song about Eric Clapton's mouthful of cavities and toothaches, but on the other hand you've got Eric Clapton himself playing a searing guitar solo for the ages. Did I say this was a tough one? It's not. "Guitar Gently Weeps" by a landslide.

#8 I Will vs #25 Don't Pass Me By
A sweet acoustic ballad about the wonders of love, lilting and wonderfully delivered via McCartney's tenor vocal, will always beat Ringo honking out an overly simple barn-and-hay tune that includes lyrics like "you were in a car crash, and you lost your hair." Winner: "I Will."

#4 Helter Skelter vs #29 Wild Honey Pie
I've never considered these two songs side by side, but I think I just discovered the Yin & Yang of the Maccaverse. One song shows what Paul could do when he set his mind to executing a plan ("all I wanted to do [was] make a very loud, raunchy rock 'n' roll record"), and one shows what happens when you smoke a joint the size of a large burrito. "Helter Skelter" wins easily.

#13 Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey vs #20 Mother Nature's Son
Paul's finger-picking ode to daisies and mountain streams is lovely, but it's a solo effort that probably belonged on McCartney or Ram, while John's screaming, thrashing, caffeine-induced urgings to "come on, come on, come on, come on, come on" are a full band effort. The gnarly bass lick at the end kicks the song into the next level. "Monkey" wins this one.

#12 I'm So Tired vs #21 Good Night
Songs about being tired versus songs about going to sleep? I guess I'd rather stay up, have the cigarette and the drink that John suggests, and continue cursing Sir Walter Raleigh until the wee hours. "I'm So Tired" takes this contest without much trouble.

#5 Revolution 1 vs #28 The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
"Bungalow Bill" is a silly song, oddly constructed, badly ended (did someone forget to tell the Mellotron player the song was over?), needlessly long-titled, and -- worst of all -- contains 250% more than the FDA-recommended amount of Yoko Ono vocals. "Revolution 1," for the win.

#15 Long, Long, Long vs #18 Why Don't We Do It In The Road?
Play the first 8-10 seconds of "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" That drum riff, with the whip-crack handclaps? Yeah, that's why this song wins.

#10 Julia vs #23 Cry Baby Cry
John gets massive points for spinning an oddball yarn about kings, queens, dukes, and seances interrupted by prankster kids, but let's face it: his tightly constructed song of mourning for his mother is a masterpiece. "Julia" was always going to win this contest.

#7 Sexy Sadie vs #26 Birthday
Yes, I did say it's my birthday, but I do not for even a second believe that it's your birthday too, Paul. Also, there's more Yoko in this song. "Sexy Sadie" wins for being an awesome, biting rebuke set to music.

#3 Happiness Is A Warm Gun vs #30 Revolution 9
After waiting around for over eight minutes, the other team never even showed up to play, so "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" wins this round by default.

#14 Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da vs #19 Yer Blues
Yes, a lot of people like the little bluesy jam-fest in the closet, but consider this: no. The Beatles and blues are a tenuous partner to begin with, and authentic blues is usually a bit more subtle and metaphorical, lyrically speaking. You say things like, "I went down to the crossroads and tried to flag a ride," or "The sky is crying, can you see the tears roll down the street," or even "Boom, boom, boom, boom," but not usually something so on-the-nose as "Yes I'm lonely, wanna die." This round goes to the chirpier, cheerier "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

#11 Glass Onion vs #22 Honey Pie
In a stunning upset, the homage to the dance hall defeats the imagery-loaded lyrics full of callbacks to previous Beatles songs. It's not that "Glass Onion" isn't a great song, it's that "Honey Pie" is just a really, really well-written genre tribute with wildly interesting chord changes, and a once-in-a-lifetime jazz guitar solo played to perfection by John, of all people. "Honey Pie" advances to the next round.

#6 Blackbird vs #27 Rocky Raccoon
Both songs are about animals, both songs are Paul compositions, and both are played out on a simple set of acoustic guitar chords. Except that "Blackbird" is a parable with profound meaning, hung on a musical architecture that is both simple and stunning at the same time, and "Rocky Raccoon" is about a trash-digging animal who is apparently in an intimate relationship with a human female. (No wonder she changed her name three times.) "Blackbird" soundly wins the round.

And that was that. Your newly fashioned, "guaranteed not to crack," single-LP version of The White Album is as follows:
  • Back in the USSR
  • Dear Prudence
  • Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
  • While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  • Happiness Is A Warm Gun
  • I'm So Tired
  • Blackbird
  • Piggies
  • Why Don't We Do It In The Road?
  • I Will
  • Julia
  • Revolution 1
  • Helter Skelter
  • Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey
  • Sexy Sadie
  • Honey Pie
Stick around, though. There's more White-whittling left to be done.