THE BEATLES’ STELLAR SONGWRITING skills and world-class charm are the staples of pop culture commentary. Less often mentioned are the groundbreaking production tricks and ideas that made their records the benchmark for creative recording in the last century, and beyond. The group’s remarkable thirst for newness, allied with the ingenuity of their producers and engineers at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, gave rise to cutting-edge sonics and daring studio exploration – now often taken for granted.
And there’s no-one better to explain how the group and their collaborators created new sonic worlds than Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, authors of the benchmark Beatles-in-the-studio book, Recording The Beatles.
They’ve picked and ranked the following ten tracks, arguing that they showcase The Beatles at their most technically innovative: applying production ideas stunning for their age to make music that sounds as current and powerful today as it ever did.
So, enjoy these 10 Beatle greats from a whole new angle and, as ever, your feedback is welcomed.
(Abbey Road, 1969)
Post Les Paul and Mary Ford, the concept of layering voices or guitars was not new, but was it ever executed so beautifully? For Because, the simple melodies of the vocal were in an arpeggio - one note after another spelling out the notes of a chord. Each track of melody featured George, Paul and John together - that classic Beatles vocal mix. But then with one melody essentially triple-tracked by three Beatles, more melodies were laid on (each one a triple) to flesh out the sound. The result is a gorgeous texture, a stack of Beatles in full chorale mode. The Moog is featured, though subtly, in a way that disguises its status as "a synth". Another unusual keyboard is the basis for the track: a Baldwin Electric Harpsichord, a late '60s version of the baroque instrument but with a stylish Perspex top and Danish-furniture legs!
9. Eleanor Rigby
We're used to it now, but the stark, cold mood of Eleanor Rigby is largely due to George Martin's brilliant string arrangement. In direct contrast with Yesterday and most other Beatles string parts, Rigby was recorded with microphones placed right up to the strings, close enough to intimidate the players. Normally strings were recorded at a distance to retain the ambience and smoothing of room reverb. But Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick knew the song required a special touch, and the rough and scratchy strings bring a strident urgency to the atypically dark McCartney lyrics. Oddly, McCartney has always said he could have done a better job on the vocal, as he had a bit of a cold when it was recorded. True, the lack of power and control can be heard once you know this historical detail, but the frailty and slight wobble of his voice actually works better for the pathos of the track.
8. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
(Abbey Road, 1969)
I Want You (She's So Heavy) illustrates the impact of Billy Preston on the Beatles sound (you didn't think John or Paul played those tricky organ licks, did you?). More importantly, the song leads deep into drone/power-rock territory with the gargantuan riffage at the end - using eight layers of guitar tracking, the wall of strings hammering on and on, cycling endlessly. Meanwhile, a storm of noise rises up - played by Lennon on a newly-acquired Moog modular synthesizer. Lennon eschewed the keyboard as controller, instead patching the Moog's noise module straight into a set of filters, each set up somewhat like a modern graphic equalizer. Playing the knobs of the equalizer allowed a wide range of noise tones to crest and fall, a tornado of intensity peaking higher and higher until an unexpected off-time edit (cut point chosen by Lennon) brings the whole structure to an immediate and shocking halt.
7. I Am The Walrus
(Magical Mystery Tour, 1967)
...Walrus remains a standout track, if only for its all-round oddness. Whether George Martin could fully comprehend the images and concepts of the LSD-baptised Beatles is moot, but his execution of warped moods remains peerless. Again, the cellos were close-miked, bringing out the scratchiness over the warm notes. Lennon's voice is deliberately distorted, one of the earliest such treatments on a vocal. In the middle of the two halves, the song breaks down and the whine of a radio being tuned (Ringo) is inserted. In the mix, the radio experiment caught just a snippet of Shakespeare's King Lear being broadcast (these were the days before sample clearances). When it came time to do the stereo mix, the happenstance of the radio breakdown could not be recreated, so it had to be 'borrowed' from the mono mix, with some special EQ on opposite sides to fake a stereo effect. The Mike Sammes Singers were employed to add a backing chorus, which was an odd choice, given their reputation for light, poppy repertoire. But George Martin's score, and the surreal text ("Stick it up your jumpah!" etc.) gave a disturbing effect that delighted Lennon. As its writer would go on to say about the track, "Enough little bitties to keep you going, even 100 years later."
6. Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite
(Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)
Lennon's discovery of a vintage circus poster inspired some of the most unique and vivid Beatles lyrics. For the musical backdrop, he requested the track be evocative enough to allow him to "smell the sawdust". With years of experience creating sonic draperies for some of the world's best comedy records, George Martin set himself to work. The Abbey Road harmonium paralleled the vintage sound of the accordions and steam organs of turn-of-the-century travelling shows, while an opening line played on the Mellotron stood in for a calliope. For the middle section, Martin took vintage steam-organ recordings and printed them to tape. He then cut the tape into short fragments and threw them up in the air to randomise them. Collected and re-spliced, the various circus organ parts gave an off-time forward-and-backward swirl of circus notes. Most never notice it, but the instrumental waltz section (1.01-1.30) alone is among the Beatles' masterpieces. The group and George Martin played it live - each part done to perfection in a full take. Two organs play runs of harmony, a modified guitar sound (with volume pedal) and a tambourine were recorded at half-speed, then played back at normal speed - an octave higher than recorded. Yet another Beatles time-bending experiment that removes the song from the normal world.
5. A Day In The Life
(Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)
Famously, this is two unrelated compositions stitched into one, Lennon's news-reading musings sandwiching McCartney's morning wake-up call. In the closing part of each half, when the vocal suggests we are being "turned on", massed orchestra layers begin to climb over each other in a huge din. Originally counted off as an empty space to be filled later, the idea came to crescendo the orchestral musicians (more used to specific written parts) by running each instrument from its lowest to its highest note. Knowing one "run" of it might not sound strong and scary enough, the band had asked for the impossible the night before: "Can we synchronise two tape recorders together to get more tracks?" Literally overnight, technical engineer Ken Townsend delivered exactly that. The result is spectacular and unique in pop, a tone-sculpture that climbs higher and higher following the lyric lead. And for the finale, when the orchestra had indeed peaked and stopped on tape, the band layered a mass chord of three pianos and a reed-organ on the floor of Abbey Road's Studio 2 (not many studios can offer three differing pianos at once). This was not really "playing piano" in the normal way, but more a musical exclamation mark using pianos as purely percussive instruments.
4. Revolution 9
(The Beatles, 1968)
One of three tracks called Revolution they recorded in 1968, this is the apex (or low point, depending on your view) of the Beatles' exploratory side. Like many '60s musicians in various fields, the Beatles had been inspired by, which incorporated found sound and tape manipulation to create new textures and sounds. Revolution 9 is best seen as a musical sculpture, bringing together disparate pieces to create a unique form - a typically iconoclastic move by the world's most popular and best-selling group (George's Electronic Sound LP and John and Yoko's Two Virgins were to follow), unlikely to be rivalled by any genuine hit-making act (even Radiohead or Bjork) in our lifetimes.
3. Strawberry Fields Forever
(Magical Mystery Tour, 1967)
Certainly a beautiful and iconic Beatles song, recorded first as more of a "band" track with the usual Beatles instrumentation: drums, bass, guitars and keyboard (the beautiful Mellotron flutes heard at the opening). Later, John felt it didn't capture what he was hoping for, so a more esoteric version was effected with strings and horns over a thick percussive backing track. Neither was satisfactory to Lennon, so he asked if the two could be combined. George Martin explained it would be quite tricky, as they were at different tempos and in different keys. As luck would have it, the faster one was in the higher key, so they could be matched by slowing the tape machine, thereby dropping the pitch and the key simultaneously. Casual listeners never detect the splice, but the two halves are quite different pieces (sonically they are completely different, excepting the Lennon vocal). Even so, the resulting arrangement works brilliantly, as the complexity and intensity of the track intensify from beginning to end.
2. Tomorrow Never Knows
The last track on Revolver was actually the first song recorded for the album. Not only was its droning bass and drums a stylistic departure for the group, but the recording of the song is the perfect illustration of the Beatles' experimental epiphany. Having dubbed the rhythm track and the vocals (with Lennon's voice fed through a rotating Leslie speaker intended for organs) the group began to look for other elements to add. John and Paul - though Paul particularly - had recently begun to explore the world of avant-garde records and experimental sound recording. Taking inspiration from German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, McCartney recorded several tape loops in his home studio, capturing abstract, repeating phrases onto literal loops of tape that cycled repeatedly through his tape recorder. Back at Abbey Road, these loops were loaded onto multiple tape machines, which were fed to the recording console. As the tape loops played endlessly, the group and engineer Geoff Emerick were able to raise and lower the volume of each loop at will, creating a sonic collage that faded in and out. One loop, the sound of Paul laughing, was transformed into a seagull-like sound when played back at a much faster speed. Other loops featured tamboura performances by Paul and an orchestral chord lifted from a classical LP. Some loops were played forward, some in reverse, all at different speeds, adding a cosmic texture emphasised by McCartney's guitar solo (also reversed): a sucking, familiar-but-not-familiar effect soon to be copied by tribes of would-be psychedelic yoyagers.
1. Blue Jay Way
(Magical Mystery Tour, 1967)
Not the best-known Beatles track, but in many ways the most complex they ever recorded. This single track features nearly every Beatles "trick" they invented. There are changes created by the slowing down and speeding up of the tape. There is the swirling psychedelic twirl that comes from phasing/flanging. There is an electronic doubling of George's voice. In the end section, there are heavy echoes on the cellos, stuttering away, at times repeating so heavily as to turn into feedback. And most unusual, the track was mixed first, then played through a spinning Leslie speaker. This jumble was recorded back onto the original tape, but in reverse! So the spinning backward version of the entire song fades in and out throughout the forward version. Still with us? Legend has it that they ran the signal through the Leslie so loudly that the speaker was permanently damaged.