John Lennon had taken the wrong pill. And so, instead of recording the backup vocals for “Getting Better” on uppers as he had intended, the pop star was 30 feet above ground, wandering the roof’s edge of Abbey Road Studios–on acid. When Beatle producer George Martin naively told Paul McCartney and George Harrison where John was and how strange he was acting, the two rushed up to the roof and led him safely back down to the studio. That same night at Abbey Road, a little-known British rock band called Pink Floyd was recording their first album in another studio. During a break in recording, the group sheepishly introduced themselves to The Beatles and they exchanged “half-hearted hellos.”
While the happenings that night at Abbey Road would be considered rock and roll history of epic proportions by most, it was just another day in the studio for the Fab Four. The newly reissued The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962-1970 by Mark Lewisohn takes readers on an exciting journey through The Beatles’ recording days – from their first recording session for “Love Me Do” to the final session for George’s “I Me Mine.” Originally published in 1988, the book documents every recording and mixing session The Beatles had at Abbey Road in fascinating fashion.
Casual Beatles fans might balk at the idea of reading a book with such precise details of the group’s recordings, like the fact that it took them five takes to be satisfied with their “fan club only” 1964 Another Beatles Christmas Record, but one might be surprised to discover that The Beatles’ Christmas records even existed and that Apple rereleased all seven of them on vinyl in December 2017. With so many interesting bits of information, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions might be best thought of as a handy reference guide when listening to one of their songs or albums rather than a narrative meant to be read from front to back.
Take “Tomorrow Never Knows” from 1966’s Revolver, for instance. Ever wonder why John’s lead vocal sounds so striking and unusual? As producer George Martin recounted, “John said to me ‘I want to sound as though I’m the Dalai Lama singing from the highest mountain top. And yet I still want to hear the words I’m singing’.” To achieve this feat of sound engineering, Martin sent Lennon’s vocal signal through a Leslie speaker (the rotating speakers inside of Hammond organs that give them their swirling effect).
Or, how about the groundbreaking album Rubber Soul from 1965? As was the custom since their recording days began, The Beatles were to release two LPs per year on top of several singles not included on the albums. In early October of 1965, the band had only put out one album that year (Help!), and hadn’t even begun recording it’s follow-up to be released for the Christmas holiday shopping season. To make matters even more dire, John and Paul didn’t have a batch of songs ready to record like they customarily would’ve had. And so, the group set to work writing new songs and what they came up with was what many regard to be one of their most innovative albums. From “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” the acoustic ballad sweetened by George’s simple sitar (likely the first usage of the Indian instrument in Western pop music), to the relatively complex, French-inspired “Michelle,” The Beatles presented a work that was as imaginative as it was cohesive. By the time the album hit shelves in December, it was clear to the music world that the innocent-seeming mop tops of before were no more and that their songwriting and recording talent was boundless.
Perhaps just as intriguing as the stories of The Beatles’ recording sessions are the photographs that portray them. The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions offers readers a gluttony of pictures that accompany each spread. Of note to music history buffs might be the images of their first recording session with Ringo on drums. When the group had first come to record “Love Me Do,” Martin was unimpressed by the drummer’s performance. And so, a week later on September 11, 1962, session drummer Andy White took the reigns of the kit and Ringo was delegated to play tambourine instead. Also of interest from those early, pre-fame days are the errors listed on The Beatles’ pay stubs. For example, who is J.W. Lewnow? Or who knew that George was the bass player? It’s the inclusion of old documents like these that add significant charm to the book. The photographs tell stories of their fame, too. As time went on and the band became international superstars, one can see how their approach to recording became more confident and controlling. In one photo from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sessions, Paul can be seen instructing a trio of classical French horn players. A far cry from the nervous 20-year-old of five years prior. And, just as the excitement of Beatlemania can be felt through photos of the band recording A Hard Day’s Night, so too can their disenchantment in pictures from the Let It Be sessions.
While Mark Lewisohn’s telling of The Beatles’ recording history is rich in captivating detail, the most remarkable aspect of the book for music fans might be his interview with a Beatle himself. As part of the introduction, Lewisohn conducts a 10-page in-depth interview with Paul McCartney about the music they wrote and how they created it. And although Paul is known for repeating the same old Beatles stories, often in a way that seems overly simplified, he doesn’t pull any punches here. The interview will thrill any music geek and will surprise any casual fan who is curious about how The Beatles became the legendary recording icons that they became. In it, Paul recounts how when they first signed to their label EMI, George Martin was convinced that they should record a song called “How Do You Do It” written by a guy named Mitch Murray:
“He [George Martin] knew it was a number one hit so he gave us a demo, a little white acetate. We took it back to Liverpool and said, ‘What are we gonna do with this? This is what he wants us to do, he’s our producer, we’ll have to do it, we’ll have to learn it.’ So we did, but we didn’t like it and we came back to George and said ‘Well it may be a number one but we just don’t want this kind of song, we don’t want to go out with this kind of song, we don’t want to go out with that kind of reputation. It’s a different thing we’re going for, it’s something new.” I suppose we were quite forceful really, for people in our position. And he understood. George later took our demo and played it to Gerry [and the Pacemakers] and said ‘They don’t want it, it’s a major hit, you do it’ and Gerry leapt at the chance. He kept it very similar in tempo to our version which was quite changed from the original demo because it was our arrangement, basically.”
Later on in the interview, Paul talks about how the infamous album Abbey Road almost had a different name:
Mark Lewisohn: You were originally going to call the album “Everest” weren’t you?
Paul McCartney: Yeah, because of [sound engineer] Geoff Emerick’s cigarettes.
ML: And you were going to fly to the foothills of Everest and have a picture taken?
PM: I don’t know. You see, when you’re thinking of album titles a lot of loose talk goes around. It’s what American film people or advertising people call ‘Off the top of my head.’ You have a lot of thoughts that are going to be rejected. We were stuck for an album title and the album didn’t appear to have any obvious concept, except that it had been done in the studio and it had been done by us. And Geoff Emerick used to have these packets of Everest cigarettes always sitting by him, and we thought ‘That’s good, it’s big and it’s expansive.’
ML: It says quite a lot.
PM: Yes, it says quite a lot but we didn’t really like it in the end. We said ‘ nah, come on! You can’t name an album after a ciggie packet!’ But during that time there could have easily been a bit of talk ‘We’ll go to Mount Everest, we’ll have that in the background and the picture of us in the foreground.’ It would have been quite nice actually!’
With its chronological, diary-style layout, painstaking attention to detail, and over 350 photographs, recording sheets, tape boxes, and more, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions is the gold standard of pop music reference guides. Similar to The Beatles Anthology series, this book is told, in part, by the people who were there when music history was made. From the words of sound engineers and various session musicians to producer George Martin and The Beatles themselves, discover how the songs we know became the records we love.
–Ben Sauder, special to Utne Reader