Imagine for a second you’re 19 years old and you’ve just received a promotion to work in the recording studio with quite literally the biggest band in the entire world. You could literally pinch yourself at your incredible luck as you walk through the doors of Abbey Road Studios in London in 1966. But then, one of the members of that band hits you with what seems like an impossible request: “I want my voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away.”
That was John Lennon’s edict to The Beatles producer George Martin just before they began to record the Revolver cut “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Of course, it isn’t Martin who is responsible for bringing Lennon’s request to life. No, the straight-backed producer instead turns to you, Geoff Emerick, to figure it out. Suddenly the gravity of the task ahead comes crashing down like a piano off a ten-story building. “I looked around the room in a panic,” he recalled in his memoir Here, There, And Everywhere.
Fortunately, Emerick had time to think about how to achieve the desired effect while Lennon busied himself creating a guitar loop for the song alongside Ringo Starr on drums. Abbey Road wasn’t the most technologically advanced studio, so the options were limited, but then, finally: a solution. There in the corner was spinning amplifier called a Leslie that was hooked to the studio’s Hammond organ. It was that amplifier that gave the Leslie it’s signature swirling sound. What if they modded it out and had Lennon sing through that?
Everyone decided it was worth a shot, and after some quick mods, Lennon began singing. “Through the glass we could see John begin smiling,” Emerick remembered of The Beatles’ response to the warbly sound of his own voice. “At the end of the first verse, he gave an exuberant thumbs-up and McCartney and Harrison began slapping each other on the back. ‘It’s the Dalai Lennon!’ Paul shouted.”
That was Geoff Emerick, an under-heralded studio wizard who spent his life turning impossible sonic dreams into lush, mind-blowing reality. Emerick died of a heart attack last night at the age of 72, but left behind a legacy of music that is hardly unmatched by anyone else in his field. His list of artistic collaborators reads like a who’s who of the 20th Century’s greatest artistic minds, including Elvis Costello — Emerick manned the boards for his album Imperial Bedroom and All This Useless Beauty — Robin Trower, Cheap Trick, Jeff Beck, Art Garfunkel, The Zombies, Oasis and so many more.
It will forever be his collaboration with The Beatles, however, for which he is most closely remembered. Emerick first worked with the Fab Four when he was just 16 years old in September 1962 for the session that produced the songs “How Do You Do It” and “Love Me Do.” He was just an assistant then, figuring things out on the fly, but in the years to come, and after working a variety of different jobs at Abbey Road, he returned to the band just as they were beginning to expand their sound in ways that would change music history. He was the right man, for the right moment, with the right collaborators.
“He had a sense of humor that fitted well with our attitude to work in the studio and was always open to the many new ideas that we threw at him,” Paul McCartney said in a glowing tribute shared after the news broke about Emerick’s passing. “He grew to understand what we liked to hear and developed all sorts of techniques to achieve this. He would use a special microphone for the bass drum and played it strategically to achieve the sound that we asked him for. We spent many exciting hours in the studio and he never failed to come up with the goods.”
Revolver was just the beginning. Emerick really made his mark during the sessions for the single “Strawberry Fields Forever,” where he managed to splice together two, different takes of the song that were vastly different in both feeling, tempo, and key using just a manual speed control knob and a pair of scissors. The truest test of his mettle came a short while later during the recording of the band’s magnum opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. It’s impossible to imagine what that era-defining album would have sounded like if not for the young man sitting high up in the control room gamely willing to try and fulfill every request the four men down below might ask of him, no matter how insane it might seem at the outset. A full orchestra with everyone wearing clown noses? Why not? How do we give “A Day In The Life” a proper ending? Let’s wheel in three pianos and have six people play the same chord. Boom, done.
Though Emerick was closest to Paul — and would later work with the McCartney on his different solo and Wings albums in the years to come, including the brutal sessions out in the African desert for Band On The Run — it was usually John who put his talents to the test. “In many ways, John was a paradox in terms: he was fascinated by technology, yet he was completely nontechnical,” Emerick said in his memoir. One memory that sticks out was the time that Lennon wanted to be recorded singing underwater during the Yellow Submarine sessions. Seeing as how this was basically impossible, Emerick instead wrapped a condom around a microphone, dipped it in a glass jar, and had Lennon sing into it. Naturally, the experiment produced a muffled unusable sound, but just goes to show the lengths he was willing to reach to try and satisfy the band.
“After we explained [to John] the function of the DI box, he told George Martin that he’d like to have his voice recorded that way, too. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, George explained why we couldn’t do that: ‘For one thing, John, you’d have to have an operation first so we could implant a jack socket in your throat.’ Even then, Lennon couldn’t quite grasp why it wasn’t possible. He simply didn’t like taking no for an answer.”
The constant pressure to innovate finally took their toll during the recording of the band’s sprawling double record, The White Album. In the middle of the sessions, seemingly worn down by the band’s constant arguing, he decided to quit. “I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” he recalled. “The bad feelings, the wrangling, the pettiness were all really starting to get to me.” Ken Scott took over his role, but by the time the band was preparing to work on their grand finale Abbey Road, Emerick had returned to lend his talents to the band and help them create a proper swan song after the near-disastrous Let It Be sessions.
The role of an engineer is an unglamorous one. Most of the glory rightfully goes to the musicians and artists creating and writing the music that makes it onto the tape, with the rest maybe going to the producer. Make no mistake though; the very sound of some of the Beatles greatest artistic achievements wouldn’t have been possible if not for the open mind of Geoff Emerick. Where others may have said “Can’t be done,” to John Lennon’s request to sound like “the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away,” he instead said, “How can I make this happen?” In doing so, he helped change the world.