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.