By Gordon Thompson
Fifty years ago, the Beatles recorded for the first time in a building that would eventually bear the name of their last venture. On Wednesday, 6 June 1962, the most important rock band of the twentieth century auditioned at the EMI Recording Studios in Abbey Road, London.
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Best arrived via the equivalent of the servants’ entrance where they unloaded their equipment from a nondescript van. The high-ceilinged white room with its tall acoustic panels, the cigarette-burned oriental carpets spread across the floor, and the wood-grained stairs leading up to the recording booth with its glass window would have contributed to their sense of social distance from the production process. They would climb those stairs to the control room at the end of the session and only when invited.
The Beatles set up on the studio floor under the watchful eye of the balance engineer, Norman Smith. Contrary to many descriptions of EMI, the only people dressed in smocks were those involved in moving or cleaning equipment, and even they wore suits underneath. Smith, as well as Ron Richards (the Parlophone artist-and-repertoire manager whom director George Martin had asked to oversee the session), wore a suit, tie, and polished shoes, which spoke to his membership in EMI’s studio hierarchy. In contrast, the Beatles’ skinny ties and floppy hair intimated subversion.
Smith positioned the drums and amps at the back of the room where the acoustic damping was greatest and distance from the control room was the farthest. He examined their equipment to trouble-shoot the inevitable problems. The balance engineer disappointingly assessed the battle-scarred drums, guitars, and amplifiers as they settled onto the studio floor. He recalls having to “tie string around John Lennon’s guitar amplifier to stop the rattling.” McCartney’s relatively new violin-shaped Hofner bass presented few problems, but inside the homemade amplifier and speaker cabinet, the internal electronics and soldered connections needed attention.
For the production crew, an important part of knowing how an artist would sound involved evaluating musical instruments and equipment. For this session, Norman Smith spent time on McCartney’s bass rig, borrowing equipment from EMI’s stash of musical and technological miscellanea as well as improvising solutions. Equipment constituted a significant issue at this point in the Beatles’ career, beginning with Decca’s complaints about their instruments during their ill-fated January audition. When Paul McCartney arrived at EMI’s Studio Two on 6 June, Norman Smith and Ron Richards concluded that his amplifier (probably a Selmer Truvoice) and speaker (one 15” woofer in a handmade box built by fellow bassist Adrian Barber of the Big Three) emitted too much noise for a recording.
American-manufactured bass amps (the gold standard in the early sixties) demanded prohibitive prices in Britain and operated on a different alternating current. Consequently, young British bass players routinely improvised their rigs, jerry-rigging components to create primitive beasts of convenience. And every time a musician loaded an amplifier into the back of a van and unloaded it at a new location, the electronics shook and the internal filaments rattled, wiggling the pins a little bit looser from their sockets.
Technical engineer Ken Townsend (EMI kept a staff able to troubleshoot many different kinds of recording problems) commandeered a speaker and an amplifier from Studio Two’s reverberation chamber to replace the noise and distortion of McCartney’s “custom” Liverpool rig. However, EMI’s speaker-amplifier combination created an unintentional musical problem that may explain a peculiar characteristic of this recording: a warm bass sound that nevertheless lacks presence and attack, leaving the beginnings of many notes indistinct.
Norman Smith had experience recording rock bands as a tape operator and more recently as a balance engineer. Equally as important, he continued to perform (unofficially) as a working musician, which informed how he heard the sounds on the studio floor. Being able to isolate amplified sounds in studios designed for acoustic performances (e.g., string quartets) presented engineers with problems. The better they could isolate instruments, the better the engineer and producer could control how loud each part would be through the mixing board. However in these days before headphones, Smith knew that musicians needed to hear and to see each other clearly and some of the balance in these live sessions came from how they reacted to each other. He kept that variable in mind as he positioned their equipment and the microphones.
In London studios during the early to mid-sixties, recording equipment fell a technological generation behind what many American studios were using. British productions commonly employed four-track decks for important sessions and two-track decks for simpler situations. Americans were gradually replacing four-track machines with eight-tracks. For example, Ray Charles recorded “What’d I Say” at Atlantic’s studios in 1959 on an eight-track machine, while similar facilities would not arrive in London until 1968. In the US, the additional tracks gave a producer and his engineer (they were always males in this era) the ability to separate instruments and to balance the sound after a performance. Ron Richards and Norman Smith would record the Beatles this day with two tracks, indicative of the relative unimportance of this session.
Smith, Richards, and Townsend’s amplifier-speaker substitution and the tone settings chosen by McCartney in response to their demands more closely replicated the sound of an acoustic rather than an electric bass. Consequently, the recording reveals McCartney attempting to will presence from his instrument, the strings buzzing slightly against the fingerboard with the force of his plucking. Nevertheless, determining exactly where he places the beat can be unclear and neither the microphone placement nor Best’s drumming provide a precise record of the bass-drum/bass-guitar pattern. A combination of their playing, their equipment, and the choice of microphones (as well as their physical placement) conspired to muddy the sound. [This recording appears on the first volume of the Beatles’ Anthology.]
Most listeners can hear the rhythmic unsteadiness pervading the studio that day, McCartney and Best struggling to hear one another and to establish the beat. Singing also diverts McCartney’s attention and their sense of ensemble clearly falls short. Pete Best’s musical reactions and adaptations reveal a drummer unsure of himself and his environment. McCartney remembers that in these early days, “We never really had to be steady on tempo. We liked to be but it didn’t matter if we slowed down or went faster, because we all went at the same time.” This would prove an unfortunate arrangement for Pete Best.
For someone who reputedly played with a heavy right foot, Best’s kick drum only sometimes surfaces in this recording, while McCartney’s bass rumbles on the acoustic bottom. Best described his drumming to biographer Hunter Davies as “using my bass drum very loud and laying down a very solid beat. . . . This way of drumming had a great deal to do with the big sound we were producing.” However, little of this style emerges on 6 June. The bass drum remains all but inaudible through most of the recording, surfacing clearly only once or twice. When the bass drum does sound, Best and McCartney arrive out-of-sync with each other, sometimes articulating two distinct attacks for the same beat.
Despite the problems, when the Beatles performed “Love Me Do,” Norman Smith suggested to Ron Richards that they call George Martin (the Director of Parlophone Records) into the session. Smith thought that he heard something in the song and that the performance warranted Martin’s attention.
To be continued tomorrow.
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.