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The Beatles at Abbey Road. Tomorrow Never Knows.

On April 6th 1966, after a three month break, the Beatles arrived into Abbey Road to start recording the album that would eventually be known as Revolver.

The first song they recorded was Tomorrow Never Knows.

The recording was completed the following day but what the Beatles achieved over those days and their revolutionary use of studio and recording techniques would completely change the way musicians would use a recording studio from then on. The studio, in effect, became a member of the band.

A number of factors contributed to this. One of these was that  John Lennon had spent most of the previous three months tripping on LSD, ingesting it almost every day, and he started to write songs unlike any he ever wrote before. George Martin was initially puzzled by this two-chord song that didn’t contain a chorus and sounded almost like a monotone drone. When he asked John what he thought the recorded track should sound like, Lennon famously described the sound in his head as ‘The Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain top’.

Another factor was that the Beatles had a new recording engineer. Norman Smith, who worked with them since the first album, had been promoted and George Martin appointed twenty-year-old Geoff Emerick as their new engineer. Geoff was a most innovative young man and because he had very little previous studio experience he was not bound by the ‘correct way’ to record songs. He was happy to try almost anything, often letting the needles drift into the red zone, something previously regarded as a cardinal sin in Abbey Road.

In recording Tomorrow Never Knows, Martin and Emerick created four innovative studio sounds or techniques that would be used by countless bands, even up to this day.

Ringo’s Drum Sound.  The sound of these drums is the first thing that strikes the listener. This incredible noise was produced by using dampened, slack-tuned toms, compressed and  fed through a massive reverb effect.  Emerick also tried something completely new by placing the bass drum mike inside the drum and stuffing a jumper into it to deaden the sound. Previousl the mike would have been placed on the ground, some distance from the drum kit

Backwards Guitar.  George Harrison discovered it by accident but was so impressed by this effect that he created a unique and complex method to record it. First he played and recorded the solo over the song as he normally would. He then played the recording backwards and notated the backwards solo. Then reading the notation he re-recorded the solo and finally George Martin played this recording backwards and added it to the song. 

John’s Vocal. Lennon hated having to double-track his vocals so Ken Townsend, an Abbey Road engineer, invented ADT (automatic double tracking) to solve this problem by taking the signal from the playback and recording heads and delaying them slightly, thereby creating two sound images from the original signal. This was the first ever recording to use this effect. For the second part of the song Emerick fed John’s vocal through a revolving Leslie speaker, originally used on a Hammond organ. This created the effect now known as Flanging. This gave John’s vocal his desired sound of ‘chanting Tibetan monks’. Again, this was the first time this effect was used in recording.

Tape Loops. Paul had spent a lot of the three months break with Jane Asher and her family and was introduced to modern classical music by them, particularly ‘musique concrete’. This involved recording everyday sounds on a piece of tape, joining the ends of tape to create a loop and playing it back on a tape recorder with the erase head removed so that every time the tape looped another layer was added, creating strange and sometimes wonderful sounds. Impressed by this, he started experimenting with samples himself. On April 6th he suggested that they use tape loops on Tomorrow Never Knows. That evening John, Ringo, George and Barry Miles all created their own loops and brought them to studio the following day where George Martin dubbed all five loops onto the song in a live recording using faders to bring the loops in and out.

Amazingly, all this was accomplished in 2 days. When you compare this song to what had appeared on the previous album it was a quantum leap. It truly was The Beatles’ Robert Johnson at the Crossroads moment.

While recording, Tomorrow Never Knows was known as ‘Mark 1’ but when it came to assembling the album John settled on a favourite phrase of Ringo’s for the official title.

Probably the most innovative and influential song the Beatles would ever record.

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Music

Most Overrated Albums of All Time. No 1 : Abbey Road.

Ah, Abbey Road. Don’t you just love it?

The last album recorded by the Beatles.

When the chips were down they decided to ignore all the internal conflict and produced the final masterpiece … for the fans !

Lots of people cite it as their favourite Beatle album. It appears in most ‘top ten albums of all time’ lists.

Such brilliant tunes, ‘Something’ , ‘Come Together’,  er …. ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’

What the fuck ?

C’mon, it’s a soulless piece of mediocrity that was cobbled together, and it’s the only Beatles album that relies on George Harrison’s songwriting for any sort of credibility.

I’ve never really understood the veneration of this album. No Beatles album is totally awful but there are three that are just ok —  ‘Beatles For Sale’, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Abbey Road’.

Most critics accept that the first two aren’t up to it but Abbey Road is consistently nominated as one the three best Beatles albums. Why ?

Admittedly, it sounded great at the time.  It was the first Beatles album to use true 8-track recording.  For the first time in Beatles album production, George Martin used a full stereo mix to make it sound amazing.  Amazing in 1969, that is.  These days it sounds a little dated, kinda early ‘70s , which, of course, it is , because it became the sonic template for most of those tired-sounding early seventies albums. Smoking dope in a Ladbroke Grove flat, listening to it on a very basic stereo, “Wow man, listen to Ringo’s drums moving from the left to the right speaker”. Big fat hairy fucking deal.

But the true ingredient of any great Beatles album is the quality of the songs, always was, always will be, so lets see what we get on Abbey Road.

There are ten tracks on the album, three by Lennon, three by McCartney, two by Harrison, one by Ringo and then there’s that bloody medley – more about that later !

SIDE 1

It starts with ‘Come Together’, a good Lennon song whose reputation was slightly tarnished when Chuck Berry sued him, successfully mind you, for stealing the opening line ‘Here come old flat top’ and some of the melody from ‘You Cant Catch Me’.

That’s followed by ‘Something’.  A Harrison classic, but every time I hear it I can’t help thinking that James Taylor had just completed recording his first album for Apple and that album’s best track was called ‘Something In The Way She Moves’.  Surely George couldn’t have nicked the title?

!!

So with Lennon’s and Harrison’s offerings out of the way we wait with bated breath for McCartney’s first contribution.  Good God ! It’s ‘Maxwells Silver Hammer’. Probably his worst Beatles song ever (he produced much worse as a solo artist but that’s another story). Worse than ‘Your Mother Should Know’.  Worse than ‘Obla Di Obla Da’.  Once upon a time Lennon would have given him a good kick up the hole if he came into the studio with such twee bollox. But by this stage Lennon didn’t give a shit and this is the first indication that all is not well with ‘Abbey Road’.

Then McCartney tries to show us how ballsy he can be by screaming his way through a pastiche of ‘50s doo wop called ‘Oh Darling’. Now once upon a time, even if McCartney did write the song, Lennon, who had one of the greatest rock voices, would have sung this. But by this point in Beatles history no one was talking to no one, so we have to endure Macca doing his Little Richard schtick. Spare me !

So far so good.  Just when you think it can’t get any worse along comes Ringo with “Octopus’s Garden”.  I’m not going to criticise this too much ‘cos Ringo’s tracks were always of the throw-away variety, but it’s placed at a point where the album should be trying to build up a head of steam as it approaches the end of side one but all it does is induce a big yawn.

Side one ends with Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. Once again, as Dunphy almost said, it’s a good song, not a great song.  At this stage of Rock history the band that people were really talking about was Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and the centrepiece of this song sounds uncannily like them. Actually the track is another piece of production wizardry by George Martin (see Strawberry Fields for another example) where he welded two different versions of the same song seamlessly together. The last two minutes, with its repetitive guitar motif is very impressive, as is the sudden ending, but this more of a production trick than an impressive piece of song writing.

 

SIDE 2

“Here Comes The Sun” is another excellent example of Harrison’s songwriting and how far ahead of Lennon/McCartney he was. A fine song that still makes me smile on a sunny day.

‘Because’ is where the Beatles decided to become the Beach Boys. Having taken the piss out of them with “Back In The USSR” they go for the real thing here, triple-tracking Lennon, McCartney and Harrison resulting in a nine-voice onslaught where Lennon tells us that ‘because the world is round, it turns me on’. Sure John, but I think it was probably the heroin.

And then we reach what a lot of people regard as the centrepiece of this ‘masterpiece’. The infamous ‘Medley’.

Now there are two ways of looking at this.

McCartney (why is it always McCartney who  does this shit ?) masterfully mixed eight pop classics together to create a collage, the like of which we had never heard before or since

or… (and guess what I think !)

Lennon/McCartney didn’t want to write any more new material for Abbey Road ‘cos they were saving stuff for their own solo albums and Harrison said ‘Fuck off. You’re not getting any more out of me’. But there were eight unfinished songs lying around since the White Album/Let It Be sessions that Lennon/McCartney couldn’t be arsed completing. so Macca gives Martin his famous thumbs up grin and says ‘Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea! Err..’.

The album ends with McCartney’s ‘Her Majesty’ which was originally supposed to be part of the medley but wasn’t even considered good enough for that !

So there you have it. The last gasp of a band that was already dead.

I’ve never believed the notion put forward by McCartney in the Anthology series that the Abbey Road recordings were a friendly and positive process. Reading Mark Lewisohn’s definitive guide to the Beatles recordings, there were very few occasions during the Abbey Road sessions when all four were in the studio together. They had realised that Let It Be was a complete disaster and decided to make one last stab at a better farewell.

But I don’t think that Lennon, outside of his own songs, had any real interest in Abbey Road and as a result he seems to have given McCartney a complete free rein.

This, I think, this is the core reason why this album ultimately sounds so soulless. It’s better than Let It Be but it’s certainly not the classic it’s supposed to be.  Far from it buddy !!

The first in a series of Classic Overrated Albums.

Coming soon – Dark Side Of The Moon.