Music Engineer Geoff Emerick Looks Back on Recording ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

Geoff Emerick First Time in Variety
benjamin wachenje for Variety

If you looked at the music sales charts this year and saw the Beatles’ masterpiece “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” perched in the top spot, you weren’t having a flashback to 1967 and the Summer of Love, when the album was first released. Yes, the Beatles got back this year, and you’ll get no argument from Geoff Emerick, the Grammy-winning engineer of that landmark album, that it’s absolutely where they once belonged. Emerick began his career as a teenager in 1962 for EMI in London, where he assisted the production of the Beatles’ recordings, including their first hit, “Love Me Do.” Over the years Emerick has twirled the knobs for a dazzling array of music greats, including Kate Bush, the solo Paul McCartney, Supertramp, Elvis Costello and another Brit sonic masterpiece, the Zombies’ “Time of the Season.” But his first time in Variety was tied to his Grammy win for “Sgt. Pepper” in 1968.

By the time “Sgt. Pepper” arrived, you’d already logged many hours with the Beatles at Abbey Road.

I was dropped into the deep end of the pond. I was mastering American records for the U.K. market one day, and the next day, when I was around 19, I was working on “Revolver.”

As great a record in its own way as “Sgt. Pepper,” if not better?

The Beatles knew from listening to American records that sounds could be better than what we were hearing in the U.K. So we worked on microphone positioning, miking the drums, working to get something more than the wishy-washy Cliff Richard sounds.

What were they aiming for?

I remember John telling me he wanted his voice to sound like “the Dalai Lama singing on a mountain” for “Tomorrow Never Knows.” So we hit on the idea of taking a spinning Leslie speaker from the Hammond and putting John’s voice through it.

There’s been a lot of publicity around the rerelease of “Sgt. Pepper” and the fact that it’s been remixed.

And an awful lot of it has been misinformation that I frankly find both defamatory and disrespectful. I’ve read that we put no time into the stereo mix, which is just inaccurate. We put just as much into the stereo mix as we did the mono mix. And to hear that [producer] George Martin would have loved to have all the tracks we have today to work from, I would say, “No, he wouldn’t.” But of course he’s not here to ask.

You’ve written a book on recording the Beatles (“Here, There and Everywhere”). Is there any one aspect of the process that you think had most impact on the end product?

We [engineers] worked in the No. 2 control booth at Abbey Road, which is upstairs, which meant the band worked as if we weren’t there. So we were part of the most amazing process, observing songs in the process of creation. I could hear Paul developed a great understanding of how the recording process worked.

And because we were not right in front of them, we were listening before the recording began, and with the luxury of time we could start building ideas about the mood of the songs and each instrument, the tonalities, the dominant colors.

Which Beatle changed the most over the years?

George evolved the most of anyone in the band. He found his niche in Eastern music and he developed into a great guitarist and a great songwriter.

Virtually every track that the Beatles cut from that period holds up. Any high points?

“Revolver” is a high point because of what it represented. It led to “Pepper.” And perhaps the greatest peak of all was the production of “A Day in the Life” on “Sgt. Pepper.” John first played an acoustic version of the song for George Martin, and I heard it and told a colleague, “Wait until you hear this.” I still had the shivers. And the night we put the orchestra on it, the whole world went from black and white to color.

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    1. Teejay1 says:

      Oh so Sir Cliff Richard is wishy washy huh? That might be why Sir Cliff still has a thriving career, still having hit albums and performing for legions of fans around the world and The Beatles are…Where exactly?

      I don’t care who people are, they shouldn’t go around stating their opinion as fact.

      • Bern says:

        There are Cliff Richard fans??

      • Hometown Boy says:

        The Beatles spent just eight years recording as a group … Eight years. Yet they have outsold your hero by millions. That’s not an opinion. It’s a fact. By the way, if you listen to anything by the Beatles from 1964 and up, their sound was clear as a bell while Richards’ songs did, in fact, sound muddled and wishy washy.

      • Texish says:

        The Beatles are….still outselling Cliff Richards with their non-wishy-washy sounds.

    2. What a collection of artists Geoff has worked with! What a history. I was just listening to Supertramp, or more specifically their co-founder Roger Hodgson, and I saw this article that mentions them. I saw Roger at Albert Hall in May and was blown away. Can’t wait to see him again this summer. Now I’ll put my Beatles vinyl on for a spin.

    3. debjorgo says:

      I just listened to the new mix again. I’m being a little harsh on it. It’s pretty rockin’. I’d like to hear an alt mix though, closer to the original.

    4. debjorgo says:

      I’ve always said the stereo mix on Pepper sounded great. The opening track, with Paul singing the verse on the right, “We’re Sgt Pepper’s Lonely…” coming in on the left and panning to the center, just in time for Paul to sing the second verse on the right. This wasn’t by chance. It great. The only problem is the guitar is tie to Paul’s lead vocal and you can tell it. Now, on the new mix, they have the guitar separate and can move it to the middle or left. Instead, they just stuck everything in the middle, vocals, guitar and all. Kinda’ boring. They could have done better.

    5. Gibbyplayer says:

      Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
      I’d love to turn you on.

    6. Skip says:

      The individual sounds that created ‘Sgt. Pepper’ had to be recorded in meticulous and creative ways. To accomplish that took an amazing team. I’m very glad to have all three versions of ‘Pepper’. I hope, one day, to get the FLAC version of both the mono & new stereo. A huge ‘Thank You!’ to Geoff Emerick for your role in the cornerstone music of my life.

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