For veteran recording engineer John Kurlander, this week’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles “Abbey Road” album — complete with a multi-disc box set — is especially sweet. Kurlander, now 68, was principal second engineer on the album, when he was just 18 years old. But he had his first look at the building the album is named for – then called EMI Studios – years earlier.
“When I was 13, my class and I went to the studios to record some sound effects for a drama recording they were doing,” he recalls. “And I think it could have been ‘Help’ that the Beatles recording at the time. All their equipment was set up in Studio Two, and I thought this is really what I want to do.” After he left school at 16, he applied to work there and was hired just days after an interview.
He started working on Beatles projects early in 1969 at the request of then-chief engineer Geoff Emerick. His first Beatles work was on the single “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” which many people don’t know was sung and performed entirely by John Lennon (guitars, piano) and Paul McCartney (bass, drums). Lennon was in a hurry, and George Harrison and Ringo Starr weren’t in town.
“It was quite unusual,” Kurlander says, “but almost didn’t feel like a Beatles session because it was just the two of them.”
Fans will hear a different version of “Oh Darling” among the outtakes on the new “Abbey Road” set, with a more energetic vocal than the familiar original album version. Kurlander says McCartney, who lived near the studio at the time, came in early on several succeeding days, without a warm-up, to do test vocalizing.
John Kurlander, 1969
“He did that for, like, a whole week, and then he said, ‘Okay, now let’s have a playback and we’ll listen to all of them. He then just picked the one he liked best. I don’t remember too much conversation of why he liked that one better, it was just an interesting idea that he had to experiment the way that the vocal performances were done and chosen.”
Other outtakes on the set include the original demo for George Harrison’s “Something,” which was later covered by countless artists, including Frank Sinatra set. “I don’t think that people like Sinatra would have been drawn to it if they’d just heard the demo,” Kurlander says. He credits Harrison’s work in the studio on the song for the acclaim it has just received because of “the way that the production of it pulled it together.”
One “Abbey Road” outtake that is dramatically different from the finished version is “The Long One,” the early incarnation of the Side Two medley. Here, the song “Her Majesty,” which closes the original album, is heard before “Polythene Pam.” After hearing the run through, McCartney said to throw out “Her Majesty,” but fate — and Kurlander — intervened.
”This was the day that I found out that this whole thing was to be a medley,” he recalls. “We joined it all together. It was about two or three o’clock in the morning and after a very long day, we played the whole thing through for the first time. Paul said, ‘Look, I don’t think ‘Her Majesty’ works. So just cut it out,’ and he left and went home.
“So it was my job to tidy up the housekeeping. And there was a piece of tape which was only 20 seconds long lying on the floor. There is an [EMI] rule that says if you remove something from a master tape, it has to go at the end, after a long piece of red leader tape. Everyone else had gone home, so I decided to just tag it on at the end. Then [longtime Beatles assistant] Mal Evans took the tape, and the next morning they had a reference acetate cut from it by Malcolm Davis, Apple’s cutting engineer.”
Davis left “Her Majesty” in, cut the reference of the medley, and brought it in the next day at lunchtime and played it through.
“And then this thing [‘Her Majesty] crashes in, because it still had the crossfade on,” Kurlander says. “Paul was probably the most surprised, because his last word on the subject was ‘Just get rid of it.’”
Kurlander went on to work on several Beatles solo albums and albums by Badfinger, Mary Hopkin, Peter Noone, Fela Kuti, Renaissance and video game soundtracks, and has won numerous awards, including three Grammy Awards for work on “Lord of the Rings” soundtrack albums.
But one very lasting memory he says he took away from the “Abbey Road” sessions wasn’t from behind the control boards.
“It was very late at night,” he recalls. “And Paul came over to me, and he could see that I was kind of exhausted. And he says, ‘So what would you say is your favorite album?’ Maybe he was thinking I’d say ‘Sgt. Pepper’ or possibly ‘Revolver.’”
But 18-year-old Kurlander told him it was the Beach Boys’ 1966 classic, “Pet Sounds.” McCartney, who has said that album inspired “Sgt. Pepper,” approved. But even all these years later, Kurlander still can’t believe his teenage audacity.
He laughs, “How can I have said that?”
John Kurlander, 2019