Excerpted from Here, There and Everywhere:My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick and Howard Massey
Backwards Guitar Madness on Revolver
We didn’t know at the time that we were raising the bar for recorded music, and we had absolutely no inkling the Beatles were to become even bigger than they already were—that seemed impossible—but we did know that we were doing good work, and we felt confident that the listening public would “get it.” Some days, of course, were better than others. There was one especially tedious session where we all wished we had never come up with the concept of backwards sounds [which , back then, was accomplished by physically flipping the tape reel over and playing the tracks backwards]. The song was “I’m Only Sleeping,” and George Harrison was determined to play a backwards guitar solo on it. At the best of times, George had trouble playing solos all the way through forwards, so it was with great trepidation that we all settled in for what turned out to be an interminable day of listening to the same eight bars played backwards over and over. The tape operator, Phil McDonald, told me later that his arms were sore for days afterward from having to repeatedly lift the heavy tape reels off the machine and turn them over. I can still picture George—and later, Paul, who joined him to play the backwards outro in a bizarre duet—hunched over his guitar for hours on end, headphones clamped on, brows furrowed in concentration. To borrow Ringo’s phrase—that nine-hour session was certainly one hard day’s night!
“Revolution,” Chapter One
As the band began rehearsals, I noticed they were playing louder than ever before. John, in particular, had turned his guitar amp up to an ear-splitting level as the band worked through [the original, mid-tempo version of] “Revolution.” Eventually, I got on the talkback, and politely asked him to turn down, because the guitar was leaking into all the other microphones.
“I’ve got something to say to you,” John sneered acidly. “It’s your job to control the sound, so just do your bloody job.”
Upstairs in the control room, George Martin and I exchanged wary glances.
“I think you’d better go talk to him,” he said timidly.
I was boggled. “Why me? You’re the producer,” I thought.
Downstairs, a calmer Lennon explained, “Look, the reason I’ve got my amp turned up so high is that I’m trying to distort the sh*t out of it. If you need me to turn it down, I will, but you’ll have to do something to get my guitar sound a lot more nasty.”
To get a heavily distorted guitar sound, I decided to overload the microphone preamp that was carrying John’s guitar signal. That satisfied John to some degree, but I could see he was good and pissed off that it had taken me a period of time to get the sound sorted out. At the best of times, Lennon had limited patience, but for this session, he seemed to have almost none.
“Revolution,” Chapter Two
John wanted the second, up-tempo version of “Revolution” to be even tougher and more biting than the first one. All that week, while we labored over the remake, John kept demanding, “No! No! I want that guitar to sound dirtier!” Finally, I had an idea that might satisfy him—even though it was equipment abuse of the most severe kind. Because no amount of preamp overload had been good enough for him, I decided to try and overload two of them patched together. As I knelt down beside the console, turning knobs I was expressly forbidden [by the studio management] from touching because they could literally cause the console to overheat and blow up, I couldn’t help but think, “If I was the studio manager and saw this going on, I’d fire myself!” The thing was, years later, this ended up being precisely the guitar sound every grunge band in the world aspired to.
And In “The End”...
There were quite a few empty bars to fill after Ringo’s drum solo on “The End” [Abbey Road], and George Harrison said, “Well, a guitar solo is the obvious thing.”
“Yes, but this time you should let me play it,” said John, half seriously. He loved playing lead guitar, but he knew he didn’t have the finesse of either George or Paul, so he rarely took a solo on record.
“I know,” he said mischievously, unwilling to let the idea go, “why don’t we all play the solo? We can take turns and trade licks.”
George looked dubious, but Paul embraced the idea, and he upped the ante further by suggesting the three of them play their solos live. Paul announced that he wanted to take the first solo, and as it was his song, the others deferred. Ever competitive, John said he had a great idea for an ending. So, as always, poor George was overshadowed by his two band mates, and got the middle spot by default.
While they were practicing, I took great care to craft a different, distinctive sound for each Beatle, so it would be apparent to
the listener that it was three individuals playing, and not just one person taking an extended solo. They were each playing a different guitar through a different amp, so it wasn’t all that difficult to achieve. I lined the three amps in a row—there was no need for a great deal of separation, because they were all going to be recorded on a single track.
Incredibly, after just a brief period of rehearsal, they nailed it in a single take.
For me, that session was undoubtedly the high point of the summer of 1969, and listening to those guitar solos never fails to bring a smile to my face.