by Marshall Terrill
Turn on any classic rock station and you’ll soon hear a song that Ken Scott has worked on. As one of the preeminent recording engineers and producers of the 20th century, Ken has garnered Gold, Platinum and Diamond record sales awards: multiple Grammy nominations; and even a Clio (for his recording of the classic Coke ad “I’d like to Teach the World to Sing”).
His new book, Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust: Off-the-Record with The Beatles, Bowie, Elton and so much more (Alfred Music Publishing Co., Inc., 2012, 414 pages) shares Scott’s intimate memories of working with some of the most important artists of the 20th century, while crafting a sound that influenced generations of music makers.
Scott’s work has left an indelible mark on hundreds of millions of fans with his skilled contributions to The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album, and as a producer and/or engineer of six David Bowie albums (including the groundbreaking Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), as well as other timeless classics from a who’s-who of classic rock and jazz acts, including Elton John, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck, Duran Duran, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, America, Devo, Kansas, The Tubes, Missing Persons, Dixie Dregs, and Stanley Clarke.
In this exclusive interview with Daytrippin’, Scott recounts funny, provocative, and oh-so-honest tales of being in the studio with The Beatles, working his way up the ladder at EMI and his individual relationships with the Fab Four.
Q: You were 16 when you started work at EMI Recording Studios (later renamed Abbey Road Studios). What was your interest in music before getting the job and how did you ultimately end up working there in January 1964?
KS: I had an old windup record player and I used to listen to 78s of Presley, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and I just loved the music. I remember getting a tape recorder for Christmas when I was around twelve-and-a-half. I used to record stuff all the time. On Saturday night there was a program hosted by a big English DJ named David Jacobs and the show was called “Pick of the Pops.” I’d record all the new releases played on there or I’d have friends come over and we’d record radio plays and then play them for the English class at school. So, I was totally into the whole recording thing. Then I happened to see a TV program when I was around 14 or 15. It took place at EMI and I saw this guy sitting up behind the glass, way up high, and I knew I wanted to be him. I found out that he was a recording engineer and as it turned out, his name was Malcolm Addey. Malcolm actually became a friend and a mentor when I started to work there. So, I reached the point where I checked up on what’s needed to become a recording engineer. Everywhere I’d check it seemed I would have to go to university, which I didn’t want to do. I hated school.
One week I was taking several exams and I knew I couldn’t take any more exams so one evening I sent out letters asking if anyone might need someone called a recording engineer. The letters were mailed out on a Saturday, I heard from EMI on the Tuesday, had an interview on the Wednesday, I got a letter from them on the Friday giving me the job starting off in the tape library. I left school that day and started the following Monday, so it all happened to me within nine days!
Q: I love this book’s honesty. What really struck me more than any other book on the Beatles were the working conditions at EMI Recording. It almost sounds as if the place was run by bookkeepers and had the personality of an Army bunker…
KS: And that was kind of what it really was. As I’ve gotten older I realized that there is something very, very special about that place. I go back there as often as I can and every time I go back there, I will stand at the top of the stairs at Number 2 Studio and look down and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. It’s just such an amazing place; it has such an incredible feeling to it just knowing its history. It’s just absolutely phenomenal. But yes, EMI was drab but you have to remember they made more money from building radar and electronic systems for the defense department than they did from any Beatles recordings, so it had that sort of almost governmental feeling. It was the suit and tie and all of that kind of thing and it was still the old-timers from the start of the recording industry that ran it. They had been used to a whole different sort of setup than what it was changing into by the mid-to-late sixties. When I started there I was one of the early baby boomers and that’s when the changes started to come much more rapidly and became much more important. We started to change things, but up to that point, it was very, very typical of that time period.
The way I describe it in the book was the way it really was in regards to the rules, the dress code and that kind of thing. It was very typical. But, if you compared it to other recording studios at that time, it wasn’t much different. If you go and see some of RCA Studio B in Nashville where Elvis used to record it is drab and dreary. Remember, psychedelia hadn’t hit at that point in ’64 when I first started, so the people weren’t into sort of colored lights and just happy places of work. It wasn’t that way at that particular time. There were still bombsites around all over London, because it hadn’t been completely rebuilt since World War II, so the entire atmosphere was really sort of drab.
Q: Despite the working conditions, you do seem to be thankful for the “old school” training you received there.
KS: Absolutely! There’s nothing like it today, unfortunately, and, to me it shows. It was really based on merit where they started you off in the tape library to see more than anything how the studio runs. Then you become a second engineer, as they call it today, but back then they were called ‘button pushers,’ and that’s really what it was. We would work on the sessions, learning from everything that went on. All we really had to do was look after the tape machines because we weren’t allowed to do anything other than that. Then when they allowed you to master a recording it was because they knew that you could. It was easier to put stuff onto tape than it was onto vinyl. So, they wanted you to learn the worse scenario which was going onto vinyl before they’d allow to you master tapes. So, you did mastering, learn what works, what you could put on record, then if you were lucky you got promoted to engineer. So many people are going to schools to do it today and it’s not the same.
One of the other great things about EMI and a lot of the other big studios at that time was that it wasn’t just one genre of music; as a second engineer you could work in the morning on a large two hundred piece classical session. Then in the afternoon you could be working on a dance band, and then in the evening you might get to work on a pop group. So you got to see so many different forms of recording, how classical engineers worked, the mics they used, where they placed them, etc. You’d see how the engineers recorded differently for each category of music. You’d get this complete all around training, whereas today everything is just different. If a studio happens to have a hit with a heavy metal act, from then on all they would do are heavy metal acts. Or if it was a rap artist, suddenly it would just be doing nothing but rap. So, anyone that actually goes and starts in a studio, they only ever really see one genre of music, which I feel is very limiting.
Q: There seemed to be a certain amount of fear on your part in working with The Beatles?
KS: There was. I guess I was doing more work with them than I was anyone else, and their sessions tended to go on longer than anyone else. So in that respect there was more time for me to screw up basically.
Q: But, it also seems, without it being said, they must have wanted you around because you were doing so much for them. Would that be a fair assessment of you?
KS: I guess in some respects, yes, because of the fact that I continued working with them after I left EMI/Abbey Road. For the very first session that I ever did as an engineer, which happened to be “Your Mother Should Know,” I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I’d never sat behind the board and pushed up a fader before. Because we had a relationship going, they allowed me to learn and gave me the time just to figure out what I was doing without giving me a hard time or having me kicked off, which was quite amazing. That within itself was, I guess, one of the biggest compliments they could pay me – to allow me to learn what I was doing.
Q: Popularity-wise, the Beatles were at their peak when you started working with them on the second side of a Hard Days Night. Was the studio their refuge because they had all this craziness going on around them?
KS: To a point I guess. I think they were such a close-knit community, the four guys and Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall. They were all so close, I think anywhere that all of them were away from the crowds was a refuge for them. I don’t know how much pressure they actually felt to have to keep on coming up with hit records, but they were fearless. They didn’t mind change –every record changed slightly. Obviously as it went along it changed more and more, and faster and faster. More often than not when someone is worried about getting the next hit they keep on exactly the same formula. They didn’t; they changed. So, to me that shows how fearless they were. They were making records they wanted to make and they enjoyed themselves.
Q: That leads to the central theme of your time with them, which is, they were the most experimental band that you had ever worked with.
KS: Yes. I think it’s said very well in Geoff Emerick’s book (Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles) that they never wanted anything to sound the same way twice. Within that context they had no fear of even using sort of bad sounds. If it fitted in with what they were doing, they kept it in. One of the great things for me as a trainee engineer was their patience, and they allowed me to learn what I was doing. Part of that was that I could have put out completely the wrong mic, in completely the wrong place on the piano and totally screwed with the sound and it sounded atrocious. But there was just as much chance of them saying, “That’s great! It sounds nothing like a piano. We’ll keep it!” So it gave me a tremendous amount of freedom to experiment with mics and placements and all that kind of thing. I didn’t have to worry too much about making a piano sound like the best piano sound in the world. I could experiment a bit and also because of the amount of time they spent in the studio. It gave you a tremendous amount of time to experiment.
So many of the sessions at EMI were three-to-four hour sessions that you’d have to get it right from the downbeat because you didn’t have time to mess around. Whereas with The Beatles we were spending 12, 14, 16 hours a day in the studio and so had plenty of time. You’d try a mic. “Nah, that’s not working.” Then try something else until you got what you were after. So, it was great in that respect. But, sometimes their experimenting went to the point where Paul came to the mic cabinet and would just say, “Oh, that mic looks good. Let’s try it out on the piano” or drums or something like that. Even if it only looked good, they’d try it. There were no rules. They came in originally in my estimation not knowing any of the rules. And then by the time they started to know the rules it was, “Well, we don’t need them anyway. We’re just gonna break them all!” And it led to experimentation.
Q: At the time, how did you view The Beatles? As recording artists or as a popular music group?
KS: Oh, absolutely recording artists…without a shadow of a doubt. But that we’d be talking about them 50 years on, no, absolutely not. Rock and roll wasn’t even that old at that point, so we had absolutely no concept that their name, their music would actually last this long. But as recording artists in their time, they were absolutely legit.
Q: Okay. Let’s talk about some of the Beatles engineers. Norman Smith, it appears, was the engineer that took you under his wing. Can you tell me about his particular brilliance and then how he helped you in your career?
KS: Well, I learned mostly by watching Norman work. So much of what we do as engineers and producers is being with people, and learning how to deal with them. I watched how the engineers and producers worked with the artists and learned from them that way. Of course, I got to see how they placed mics and all that kind of thing, but working with the Beatles allowed me the freedom to find my own way. As far as Norman’s brilliance, he was the instigator of every album being slightly different because sound-wise that’s what he wanted to attempt. And much of it was small changes. A lot of people would never even realize that it had changed. But within the confines of the studio, seeing how we did things, and hearing it there, you could see how he was changing things all along. I think it’s more than likely the Beatles picked up on that, and so I took it and ran with that. When Geoff Emerick took over he took it a lot further than Norman would ever have done, but in saying that, the first band that he [Smith] signed after moving from engineering the Beatles was Pink Floyd. Obviously he saw what was coming and he did some great stuff with Floyd. So, Norman had that within him, but whether as an engineer he would have continued the way…it completely changed when Geoff took over.
Q: And speaking of Geoff Emerick, let’s talk about him. In what way was he brilliant or talented?
KS: From an engineering standpoint, he really took the experimentation that much further for The Beatles. It was everything happening at the same time. It was a perfect storm. The whole psychedelia thing had really sort of taken off by Revolver and the band just continued the advances they had started on Rubber Soul. Because that album was so successful, they felt they could take it that much further. With a young engineer like Geoff coming on board, who had six months experience, he hadn’t set the rules within his own mind at that point. He was flexible. So, he could go along with it and take ideas and run with them. He was brilliant in that way. He had a great ear…an incredible ear! And stacks of patience – that was one of the things at this time that you needed with the Beatles – a hell of a lot of patience because they would take a long time.
Q: In what way? Just trying to experiment and develop a sound?
KS: Well, yes. Whatever. I believe it was “Sexy Sadie” that we took three days just to get the basic track down. Because of that, we had to make sure tape was running all the time. The thing that got me through all of the boring parts was the knowledge of how great it was going to be in the end.
Q: I have heard the demos, the alternate takes and they are night and day from the finished product. So, how much credit should the Beatles engineers’ get for this?
KS: Impossible to quantify. I’m a firm believer in teams. It’s a team that does things well much more than individuals. I think you get much more out of a team, and every team worked really well for The Beatles. It all worked. It’s impossible to say how different things would have been with other engineers. You can sort of work out certain things. For example, Norman would not have experimented quite as much as Geoff did, but then when I came in, I was much more of a basic rock and roll type engineer than Geoff was. For the White Album they wanted more of a rock and roll album. With me coming in at that point, it worked out perfectly. As I say in the book, one of the things for me, certainly when I was working with them, yes, there were moments of tension, but the majority of the time we had a blast. It was such good fun! So, maybe my coming into it…it gave them what they were looking for at that point, so they could relax and have more fun.
Q: The Beatles seemed to expect miracles from their five engineers, and it appears as if you always came through in the end. Yet, I don’t think that they thought that they were asking for the impossible…
KS: I think that maybe early on they would ask that something get done and it just became common place. Very much so later on, they would ask for miracles and yet, they would definitely just expect it. The whole story about “Strawberry Fields Forever” is so absolutely phenomenal, putting the two takes together and there were different keys and different speeds. You could hardly plan it to work out as well as it did. That really is expecting miracles and it came through. So, once that kind of thing happens a few times, you come to expect it. I think that certainly became the case with them.
Q: You say in the book that the old timers hated working with the Beatles? I can’t imagine passing up the opportunity to work with them…
KS: You have to remember we just basically sat there with the tape machine running. It became boring, but they demanded you to do that. There were times they were very uncaring, unthinking of people in the booth. I tell the story of when they had food delivered in. This was very early on. I think it was during the recording of “I Am the Walrus.” It was a long session and they had food brought in and they were sitting there eating it. I am in the control room with my second engineer, Richard Lush, and we were both starving. I turned to him and said, “What the hell do you do?” I hadn’t yet learned how you deal with them from the engineering standpoint and the control you had as an engineer at that point, and Richard said that was easy. He just walks over, pushes the button, and says, “Okay guys, we are going out for a bite to eat. We’ll be back in about an hour, okay?” “Oh yeah sure, Richard, okay.” The old-timers liked it very structured. They liked to know that when work was finished they could go to the pub and get a beer and sausage roll. You couldn’t do that with the Beatles; it was very unstructured, very long hours and totally upside down.
The other thing was that the engineers that had gone before wanted to make the instruments sound as close to the natural sound as possible. The Beatles wanted it to sound different every time. The old-timers could not understand it. They would record perfectly what they’d been given in the studio. The Beatles didn’t really want it that way. They wanted you to mess with it. They wanted it to be different. That mindset, the old timers couldn’t quite get into. Like Malcolm Addey, the guy I mentioned earlier, he had this ability that, because he had done so many sessions with orchestras, he would set the mics up, the EQ levels and get everything ready in the booth. The orchestra would then come in and sit down. It would be perfect straight off the bat, he didn’t have to change anything. But it was always the same.
Q: Most of the recording done with the Beatles, they did it on four- and eight-track recorders. If the 16- or 24-track machines existed then, would the group have been as creative?
KS: It’s impossible to tell. The struggle to be different to come up with effects was a very organic thing. I feel that these days it’s a little too easy because there’s no struggle. It becomes automatic. It becomes soulless. With regard to the late move to 8-track, you have to sort of put a certain amount of responsibility onto George Martin for this as Abbey Road did actually have 8-track tape machines much earlier than we started to use them. George was offered the use of 8-track for the Beatles and he turned it down. The reason he did that was that there were certain things that the Beatles and us as engineers had gotten used to that we could do with the four-track tape machines – things like being able to change the tape speed, ADT, and phasing, all of that kind of thing, we could do on the four-tracks, but the eight-tracks when they came in, you couldn’t do that on them. They needed to be modified. So, George preferred to hold back on the 8-track until they’d all been modified.
[Note: Ken Scott appears in an orange shirt in this footage during The Beatles’ White Album sessions]
Q: The White Album was truly your baby but before we get into the songs, let’s address the fact that this time period has been labeled with much tumult and has been categorized as four individuals singing their own songs, calling themselves The Beatles. However, you go to great lengths in the book to dispel that myth.
KS: There were certainly times of tension, but mostly it was fun. We all know Ringo quit for a period of time, but it wasn’t through animosity. He just felt unloved. We all knew he was great, one of the best rock and roll drummers ever, but we took it for granted. Paul being one of the best bass players ever; it was taken for granted. And that’s the kind of situation it was. Once Ringo left, suddenly they realized that they couldn’t quite take this all so much for granted. When he returned, that was really the sort of high spot when they became a band again. All four would be down in the studio working hard. We got more done during that period of time when George Martin was on holiday and Chris Thomas took over for him. During that period, we got more work done than we had the rest of the time leading up to that point. It was phenomenal. It was really a lot of work and it was great fun. And yes, there had always been a certain amount of each individual songs being their own. For whatever reason, it was a little more obvious on the White Album than had been before. Probably because it was a double album, you could see the differences that much more because there was so much more material, especially with John. Things like “Revolution No. 9”. You really saw how his musical tastes had changed.
Q: In your opinion, what are the standout tracks on the White Album?
KS: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” because of George and “Yer Blues.” I love that one just because of all that we went through to record it doing it in a small room by the side of the Number Two control room. It started off as a joke, but you often had to be careful what you said to them because they would take it and go with it, so I learned my lesson with that one! But, yes, there are obviously some on there that I am less keen on. I’m not a big fan of “Good Night.” It just doesn’t do it for me. But I know a lot of people do like that song. It’s all a matter of personal taste. I also like “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” That’s one that seems to be sort of forgotten, but I love that it’s three completely different sections and they all work so perfectly together.
Q: “Not Guilty” seems like it was the hardest track to record because George just wasn’t feeling it.
KS: That’s true…George wasn’t feeling it. It was his song and he wasn’t feeling it. He could not get a vocal that he was happy with. He couldn’t get even into sort of the mood of singing it, that’s why we tried different ways of him singing it, in different places within the studio. That’s when the “Yer Blues”joke came up, whilst we were trying to do the vocal. George wanted to try it in the control room with everything coming back through the speakers to give it more of a live theater-type feel or club feel. It was during one of the playbacks I turned to John and said, “God, the way you guys are going, you are going to want to record in there next” and I pointed to this little room by the side of Number Two control room. Of course, a couple days later he said, “Let’s record in there!” Silly, yes. Difficult, yes. But we always did whatever it took.
[Editor’s Note: “Not Guilty” was not included on The White Album, but was released in 1979 on George Harrison’s self-titled solo album]
There was another occasion, which I don’t think I mentioned in the book where John came in and we were trying to put something down. John said after he listened back to it, “Why is it always easier at home when I am sitting in my armchair? I want to make it more like that.” And so we set up an armchair in studio, put this lamp over him and made it as close to a living room as we could. We then put mics up and did some takes like that. The funny thing is, he came up to listen to it and said, “It’s no different, it’s just as bad.” We said, “Yes, because you’re listening to it for different reasons in the studio than you do at home. You can allow the mistakes at home, but you won’t here.”
Q: Was “What’s the New Mary Jane” an unreleased track from that session?
KS: From what I remember it was from those sessions. Look my memory is, as I say in the book, not the greatest because we never expected to be talking about these things 50 years later. I even point out in the book that the one question I’m always asked about the White Album is what was it like recording Eric Clapton on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I have absolutely no recollection of that whatsoever. I’ve spoken to other people that were on the session and they don’t remember either. It wasn’t that important at the time; it’s only over time that it’s become very important, Beatles history. I even tried hypnotherapy, regression therapy, so that I might be able to get back into that place and remember more of the details of it, but unfortunately it did not work. And speaking of no recollection, I don’t even remember the 26-minute version of “Helter Skelter,” but it’s written about in the Abbey Road session book by Mark Lewisohn. If Mark’s gone in the vaults and looked at the tapes and paperwork, then I guess it did actually happen, but I just can’t remember it.
Q: Some of the songs on the White Album were recorded at Trident, which had an eight-track machine. Despite differences in ambiance and how the studios were run, was there a lick of difference when it came to capturing the sound?
KS: Well, I didn’t do the sessions at Trident, Barry Sheffield did, one of the owners, so just how he actually recorded them, I don’t know. The first thing they recorded there was “Hey Jude” and we had a hell of a lot of problems with that recording once we got it back to EMI, it didn’t sound anywhere near as good as it did at Trident. But the later recordings for the album sounded much better. As far as any differences in sound, I think the White Album was such a varied album anyway, it didn’t matter because we were trying to make every track sound different so it worked in the album’s favor.
Q: Does it surprise you that Revolver and the White Album and not Sgt. Pepper, are the two albums that have emerged as The Beatles’ best works. Why do you think that is?
KS: Pepper is sort of poppy– not as deep as the other two. I also think that people held it in such high esteem that I don’t know if anything can live up to that kind of reputation for so long without people starting to criticize it. We as humans love to build something up and then pull it down, so, I guess Pepper sort of fell into that category a little.
Q: Can you recall the very last session you did with the Beatles as an entire group?
KS: The last session was the one I wrote about in the book, which literally lasted about 24 hours. We had to finish the White Album because George was leaving to go to LA. And because it was the first release on Apple, it had to be delivered on time. There was a deadline and we had to get it completed. It was ultimate mayhem. We were using every studio, every room we possibly could; everyone was doing different things from John Smith in one room putting the album in order. Then in another room there’d be, say Chris Thomas and John, I think it was, listening to the running order and passing comment. Then it would go back to John and he’d say, “No, change it this way.” I was in another studio mixing something with Paul. Just all over the place like that. That was the last session I did with all four.
Q: In the book, you give a brief thumbnail sketch of each Beatle in terms of their musical ability and their personalities. Can you do that just real quickly starting with Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr?
KS: Lennon was everything you’ve ever read about him. He could be a sweetheart or he could be the most malicious bastard ever! And the problem was he could change at the flip of a coin. You never quite knew how he was going to react to things. As a musician, he’d get bored easily. He certainly wasn’t a perfectionist. He wanted it the way he wanted it, but that wasn’t always sort of perfection. Paul, remember how he started off, he was a guitarist in the band – he wasn’t the bass player. Very quickly he became one of the greatest bass players ever. His musical growth was phenomenal. Then the way he got into piano, it just was incredible! To add to that, it was all over such a short period of time. Personality-wise, he has this need to be loved. He is a perfectionist. He will keep going on something and will belabor a point quite often, whereas John would be, “Yea, that’s good enough, let’s move on.”
George was the most spiritual one. Anyone who goes through what the Beatles did is going to change. He is the one that came out the other end of it the most normal human being. As a guitarist, once again, the same as Paul, considering where he started, he became a brilliant guitarist. And the same with his songwriting, probably thanks to being around Lennon/McCartney– that has to rub off when you are in competition with them the whole time. It certainly rubbed off on him. I’ve always loved him lyrically because of his spirituality. It was all brought out in the recent Martin Scorsese documentary– the sort of yin and yang of him, the good side vs. the bad side. So many of his songs you could take from the perspective of God love or the love of a woman. He was so clever in that regard but he could also be so very pointed with some of his lyrics. Ringo, as I said earlier, is one of the greatest rock and roll drummers ever. I don’t care what anybody says. Ringo did it all. Of course, he had his problems during that period of time– the use of booze basically. He could be nasty when he was drinking; he wasn’t a happy drunk, let’s put it that way. So, now clean and sober and is a different person.
Q: The Beatles seem to be the ultimate example of chemistry. When they all entered the room, there was something magical that happened. Could you sense that when you were with them?
KS: Absolutely! Yes. It’s totally the whole being greater than the sum of the individual parts. That’s a classic description of the Beatles. Put them all together in one room and they were amazing.
Q: You worked with all four Beatles on various solo projects. How were they different in their approach to the music as solo artists rather than as a Beatle?
KS: Yes. I suppose I did actually work with all four on projects outside of the Beatles. With Paul it was working on the Mary Hopkin album that he produced called Postcard. He played acoustic guitar on it but no bass or anything like that, so yeah I worked with him on that; George with several things; John with a couple of things, and then Ringo with one thing.
Q: So, my question is, how were they different in the studio as solo artists in the approach to the music, say as when they were the Beatles as a group?
KS: Number 1, they didn’t have to worry about anyone else, but other than that much the same. With Ringo, his whole thing was that he was a great drummer, anything beyond that he needed help with. He needed it as a singer/songwriter within the Beatles. He needed that outside as well. “It Don’t Come Easy”, which George produced and co-wrote with Ringo was the perfect example. Same way with a track like “Good Night.” I seem to remember that we had to put down a guide vocal for Ringo to learn how to sing “Goodnight” the way it was written. Had to do much the same with “It Don’t Come Easy.” George put down a vocal, which there is a bootleg of out there, recorded solely to give Ringo an idea of the phrasing of the song so he could sing it better. So Ringo was much the same outside of the Beatles as he was within the Beatles.
Because of the success of George’s tracks on Abbey Road, he had this confidence on All Things Must Pass that he hadn’t necessarily had before. He knew exactly what he wanted and we just got down to it. It was great seeing him as both the writer and working with other artists.
Working with Paul on the Mary Hopkin album was very much like working with him when he was with The Beatles. There was a certain amount of controlling. He could do it easier on the Mary Hopkin album than he could within the Beatles. It was kind of strange because he was pushing Mary in a direction that she didn’t necessarily want to go. The most comfortable sessions for her were the ones we did with Donovan. She recorded two of his songs, both of which were very folky. And it was just Paul and Donovan playing guitar and her singing live. She was really comfortable in that setting. But, then when you came to the big show tunes and that kind of thing, she was very uncomfortable. But that’s what Paul wanted, so that’s what Paul got.
John was very similar. He could get very impatient. He wanted things different. There’s a thing that occurred when we were mixing “Give Peace A Chance.” There’s this repeat echo on the thumping that’s going on in the background, and as the record goes on, the repeat gets louder and louder and that was John just wanting to change it constantly. It was sort of, “Push it up, push it up, push it up, push it up all the time.” With “Cold Turkey” he knew what he wanted, he knew how he wanted that vocal to be and he just did it. From what I remember, it was a very quick session.
Q: Do you think he did that because he wanted everything to sound fresh? That’s just kind of my theory.
KS: Yes, and just getting bored. I went through the same thing with David Bowie later. He didn’t like being in the studio. He got bored easily and we knew we had two or three takes to get it, and if we didn’t, then it would be all over. It was that kind of thing. That was Bowie. With Lennon with “Sexy Sadie,” which was his song, we took three nights to get the basic track. So, there were times when as long as it was heading in a way he liked it, he could have that patience so he would see it through. But only if it was going the way he liked it. If he wasn’t feeling it, he would lose patience very quickly.
Q: You write about your last encounter with him in 1971 during the Imagine sessions, which is very sad.
KS: I went down to John’s studio in Tittenhurst and we started off in the afternoon recording a Yoko track, which went quite well. Then in the evening it was onto a John track and it was, “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier.” He taught the song to the session musicians that were there and once they’d learned it, the arrangement got sorted out. So they all came into the control room, laid out lines of coke, and snorted it. Then they went back into the studio and tried a take and it wasn’t very good. They came in and heard it and realized it wasn’t very good, so John said, “I know what this needs.” He put out more lines of coke and they snorted some more, went in, and the take was even worse. They came in, listened, unhappy again. They laid down more blow and after about the third or fourth time, I could see that nothing was really gonna happen that night. So I just said, “Okay guys, I’m sorry, I gotta leave. I’ve got an early session tomorrow morning at Trident and it’s a long drive home. It’s all set up. You can continue and I will see you another time,” and then I left. That was the last time I ever saw John.
Q: Your last encounter with George was also bittersweet…
KS: I actually got to spend quite a bit of time with George on and off for a couple of years before he passed. He wanted to start getting everything in order. He wanted to arrange for the re-mastering of all of his Dark Horse records. I went over there to Friar Park and realized when trying to sort out his material that all the tapes were sort of everywhere. There was no rhyme or reason to how the tapes were stored. So I said, “Look, if we are going to find everything, I’ve got to rearrange the tape library because this is just going to be ridiculous.” So, I started off doing that at the same time as working on additional tracks and all of that for the re-mastering of All Things Must Pass. Within doing all of that we were talking a lot about bootlegs and George had a typical attitude about bootlegs. He could not understand why anyone would be interested in other versions or especially what he considered poorer versions of his original material. But through discussion, he could see the sort of relevance if it’s out there, which it all was, it should be out there in the best quality possible for the consumer because most of what they buy on bootlegs is crap. It sounds atrocious. And so at least give them the best possible quality. So he had me sort of going around buying as many different bootlegs as I could find.
My first Beatles Fest was to find bootlegs and I also looked around in Pasadena, California. I went around all the stores looking for any bootlegs that I hadn’t already found. Then once I got the bootlegs, then it was a question of trying to track down the originals so that we had the highest quality. I think we finished up finding all but two, one being Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy.” We never found the original of that. I think it was just destroyed almost immediately because it was so bad. I spent a lot of time on and off over at his place in England.
Q: So, is the end result the Early Takes Vol. 1 album that was just released?
KS: It’s quite possible. I’m sure that’s some of what we got, that we found then was used for that release. I don’t know. I haven’t been a part of it for a couple of years now, so I’m not sure how it finished up. Some of it may have been used on the Scorsese documentary. I really got it started for The Dark Horse Years 1976-1992 and maybe you’re starting to see some of it come out again.
Q: How was George different or the same as a mature man than he was as a Beatle?
KS: Oh, he was exactly the same. He was as funny as ever; he was as down to earth as ever. He was wonderful. My wife got to meet he and Olivia and hang out a bit. Both he and Olivia and Dhani were all sweethearts to her. They didn’t have to be. Olivia took my wife, Cheryl, out with her to find furniture and just bits and pieces for the house. They were wonderful and so down to earth. It was great. Then George had a “stomach ailment” for a little while. We never discussed it any further than that. My feeling is that it wasn’t a stomach ailment at all, but…
The last time I saw him at Friar Park happened to be the last time he was ever there. He was walking around the grounds and looking at everything, just taking it all in. Thinking back, the impression I get is that he knew it was the last time he would ever be there, and he was just taking it in. And that was very moving. Now, I do have to say that when I started back working with George again, I had to sign a confidentiality agreement, which typically anyone that goes to work with any of those guys has to because there have been so many malicious stories that got out there from people supposedly close to them. I wanted to write about my last experiences with George and put it in the book. So I went ahead and wrote it, and because of the confidentiality agreement, I couldn’t allow it to go out without the blessing of Olivia. So, I sent the finished version to Olivia. She said, “It’s not exactly as I remember it, but if that’s the way you remember it, it’s your story, I love it, it’s great, go ahead,” which was amazing. That meant so much to me.
Q: It seems like music is no longer as important to society or made as well as when the Beatles and the Stones and so many other groups you produced who emerged from that time period. Why do you think that is?
KS: I think it probably has a lot to do with the fact that attorneys and accountants took over the music business. Record companies used to be run by music people. George Martin was a classically trained musician. He could play oboe, piano, anything, and he had a musician’s temperament. He understood totally what talent had to do, that talent is there to create and you have to allow talent to create. These days it’s not allowed to. It’s all the record companies saying, “We want this and we want that, and we want it immediately,” and so it’s lost all sort of character. Acts these days can do very little of what they want to do. My feeling is it’s gonna turn around. The majors are slowly but surely killing themselves. And once they’re gone, talent will win out again; it always has done, it always will do. With that said, there’s never going to be another Beatles. It’s gonna be different. We just need to get rid of the accountants and the attorneys and then musicians can start doing what they are supposed to do, and that is, to create.
Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust is available at most bookstores and through Amazon.com.
Marshall Terrill is a veteran journalist and the author of 15 books.