Book of the Fortnight: The Beatles Recording Sessions

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This edition of the Book of the Fortnight series features the one Beatles book that every fan should own.  A book that tells the story of The Beatles more effectively than any other, but without the same collection of clichéd anecdotes and common knowledge facts that even casual fans have heard dozens of times.  A book that takes the reader from 1962 to 1970.  One. Recording session. At. A. Time.

Author Mark Lewisohn had what I can only describe as the job of a lifetime.  Maybe two lifetimes.  He was allowed to listen to every piece of session tape that The Beatles recorded at Abbey Road studios between 1962 and 1970.  Outtakes, studio chatter, overdubs.  All of it.  He took extensive notes on everything he heard and recorded every piece of information written on the tape box or the recording sheet.  And in 1988 he released the most thorough chronicle of a band’s recording career that has ever been written.

The format of the book is quite predictable.  The book begins on June 6, 1962, The Beatles first session for EMI at Abbey Road Studios, 6:00 PM-8:00 PM.  The producer and engineers are listed for the tracking date, and the songs are listed (in this case, “Besame Mucho,” “Love Me Do,” “P.S. I Love You”, “Ask Me Why”).  And then Lewisohn describes what he heard.

One important side note to the book is the fact that in 1988 Beatles session bootlegs were very hard to come by.  There were several floating around of questionable quality, but in those days they were either prohibitively expensive (I usually saw them in record shops for $30-$100) or they were impossible to find (record stores were often afraid to sell bootleg recordings).  Nowadays one can hear these outtakes when someone uploads them on YouTube (see below), or they can listen to the Anthology albums which did a very good job releasing some great demos and alternate takes.  But in 1988 to learn that there was, say, a 27 minute version of “Helter Skelter” and have it described to you was, for me a revelation (I’ve since heard it, and it isn’t very good. Sigh. Some dreams are meant to fade).

A good example of this is “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  Lewisohn writes about the November 24, 1966 session in which John Lennon first plays the song to George Martin on guitar, before any of the mellotron, cello and backwards effects were even considered.  He then goes on to describe the famous “Take 1” version of the song.  Nearly perfect in its own way, it has a completely different feel to it than the finished single-version.  Reading this book as a 14 year old, I was left to imagine what those tracks sounded like.  When I finally managed to listen to them it was as though I had heard them already.  (For the record, I believe that these first attempts at the song, heard in the video below, exhibit a beauty in the melody that is lost in the final version.  I do not say this often about The Beatles, but in comparison the final version of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” while still a classic, is woefully overproduced.)

As the months and years pass by the reader can see The Beatles moving from quick two-hour sessions in which four songs are completed in rapid succession (such as 6/6/62, mentioned above), to maybe a song or two per session.  Then, perhaps, a song needs two  hour sessions to be completed.  Or a song is started and several takes are attempted but The Beatles decide to shelve it for a few days and then start from scratch with a new approach later on.  By 1967 songs were taking weeks to record.  The maturation of The Beatles in the studio is fascinating to read -especially when you are able to see it happen song-you-know-by-heart to song-you-know-by-heart.

This is by far the most interesting thing about The Beatles Recording Sessions.  A great deal of the knowledge that I have and am able to relay to you, our readers, has its origins in this book.  ADT? I learned about it in this book.  VariSpeed tricks? Ditto.  Production effects on each song are described in detail.  Let’s just say that the true hero in this book is George Martin.

The book takes the reader through every song The Beatles recorded, with just enough Beatles history to allow it to make sense, and with enough behind the scenes information to turn anyone into a Beatles trivia champion.  It is a a book that I always have near the couch, and one that I am always consulting for one factoid or another.  A true desert island book.  While this book is not easy to find (the hardcover first edition can sell for hundreds of dollars in the right condition) it is worth the effort to track it down.

I’ll leave you with The Beatles in the studio goofing off, sneaking off to smoke the odd joint, and trying to learn the harmonies in this week’s Beatles Song of the Week, “Think For Yourself” in 1965.  But mostly goofing off.

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