I sat down with the pair of analogue obsessives and authors of the brilliant Recording The Beatles following one of their talks at the legendary studio...
As indicated by the graffiti daubed walls and the tourists nearly mown down daily on the famous zebra crossing, Abbey Road is hallowed ground for Beatles freaks and music fans globally. As well as Macca & co, everyone from Stravinsky to Adele has recorded there, plus it was birthplace of such landmark albums as Dark Side of the Moon and The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle. Two gentlemen who know the place intimately are Brian Kehew (L.A.) and Kevin Ryan (Texas), musicians, analogue recording obsessives, songwriters and authors of the exhaustive Recording the Beatles book, which even members of the Fab Four use as an essential reference tool. I joined them in Abbey Road’s studio 2, as they embarked on a series of lectures celebrating the space, along with special guest, former Beatles recording engineer Brian Gibson, to discuss Beatles, faders and the joy of outtakes.
Think of how many people would have been cramped in here (Abbey Road Studio 2 control room).
Brian Gibson: There was one tape op in here with the machines and then the engineer, the producer and any members of the band.
Yes, but they would have all been smoking.
Kevin: Ash all over the console faders.
I suppose that is something that’s changed. When the Beatles started it would have been frowned upon for bands to be in the control room.
Brian K: I found some early pictures of them sitting here, so obviously they were allowed in. But an artist in the room is very different to an artist having creative input. You’ll see many pictures of the Beatles with their heads down on the console. At the time that was very unusual.
I wonder if that drove them in a little way. They were forbidden to get involved, so that made them more interested in the production side.
Brian K: One of the things that people have always told us is that they pushed everyone around them to become creative. They wanted to try different things, ‘What can you do with my voice, I want to sound like I’m distant or I want to sound like a submarine captain’. So the tech staff would say ‘I could build a box or we could distort something’. Brian was here one time when they were trying to get guitars through the desk without using an amplifier, which people didn’t think would be a good idea, but that’s the ‘Revolution’ guitar sound that people love so much. Not many people understand the quality and creativity that limitations bring. If you only have four or eight tracks, it’s a different kind of recording.
I suppose that’s the main thing that’s changed in the modern era. That’s all synthesized now.
Brian K: Although there is a movement away from it. We may have lost something by separating tracks rather than playing together and being too detail orientated when recording. I think it’s a trend back to what is most natural and fun. The least natural thing is moving waveforms around with a mouse on a screen to make music. It’s more natural is to bang a drum or play an instrument.
Kevin: I also feel that as everyone has the same tools now, everyone can take an audio file and quantise it so it’s perfectly in time. As that becomes more available, it becomes a generic approach. What becomes new and fresh is not doing that and trying to have people play as well as they can and keep some of the human element.
Do you remember your first experience with The Beatles?
Kevin: I grew up hearing those records; my parents played them and The Beach Boys and Elvis. When I was young I responded most to The Beatles earlier, simpler pop songs. As I got older, the psychedelic period started to become my favourite.
I’ve gone the other way.
Brian K: To appreciate the simplicity?
Yes, because I think the first album I probably heard was the White Album. Then I started going backwards and now I really love the Help era.
Brian K: That’s an interesting perspective. I have some friends who say, ‘well the first two or three records were great, but after that they stopped writing great songs and started worrying about production’. Wow, stopped writing great songs?
Kevin: If you think of the early songs, they were verse, chorus, verse, chorus. They followed the ‘this is how songs are written’ pattern. And when you start throwing that out of the window and having odd song structures, it gets interesting.
Brian K: Even as far back as ‘She Loves You’, they started with the chorus, which was a fantastic breakaway within the realms of what was possible in pop back then.
Kevin: And George Martin took credit for that.
So you two started this project separately, is that correct?
Kevin: I think we had both been working for a few years, unaware that the other existed, even though we were doing the same project. When we were introduced, it just made sense to combine what we’d found. And then we filled the holes in each other’s research and then continued for years beyond that, researching together and writing the book together.
How far along in the process were you when you found each other?
Brian K: About half way. So it was seven or eight years together to work towards finishing.
How long was it altogether?
Brian K: Almost 15 years.
You’re both musicians primarily. Was that a daunting prospect, to spend so much time away from music and committed to writing?
Brian K: Had we known what it would have been, we never would have started.
Kevin: We had no idea how much work there would be, but we also didn’t know how much we didn’t know.
Brian K: There was a notebook I found somewhere at home, on the first page it says, ‘What mixing desks were used’? And that turned into 150 pages.
Do you think you both started from the same point?
Kevin: For me, it was as a young kid, learning to record on four track tape and frustrated by my inability to recreate some of those sounds. And then, as I became more experienced and knowledgeable about recording, it was learning about the components of recording and the different types of equipment to make a different sound. That’s when I wanted to know what they were using, just out of curiosity.
Brian K: There really wasn’t any external evidence, so it was all primary research. Finding people, talking to them. Sometimes a memory can be wrong, even though people recall it clearly. Someone was talking about Paul McCartney playing ‘Blackbird’ and you hear him tapping on a book. There’s that sound: tap, tap, tap. And I told them, ‘I think you’re wrong because I’ve seen film of it and it’s his foot tapping, could you be thinking of this?’ And I played them ‘Mother Nature’s Son’. And he said, ‘that’s what I meant’. It can go down as history, if you don’t check.
Brian, you’re also employed as an archive researcher and compiler.
Brian K: For fifteen or twenty years I have been going through the vaults of old record companies and listening through people’s tracks. I’ll dig through the archive and mix a live Jimi Hendrix concert, for instance, that has not been mixed. Or say if there’s a track by Fleetwood Mac, we’ll find an earlier version that’s quite complete and we’ll mix it to sound as it should.
So it’s more like art restoration in a way.
Brian K: Yes. We don’t do too much manipulation. We don’t dump it into a computer and manufacture things. It’s taking what exists and making it presentable, stylistically, and making the group sound like they should in 1958 or 68 or 78. This is the way music was done with certain kinds of sounds. Until the 1980’s pretty much no-one would play an outtake. There was no need for it. But then you hear those things and you realize, ‘wow, I don’t have to be so particular about perfection’. The record is great, even though David Bowie is singing slightly out of tune.
Kevin: Or the bass player definitely missed that note, but its fine. It even adds character.
Brian K: There are so many examples, but the greatness exceeds anything the flaws can drag down. In ‘Jean Genie’, the bass player goes to the chorus before everyone else and then waits for a whole measure to slot back in.
Kevin: No modern producer would allow that, they would have got rid of that.
Brian K: It’s a bit of human character that makes records unique, that they don’t allow anymore.
What are some on the gems that you have unearthed?
Brian K: There are many. There’s an unreleased Faces track that I think is one of the greatest things they ever did and it’s never come out. In any label’s back catalogue there are a few pieces that are as good as the release, maybe even better. There is a great demo for The Beatles that made it onto Anthology: ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, an acoustic version. Recorded by Brian here, who was not a recording engineer. When we met Ken Scott, one of the engineers for that era, he said he’d read all the literature and it seemed to match except for one bit where he recorded demos with George. He couldn’t remember doing that. Years later, we were talking to Brian and he told us he did a little bit of recording and he recorded the acoustic demo. So we wondered why his name was not on the box. And it’s because it wasn’t allowed to be. He wasn’t a recording engineer.
Brian Gibson: I was just too modest to put my name down.
Brian K: But there’s an outtake that’s probably equal to the finished record in a completely different way. Most artists want the best version out there. Then you realise there is learning to be had, or even the discovery of the beauty of something, once you strip away all the augmentation.
Recording the Beatles is available here at Recording The Beatles.
Brian and Kevin continue their lectures at Abbey Road. Tickets are available here.