Electronic Music and The Beatles
By Thom Holmes
One need look no further than The Beatles for examples of classic electronic music techniques and analog synthesis in rock music. Much has been written about the importance of the recording studio to The Beatles who, at the peak of their popularity in 1966, stopped touring and spent the remaining four years of their partnership solely as recording artists. With the aid of the extraordinarily gifted producer George Martin and a cadre of talented and inquisitive recording engineers, many of the sound-making techniques associated with electronic music began to slip into the recordings of The Beatles.
The Revolver Sessions
The Beatles became fascinated with tape loops during the recording sessions for the album Revolver (1966). One of the first loops the group used was set-up by engineer Geoff Emerick for the hypnotic rhythm of the song Tomorrow Never Knows (1966). Paul McCartney was so taken with the effect that he went home and recorded a batch of additional tape loops using his guitar, the ringing sound of wine glasses, and other noises. He came back to the studio and handed Emerick a little plastic bag full of tape snippets that the engineer dutifully threaded onto a tape deck for the band to audition.1 This led to a session devoted to the live mixing of tape loops during which all five tape decks of the Abbey Road studio were employed. Many of the loops were long and required technicians to stand nearby spooling them in the air with uplifted pencils. In the control room, Emerick conducted the live mix, controlling the sound balance while others adjusted the panning and levels. Emerick likened the result to a human-enabled synthesizer. Some of the sounds were mixed into Tomorrow Never Knows, including the seagull-like noise that was made with a distorted guitar.2 Another effect used on the song was the continuously varying speed of some of the background tracks, the result of The Beatles having access to a varispeed tape recorder.
In 1971, shortly after the breakup of The Beatles, George Martin described the process of composing with tape loops on Tomorrow Never Knows. He knew that the band had been listening to avant garde music, particularly that of Karlheinz Stockhausen. “They discovered Stockhausen for themselves.” detailed Martin.
…They’d bought themselves tape-recorders and they'd started playing with them in their own homes—I think Paul discovered it first; they got into making little loops for themselves. … For Tomorrow Never Knows they all went away and made loops at various speeds and brought them to me. I'd play them on a machine, keep some and discard others, and we eventually ended up with eight loops of different sounds. … Then, putting all these loops on, we got eight tape machines and put one loop on each, and I fed each of those machines into the control desk, so that by raising any of the faders at any moment you could bring up the sound of any one particular loop. We already had the rhythm track and the voice, so then we did a mix, and brought up any loop we fancied at any particular time. That's how we got that effect.3
The use of tape reversal in a Beatles’ song was first heard by the public in the release of the single Rain, also produced in 1966 just a week after Tomorrow Never Knows. There are two conflicting stories about how this effect made its way into the song. One is that John Lennon took his vocal track home and accidentally threaded it upside down on his reel-to-reel tape recorder, causing the sound to be played back in reverse. The other is that George Martin intentionally mounted the tape backwards on a tape deck in the studio to demonstrate the effect to Lennon, who had stepped out of the studio for a minute. When Lennon returned and played the tape, he was “amazed.” One way or the other, Rain “was backwards forever after that.”4 Experiments with tape loops continued to be used on various Beatle albums, from the whirling calliope effects of Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite (1967) to the atmospheric nature sounds that form an aural bridge between Here Comes the Sun and Sun King on the album Abbey Road (1969).
Carnival of Light
Paul McCartney recently shed a little more light on another famed Beatle excursion into tape music. In December of 1966, McCartney was asked by to contribute a recording for an event known as the The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave to be held at the Roundhouse in London. There were two scheduled events, one on January 28, 1967 and another on February 4, 1967. Posters for both events advertised “music composed by Paul McCartney” and the tape work may have been played several times at each of the two events. In addition to a number of rock groups, the concerts also featured a collective of BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers calling themselves Unit Delta Plus.
In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, McCartney expressed hope that the piece—13:48 minutes long—could finally be officially released to the public if Ringo Starr and the estates of Harrison and Lennon could agree. Back in 1967, the free-form improvisation was considered too “adventurous” for release.4 George Harrison and producer George Martin, in particular, were not fond of this particular sonic experiment.
Although the piece hasn’t been heard publicly since 1967, the existence of the tape has long been known. McCartney apparently tried to include it on the Beatles Anthology in the late 1990s but was again thwarted by one of his band mates. “It was up for consideration on The Anthology and George vetoed it,” explained McCartney in a 2002 interview. “He didn't like it.”5
What’s not to like? The piece was the result of a brief recording session that McCartney organized while the Beatles had a free half hour of studio time after recording vocal overdubs for Penny Lane. The date was January 5, 1967. The work was McCartney’s idea but he enlisted all of the Beatles for the in-studio realization. “There's no lyrics, it's avant garde music,” said McCartney. “You would class it as... well you wouldn't class it actually, but it would come in the Stockhausen/John Cage bracket... John Cage would be the nearest. It's very free-form. Yeah man, it's the coolest piece of music since sliced bread!6
Lewisohn acknowledged the recording of the work, then simply called Untitled, in The Beatles Recording Sessions. The track is also known as Carnival of Light, which was an alternative name for the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave at which it was premiered. The piece comprised four tracks mixed in real time. McCartney gave the other members of The Beatles instructions for the performance. "I said all I want you to do is just wander around all the stuff, bang it, shout, play it, it doesn't need to make any sense. Hit a drum then wander on to the piano, hit a few notes, just wander around.” So that's what we did and then put a bit of an echo on it. It's very free.”7
Lewisohn listened to the track while writing his book. He described Carnival of Light as follows:
Track one of the tape was full of distorted, hypnotic drum and organ sounds; track two had a distorted lead guitar; track three had the sounds of a church organ, various effects (the gargling of water was one) and voices; track four featured various indescribable sound effects with heaps of tape echo and manic tambourine.
But of all the frightening sounds it was the voices on track three which really set the scene, John and Paul screaming dementedly and bawling aloud random phrases like 'Are you all right?' and 'Barcelona!’8
McCartney still hopes to release the piece, now going on 42 years old. “I like it because it's The Beatles free, going off piste,” offer McCartney. “The time has come for it to get its moment.”9
Carnival of Light was influenced by McCartney’s interest in the experimental and electronic music of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The same can be said for John Lennon and Yoko Ono about Revolution 9 from The Beatles “white album.” Revolution 9 was a montage of tape loops mixed with recorded sounds from the BBC archives and live studio improvisations. The piece was constructed in a manner similar to the way that Tomorrow Never Knows was produced two years earlier. Dating from the June 1968 recording sessions for The Beatles, the 8:13′′-long work was produced by Lennon with help from Harrison and Ono, both of whom contributed occasional recitations and, in the case of Ono, high-pitched singing.10 All of the resources and technicians were once again recruited to keep the tape loops flying and to manage the mixing in the control room. Although the final stereo version consists of several overdubs, each original track comprised a live-studio mix of whatever sounds were being looped at the time. Martin had the job of mixing the elements of Revolution 9 into a whole. “I was painting a picture in sound,” explains Martin, “and if you sat in front of the speakers you just lost yourself in stereo. All sorts of things are happening in there: you can see people running all over the place and fires burning, it was real imagery in sound. It was funny in places too, but I suppose it went on a bit long.”11
A Beatle Touch of Moog
The Beatles are not normally associated with synthesizer music but were actually one of the first groups to effectively integrate the sounds of the Moog into their music. This came about through the efforts of Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause, a musical duo who also acted as sales representatives for Robert Moog and his synthesizer. Krause had already sold Moogs to George Martin and Mick Jagger and in the fall of 1968 was contacted by George Harrison for a demonstration. Harrison hired Krause to play the synthesizer on a Jackie Lomax record being produced in Hollywood. After the session, Harrison reportedly asked Krause to hang out for a bit and give him a demonstration. Krause gladly obliged and played a few patches he had been working on with Paul Beaver for a record they were producing called Gandharva. Harrison recorded the demonstration and headed back to England. He eventually purchased a Moog through Krause in early 1969 and asked him to come to London to set it up and teach him how to play it. As the story goes, Krause arrived at Harrison’s home where the synthesizer was set-up in the Beatle guitarist’s living room. Before starting the lesson, Harrison wanted to play Krause a bit of dabbling on the Moog that he had already recorded. “Apple will release it in the next few months.”12 To the amazement of Krause, the sounds on the tape were none other than the demonstration sounds that he himself had played for Harrison during the Jackie Lomax demonstration months earlier. Krause confronted Harrison on the spot, but to no avail. In spite of Krause’s complaints, the album Electronic Sound was released in May, 1969. Unwilling to spend the money required to sue a Beatle, Krause demanded that his name be removed from the album jacket. Rather than replace the original album cover, Apple smudged over his name with silver metallic ink. Electronic Sound was by no measure successful and sounded like nothing more than what it truly was: a demonstration of Moog sound effects and patches.
In the summer of 1969, while The Beatles were recording their final album, Abbey Road, Harrison had his synthesizer transported to the EMI studios for all of the group members to access. The Moog was used subtly on the album and appears on nearly every track. Producer George Martin felt that the Moog was a challenge to use but sparked the imagination of the Beatles. “When you had been used to playing real instruments,” explained Martin, “this was an innovation, and we put it to good use.”13
McCartney was playing with loops again and assembled a collection of Moog and other sounds for use on the album. “Paul took a plastic bag containing a dozen loose strands of mono tape into Abbey Road,” writes Beatles’ archivist Mark Lewisohn, “where—together with the production staff—he spent the afternoon in the studio three control room transferring the best of these onto professional four-track tape. The effects—sounding like bells, birds, bubbles and crickets chirping allowed for a perfect crossfade in the medley from Sun King into You Never Give Me Your Money.14
Musician Mike Vickers (from the group Manfred Mann) was hired to tame the Moog and provide patches for The Beatles. The instrument was installed in a booth of its own and wired into all of the available control rooms, and all of group members utilized it in one way or another. The Moog solo played on Maxwell’s Silver Hammer was performed by McCartney using a ribbon controller.15 Perhaps the most extreme Moog effect employed on the album was the three-minute span of modulated white noise added by Lennon to the conclusion of I Want You (She’s So Heavy). In 1969, Lennon mused about using the Moog on I Want You (She's so Heavy), saying, “It's pretty heavy at the ending, you know, because we used the Moog synthesizers on it and the range of sound is from minus to way over. ... well, you can't hear it; that instrument can do all sounds and we did it on the end, if you're a dog you can hear alot more.”16
While the Moog found it’s way onto Abbey Road, it was merely just one more tool in the group’s bag of aural trickery. Martin recalled, “We played the synthesizer on something like Because or Maxwell's Silver Hammer just as a different extra sound, but we were using other original sounds that weren't synthetic … and our own innovations of using different speeds and weird sounds for harmoniums and mouth organs and that sort of thing. …You have to remember that for most of the Beatle’s time, we had the Mellotron, which was a kind of synthesizer, but not an electronic one. It was simple tape passing over heads and things. We didn't get computers in those days; we didn't get anything that we have today.”
The Beatles did for rock music what Varèse, Cage, and Stockhausen had done for classical music—they opened up the world of music to any and all possible sounds. McCartney also seems to have revived his interest in electronic music based on a close listen to his latest release, Electric Arguments (2008) with The Fireman.