Authors: Steve Matteo
The Beatles had recently begun to make a more concerted effort to record outside of Abbey Road. They searched out studios that were more technically advanced. Abbey Road Studios, having had only four-track capability since October of 1963, had only started using eight-track equipment, at the urging of the Beatles, on September 3, 1968. The first recording the group did on eight-track was George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
The recording sessions that were about to take place at Apple would turn out to be completely different from any others that the Beatles had ever done.
The man responsible for getting Apple Studios up and running was Alex Madras. “Magic Alex,” as he was known, had captivated John Lennon with his frequent pie-in-the-sky electronic ideas. He had been installed at Apple Electronics, at 34 Boston Place in Marylebone, and for nearly three years, at great expense, he attempted to
come up with groundbreaking electronic ideas to eclipse the seemingly antiquated technical standards of EMI.
Madras’s first big test proved to be an immense failure and temporarily derailed the “Get Back” project. He had promised the group that not only would he furnish it with more than the eight-track capability of Abbey Road, but that it would also have a 72-track mixing console at its disposal. Also, each track would have its very own speaker. The 72-track, multi-channel console would be hooked up to the 3M eight-track recorder the group already had set up and waiting to be used at Apple.
Dave Harries, who had started working at EMI’s factory at Hayes in 1964, first worked with the Beatles in October of that year and would go on to have a long career working for George Martin’s various AIR studios. He recalled the recording set-up concocted by Magic Alex: “Although it was very futuristic and it had some very good ideas on it, it just did not work professionally. We tried to get it working and did a couple of takes on it. Then we had to take it out and bring stuff over from EMI.”
Harries went on to explain the recording desk Madras built in more detail:
He had an oscilloscope as a meter. So instead of having level meters, he actually had the scope as a meter,
which was a very good idea; but the trouble was, it interfered with everything in the desk because the scope had different types of electronics than the audio electronics. It was like an 8-channel bar graph meter made out of an oscilloscope. He should have attended to more basic audio things on the console before he went into little tricks like that.
Keith Slaughter, like Harries, began at Hayes and became part of Abbey Road’s technical staff. He started in 1954 and stayed until 1969. Slaughter’s long tenure working at Abbey Road Studios included being on hand on June 6, 1962, the day of the Beatles’ audition for George Martin. In 1969, Slaughter went off to join George Martin for the building of Martin’s first AIR studio in Mayfair, near Oxford Circus, on the fifth floor of Peter Robinson’s department store. (The studio later moved to a converted church at Lyndhurst in the early 90s.) Slaughter also went on to build studios for Alan Parsons and Pete Townshend, among his many other recording endeavors.
Slaughter was at Abbey Road on the day that it became apparent that the equipment installed at Apple was inadequate. He recalled, “We had this panic call from George Martin at Apple and he said, ‘For God’s sake, bring some equipment. We’ll never get anywhere with this lot.”’ Once George Martin had rung up Abbey Road and told them of the problem with the equipment
that Madras had built, they sent over two Red 51 mixing consoles that had four-track output and eight channel inputs. In order to compensate for the fact that Madras had forgotten to put holes in the walls between the studio and the control room, cables had to be run through the connecting door. Moreover, the central heating system had never been soundproofed and was making quite a racket. The fireplace was put into use during those cold days. However, when the first playbacks of the recordings contained a crackling sound, it was decided that the fireplace could no longer be used when actual recording was going on.
In addition to the new equipment, the Beatles acquired other gear for the “Get Back” project. All the infighting, legal hassles, and cold weather did nothing to cool their interest in exploring and playing new instruments. To go with his Gibson “Lucy” Les Paul electric guitar and Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar, George played a prototype of a new Fender Rosewood Telecaster for the first time during the “Get Back” sessions. He also occasionally played a Fender VI bass. Paul had on hand his trusty Hofner 1963 bass; a new Fender Jazz bass, which may have also been played by George or John; a Martin D-28 acoustic guitar and, although it was probably not used, an Epiphone Casino electric guitar. John continued to play a familiar instrument, his own Epiphone Casino electric guitar. He also had
at his disposal a Hofner lap-steel slide guitar and, though he likely did not use it, a tabletop Fender slide guitar. At times John would play George’s Gibson J-200 acoustic and a Fender VI bass. Ringo had a new Ludwig Hollywood five-piece drum set, which he augmented with an extra third cymbal. There were many keyboards available during the Apple sessions. Two Fender Rhodes electric pianos were flown in early in the sessions from the US. A Hammond acoustic piano, a Bluthner acoustic piano, a Hohner electric piano, a Lowrey DSO Heritage Deluxe organ, a Hammond organ and, apparently, an upright piano were also present. There was a Leslie speaker, given to George by Eric Clapton, which was outfitted with a 147 RV reverb control. It was used not only with the two organs, but George played his electric guitars through it, too. Also on hand was a Vox PA, which had been enhanced slightly by the technical folks at EMI. A new Fender PA was used in the studio for live vocal monitoring. The microphones that were used for vocals were of the Neumann KM84i model.
The Beatles were to begin recording in the basement of Apple Studios on Monday, January 20. In fact, recording finally began on Wednesday, January 22. As at Twickenham, the sessions would be filmed.
George Harrison had recently attended a Ray Charles concert with Eric Clapton at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. One of the members of
Charles’s group was the also the opening act. He was a tall black man who was singing and dancing—and he quickly seized the attention of Harrison. It took a little bit of time, but to Harrison’s delight, he finally figured out that it was Billy Preston.
The Beatles had become friendly with Preston when they made their second successive trip in 1962 to Hamburg, West Germany, for a two-week engagement at the Star-Club from November 1 through 14. At that time, the Beatles were sharing the bill with one of their American musical heroes, Little Richard, as they had done twice in Liverpool. Over those two weeks they met and befriended Little Richard’s keyboardist Billy Preston. They even asked him to play with them, but he rebuffed them, thinking that it would annoy Little Richard. Preston, then only 16 years old, hailed from Houston, Texas. He would go on to play with Sam Cooke before working with Ray Charles in the studio in 1965 and touring with him starting in 1967.
George was able to get a message to Preston to call him. When he called, George told him to drop by Apple and say hello. Preston, having no idea what was about to happen, simply came to Apple on the 22nd at George’s urging. Just after lunch, George found out that Preston was in the reception area of Apple. Without hesitation, he invited Preston to come in and jam. That day, Preston
eventually played on the songs “Don’t Let Me Down” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.”
Paralleling their time at Twickenham, the Beatles’ first day at Apple would be a day of rehearsals. Why the Beatles would need any more rehearsing at that point seems hard to understand. Preston immediately brought a new élan to the session. The Beatles were considerably happier after abandoning Twickenham and clearing up the initial technical problems at Apple. Also, they clearly enjoyed the cozy confines of Apple. Preston essentially became a guest in their home, putting everyone on their best behavior. They treated him right away as a musical equal after the measurable success of his brief input. At the end of the first day, he was officially asked to join the group for the rest of the January recordings at Apple.
Whereas the imminent departure from the project of Ringo—and to a lesser extent, of Glyn Johns—served to limit the ultimate length of the recording to be done at Apple, other factors added to the pressure to bring the project to a timely conclusion. Specifically, the group had virtually no usable material from Twickenham, and Billy Preston was scheduled to do a tour of Texas in February.
That first day of rehearsals was not all that different from Twickenham, musically. The group played some
oldies, including “New Orleans,” “Hi-Heeled Sneakers,” “My Baby Left Me/That’s All Right,” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” “Don’t Let Me Down” was performed and “I’ve Got a Feeling” was fleshed out with seven near-complete takes. One of the last run-throughs of “Dig a Pony” was later included on the double-CD
Also, near the end of the day, two takes of “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” were done, neither of which was very exciting. Nonetheless, the second one was also included on
Paul brought out “Every Night” for the first time during the “Get Back”/“Let It Be” project. The first version of it was short, poorly performed, incomplete as a song, and marred by technical problems. Paul would perform it again in a rather more fleshed out (yet still incomplete) fashion on the 24th.
The next day saw a major change in scheduling: the group did only a four-hour session during the day and then returned in the evening without the film crew to work on a complete take each of “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling.” That day also marked the debut for future superstar producer and recording artist Alan Parsons as tape-op. Parsons, of course, would go on to engineer Pink Floyd’s
Dark Side of the Moon,
recorded at Abbey Road, in 1973. Parsons talked about the sessions: “My first impression was how unhappy they were. They were not very pleased with what they were hearing. I think Paul had a vision for it. I
think the others didn’t really go with that vision; that was my impression.”
Activity increased on Friday the 24th and became more varied. The early part of the day was marked by the first discussion about having some kind of booklet accompanying the album. Ethan Russell, an American photographer, had been shooting photos for the past three days. When he showed his pictures to Neil Aspinall and the Beatles, he was asked to stay for the rest of the sessions and do a book to be included with the album. At some point there had been discussions about having über-photographer David Bailey shoot some photos of the filming and sessions. There had also been some serious consideration, particularly by John, about having Billy Preston join the group as a permanent member. In the end, Paul decided the idea was not so good after all. Four of them were quite enough at that point, thank you!
An early, half-hearted attempt at “Get Back” was made. The song was not worked on further, however, because of Billy Preston’s absence until the afternoon. “Two of Us” and “Teddy Boy” were then worked on. “Two of Us” was given a sweeter, more acoustic, and slower tempo feel. “Teddy Boy” was brought back after a brief attempt at on the 9th at Twickenham. Paul had written it, along with “Junk,” in India in 1968. Like “Junk,” it would end up on Paul’s solo debut. The
Beatles had done a demo of it in 1968, which appeared on
Also, part of one of the versions of “Teddy Boy” done on that day, coupled with part of the song that would be performed on the 28th, were included on
“Maggie Mae” turned up out of the blue for the first time on the 24th. While the song’s origin derives from a minstrel song from 1856 entitled “Darling Nellie Gray,” written by an American named Benjamin Russell Hanby, the version Paul and John would have been familiar with was the one recorded in 1957 by a Liverpool skiffle group called the Vipers. Three short snippets of the song were played on that day; the third ended up on the original
Let It Be
album. The song would be the last non-original song to appear on a Beatles album.
The 24th would also mark the first occasion at Apple when time was spent listening to playbacks. “Her Majesty” was recorded on that day as well. Other songs done by Paul that day included “There You Are Eddie,” “Every Night,” and “Pillow for Your Head.” The group returned to jamming on some oldies with “I Lost My Little Girl,” an oldies medley, and “Singin’ the Blues.” After running through “Dig It” with Billy Preston now back in tow, the group did many takes of “Get Back.” More oldies followed, including “Bad Boy” and “Stand By Me/Where Have You Been.” Geoff Emerick and engineer Neil Richmond may have also been present
on the 24th, alongside Glyn Johns. That evening Johns headed to Olympic and spent 90 minutes or so working on some rough stereo mixes, thus accelerating the notion that there was actually the possibility of an album to come.
On Saturday, the group produced a finished take of a song, George’s “For You Blue.” Entitled “For You Blues” when George originally wrote it, the song had been briefly called “George’s Blues” when the group was working on it at Twickenham.
The group’s return to Apple on Sunday marked the first time in a year that it would work right through an entire weekend. The day began with George demoing “Isn’t It a Pity.” There were several takes of “Octopus’s Garden,” along with another slew of oldies, including “Great Balls of Fire,” an oldies medley; “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “You Really Got a Hold On Me.” Just before the oldies medley, a long take of “Dig It” was done. A short snippet of it was destined to appear on the finished album. Heather Eastman, Linda’s daughter, joined in on vocals on the song, and George Martin contributed on shaker.
At one point in the day, Mal Evans and some of the others ventured up to the roof for some fresh air and the idea of playing the live concert on the roof started to be formulated. Although it is hard to trace the progression of the idea exactly, later in the day everyone
had decided to do the rooftop concert as a way to realize the idea of performing live and as a climax for the television film.