The post last week from the Ken Scott bio Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust was so popular that I thought I’d do it again. Since we’re now celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles White Album, here’s an excerpt from the book describing those sessions. I must admit that I enjoyed reading this again myself.
“The White Album sessions were just like the multitude of other sessions that occurred before The Beatles existed, and have continued ever since. The biggest difference is that no one’s talking about any of those other sessions over forty years later; not many of them anyway.
While recording The White Album there were long sessions and there were short sessions; the only problem was we never knew which it was going to be ahead of time. The session was always booked to start at 2:30PM, but quite often the band wouldn’t arrive until much later, IF they showed up at all. We would eventually know that they weren’t going to turn up though, because the fans weren’t outside. You could stick your head out the front door and you’d immediately know; “Oh, the girls aren’t there. Looks like they’re not coming in today, so we might as well go home.” It was amazing, but those girls always knew way before we were officially told.
The thing that no one can quite comprehend is that the Beatles’ sessions could often be boring. It could feel like absolutely nothing was happening for hour after hour, and at times, the band could be difficult to work with. In fact, most of the older studio staff did not want to work on Beatles’ projects. The sessions that were long could be long, long, long, and most of those older engineers preferred to work the standard three hour sessions of 10AM to 1PM, 2:30PM to 5:30PM, or 7PM to 10PM, strangely in sync with the pub hours of that time, which certainly didn’t fit into the way The Beatles recorded at all.
The hours certainly helped us out in the wallet in that you didn’t have to work more than the standard 40 hours in order to get overtime; overtime started at 5:30, and after midnight it would go into “golden time” where your pay doubled. Since Beatles sessions could go until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, most of that time would be overtime, so if you were working on those sessions you were not doing badly at all. It made up for the minimum salary that you’d make during normal working hours. Management tried to change the pay structure at one point but engineer Pete Mew wanted to organize a union, which stopped them in their tracks. He’s still working there and still works Beatles hours, not coming in until 2 or 3 o’clock.
By 1969 all of the bands were unkempt and messy, and for some reason there was this backlash where we were all dressing up. Ken would walk in with a three piece suit and a Samsonite attache case. He would take his jacket off, undo his waistcoat, take off his gold cuff links along with a very impressive watch that he would place on the desk, roll up his sleeves, then proceed to do a punishing long day of 14 or 15 hours. At the end of it he’d put on his watch and cuff links and walk out like he’d only done like six hours. Fashion had changed but there must’ve been a subliminal mindset against all of that. Ken actually took the look to the extreme. It was definitely some kind of statement for sure.
John Kurlander: second engineer for many Beatle albums
Now let’s be real, when you’re in the studio five or six days a week and spend hours and hours with the same people, at times you’re going to rub each other the wrong way. It’s just natural.
That said, over the years there has been so much written about the animosity that supposedly pervaded the studio during the recording of The White Album, but it’s all been blown way out of proportion. For sure, there were definitely times when things blew up, but it was NOWHERE near as bad as it’s been reported over and over. There was a lot of pressure to finish the album, which put everyone on edge, but it just wasn’t that bad.
Of course there was some strife, but there always is during any project, and what the Beatles experienced during the making of The White Album just wasn’t that different from what I’ve experienced on most projects at some time or another.
Please let people know that we had such a lot of fun. It wasn’t THAT bad. They were so funny and so much fun to be around.
Chris Thomas (George Martin’s assistant)
I don’t ever remember any strife having Yoko there, or Linda for that matter. It certainly was never a big thing for me. This whole thing about the women breaking up the band certainly wasn’t true from what I could see.
John Smith: second engineer for many Beatle albums
The Basic Tracks
For basic tracks on The White Album, all four Beatles normally played, which was a departure from their previous several albums, although there were a few exceptions. Whomever wrote the song would run through it with the rest of the band, they’d all work out the arrangement, then start to record.
They could take ages to get the basic track though. Remember, back then, we were recording mostly to four-track and there was no, “Okay, the drums are good, let’s keep them and then redo the other things,” like we do today. All of the instruments of the basic track were mixed together on one or two tracks for most of the record, so you had to get everyone playing well at the same time.
That could take a while, so there were a lot of takes, and there was really no rhyme nor reason as to what was kept and what wasn’t. We didn’t record everything, although it was common to do 50 takes or more on a song if it needed it, but occasionally we’d record over a take that everyone agreed was bad.
There were sessions where they kept on and on rehearsing a song in the studio and it kind of got very tedious and boring. It went on for days on end sometimes.
Although there were periods that it seemed to take forever to get basic tracks recorded, there were also some periods where everything went extremely fast. During the two weeks when George Martin went on vacation, we recorded seven or eight titles. George M was blown away at how much we’d done when he got back.
There was such a great vibe that we did seven songs in a couple of weeks. George Martin couldn’t believe it. He phoned me up so excited and happy, which was a big thing for me because then I believed I earned a permanent job with George. That was the only thing I was really interested in. When George came back from holiday the whole thing gathered more and more momentum. We were working in different studios with different guys and it all became sort of a factory.
Once the basic was put down, the songwriter was the one that would be in charge for the rest of the recording, and the others might not even show up for days on end until the song was finished. If Paul had to come in to put a bass track on one of George’s songs, Paul would come in that day, do his thing, and then leave. Every song was very much like that. The individual songwriter took control of the process.”
You can read more from Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.