Wednesday 12 August 2015

Cos I'm The Staxman

While the musical roots of the Beatles could be found in girl groups and early rock 'n' roll, The Rolling Stones grew out out of a love of the blues. So it was no surprise that in 1964 and 1965, the Stones recorded on three occasions at Chess Studios in Chicago. Home to artists such as Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, these visits not only resulted in a musical tribute to the studio, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, but some of their finest recorded work thus far.

In an interview with Mick Jagger during the mid 70s, Roy Carr, author of The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record, asked about these sessions. "In many ways, would you say the sessions you cut at the Chess Studios in Chicago produced some of the best seminal Stones material?" Jagger answered, "Yeah, it was very easy to work there and at the same time get a good sound. Also you have to appreciate, it was the first studio we felt really at ease in. Everything was good about Chess, especially the engineer Ron Malo. It was unbelievable just how far behind British studios were in those days, they were more interested in Vera Lynn. I never understood how the Beatles got such a good sound on their records because they recorded at EMI which actually is a good studio, but the way they used to record was so old-fashioned."

I can understand why they sounded so good.

The producer, George Martin, and his engineers Norman "Hurricane" Smith and Geoff Emerick.

Although Abbey Road studios and George Martin are synonymous with The Beatles, the lads were not averse to recording elsewhere. By the late 60s, once their touring days were over, their forays into the studio were much more spontaneous, which meant the studio at Abbey Road, long given priority to The Beatles, was not always immediately available. As a result, Olympic, De Lane Lea and Trident studios all played host to Beatles sessions. Even as early as 1964, while on tour, the boys recorded tracks for Can't Buy Me Love at EMI studios in Paris.

Martin too was no longer locked into EMI. In mid-1965, George Martin set up his own company, AIR (Associated Independent Recording), and became an independent producer. No longer directly salaried by EMI studios, he was able to work with other artists and to receive better remuneration for his work. More importantly, he could now produce The Beatles no matter where they recorded. 

So why would they have considered using studios in the U.S.?

Help! was the last of their early albums to be recorded in a traditional manner. A collection of undemanding songs and instrumentation which, significantly, included their last cover version (Dizzy Miss Lizzy). But as the band became more adept in the studio, more involved in the recording process, more capable songwriters who experimented and were always searching for new soundscapes, they also developed a better understanding of the studio’s limitations. And, as a result, they grew increasingly frustrated with the sonic qualities they were achieving. They would listen to American soul records and marvel at the depth of the bass and the great guitar sounds. 

Abbey Road was still using 4 tracks, while Stax and other American studios were fitted with 8 track recorders; something Abbey Road would not begin using until 1968. The consoles in Stax allowed for direct injection, a method of plugging an instrument directly into the mixing board, recording the audio signal rather than placing a microphone next to the speaker on a guitar amp and recording the sound. This was one reason studios like Stax were able to achieve such a great bass sound.

And so they started making plans. Within weeks of concluding  the Rubber Soul sessions, they considered working with Motown Records. Written by Motown's press agent, Al Abrams, this article appeared in several newspapers around the world in December 1965. "The top songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland, which has written and produced the Six Million Selling Records for THE SUPREMES, recently received a transatlantic phone call from George Martin, the recording director for the Beatles. Martin, who operates out the London Offices EMI Records (parent company America's Capitol Records), asked Holland-Dozier-Holland if they would, upon personal request the Beatles, write the next two songs for the Beatles' recording session Holland-Dozier-Holland 'could find the time.' The songwriting trio eagerly responded to the Beatles' request."

There was also a proposal for the lads to record their next album (Revolver) at Motown's studios. But for unknown reasons, neither the songwriting nor recording sessions occurred. And yet within a few months, it was rumoured they would record at Stax, the Memphis home of R&B and Southern Soul.

A recently discovered letter from George Harrison shows just how close they were to recording in Memphis. The day after completing I'm Only Sleeping during the Revolver sessions at Abbey Road, 7th May, 1966, Harrison wrote to Paul Drew, an American DJ, telling him, “Did you hear that we nearly recorded in Memphis with Jim Stuart [sic]? We would all like it a lot, but too many people get insane with money ideas at the mention of the word ‘Beatles,’ and so it fell through!” Jim Stewart was Stax label and studio co-owner.

The rumour they considered recording in the U.S. is not new. It was reported in the American press in 1966 and has been mentioned many times since. This letter, however, is the first firm evidence from within the Beatles camp that Stax sessions almost happened.

Alongside Stewart, Steve Cropper's name has also emerged as potentially involved in the project. And he certainly had great credentials for the job. Best known as the guitarist in Booker T. and the MGs, and a producer and writer at Stax, he would later co-write (Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay with Otis Redding, whose version he also produced. In 1970, with Booker T. and the MGs, he would release an album of Abbey Road covers. Entitled 'McLemore Avenue', the Stax studio address, the cover is also a visual tribute to The Beatles.

According to Rob Bowman, in Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records, while The Beatles were on tour, Lennon told Cropper he loved Booker T. and the MGs, and listened to their albums over and over. He also said he wanted to write an instrumental for the MGs to record. Presuming this conversation occurred during August of the 1965 U.S. tour, is it any coincidence the Beatles recorded 12 Bar Original, a pastiche of Green Onions, in early November, 1965?

Cropper doesn't recall money being the reason for the sessions' cancellation. In fact he remains unconvinced they ever really planned on going to Stax. Cropper reports a local DJ asked Lennon about the possibility of The Beatles recording in Memphis. Lennon apparently replied, ‘Yeah, we talked about that, but I don’t think we took it seriously.” Cropper says, “So, they acknowledged they’d thought about it. Brian Epstein came over and spent a week in Memphis, but then called afterwards and said they couldn’t come to Memphis because of security.”

Perhaps that's what Epstein told them. Perhaps he was just trying to be polite, not wanting to accuse the studio of being money grabbers. There are, however, others who collaborate Harrison's account. Deanie Parker, the Stax publicist who now operates a museum at the studio, told Mojo magazine, "I was seeing dollar signs. I talked to Jim Stewart and said, "If The Beatles do come, will you give me permission to take the carpet up, cut it into squares and sell it?""

Keith Badman, in his book Off The Record, quotes McCartney from 1966, who also supports Harrison's account. "We were going to record Revolver in America, but they wanted a fantastic amount of money to use the facilities there. We thought we'd forget it because they were obviously trying to take us for a ride because we were The Beatles."

The Beatles were so very close to recording at Stax. Epstein rang Stax to discuss the idea and then flew to Memphis in March to make arrangements. Robert Gordon's Respect Yourself, a history of Stax Records, reports in detail how Epstein was hosted during this visit by Estelle Axton, Jim Stewart's sister and the other founder and owner of Stax. She suggested hotels for The Beatles, however Elvis Presley offered to let them stay at Graceland instead. She discussed security and traffic issues, which would not be a problem as her brother had some responsibility within the Memphis Police Department. A helicopter would ferry them to the studio each day. Jim Stewart would produce, Steve Cropper would arrange and Tom Dowd, from Atlantic Records, would supervise the sessions. Epstein booked the studio for two weeks from 9 April.

But the Beatles were the most famous faces on the planet. Word about the sessions soon leaked, culminating in a March 31 headline 'Beatles to Record Here,' in the Memphis newspaper. The media reported the rumour from outside Stax on the evening news. American fans started arriving at the studio in droves, and songwriters appeared offering their work for consideration. At this point the Beatles cancelled, blaming lack of security.

It's important to remember that within a few months they would retire from touring. Beatlemania had worn them down. They were tired of being drowned out by screaming girls at their concerts, being prisoners in hotel rooms. They would see out their commitments for the 1966 tour, playing the shows on cruise control and with little passion, and then retreat to the studio and focus on the music. With the details leaked to the press and the public I can imagine the very thought of recording in Memphis with screaming fans outside the studio, along with living out of someone else's home in a strange city, could have been the final straw.

One is also left to wonder how much of this planning regarding studio personnel was undertaken by Stax and not by the Beatles. Had they really approved studio appointed producers, arrangers and supervision? Were they really ready to cut George Martin from their sessions? If it had happened, I suspect Martin would have flown with them and supervised the sessions, working closely with the American team. Remember, the Beatles were a tight unit, closed to outsiders and trusting only their inner circle. Suddenly having so many external, non-Beatle people involved in the recording process would not have helped.

In hindsight, Revolver wasn't the best choice for Stax anyway. Their very first sessions for the album, recorded right when they would have arrived in Memphis had the trip gone ahead, were Got To Get You Into My Life and Tomorrow Never Knows. These two tracks couldn't have been more diverse. One, an homage to soul music with driving basslines and big brassy counterpoints, the other an experimental foray into Eastern mysticism and sound collage. And, as we now know, the latter was the direction in which they ultimately headed. Stax was a studio for loose, relaxed soul recording; not for experimental tape loops and placing microphones in condoms so they could record vocals through water.

As it was they came close to achieving the sonic punch and pop they had desired for so long. And there are three main reasons for that. Geoff Emerick, their instruments and fewer live shows.

Firstly, Norman Smith left. He had done a fine job engineering the first six albums, despite the studio limitations and regulations. And yet he chose to leave after the Rubber Soul sessions. He wanted to move into production, but also felt he had little to contribute as the band moved away from their early sounds and recording techniques. “Rubber Soul wasn't really my bag at all so I decided that I'd better get off the Beatles train” he would later say. His place was taken by Geoff Emerick who was promoted from tape operator. A young man who was unschooled in the ways of traditional recording, he was prepared to experiment and was rebellious enough to risk termination by ignoring many of EMI’s rules. Emerick put jumpers inside drums to dampen the sound, placed microphones closer than the regulation 18 inches so they would distort and overload. Suddenly the horns and the drums had presence. In order to capture the booming bass sound McCartney had envied for so long from American studios, he reverse wired a speaker to create a large microphone to place in front of the bass amp. All this was done to emulate the sounds the Beatles had heard on American records.

Secondly, they used different instruments. McCartney switched bass. Most famous for his iconic Hofner violin bass, which he returned to during the Get Back sessions and beyond, he had used a Rickenbacker bass during the Rubber Soul sessions. The heavier, solid body had more depth, richer in tone, more balls than the warm, acoustic feel of the hollow body Hofner. This was the bass he brought into the Revolver sessions. The others, too, brought new guitars and newer, more powerful amplifiers. And with Emerick’s use of technology to better record them, the whole album had a depth and sheen which in hindsight was noticeably lacking from earlier records.

Thirdly, they weren't just rushing into the studio on days off between shows. They could spend time, building songs, craft pieces of music as art. In particular, McCartney's bass playing showed a fluidity and thoughtfulness that was missing in the earlier sessions.

So how would Revolver have sounded had they continued with their plans?

Got to Get You Into My Life is, indeed, the best indication we have of how sessions at Stax may have shaped Revolver. John certainly claimed that "We were influenced by our Tamla Motown bit on this (track). You see, we're influenced by whatever's going on." McCartney's view on Stax and Revolver was very straightforward. "I think there were only two tracks on the LP that would have sounded better if we'd cut them in America. Taxman and Got To Get You Into My Life because they need that raw quality that you just can't get in this country for some reason. But Eleanor Rigby would have been worse, because the string players in America aren't so good." Yeah, Paul? How about even trying to find Indian musicians in Memphis to play Love You To?

I suspect the sessions may have been split. Two weeks at Stax to record some basic tracks and to get the big, fat bass sound they longed for, then the rest back at Abbey Road overdubbing and recording the more psychedelic tracks, tracks, like Tomorrow Never Knows. It's possible a couple of other songs, like Dr. Robert or Good Day Sunshine, may have developed differently in another environment; more soul, less psychedelia. It's also possible new songs could have been written to suit the studio and producer. McCartney certainly hinted as much later in 1966. "We may still record in America. What we might do though is write some numbers especially, take them over, do them and see how it works." Here McCartney confirms that even after the booking was cancelled, they still considered making an album in the U.S.  Epstein even called Cropper to suggest he work with the Beatles at Atlantic Records. Cropper said, "'Yes, I guess I could do that, even though it’s not Stax,' so he said he’d get back to me. After about a month, he called and said, ‘Steve, we’re still talking about this, but they’ve been working on this album (Revolver) which is nearly finished so it’ll be the next project.'”

The next project, of course, was Sgt. Pepper. But it was too late; the moment had passed. LSD had taken hold of their songwriting. With their minds now expanded, psychedelia was the new influence. Sgt. Pepper didn't need Stax. It needed Abbey Road studios. It needed five months, not just two weeks. And it needed George Martin.

Unless the Beatles had gone to Memphis with the specific intention of recording a "soul" album, as McCartney alluded, it's unlikely Revolver would have been very much different, apart from richer, fuller bass and brighter horns. In hindsight, the sessions for With The Beatles is probably when they should have gone to Stax. It's chock full of Chuck Berry and Motown tunes, and could've used some serious bass. It's certainly the album that most suited Memphis, Steve Cropper, and the house horns. But it was too early in their career. Martin couldn't work outside EMI. They weren't yet known in the USA, and had not built up enough studio credentials to have any real say in their output.

Revolver was simply too late. By 1966 The Beatles had evolved through soul music, and rock would never be the same again.

And so Revolver is not as different from a Stax version as I think many people would have us believe. Sure, the horns and the bass may have been richer, and the whole album may have shimmered in a different way, but it's the album the Beatles had written. And it was recorded in the manner in which they directed the studio team. It's almost accidentally psychedelic, without the self-consciousness of Sgt. Pepper.

Revolver is finally receiving the praise it surely deserves as the unheralded masterpiece which has  become the firm favourite of many fans and critics.

Steve Cropper's view? "A few weeks later, (after his final conversation with Epstein) the Revolver album came out, and I’m thinking: ‘Well, they didn’t need ME on this. I’d have probably screwed up that whole record.'”

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