When I first approached author Andy Babiuk about running excerpts from his book Beatles Gear: The Ultimate Edition in Keyboard magazine, he told me a number of stories he'd heard while doing his research. I was especially interested in hearing more about the keys they used, since they hadn't gotten as much attention as the band's primary instruments have. Nonetheless, keyboard parts define the sound of many of their hits.
I spoke with Babiuk over the phone about the role these instruments played in the Beatles's work and asked him to share a few stories about his adventures in gear sleuthing.
Gino Robair: It seems to me the keyboards that the Beatles used have always been overlooked, yet very important. They’ve always set trends with the kinds of sounds they used.
Andy Babiuk: I would agree 100 percent, and I try to show that in the book. Even from the very first record.
Take the song “Misery.” This is a beat band. They just got out of the Cavern Club and they’re excited young kids going into the studio, and they don’t really know the art of production yet. George Martin went in and played this piano part. So, right from the start, this is not your typical beat band with only bass, drums, and guitars.
It raised their production quality, which keyboards a lot of times do. And remember, they didn’t have a “keyboard player” onstage with them. It wasn’t that kind of a format, though they all knew how to take on the piano quite a bit.
So yeah, I would say that the keyboards were very important and by, say, 1965 they became more of a focal point.
GR: What do you think was the turning point where they focused more on keyboards?
AB: I think they quickly realized that, with a guitar-bass-drums format, you could switch to an acoustic guitar or a 12-string—they experimented with a classical guitar—but it’s limited. Yet they had the pianos and the Hammond in the studio. So they would put that on the records.
There is an interesting story that Roy Young told me. He was in a band in those early days, and while they were in Germany, he would often sit in with the Beatles and do sets with them and play piano—the grand piano that was on the stage at the Star Club. There are pictures of it in the book.
But in late 1964, Roy Young was playing in London with some other band, opening for the Beatles, and the Beatles were standing in the wings because there’s this friend from a couple years ago that they used to jam with in Hamburg.
Roy was playing a brand new Hohner Pianet, one of the first ones in England. As soon as he came off stage they said “Hey, what’s that thing you’re playing?” He says, “It’s this new instrument Hohner gave me, and it’s called an electric Pianet. It’s an electric piano. It’s got a different sound.” And Lennon says, “We’re gonna get one!” And McCarney says, “Yeah, we've got to get one of those for a new record we’re doing.” And Lennon adds, “We’re going to get two of them… because we can!” I always thought that was a really funny story.
And they ended up really having two of them. There's a picture with Paul playing it in the studio in ’65 on the cover of Beat Instrumental Monthly. And then you see Lennon playing it in the film Help. And later you see a different version of the same keyboard on the rooftop in Let It Be, off in the corner: It’s set up in case they wanted to play any songs that needed it, there on the opposite side of Billy Preston.
That’s the kind of thing they were going towards early on. They wanted different sounds; anything they could get.
GR: Whatever happened to those instruments? Everyone seems to know where most of the guitars went.
AB: The thing with the keyboards, and even the amplifiers, is that they’re kind of big. They did have a storage system, which Mal Evans would use. And they had a lot of amplifiers. In the book, I reprinted part of an insurance document where they list all the amps they have. It’s crazy. It’s a lot of stuff.
There are some keyboards on there. There’s a Super Continental Organ. There’s a Vox Gyrotone, which you would use like a Leslie. So a guy in a band, does he want to schlep around a big keyboard, or for that matter, even a Rhodes or something? It was left to some of the other guys to handle—meaning Mal Evans—and then they ended up being put into storage.
So the bulk of that stuff they have, but a lot of it got taken away. Somebody took it home with them; that kind of thing would happen. A lot of that stuff ended up at their Apple recording studios, which then, from what I understand, people were pilfering things as it was going down—kind of wacky stories.
GR: What’s the most interesting keyboard story that you’ve come across?
AB: A couple of them, actually. I think the most interesting keyboard would probably be the Mellotron. When John Lennon got it, he took delivery of it in August of 1965. He was one of the first guys to have one.
If you look at the history of a Mellotron, in ’65 how much they were selling for, it was crazy money. They were expensive then, but if you translate it to today’s dollars, which I do in the book, it’s some crazy amount of money—real expensive because it was this novel new thing: “I’ll have one of those delivered to my house.”
He wasn’t even there when it got delivered. They were on tour here in the United States. But he didn’t use it on any kind of recording until the end of ’66, though he got in ’65, which is kind of interesting.
That’s the instrument that he utilized to create “Strawberry Fields.” Everybody thought it was flutes, but it was this Mellotron. It’s the predecessor to the sampling keyboard, as we know it. That to me has always been the interesting instrument. You know this as a keyboard player yourself, because it has a physical pinch wheel that’s spinning and it’s actually playing tapes.
You know a pinch wheel on a cassette player? If you put too much pressure on the Play button it would push a little harder on the pinch wheel and it would slow the tape down just a hair when you’re playing it back.
Well, the way the Mellotron is designed, when you press down on the keys, if you press normal it just pushes the thing and hits the pinch wheel and it plays the note. But if you press a little harder, it pushes more on the pinch wheel and it slows the motor down just a hair. So when you’re trying to play an in-tune note, it’s a little flat. But that’s what gives it that weird, haunted sound. When they sample them now, they haven’t figured out how to sample that. With the pressure sensitive key, how do you make it go out of tune? They should because that’s really the beauty of the Mellotron when you play it.
So on “Strawberry Fields,” they were taking a keyboard and using it as the main focal point; it wasn’t an orchestra, it was the keyboard—it sounds kind of weird. And of course when McCartney takes it and detunes the whole thing, takes the wheel and [imitates sound of a tape slowing down]…right in the beginning; that was a real great use of a keyboard and using it to its maximum potential, I think.
The second interesting keyboard story is about George Martin and his brilliant addition to “In My Life.” That lead break, which everybody thought was a killer harpsichord player, is actually George Martin running the tape at half speed and then playing the part on a piano. Then, when you run the tape back at normal speed, the piano part plays twice as fast and sounds like a harpsichord. To me, that was also another fascinating way of using a keyboard, and we kind of take it for granted.
GR: Are there any new revelations in this book about keyboards that weren’t in the previous editions?
We go into it a bit deeper and we have a lot more images—catalogs and pictures and whatnot. We go into more detail explaining each instrument.
When I wrote the original book, the manuscript was about 600 pages and they cut out quite a bit of it because they had a 256-page book and they had to fit everything into it, including the pictures. Well, they had to take a lot of the text out. So a lot of the explanations got edited down. So I put a lot of it back in, so you get more vivid detail of what everything is, which I think is really important.
GR: Have you ever used any virtual instruments like the Propellerhead Abbey Road Keyboards sample library, which has the tack piano and so on?
AB: Yeah. And the [EastWest virtual instrument] Fab Four. That’s a really good one. There’s stuff in there where these guys are nailing it. Just the fact that somebody is doing these kinds of samples, it just really makes sense to me: That’s the whole premise of my book. We’ve been studying this stuff for years. It was never catalogued. And now everybody wants to know how the heck these sounds were made. How do you dissect them? And these guys, by doing this kind of software, they have dissected it, even down to the plug-in emulations of Fairchilds, and the exact kinds of stuff to get that drum sound or that keyboard sound or whatever.
GR: Is there another edition of Beatles Gear in the wings, with more surprises?
AB: You never know. There’s always going to be some new revelation. But if you take a look historically of all the stuff that they actually used that we know of and have photographs of, it’s pretty concise now. And this is what I always wanted to do because there were so many things that came up through the years.
And different guys come out of the woodwork and tell these great stories like the MRB effect on the keyboard on “Birthday”—the flip of the switch. He’s flipping a switch on the keyboard part in time with the music, which is again, fascinating. They just had a keyboard, it was electric, but you didn’t have a synthesizer where you could run it through a lot of wacky stuff and get it to sound cool. It didn’t exist.
GR: What's the craziest story you've heard?
AB: Did I tell you the story about the Rhodes piano? Fender distribution by the mid-‘60s was being handled by Ivor Arbiter—Dallas Arbiter. Leo Fender and Don Randal were after the Beatles since 1964 to use Fender, and they sent one of their national sales managers to go meet with them—a pre-arranged meeting during the summer tour of ’64. The guy was so nervous that he went to the hotel bar, got drunk and never made it to first base with them.
The year after, in ’65, they tried again. Mind you, Don Randal told me this story. He said “Andy, we were getting killed so bad in sales by Vox, and Gretsch, and Rickenbacker and Hofner. We were willing to pay them, and we had never paid anybody to use Fender. We were going to pay them a lot of money. To me and Leo at the time, it was a lot of money.” He never told me the number but he said it was "crazy money" and “we were willing to pay it.”
The second year they went to try to meet with them; couldn’t get near them. 1966, again they tried to meet with them; they couldn’t do it.
Don Randal told me by 1968, he personally flew to England and met with John and Paul at their Apple offices. He said Paul was in there and was real animated: “It would be cool if you do this,” and all this stuff. And then Lennon comes in with Yoko and says, “What the fuck are we here for?”
Now Don Randal, in his head, is willing to pay them a ton of money. "Can you just use Fender and I’ll pay you money?" And he hears that from Lennon, and Lennon’s real miserable and Yoko just doesn’t talk and Paul’s being a nice guy. He goes, “Well, my name’s Don Randal. I represent Fender. I own it with Leo Fender.” They go, “Yeah. What do you want?” He goes, “Well, we just want to know if you’d be interested in using our equipment. We’d give you all the equipment…” Before he finished the sentence, Lennon goes, “Yeah, we’ll use your equipment. Just give us a bunch of it, thanks.” And then he left. He never had to pay them, right?
So they made an arrangement with Ivor Arbiter, who was the distributor for Fender at the time: Just ask Ivor for anything you want and he’ll arrange to get it to you. So that’s why, on the White Album, you see them with all these Fender amps, the left-handed Jazz bass. So there’s all kind of Fender stuff showing up.
So when I interviewed Ivor, he says “Well, there was one time where Paul called me up and they were recording an album at their own studio in Savile Row, Apple Studios. Well, Paul said he wanted a Rhodes piano. He heard a sound of a Rhodes piano. He wanted one. We don’t have any in the warehouse. We call all the shops that are Fender dealers and no one has one in stock in all of England.”
So he called Fender in California and they’re still open. “Beatles need a Rhodes piano. They’re recording. They need it for tomorrow. They’re doing these tracks. It’s very, very important. Is there any way you can get somebody to put one on a plane? It will be here in the morning and I’ll bring it to them that evening,” or whenever it was supposed to be. So Fender agrees and he calls back the studio and he talks to Paul and he says, “Paul, Fender’s actually going to put one on a plane and ship it over to England for us.” And then Ivor told me that he heard Lennon in the background say, “Send me one, too!”
You know what a Rhodes piano weighs, right? You’ve got the bottom piece and the top piece. It’s huge. It’s about 150 pounds a piece. And you’re going to have two of these things. So, Fender put it on a plane.
Ivor continued the story by telling me that they flew the stuff over, but there was fog in England. They couldn’t land the plane. They landed in Scandinavia. So Ivor hired a small private plane to go to Scandinavia to come up and have it there by the morning.
He said, “Andy, I was so proud of what I had done, that instead of just sending my guys down to deliver them, I personally went down with a couple of my guys and we set them up.
"And we’re waiting for the Beatles to show up. And Paul shows up first. I’m so happy. I have it all set up and it’s all plugged in. He comes walking over to it and hits one chord and he goes, ‘Oh I don’t think that’s the sound I want. I think I wanted a Wurlitzer.’” [Laughs.]
It turns out that Billy Preston ended up using it to play all over the record and then the famous lead part in “Get Back;” from that point when they started doing the Let It Be sessions right through Abbey Road. So again, it’s this great keyboard story; you uncover these things and they’ve got to be told.
GR: They were always listening for unusual sounds.
AB: If you take a look at the evolution of what the Beatles did musically, they were on the cutting edge of anything new that was coming out. They’re one of the first bands—real pop bands—that used a synthesizer on a pop recording. When you listen to the Abbey Road album, you say, “What is that?” Well, it’s a synthesizer. Who else used a synth at the time? Nobody.
So when you look at keyboards and you look at the Beatles, they were always ahead of the curve. It’s something we take for granted but that’s the whole premise of my book. You’ve got to point these things out.