Beatles Gear: The Ultimate Edition--An Excerpt from the book by Andy Babiuk

A magical mystery tour of the Beatles keyboards
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It’s safe to say that no other group of musicians has been scrutinized to the degree that the Beatles have. Nearly every sound they made—in the studio, onstage, and in interviews—is available somewhere, legitimately or not. For those who listen carefully, this treasure trove of information serves to document the many changes in technology that took place during this revolutionary period in music history.

Worldwide fame gave the Fab Four access to the best, most innovative gear. Although guitar, bass, and drums were their primary instruments, the band’s cutting-edge use of keyboards was a hallmark of many of their hits. Consider the Mellotronsoaked intro to “Strawberry Fields Forever” or the haunted sound of the Hohner Pianet that opens “I Am The Walrus.” Even the acoustic piano was treated in novel ways, as with the double-speed part in “In My Life” that sounds like a harpsichord. And all four members had their hands on the keys at one time or another.

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“When you look at keyboards and the Beatles, they were always ahead of the curve,” says Andy Babiuk, author of Beatles Gear: The Ultimate Edition. “Keyboards were very important in their music and, by 1965, they became more of a focal point.”

First published in 2001, Beatles Gear has become a go-to source for information about the band’s instruments. “We go a bit deeper with The Ultimate Edition and show a lot more catalogs, pictures and whatnot,” the author explains. “When I wrote the original edition, the manuscript was about 600 pages, but [the publisher] cut quite a bit of text because they had to fit everything into 256 pages, including photos.”

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The success of Beatles Gear provided the impetus to create a greatly expanded version—nearly double the size of the original, with tons of new information and 625 additional photos—allowing Babiuk to fill in the details he was forced to leave out, while adding previously unavailable information that he uncovered in the intervening years.

Please join us in thanking Babiuk and Backbeat Books for giving us this rare opportunity to share a few pages from the book in the pages of Keyboard.

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1965 THE PIANET

This German-made Hohner Pianet electric piano is like the one The Beatles used extensively in the studio during the recording of the Help! album on songs such as “The Night Before.” Another new German-made instrument, the Hohner Pianet, made its way into the group’s instrument collection. It seems that Roy Young had left an impression last year when he played a Pianet on the same bill as the group. Mc-Cartney and Lennon, at least, played the new Pianet during these February recording sessions. Hohner was an old German-based musical instrument manufacturer, founded by Matthias Hohner in the 1850s. Perhaps best known to the group for its harmonicas, Hohner also made keyboard instruments. Hohner’s first electric piano was the Cembalet of 1958, followed by the Pianet a few years later, both designed by Ernst Zacharias. The Pianet has an unusual “acoustic” mechanism. Each key was linked to a short metal rod with a leather-and-foam adhesive pad on the end; the pad rested on an accordion-style reed, from which it pulled free when the key was pressed, vibrating the reed, the sound of which was then amplified. As a result, the Pianet had a distinctive and percussive piano-like sound, which subsequently turned up on quite a few Beatle recordings. The model the group used was a Pianet C, with classic wooden case, “coffee table” legs, and a folding lid that doubled as a music stand when opened. At the time it retailed for £114/9/-(£114.45, about $320 then and around £2,000 or $2,950 in today’s money).

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Paul plays the group’s Hohner Pianet at Abbey Road Studio 2 in February 1965 during the Help! sessions. The sound of the Pianet can be heard as the lead instrument on “Tell Me What You See.” In the background, George plays his Gretsch Tennessean, with his Rick 12 nearby. As with many new instrumental arrivals, the group tried to fit the Pianet’s sound into virtually any new song. Recording continued on February 17 with work on a new Harrison tune, “You Like Me Too Much,” which clearly features Pianet. The group also cut “The Night Before” on the same day, with Lennon playing the Pianet while McCartney and George Martin took to Abbey Road’s Steinway grand piano.

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Further recording and mixing continued the following day and included “Tell Me What You See,” again featuring Pianet, this time played by McCartney. He also overdubbed the Latin percussion sound of a guiro on to this track. Another song recorded on the 18th was Lennon’s acoustic Dylan-like ballad “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” which featured the sound of the new Framus Hootenanny 12-string, as well as Harrison playing his Gibson J-160E and Starr playing the drums with brushes. “If You’ve Got Trouble” was committed to tape, with Starr on lead vocal, although the track would not be released until Anthology 2. The week-long sessions continued on Friday February 19 with the new Lennon original ‘You’re Going To Lose That Girl’. Overdubs included McCartney on the Steinway and Starr on Ludwig bongos.

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1965 THE CONTINENTAL

This organ was sold at auction in recent years as John Lennon’s first Vox Continental, as used during the ’65 American tour.To complete their new single “Help!” a flip-side was needed. “I’m Down” was recorded with McCartney tearing through one of his best rocking vocal performances to date. The song featured another instrument new to the group, a Vox Continental Portable organ played by Lennon. Later he would use it for live performances of the song, too. Production of the British-made solid-state Continental began in 1962, and the Continental Portable model that The Beatles used had a four-octave keyboard. Wood-weighted black and white keys, reversed so that the main notes were black, along with a detachable chrome Z-shape frame stand and bright orange top, helped give the Continental its classic ’60s futuristic look. The Continental Portable retailed for £262/10/-(£262.50, about $735 then and around £4,600 or $6,850 in today’s money).

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The unique full-toned voice of the Continental organ, with built-in vibrato, was not only popular with The Beatles—it would appear on a number of Rubber Soul recordings later this year, such as “I’m Looking Through You”—but also it became a key sound with other British groups such as The Dave Clark Five, Manfred Mann, The Zombies, and, notably, The Animals and their hit “The House of the Rising Sun” with Alan Price on Continental. The Continental can also be heard on a number of American hit records by groups including Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Blues Magoos, and, especially, on the Question Mark & The Mysterians hit “96 Tears.” Yet again, The Beatles had popularized a distinctive new voice in pop music. As with the Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, the sound of the Vox Continental organ would become virtually synonymous with the ’60s.

Beatles VI was released in the USA on June 14 1965. Also on June 14, Capitol Records pieced together more Beatle tracks recorded in 1964, some of which had not previously been issued in the USA, and released Beatles VI (T 2358 mono, ST 2358 stereo) featuring (side one:) “Kansas City,” “Eight Days A Week,” “You Like Me Too Much,” “Bad Boy,” “I Don’t Want To Spoil the Party,” and “Words of Love’, (side two:) ‘What You’re Doing’, ‘Yes It Is’, ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Tell Me What You See,” and “Every Little Thing.” The album went to Number One. A few days later, on June 17, producer George Martin arranged a string quartet of two violins, cello, and viola for the strings accompaniment to “Yesterday,” which marked the first time that the group discarded their traditional instrumentation, instead employing an arrangement that was unusual on a recording for a modern pop-group of the time. The same day’s sessions yielded a cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” with Starr on lead vocal, while another new Lennon-McCartney song, “Wait,” was also taped, but, appropriately for a song with such a title, was shelved. It would be unearthed again in November during the Rubber Soul album sessions.

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1965 A MELLOTRON FOR JOHN

The Chamberlin keyboard was the predecessor to the Mellotron.Lennon was always searching for new sounds from different instruments, and he became one of the first artists in Britain to acquire a unique new keyboard, the Mellotron. It was like 70 tape recorders in a box. Pressing a key activated one of the prerecorded tapes inside, loaded with diverse sounds: pitched strings and brass, rhythm effects, entire musical passages, and more (although any held note would stop after ten seconds). In effect, it was a forerunner of today’s sampling techniques. The Mellotron was in fact the younger brother to a US invention, the Chamberlin keyboard, which was devised in the late ’40s by Harry Chamberlin. A Chamberlin representative, Bill Fransen, visited Britain in the early ’60s, ostensibly in search of tape-head manufacturers, but more likely on the look-out for a marketing opportunity. In Birmingham, Fransen stumbled upon a firm of electromechanical engineers, Bradmatic, run by three brothers, Les, Frank, and Norman Bradley.

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In 1965, John had been one of the first to acquire a Mellotron Mark II tape-replay keyboard, a kind of early sampler. At the end of ’66, The Beatles finally used the instrument, for the recording of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The Mark II pictured was sold at auction in 2003 as the one that John owned.The inside of an early Vox Continental organ with orange top removed, showing how at this period the instrument had wooden keys. Later examples had plastic keys and modified electronics, giving a different feel and sound.A Mellotron advertisement in a British trade paper boasts that this “most exciting” new keyboard will deliver “tomorrow’s sounds to-day”.This news item reveals that John received one of the first Mellotron keyboards, delivered to him on August 16 1965. Soon Fransen and the Bradleys collaborated—minus Harry Chamberlin—to form the British sales and distribution company Mellotronics, with the Bradleys set to manufacture a copy of the Chamberlin, the Mellotron Mark I, beginning in 1963. They soon made changes to this prototype, and the Mark II appeared in 1964. It was this production version that Lennon saw. Its retail price then was a phenomenal £1,000 (about $2,800 then and around £17,700 or $26,350 in today’s money). The sometimes out-of-tune and eerie but always atmospheric sounds of the Mellotron were widely used later by many bands, including the Moody Blues and King Crimson, and the instrument became something of a prog signature. However, despite Lennon’s early enthusiasm, The Beatles would not use a Mellotron until the end of 1966, when they added some of its distinctive sounds to the recording of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

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Lennon’s acquisition of his Mellotron was noted in a contemporary news item. “On [August 12], the day before they left for their current American tour, The Beatles did some very secret recording at the IBC studio in [London’s] Portland Place. John Lennon was persuaded to try a Mellotron during a break and after just five minutes said, ‘I must have one of these.’ It was delivered on August 16.” The report not only provides the precise date for the arrival of Lennon’s Mellotron, but also refers to a recording session that has never before been documented. Unfortunately, no further information about this “secret” recording session at IBC was given. There seems no particular reason why the group would be recording there at this time. Perhaps there was no secret other than a visit to IBC to see an early demo of the fabulous new Mellotron.

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1967 MORE KEYBOARDS AND THE LOWREY ORGAN

Another Abbey Road keyboard, the Hammond L-100, was used by the group on a number of sessions. During the Pepper sessions, the group used a number of keyboard instruments. They played a number of Abbey Road’s own instruments: a Steinway grand piano, a Challen upright piano, a modified “jangle” or “tack” upright piano, a harmonium, and a Hammond RT-3 organ with Leslie speaker cabinet—all familiar from previous sessions. They also used their own Mellotron Mark II tape-replay keyboard and their Hohner Pianet C electric piano. A new keyboard to the Pepper sessions was a Hammond L-100 organ, which was also widely used. The L-100 was a self-contained Hammond console, requiring no external speaker cabinet, and it had two manuals (keyboards) of 44 keys each and a 13-note pedal keyboard, plus an “expression” pedal to control volume.

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On February 17, the group recorded the basic track of “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite,” consisting of drums and bass, plus harmonium played by George Martin, and Lennon singing a lead guide vocal (a rough version to help map out the song, intended to be replaced later). “Kite” began to change when Lennon asked Martin to create a circus feel. The producer obliged by finding archive recordings of fairground pipe organs, which he transferred to tape. He asked Geoff Emerick to cut up the tapes, which were then mixed around by throwing them in the air. Emerick was further instructed to re-splice the randomly dispersed pieces of tape back together, in the process creating the swirling, disjointed fairground sound that was added to the song.

For the opening of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” The Beatles used a Lowrey Heritage Deluxe DSO organ, one of several keyboards at Abbey Road used during the recording of the Sgt Pepper album. Intense work for Sgt Pepper continued. A dramatic crashing piano chord was added to the end of “A Day in the Life” on February 22. Lennon, Starr, McCartney, and Mal Evans sat down at three pianos—probably the Challen, “tack,” and Steinway—in Studio 2, and simultaneously played an E-major chord, allowing the decaying sound of the pianos to ring out for almost a whole minute. More new songs followed. “Lovely Rita” was initially recorded with McCartney on piano, Lennon and Harrison both playing their Gibson J-160Es, and Starr on his Ludwig drums. McCartney added his Rickenbacker 4001S bass after the basic track was down.

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Lennon’s future classic “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was next, started on March 1. The basic track featured drums, acoustic guitar, and piano. Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall wrote a magazine column at the time describing the song’s beginning. “[It] starts with Paul playing Hammond organ,” they said, “using a special organ stop which gives a bell-like overchord [sic] effect which makes it sound like a Celeste.”

Despite this contemporary report, photographic evidence reveals that McCartney in fact used a Lowrey Heritage Deluxe DSO organ to produce the famous opening sound on “Lucy.” Indeed, neither a Hammond RT-3 nor an L-100 are capable of producing that sound. It was the Lowrey DSO’s preset voices of harpsichord, vibraharp, guitar, and “music box” that provided the magical tones required. (This same Lowrey organ later ended up at the group’s Apple studio and would be used during the Get Back/Let It Be sessions.)

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1967 JOHN AND THE CLAVIOLINE

The group agreed to another project during the early part of May, a full-length animated feature film to be produced by King Features, Yellow Submarine. It would contain some older Beatles songs as well as a few new originals. With this in mind, The Beatles didn’t wait before jumping back into the studio to record a new composition intended for the film. Instead of using Abbey Road, they ventured out to a studio that the Rolling Stones used regularly. On May 11, they recorded “Baby You’re a Rich Man” at Olympic Sound in southwest London. Second engineer at the session was Eddie Kramer, who would later produce Jimi Hendrix and Kiss. According to Kramer, the intention was to impress the group with the setup at Olympic, which was independent of record-company control.

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John used a Clavioline keyboard instrument, like the one pictured, during the recording of “Baby You’re a Rich Man” at Olympic Sound studio in west London on May 11. “We wanted to make sure that they walked out of there being completely blown away,” Kramer says. “Which they were. ‘Baby You’re a Rich Man’ was recorded, overdubbed, and mixed in one night.” Kramer remembers that a keyboard instrument called a Clavioline happened to be in the studio. “John played it, a French electronic instrument with a small keyboard. It had a little strip which you put your thumb on and moved it up and down the length of the keyboard as you played, to get vibrato. George played his guitar and Ringo his kit, and McCartney played bass and then piano. So the only thing different was the Clavioline.”

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The Clavioline was a monophonic keyboard—meaning only one note sounded at a time, precluding chords. It was to some extent a predecessor of modern synthesizers and had been designed in 1947 by Constant Martin in Versailles, France. The instrument consisted of two units: the keyboard, with built-in valve (tube) sound generator; and the separate amplifier-and-speaker box. The two pieces were connected by a power cord, and the keyboard could be fitted into the back of the amplifier unit for convenient carrying. A built-in octave transposer switch gave the keyboard’s single oscillator a five-octave range. The overall volume was controlled by a knee-operated lever. The Clavioline’s unusual sound, heard whirling intermittently through “Baby You’re A Rich Man,” had been evident before on “Telstar,” a big hit for the British group The Tornados on both sides of the Atlantic in 1962. Several different models of the Clavioline were sold in Britain over the years by Selmer, and also by Jennings using the Univox brand.

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1969-1970 THE BEATLES AND THE MOOG SYNTHESIZER

The only really new instrument that would grace Abbey Road was a significant one: a Moog synthesizer that Harrison had purchased in November 1968 while in Los Angeles producing Jackie Lomax’s Apple album. Harrison brought the Moog back to Britain and used it at his home to record that experimental Electronic Sounds LP in February 1969 (released on Zapple on May 9).

A Moog IIp modular synthesizer similar to the IIIp that George bought and which was subsequently used by The Beatles in the studio in 1969 for the Abbey Road album. Lomax remembers making seven of the tracks for his album Is This What You Want? in L.A., and he says that Harrison, ever intrigued by new instruments and sounds, wanted to investigate the relatively new sonic world of the synthesizer. “He hired the guys that worked on the Moog, Bernie Krause and Paul Beaver,” Lomax recalls. “They came down to the studio where we were recording and brought a synthesizer. We’d discuss what kind of sound we wanted, and they’d twiddle and fiddle around with the knobs—and then we would kick them off the machine and start playing it ourselves. George had a particular thing in mind and he took over the keyboard.”

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Robert Moog is the acknowledged inventor of the first synthesizer—although, as is so often the case, others were working along similar lines at the time. In 1968, Moog’s new instrument received an enormous publicity boost when [Wendy] Carlos released Switched On Bach, a commercially successful album of the classical composer’s best-known works played entirely on Moog synthesizers. From that time on, the word Moog became virtually synonymous with synthesizer.

Moog’s pioneering voltage-controlled keyboard synthesizers used electrical currents deployed in various ways to simulate the vibrations that create musical sounds. As with the Bach record, there was a potential to emulate electronically the sounds of existing instruments, but just as exciting and stimulating for some musicians was the possibility of creating a whole new array of electronic sounds and tones and effects. The synthesizer could have been custom-made for a group that had just gone through its roots period and was keen once more to hunt for the newest, most modern sounds available.

Harrison bought one of the earliest modular Moog systems, a model IIIp that had first hit the market in 1967. It came with a separate keyboard unit and “ribbon” controller, along with a series of cases. The basic model had two cases, but more could be added to customize the instrument. The cases contained dozens of controls organized into various sections, including the basic building blocks that are used in voltage-controlled synthesis: oscillators, filters, amplifiers, generators, and so on. Connections were made as required by the user with some of the 43 patch cords supplied with the synthesizer, and as a result the instrument often ended up looking something like a musical telephone exchange.

“We had the I, the II, and the III models then,” Robert Moog said, “and George’s IIIp was the largest—the ‘P’ stood for portable. That’s the one most musicians wound up buying. Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause were sort of partners of mine at the time—Paul Beaver was our representative and salesman in Los Angeles—and they sold that Moog to George.”

A myth that has grown up around the story of Harrison and his Moog has The Beatles liking the sound of the synthesizer so much that they wanted to invest in Robert Moog’s company and make it part of Apple Electronics. Moog laughed at the suggestion. “We looked high and low for people who would want to invest in us,” he said, “and finally, long after I got desperate, I found some guy to buy us out. If The Beatles had wanted to invest in us, we would have been there in a second! In those early days in Trumansburg, New York, we were running on fumes.”

When Harrison brought his new Moog synthesizer back to London and the Abbey Road sessions, it quickly became the must-have sound on many of the tracks that the group were working on. Always keen to be ahead of the pack, The Beatles wanted to be among the first to make good musical use of a synthesizer on record. Almost everyone who worked at Abbey Road at the time clearly remembers the new toy. Engineer Richard Lush recalls Harrison bringing the new instrument into the building. “He set it up in room 43, which was at the back of Studio 3. George spent hours in there playing around with it, plugged through a little Fender speaker. I’d never heard anything like it before. The sound was something like that odd [variable-pitch oscillator] on The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations.’”

Abbey Road, the final studio album made by the group, was released in the UK on September 26 1969 and in the USA on October 1. Ken Townsend, a maintenance engineer at Abbey Road, recalls the Moog’s first use on a Beatles track. “It was ‘Because,’ and the Moog was a bit of a marvel instrument. To get that French horn sound it took a whole set of flight cases full of jack plugs and filters.” The engineer Alan Parsons, who’d worked on some of the recordings made at Apple earlier in the year, came to Abbey Road after most of the basic tracks were down, as second engineer on the overdub sessions. “We were working in Studio 2, and the reason the Moog was set up in 43—a sort of overdub room for Studio 3—was because they wanted it to be reasonably accessible, but they didn’t want it to be so far away. It was a lot of work to get anything out of it, and you could only sound one note at a time, which was a disadvantage.”

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Parsons especially remembers McCartney’s work on the Moog on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” The IIIp’s “ribbon” controller was a long strip that induced changes in the sound being played, depending on where it was touched and how the player then moved his finger. “Paul did ‘Maxwell’ using the ribbon,” Parsons says, “playing it like a violin and having to find every note—which is a credit to Paul’s musical ability.”

The Moog was certainly novel for the time, Parsons says. “The Beatles were always looking for something new, anything to disguise the sound of their voices or disguise the instrumentation. I think they were aware that they relied so much on experimentation. They also leaned very heavily on George Martin and the engineers to come up with innovative ideas and new sounds that would make them different. John, in particular, hated the sound of his own voice and was always looking for some new effect to put on it.”

The distinctive sounds of the Moog IIIp modular synthesizer are spread over a good deal of the resulting Abbey Road album. Overdubs of the instrument started at the beginning of August, and there are some notable occurrences to be heard on the released LP. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” has synth following the vocal in the second and third verses, and a fine outro solo from 3:03. “Because” features a well-defined synth solo sound from 2:12. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” sees Lennon using the Moog as a white-noise generator to create the swirling wind effect at the close. “Here Comes the Sun” has a lovely ribbon-assisted downward slide on the intro and glorious synth sounds filling the “sun, sun, sun” middle section. Orders for Moog synthesizers must have soared as soon as musicians worked out what was making these intriguing sounds on the new Beatles record.

Another new keyboard sound introduced during the Abbey Road sessions came from a Baldwin Combo electric harpsichord, which George Martin played on “Because.” It’s particularly evident on the striking arpeggios at the very start of the track. And who could forget the anvil that Starr played on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”? As with the Get Back sessions, Harrison often relied on the Leslie speaker.