If I said the name Greg Proops to you, would you know who I mean..?
He’s the guy from Whose Line Is It, Anyway? who looks like Buddy Holly and Charles Nelson Reilly had a baby and gave it good fashion sense, rapacious wit, and an appreciation for all humanity has to offer (save violence, oppression, bigotry, misogyny, racism…).
Anyway, he hosts a weekly podcast called The Smartest Man in the World, and it is absolutely fantastic.
For anywhere from 1-2 hours, Proops rants, informs, and educates on topics ranging from pop culture and current events to vodka, sports, social issues, more vodka, politics, music, movies, and a bunch more vodka. He does so in front of a live audience, with whom he engages throughout the show (interrupters, beware!).
As I sit here, watching my beloved Red Wings collapse on the ice against the Penguins, I’m enjoying a “vodka-flavored vodka drink”, which reminds me of earlier this week, when I listened to the latest Proopcast, “Fountains”.
Toward the end, Proops pays honor to Sir George Martin, the longtime producer of The Beatles, who basically worked on every Beatles recording except Let It Be (Phil Spector).
Martin died three weeks ago.
To celebrate his contributions, Proops plays a few exceptional Beatles tunes which span the breadth of their career, and goes on to essentially say that without George Martin, the band wouldn’t have achieved the level of musical greatness which they did.
It’s true, and his glowing praise for Sir George is absolutely warranted. Martin was an undeniably important part of helping the Beatles achieve the impact — the true potential — of their music upon the world.
Greg says, of George Martin’s approach to working with the Fab Five, “Always yield to people who are geniuses, and try to support them in every way.”
The Beatles helped shift cultural consciousness, and even though haters may shout “MONEY GRAB!!!!” every time there is another reissue, the music resonates decades beyond the band’s breakup because the songs transcend all genres and acknowledge myriad aspects of humanity.
The Beatles appealed to our better selves as human beings, and they were silly at times. They weren’t afraid to be themselves, to follow their muse. The best example of a band who does those things today would be Ween, and they broke up years ago, too.
But Proops also mentioned the “…aural magnitude that George Martin was able to create…”. And that means people need to know about Geoff Emerick…especially if you don’t know about Geoff Emerick.
When Geoff was 15, he interviewed for a job at EMI Studios, which ultimately became Abbey Road. He was hired promptly, and happened to luck out doing assisting work on the first Beatles demo. The rule back then was that if the band got signed to the label, they were assigned the same staff who cut the demo to make the album.
So, Geoff Emerick assisted on most of the earliest Beatles recordings, and at 18 years old, George Martin promoted him to head audio engineer, because their original engineer, Norman Smith, decided he’d rather produce Pink Floyd than record the Beatles.
The first album Geoff engineered was Revolver, and that’s when their sound really changed.
Geoff Emerick broke the rules at EMI. They used to have technicians with lab coats checking in on sessions and recording the levels of the equipment to make sure they weren’t being overloaded.
When the white coats had their backs turned, he placed some really expensive microphones up close to Ringo’s drums, which was tantamount to being fired. Emerick even overloaded the expensive compressors used to control the volume and dynamic range of loud recordings; another terminable offense.
Of course it all started with the drums! Everything starts with drums. Drums speak to every human being.
Drum. Drum NOW! Drum with your fists on your belly, your hands on your lap, your fingers on the table. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, just stop reading for a moment and DRUM!
Drumming is, at its core, a human being flailing their extremities in a controlled and musical fashion. Drums are the first instrument, before the voice. Before we all were birthed into this world and coerced to cry, we were drumming inside of our mothers.
Drums are primal. Drums are spiritual. Drums are the universal instrument. Drums are energy. Drums unite people. Tribes used drums to communicate across great distances, to signal and coordinate battle efforts, to dance.
In today’s music, we remember the vocal, but the drums are the driver. They, along with the bass, move the air that supplies the groove. Most of the best bands have great rhythm sections. If your band has a great drummer, you just may become a great band.
No Dave Grohl, no Nirvana, at least not as the world experienced them.
So when Emerick played back the drum take for the first song recorded for Revolver, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Ringo was astounded. He had never heard drums recorded like that before — big, with attack and body.
Geoff made the drums pump and breathe. He gave Ringo a new life, and showed the Beatles a new sonic landscape.
Inspired by Geoff’s innovative approach, John Lennon told him, “I want my vocal to sound like the Dalai Lama shouting from a mountaintop.”
What?? In a studio where suits a ties are required, who talks like that??
Geoff thought for a few moments about what that meant, and how to create the texture John had in his mind. He finally decided to take a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet, generally reserved for Hammond organs, and record Lennon’s vocal through it.
Listen to “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and pay attention to the drums and the vocal: the drums are in your face, present; the vocal is swirling, ethereal.
Geoff Emerick and his approach to audio engineering empowered the Beatles to take creative leaps further than the sterile, rule-based EMI studio would generally allow, and it paid off in Revolver. So much so, that it revolutionized the recording industry.
Geoff has gone on to enjoy an amazing career as a producer and engineer for Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Badfinger, Art Garfunkel, America, Supertramp, Cheap Trick, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and so many more.
So, while everyone is giving love to George Martin, and he certainly does deserve it, my behind-the-Beatles hero is Geoff Emerick. Because while George Martin was arranging beautiful strings and horns, and playing piano and coaching vocal harmonies with the boys in the live room, Geoff was sweating bullets in the control room, scared to death of being found disobeying orders, while bearing the ultimate accountability for recording THE BEATLES.
But he knew he was right. He believed in his decisions, and those decisions ultimately made the Beatles’ music better for them.
He was the unknown, who risked it all, for the greater good of music. And it paid off.
Don’t confuse a risk with a gamble. Gambling is foolish. Risking is smart.
Trust your instincts, take the risk.
Because tomorrow never knows.
P.S. I actually sent this to Greg Proops…and he responded:
I loved when you were mistaken for the guy from Steppenwolf