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NICHOLAS ROWLAND: What Can We Learn From The Beatles?

Sounding Off
Published February 1999

NICHOLAS ROWLAND: What Can We Learn From The Beatles?

Nicholas Rowland argues that there's still something we can learn from the Beatles — apart from the fact that drummers shouldn't have solo careers.

If you've ever killed a few idle hours travelling the virtual highways and byways of the Internet, then you'll be fully aware that there are some pretty sad web sites out there. Gary from Montana and the happy snaps of his beloved Chevy '59, a home page devoted to lost socks, online ordering of Belgian lace doilies... you know what I mean. One I came across the other day was, on the face of it, saturated in SDQ (Sad Dweeb Quotient) — an elaborate catalogue of all the 'fluffs' in every recording the Beatles ever made. Though initially tempted to respond with an e‑message saying 'Why Not Get A Life' in syllables of one word, I instead let my browser bide a while and found that the site actually made fascinating reading. Like most people, I was aware that 'Strawberry Fields' was a cut‑and‑shunt job involving the piecing together of two completely different versions of the song. But here before me, in blazing anorak glory, were the precise details of every clunky edit, erased guitar sustain, mis‑timed tambourine and tape print‑through that ever there was. Also interesting were the bits of horseplay where Paul tries to make George laugh or John deliberately sings the wrong backing vocals 'fur a birrova laff', like.

Of course, such 'out‑takes' were often consciously used in the later recordings — like the cut‑up 'Beatles chatter' right at the end of the Sergeant Pepper LP for the delight of those whose record players didn't have automatic arm returns. But I must admit to being mildly surprised by the existence of the mistakes on the takes used as final releases, since I'd always reckoned the Beatles' musicianship (and George Martin's production) to be pretty tight and tidy in the studio. And once you know they're there, you'll find that's all you can hear — especially the exact bit where the two parts of 'Strawberry Fields' are welded together. (And it's completely ruined the song for me now, thanks very much.)

OK, so these guys were limited to a certain extent by the recording technology of their time (and who cares, because the music's great anyway). But what it did force home was the rather obvious point that though they may have churned out great song after great song, the Beatles were not automatons. Taken as a whole, the mistakes and the fooling around are a reminder that the music was being recorded by four blokes in a room who actually had a lot of fun doing it. This in turn set me off on tangential thoughts about whether my own recordings wouldn't also benefit from being a little more 'warts and all', a little less concerned with striving for perfection in every detail. When you work mostly alone with machines, as I do, though you cut down on the chance for arguments over musical differences, you can lose sight of the fact that the end result is supposed to be music for people's pleasure, not the output of MIDI information. At the merest hint of the slightest tempo drift, I'd send those quantise cops down into the heart of the program to beat hell out of any piece of data that dared step out of line, never considering that maybe the 'wrong' data actually had a better vibe than the technically correct data. Oh yes, I'm not ashamed to admit it. But before you think we're heading into 'let's chuck away our hard disks and get back to tree hugging and communal scraping of cat gut with carved bones', that's not the point I'm trying to make.

It's more that the ease with which MIDI sequencers and hard disk recording systems allow you to go back and erase or 'tidy up' errors — or even prevent you from making them in the first place — can sometimes leave you blind to the creative possibilities of happy accidents. One of my solutions, apart from finding other human beings to work with, has been to mic up the studio and record the recording process itself. By leaving a DAT tape running throughout the session, you'll get all the bits in between the official takes where your vocalists and/or instrumentalists begin to relax and then (usually) start taking the piss out of whatever they're listening to being played back. You also get all the false starts and bad takes that you might not have room to keep if you were recording them to hard disk normally. And being recorded digitally means they are of good enough quality to feed back into the mix afterwards. Similarly, I've also miked myself up at the desk so that any off‑the‑cuff remarks or attempted harmony parts I make during other people's performances also become fair game for the final mixdown. (And you thought people who put together web sites about the Beatles recording mistakes were sad...)

And the moral? Have fun. Flaunt your imperfections. Oh... and buy the Beatles' songbook.

What Goes On — The Beatles Anomalies Page can be found at

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambs CB3 8SQ. Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address.