Jef Hanlon spent decades at the forefront of live music promotion, putting on acts such as B B King, Chuck Berry, Simon and Garfunkel and Stevie Wonder. But were it not for the Beatles, says Hanlon when I interview him:
I’d probably now be a retired civil engineer living in a nice part of Lancashire … because they opened the door for the northern accents, the northern guys to get down there and do things.
Hanlon came out of retirement to produce The Sessions Live, a “live restaging of the historic recording sessions of the Beatles”, which premieres at London’s Royal Albert Hall on April 1. The complexity of the show is testament to the changes wrought on the fabric of popular music by the quartet and their production team at Abbey Road.
Hanlon stresses that this isn’t a lookalike show with “guys with wigs on their heads and tie-dyed jackets and Cuban-heeled boots”. Instead, it is an attempt to capture the sound and the recording process. It features 45 performers, including seven singers (veterans of previous Beatles shows) to recreate double-tracked vocals, a six-piece band of leading session musicians and a 21-piece orchestra. It also features actors playing technicians, Yoko Ono, recording engineer Geoff Emerick, and, of course, George Martin, the Beatles’s legendary producer.
When Martin died recently, the celebrations of his achievements hinged largely on his status as the “fifth Beatle”. But this fruitful relationship was by no means a given in the beginning. Martin, a Guildhall graduate and ex-Royal Navy officer, was a stark contrast to, as Hanlon puts it, the “cheeky scousers who came round from Liverpool and said what they thought”.
But Martin’s track record of working with the Goons, who were admired by the Beatles, gave him an open ear for innovation and word play. When asked after they worked together if there was anything about the session they didn’t like, George Harrison’s response – “Well, there’s your tie for a start” – broke the ice and led to a revolution in recording history.
For all their success as live performers, the Beatles’s ultimate legacy was their recordings. Martin provided the technical and musical ballast for their imaginative flights, from string arrangements, to synching two four-track machines in different studios, to developing sound effects.
The Beatles pushed the envelope of what popular music was, making the studio a creative space – an instrument in itself, rather than just a place to record performances. With George Martin, then, they changed the commercial and artistic realities of popular music, driving forward the recording as the key creative statement and putting the album at the centre of the commercial process. When Martin started at EMI, producers were rule-bound functionaries and engineers, effectively lab assistants in white coats. By the end of the 1960s, the recording studio was at the centre of both creative innovation and social change.
Popular music made a grab for the “authentic” status previously reserved for “high art”, just as social barriers had broken down elsewhere when postwar austerity gave way to the more liberal 60s. Again, the Beatles typified this shift, as illustrated by Lennon’s exhortation at the Royal Variety Performance: “The people in the cheaper seats, just clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.” As Hanlon says, “pop stars two years before the Beatles established themselves wouldn’t dream of doing that.”
There’s no doubt that wider social forces were also at play. But the Beatles’s work with Martin and Emerick helped to drive the boat by placing recording at the centre of popular music creativity. Their work helped to define the role of “record production”, taking it beyond the technical realm into the creative sphere and making the record, rather than the underlying song, the key text in pop.
Over 50 years on from their first recording, the extent of that legacy is revealed by the challenges of depicting the process on stage and moving beyond the “tribute show” – not to mention the minefield of rights negotiations involved with anything Beatles-related. (Even former Beatles aren’t immune to this, as shown by Paul McCartney’s decades-long efforts to reclaim publishing rights to his songs.)
Song suites in the Sessions Live illustrate the changing production process over time, with particular emphasis on tunes featuring groundbreaking techniques. Of this documentary element to the show, Hanlon describes the painstaking attention to detail:
We’ve got about 37 different guitars, so that every guitar the Beatles used in the studio will be used on the track it was used on … We have the same mics, the same mic positioning from the studio plugs.
That portraying the work of the Beatles, Martin and Emerick requires such effort is a marker of their place in music history. In a way, the Sessions Live crystallises a key change in the dynamic between live performance and recordings driven by the Beatles. Where once the goal was to capture a performance in the studio, the question now is how to recreate the recording on stage. Asked whether he sees this show as a one-off, or a way forward for other such productions, Hanlon laughs: “Well, it’s a one-off for me. I’m never working this hard again.”