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The Beatles ‘Let It Be’: Giles Martin on Remixing New Box Set; Equipment Manager/Roadie Kevin Harrington Recalls Being at the Rooftop Concert
Just as he did with earlier expansive multi-disc Beatles deluxe box sets chronicling Sgt. Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road, Giles Martin once again lent his expertise overseeing the new Let It Be 50th anniversary box set. The expansive collection features a newly remixed version of the album by Martin and Sam Okell, a bounty of unreleased material, Glyn John’s original 1969 mix, a Let It Be 4-track EP augmented by a lavish 100-page hardback book showcasing dazzling images of the band in the studio and revelatory transcripts of studio chat.
Rock Cellar: Was your brief with the Let It Be project to do a complete remix from scratch, or was it to do a remix of the Phil Spector version?
Giles Martin: Well, I’m remixing the tracks on the album. So the Spector version is the album, because he produced the final master. I’m sorry if this is confusing answer, but you don’t think about it that way. I was concerned because Let It Be was a contentious record, since Paul McCartney wasn’t happy with the end result. But I talked to Paul before we did it and I said, “Listen, it makes sense that having done Abbey Road and the White Album and Sgt. Pepper that we should probably do the album that people know, even though you weren’t happy with Phil Spector’s string arrangements.” And he goes, “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
And I suppose to a certain degree we did kind of make the strings and the orchestra of the Phil Spector stuff a little bit more Beatles-sounding.
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Rock Cellar: What was your initial vision in how to present this material in this configuration? Did your aims change through the process of working on the tapes?
Giles Martin: My vision of a project always changes because you kind of learn what the album is to a certain degree, and I’m pretty stupid when it comes to this stuff to be honest with you. I’m not a very good Beatles historian. For instance, and people might find this kind of surprising, I suppose, because everyone [else] knows everything. But I didn’t know how much of the rooftop concert was on the actual finished album.
I didn’t know that “Across the Universe” was recorded completely separately from everything else. I didn’t know that “I Me Mine” was done at Abbey Road and was the last thing the Beatles recorded. So the album in that sense is kind of a hodgepodge of different kinds of processes. And so you say, “How do we make this sound more like a record, a finished record, as opposed to something that is contentious?” And so you change your outlook slightly.
It’s unusual because Let It Be was also done in a way where my dad would have said that it lacked a bit of discipline. And so the band aren’t quite sure whether they were recording or rehearsing. The whole idea about Let It Be was it was all based around them doing a live concert, which ended up being the rooftop concert. So some of the takes are basically them recording a rehearsal. So yeah, the narrative changes as you work on the tapes.
Rock Cellar: Listening to the bulk of the recordings, who’s the MVP of the Let It Be sessions?
Giles Martin: There isn’t one. There isn’t one, really. I mean, that’s the thing about the Beatles, and one thing that’s revealing about what’s in the footage in the film footage, Let It Be is a lot about John and Paul trying to rekindle their songwriting romance. However, you do definitely get the sense that the band are very much, as much as they can be, in a sort of diplomatic situation where there were democratic votes.
One of the reasons they found it hard to decide where to do the concert was because they all couldn’t agree. But the one thing they can agree about is how they all can’t agree, if that makes sense. There’s not really one voice. I think Paul at that stage was the driving force behind doing things. He actually says, “I don’t want to be the boss. I don’t want to be the person that’s nagging everyone.” On the projects I’ve worked on, at various times Ringo has said, “The phone would ring and we knew it would be him.” [laughs]
Rock Cellar: What were some of your preconceived perceptions of that period? And now having listened to the tapes, has that changed? And is there anything contrary to those presumptions?
Giles Martin: My assumptions like everyone else’s was that Let It Be was their breakup album. Not really knowing much about it, that’s what I presumed. My dad was never happy with the Let It Be experience because they didn’t want to do any production on it. And he said he was getting fired to a certain degree. I suppose he was when Phil Spector took over his job. I wasn’t aware until we did the Abbey Road project that they started recording “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” just a week after they did the rooftop performance.
So that in itself proves it wasn’t really a breakup album. The story is much simpler than that in many ways and that’s the fact that Let It Be is a misguided concept they planned for the New Year after having a break from doing The White Album.
So the misguided concept was, “Let’s do a concert in front of people,” because they enjoyed doing the “Hey Jude” video. They were like, “Let’s do something like that. We haven’t got any songs but we’ll have them written in two weeks and we’ll film it.” For any band to do that right now would be a crazy idea. To go into a room without any songs and the idea that you film the creative process, that created frustrations.
But it certainly wasn’t a breakup of the band. Perhaps given the death of Brian Epstein and what happened on The White Album they’re aware that they’re probably reaching the end of this creative road they’re on. If Let It Be was this huge acrimonious breakup, they wouldn’t have done Abbey Road and certainly John and Paul wouldn’t be singing “Two Of Us” sweetly to each other. [laughs]
Well, it’s almost like there wasn’t a a fine line between the material for Let It Be and the material for Abbey Road. During the Let It Be sessions they were playing songs that later wound up on Abbey Road, like “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window.”
I mean, you have songs from Abbey Road but you also have “Gimme Some Truth” from Imagine. John and Paul started to write that together. You have “Child of Nature,” which became “Jealous Guy, which is on Imagine. And then there’s also “All Things Must Pass” and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” and “Octopus’ Garden.” The thing about The Beatles is they were never short on songs, and especially George, at this stage, was a powerhouse writing a bunch of songs.
What was interesting is he’s working on “Something” in Savile Row but they only wanted songs they could perform live as a rock and roll band. But what was interesting is they were writing songs that weren’t rock and roll songs. Paul was doing “The Long and Winding Road,” and that’s one of the least rock and roll songs in the Beatles catalog.
Rock Cellar: Upon examining the track listing for the box set, some fans bemoaned the fact that you didn’t use much from the Nagra tapes culled from the Twickenham sessions.
Giles Martin: We are using some stuff from the Nagra tapes. Listen, for a start, people always bemoan anything. [laughs] This is a different project to other ones we’ve done, because there’s a six-hour, three-part documentary where the Twickenham material will be shown, things like “Suzy Parker” and things like that, which people mention are not really great performances and they’re certainly better with the visuals then they are without the visuals.
Most of the Beatles fans bemoaning that not a lot of this stuff on this box set [laughing] already have copies of it anyway. And so quite often, I think about what should we put on here that people haven’t heard before that’s good quality and you want to listen to more than once. I think that’s important.
There’s songs that people might want me to put on things. But these aren’t tracks for collectors, they’re tracks that people could listen to and enjoy. I also want to tell a story through the tracks, as well. Maybe it’s a personal bias, but I always find I like the organic development of a song. In the same way I’d find it quite interesting to watch Van Gogh paint; seeing the early sketches of artwork is quite interesting.
So they may not be up to snuff but they’re kind of interesting because they’re templates of what came before. And then there are outtakes of tracks or hearing a writing process like “Gimme Some Truth” or hear them discuss what the hell they’re doing. All of that is interesting. So you’re trying to get that combination right, and essentially one of the rules is, do you want to listen to this more than once?
Rock Cellar: Out of the bonus material, what’s the standout for you?
Giles Martin: I always some of like the spoken word stuff, funnily enough. I love when they talk about where the hell they can do the concert and should we do it right here? It’s nice hearing the way that George is kind of asking the others politely to join in on “All Things Must Pass.” I quite like hearing if there’s some camaraderie going on.
Rock Cellar: What was the thinking behind not including the entire rooftop performance? Is that because it will be included in the Peter Jackson film?
Giles Martin: Yeah. Yes, it’s in the film, and if there was no visual for it, I’d definitely put it in, but there is and the visual is great. So the same people that are gonna be interested in having the full rooftop performance would probably just rather see it than hear it, and the mix will be my mix, anyway, in the film. So the rooftop performance is in the film and concerts always sound much better when you can see them.
Rock Cellar: On this collection you’ve included Glyn Johns’ original mix of the record. What are your thoughts on Glyn’s mix?
Giles Martin: Glyn is a great record producer and I think he did exactly what the Beatles asked him to do. He captured the essence of what that point of time was, which is really hard. However, the Beatles had enough sense that there wasn’t a great album at that stage and they needed to go back and work on it, and that’s what happened.
Rock Cellar: It’s a nice peek fairly far into the process, but not at the finish line.
Giles Martin: Yeah, that’s correct. You get that feeling when listening to it. It doesn’t really sound like a finished record.
Rock Cellar: I’m curious, when you played the music for Paul and Ringo, what were their reactions and what were the things that grabbed them and got them excited?
Giles Martin: Well, this is unusual because normally, as you may know, I’d sit with them and go through it. But because of lockdown I didn’t. I had to remotely send them stuff. They just said they were really happy with it, so we didn’t really discuss it fully. You know, I talked to Paul about the process because it’s sensitive for him, because he didn’t really like Phil Spector’s work. It’s the only Beatles album I suppose he felt he wasn’t able to put the finishing touches to. I think he found that quite hard.
I said to him, “Are you okay with it?” and he said, “Yeah, you can’t change history.” But then he was happier with the way the orchestra sounds on it. Things like “Across The Universe” and The Long and Winding Road.” The overdubs sound less stuck-on to me now and Paul was happy with that. By the way, we mixed the rooftop for the film before we did the box set, and Paul and Ringo loved that.
Rock Cellar: While the Let It Be period wasn’t all roses and lollipops, it feels like it was a much more positive experience than what was documented in the original film. Did you get a sense of that as well, having access to the all the recordings and existing conversations?
Giles Martin: Yeah. The original Let It Be film is quite drab. It’s quite a struggle to get through the film itself. It seemed like a slog, and I think the one thing that was unveiled by going through this stuff is there’s actually a lot of fun in there. That’s the difference. Watching the original Let It Be film you didn’t get a sense that they were having that much fun, and the Beatles genuinely had fun in the studio, so I think you’re right and I think that’s the difference.
Q&A with Kevin Harrington, Beatles equipment manager/roadie (1968-1970)
From 1968 to 1970, Kevin Harrington worked as the Beatles equipment manager/roadie. “What a Beatle wants, a Beatle gets” was his motto. Given his position with the group, he was afforded intimate access to the inner sanctum of greatest rock and roll band in the world.
Rock Cellar: What was your official job title and what were your duties during the Let It Be/Get Back period?
Kevin Harrington: I didn’t really have an official title, but I guess what works best is equipment manager/roadie. Mal Evans used to take care of the equipment and I took over from him.
Rock Cellar: So when you’re working with the Beatles in the studio during the that period, what would some of your duties entail?
Kevin Harrington: Well first of all, you’re in charge of setting up the equipment. Then it’s really a question of whatever the boys want. If I could get it, I would get it. If not, Mal would get it. Basically, it was looking after them in the studio, making the tea, making sure they got food, making sure if their guitars needed stringing, I’d do that. I’d go to the music shops to get drumsticks and plectrums [guitar picks] and guitar strings.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said, “what a Beatle wants, a Beatle gets.”
Kevin Harrington: Yes, that is true. There weren’t any out of the ordinary demands that I recall. It was meeting their needs as normal musicians. You see, the thing is, let’s say we’re in the studio and they’re going through a song and somebody would say, “I think tambourine might sound good on that.” Rather than be asked, you just go to the trap case and get a tambourine. And then if it’s needed, it’s by their side, and if not, it’s not used, and it goes back in the case. It’s just kind of pre-empting what they want almost.
Rock Cellar: So you kind of had to be an invisible fly on the wall?
Kevin Harrington: Yeah. Basically it’s a bit like hurry up and wait.
Rock Cellar: And while some people may say getting them food or tea and things like that were boring, this wasn’t a boring job for you, right?
Kevin Harrington: No, oh good Lord no, not at all. Getting the tea and getting food and stuff, that was exciting ’cause you were finally able to do something after waiting around for hours for something to do. [laughs] You’re just sitting there watching and listening and tapping your foot and humming along, “let’s go make a cup of tea because I’m bored.”
Rock Cellar: You worked under Mal Evans, the Beatles’ longtime trusty roadie. Share a story about a lasting lesson he taught you.
Kevin Harrington: We were in the studio with the Beatles in between takes, Mal and I were just sitting up in the lobby. Mal told me about when he met Elvis with the Beatles [August 1965]. But he did say he had one regret: the problem was that Elvis asked for a plectrum, and Mal didn’t have one and he was gutted! Absolutely gutted that Elvis asked him for a plectrum and he didn’t have one to give him. He said from that day on, he always had a plectrum in his pocket. If he pulled out change there would be a couple of plectrums.
And I’ve just opened my wallet now, as it’s one of the lessons I’ve always taken from Mal and this is my reminder, I’ve never not carried a plectrum since that night when Mal told me in 1968. There’s one in my wallet now.
Elvis was his hero. Meeting him, he said, was the best thing that happened in his life. Mal was in awe. Mal was in tenth heaven, forget about seventh heaven! That was his idol. There was nobody else that Mal was really in awe of. The thing is when you work for the Beatles, you’re working for the biggest band in the world so nobody impresses you, but for Mal it was Elvis. That was his proudest moment, more than anything, meeting Elvis.
Rock Cellar: During the sessions/filming for what became the Let It Be album, you spent time at both Twickenham Studios and Apple Studios, was the vibe and atmosphere different?
Kevin Harrington: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Well, you’ve got to remember that I was in the studio with them while they were recording the White Album. So I spent five months at Abbey Road with them. I got used to them and they got used to me. And it was intimate and there was an atmosphere. Then when you’re going into Twickenham you’re in this big cavernous sound studio and you’ve got all of these unknown people filming and recording, and it just doesn’t feel right.
It’s not a creative atmosphere. It’s cold and there’s no fun. There’s expectations, plus the sessions started early in the morning as opposed to the Abbey Road sessions. It was like 10 in the morning or something ridiculous. They never went into Abbey Road at that time back in those later days. They would always record in the evenings. So going into Apple Studios, it was a nice, cozy atmosphere.
I think when this new Peter Jackson film comes that’s been redone, I’m hoping that everybody will see that the atmosphere changes. I was there and felt it immediately. At Twickenham, they were trying to get a group togetherness and intimacy feel that comes with making records with the four of them. But then you’ve got an audience of people walking in and out, cameramen, a sound man. It’s cold. Because it was such a big vast space, I sat a long way away from them, whereas at EMI (Abbey Road) I would only be about 15, 20 feet away, but there I was 35, 40 feet away and you can just feel there’s nothing there.
They huddled around in a group, whereas in the studio they’re more free moving about. By the time they moved over to Apple Studios it became more intimate. It became more like the Beatles that I knew, even though I hadn’t known them for that long, maybe a year and a half by that point. It was a big relief when they moved the sessions to those studios.
Rock Cellar: At what point did you find out the band was planning to do the rooftop performance?
Kevin Harrington: I figure it was about a week before. I remember going up onto the roof with Mal [Evans], Paul [McCartney] and Michael Lindsay-Hogg. They were up there just looking around and discussing it. The only problem, I believe, was the actual structure of the roof. Could it take the weight? So they got some scaffolding in and put some builder’s boards across it to help distribute the weight of it a bit. In reality, looking back, there wasn’t a lot of weight, but that was a precautionary thing.
Rock Cellar: What was your day like for the rooftop performance?
Kevin Harrington: We were in the basement and Apple had a lift, but it was a small lift, which went up to the top floor and then when you come out the lift, you turn right and there were about three steps and then you turn left to go up to the actual roof. So I just did my job and just got all the gear up there, except I couldn’t get Paul’s bass cabinet in because of the stair banisters and the low ceiling — I couldn’t just get around a corner over the banisters.
It was impossible without damaging the banisters, and Peter Brown would have gone nuts if I damaged any of the walls. Above the stairs was a small skylight. I told Mal of the problem and he came up and said, “Okay. Let’s get it through the skylight.” We got some rope and started pulling it up but it wouldn’t go through the skylight by [any more than] about half an inch. So they decided that the skylight frame had to come out. So it went through there by about an inch and that’s how we got Paul’s bass cabinet up there and the bottom of Billy Preston’s keyboards.
Rock Cellar: What’s the story behind you holding up lyrics for one of John Lennon’s songs for the actual performance?
Kevin Harrington: [laughs] Out of the blue John said, “I need a music stand,” and we didn’t have a stand in the studio at Apple. There was not one downstairs in the studio. So it was a question of, well, we don’t have time to run to a shop to get one, that’s for sure. Okay, so what a Beatle wants, a Beatle gets. If John wanted a music stand and the only thing I could do was improvise. So I became a music stand. This was for the song “Dig A Pony.”
It surprised me that he didn’t know the lyrics so well. But I couldn’t stand there holding the lyrics because on the left hand side of John was George and on the right hand side was Paul and I knew the cameras were rolling, so I couldn’t stand in front of George and I couldn’t stand in front of Paul so the only thing to do was to kneel and just pretend to pretend to be a music stand. [laughs] What a Beatle wants, a Beatle gets.
Rock Cellar: So that afforded you a front row. How loud was the band on the roof?
Kevin Harrington: To me, it wasn’t loud at all. When you’re on the roof and you’ve got a band playing, for people not used to it, it’s loud. I didn’t think it was loud because I was used to it. I’m used to being right next to these twelve-inch speakers. It was a bit chilly but it wasn’t especially cold for me but I was young then. [laughs] I would have been 19.
Rock Cellar: So beyond being John’s music stand, what are your most vivid memories of the rooftop performance?
Kevin Harrington: Funnily enough, to me it was just an ordinary day in my life at that time. I mean, the most vivid thing is having to kneel in front of John. I remember looking around initially and I couldn’t really see anybody. And then I went to look behind me and there were office workers looking across the rooftops. Then people started showing up at the window and you’d look out again and there were people standing on rooftops.
Now looking back, I realize it was pretty special. I do know that. But at the time I didn’t realize how special it was. It was just my job, just another day the office for me. I know The Beatles enjoyed doing it. When they were done, they went back downstairs to listen to the playback and I just did my job and derigged the gear and humped it back downstairs.
Rock Cellar: Being in attendance for all of the Let It Be recording and film sessions, upon seeing the original Let It Be film, how closely did it match the vibe of those sessions? Or do you think it was a darker representation?
Kevin Harrington: First, I thought it was a darker representation. It seemed to be more focused on them having issues with each other, when in reality I remember lots of laughter. The argument caught on camera between Paul and George wasn’t a big deal. It’s just one of those arguments. There was a lot more laughter. Listen, I’ve worked with so many acts in the studio and in rehearsal rooms and worked with so many people, they were just another band having an off day.
I believe with the six-hour new Disney documentary that’s coming out you’re going to see the real fun of what it was like working for the Beatles.
Rock Cellar: Thinking about your time working with the Beatles in that period, what puts the biggest smile on your face?
Kevin Harrington: Two years, ’68 to 70. It was two years of an incredible time for my life, 18 to 20 years old. I’m very proud to have done what I did. I’m really honored to have been invited into that small unit when I was and be welcomed in. I was an outsider, so I’m proud that I was invited into their inner circle and spent two years with them and I had a great time as well.
(Author’s note: “Who’s the Redhead on The Roof: My Life With The Beatles“ by Kevin Harrington is available as Kindle book at this link.