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Paul McCartney, Badfinger and key changes

The series of recording sessions by the Beatles at Abbey Road from 1962 to the final sessions in 1969 are fascinating on many levels. The last song the Beatles recorded together in the studio was “The End,” from Abbey Road.

The Beatles used other studios in the area when they really wanted to record, such as Olympic Studio and Twickenham. But the majority was done at Abbey Road, probably the most famous in the world, and still in use today. If you want, you can still rent Abbey Road and use the same mixing deck used for “Dark Side of the Moon,” and uncounted other master works by other bands.

The Beatles were typically in Studio 2, a smaller room than the vast Studio 1, which was used for symphony orchestras and so forth. The equipment was ancient in comparison to studios in New York and Los Angeles, and there were only four tracks up until Sgt. Pepper. The recording deck was a Fostex, many of the Beatles recordings were done on that machine.

One reason that it is impossible to duplicate Beatles records is that new electronics were constantly being designed by the Beatles and their engineers, amps rewired, and all sorts of unique equipment you can’t buy or access for one reason or another. In addition, special recording techniques deployed that not only can’t be duplicated, they were not itemized or analyzed enough even you wanted to try. Or the equipment is damaged or lost or otherwise dispersed. One famous technique was playing the voice or guitar back through a Leslie speaker, normally used for organs, as it has a speaker that whirls around at the top of the cabinet.

One thing I found interesting was that a 16-year old Alan Parsons was in Abbey Road helping mix down Beatles songs during the White Album. I have several Alan Parsons albums, and always liked his music, at least some of it. He wrote a song called “A Dream Within A Dream,” beautifully produced with lush 10cc styled arrangements, based on a poem by Poe. He continued to write and produce albums, and had a successful career, though many do not realize he did not sing on his albums.

Another Beatles engineer named Norman Smith later had a hit song in the early seventies under the pseudonym “Hurricane Smith.” He engineered quite a few Beatles sessions, and was working at Abbey Road during some of their most famous albums. He wrote a book entitled “John Lennon Called Me Normal,” or something like that.

It is amazing how little the engineers were paid back then to work on these mega hit records, I can’t remember exactly how much it was, but it was quite little, maybe a couple hundred dollars a week. This also is perhaps linked to company philosophy when you consider how poorly the Beatles were paid by EMI, their deal was terrible by industry standards. One thing Alan Klein did right was to renegotiate their contract to reflect their true status and record sales. George Martin was particularly annoyed, to the extent of starting another studio called A.I.R when the shift to Apple Records began, so he could be better compensated and have more control.

Few people know that Cynthia Lennon recorded a version of “Those Were The Days,” the song that Paul McCartney produced for the Welsh “songbird” Mary Hopkins. I have never heard that version, or even heard of her doing it until I saw a website that lists all the people that have recorded the song, in addition to the story behind it. Another rarely mentioned fact is that John Lennon played bass on “Long And Winding Road” when Let It Be was in the hands of Phil Spector, and many thought he did an inferior job.

The song has extraordinary popularity as a sing-a-long in pubs, and the roots of the melody and rhythm go back to Russian and East European gypsy ballads. An American folk singer adapted the melody and words to the song, and McCartney saw him perform it, and the rest is history. Paul’s production is brilliant, he captures the mood well in the song, Hopkin’s pure voice, the instrumentation, and the key changes towards the end reflect his extraordinary touch in the recording studio.

A note about key changes: about this time he was producing “Carry On Till Tomorrow” from Badfinger’s first album “Magic Christian,” which was actually a soundtrack. This song starts in Cm, then modulates to Dm, and ends in Ebm. A coincidence? Possibly, and since I can’t even think of a single Paul McCartney song, with or without the Beatles, that modulates or changes key, maybe he chose to do this for Mary Hopkin and Badfinger. I’m going to go and research this, perhaps Badfinger turned up at the studio with the key change for “Carry On Till Tomorrow” in place.

Key changes are interesting, one of the best known is “My Sweet Lord,” which starts in F#m, and modulates to Gm when the lead break starts, and the chord changes are wonderful. “Needles and Pins” by the Searchers modulates up one key, and I believe “The Devil Came To Georgia” by Charlie Daniels does. “Woman” from John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” also modulates from D to E, if I’m not mistaken.

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