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Music

60 years on from The Beatles’ first Abbey Road recording session

On June 6th, 1962, The Beatles visited the now-legendary Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood, London, for the first time ever to record some of their early singles. 

The session took place from 7-10pm. The Beatles first ran through several songs and then recorded four. Precise numbers of takes are unknown, but they were taped in the following order: ‘Besame Mucho’, ‘Love Me Do’, ‘PS I Love You’, and ‘Ask Me Why’. Little did they know at the time, these early recordings would set them off on the most successful musical journey of all time, with ‘Love Me Do’ serving as their first top ten charting hit. 

Recalling The Beatles’ first session at Abbey Road Studios, esteemed engineer and producer Norman Smith told Sound On Sound: “The Beatles didn’t make a very good impression, apart from visually. I mean, we heard nothing of John and Paul’s songwriting ability. They had tiny little Vox amplifiers and speakers, which didn’t create much of a sound at source.”

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Smith continued: “Of course, every sound engineer wants some kind of sound at source that he can then embellish and improve, but I got nothing out of The Beatles’ equipment except for a load of noise, hum and goodness-knows-what. Paul’s was about the worst – in those days, we had echo chambers to add onto the reverberation, and I had to raid the Studio Two echo chamber in order to fix him up with a sound so that we could get something down on tape.”

However, it appears that Paul McCartney’s bass amplifier wasn’t the only problem during the session. “We actually had to tie string around John Lennon’s guitar amplifier to stop the rattling,” Smith remembered. “There were also problems with Pete Best’s drums – his cymbals, I believe. But we eventually got everything sorted out, and finally, we started to record.”

The first session was initially managed by Ron Richards as the producer, but after being blown away by ‘Love Me Do’, Smith got word to George Martin, a highly sought-after EMI producer. 

Martin helmed production for the session alongside Ron Richards as an assistant. The EMI session was the first and only one The Beatles would play alongside their original drummer Pete Best; when they returned to the studio on September 4th to record more material for their debut record, Ringo Starr was the band’s new drummer. 

Smith remembered Martin coming into the studio to see the band for an artist test himself. “The control room door opened, and in walked George Martin himself. And I thought to myself, ‘This must be some kind of special artist test for him to show up.’ Because producers didn’t normally attend artist tests. It was always their assistant. And, of course, up to that time, George was not involved at all with any guitar groups. He did a lot of comedy records, like Peter Sellers and stuff like that.”

Clearly impressed with the young group’s talent, the recording staff still felt it necessary to encourage the Fab four to upgrade their equipment. “We gave them a long lecture about their equipment and what would have to be done about it if they were to become recording artists,” Smith told Lewisohn for his book, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions.

“They didn’t say a word back, not a word, they didn’t even nod their heads in agreement. When he finished, George [Martin] said ‘Look, I’ve laid into you for quite a time, you haven’t responded. Is there anything you don’t like?’ I remember they all looked at each other for a long while, shuffling their feet, then George Harrison took a long look at George and said ‘Yeah, I don’t like your tie!’ That cracked the ice for us and for the next 15-20 minutes they were pure entertainment. When they left to go home George and I just sat there saying ‘Phew! What do you think of that lot then?’ I had tears running down my face.”

“They left, and George turned to me and said, ‘Well, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘I’ve seen a lot of groups come in for artists tests, but this one – there is something special about them. I can’t tell you what, but there is something there.’ As I said, the test hadn’t gone too well, and I wasn’t impressed by their sound. But they had an appealing quality, a kind of charisma. And I told George, ‘In my view, I think they should be signed.’ And I’ll never forget, his last words to me before he left were, ‘Okay. I’ll think about it.’ Now, there was quite a bit of controversy that came about after that, as to whether they were actually signed before the artist test. A lot of it that came out did make sense as to why, in my view, George Martin turned up himself for an artist test, when no other producer ever did that. As I said, it was always their assistants,” Smith said in a statement for Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan’s book, Recording The Beatles

He added: “For the artist test, it was George Martin himself. And there was no question of them being signed at that time. But, later, I began to wonder, ‘Were they already signed? Is this why George Martin himself turned up? Was it because this was the first time that he’d seen them? Was there something more attached to the whole thing?’”

It’s uncertain whether The Beatles had already done enough to have been signed prior to the artist test, but what we can be sure of is that it was one of the best moves EMI ever made.

Listen to The Beatles’ cover of Consuelo Velázquez’s 1940 classic, ‘Besame Mucho’, below. It was the first track they recorded in Abbey Road Studios.