Saying ‘no’ to John Lennon – not sure about that!

One of the great things about getting into record production in the mid-70s was that, with the exception of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, most of your heroes were still around.

Some of my heroes were likely the same as yours. But there was a second tier of people to whom you might not give a second thought. For me they were fascinating.

So it was, for instance, that I booked David Mason, the guy who played piccolo trumpet on Penny Lane, to come and work his magic on a track I was producing, the Mister Men theme song as performed by a duo with the unlikely name Bugatti & Musker.

On the same session I had Captain Mainwaring, disguised as Arthur Lowe. I stood by his side as he listened back to his contribution. He muttered to himself: “Silly old c***”, before turning his head slightly sideways, giving me a knowing smile.

Or you could book Tommy Reilly, the harmonica player you’d known all your life – the man who played the theme tune to Dixon Of Dock Green.

Amazingly, you could also call on the services of Geoff Emerick, who won a Grammy for his engineering work on Sgt Pepper.

As a journalist, I’d known Geoff for a while. He was a quiet, gentle and unassuming guy – excellent credentials for an engineer, a job that required the patience of Job¬†whilst employing deep knowledge of all that was required to create sound out of thin air.

It probably never occurred to you – did it? – that while The Beatles were spending six months (an unprecedented amount of time back then) creating Sgt Pepper, there were people up in the control room, spending hours, days, weeks, months of their lives waiting to turn on the red light; having to remain focused for take after take after take of songs we now regard as classics; but which for them became like Chinese water torture.

There’s a track on Revolver, the Beatles’ seventh album, called Tomorrow Never Knows. It sounds like an engineer’s nightmare. For starters, John Lennon wanted a sound like “a thousand Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain-top”. This was Geoff Emerick’s first song as engineer on a Beatles track. By George Martin’s account, Geoff got stuck in, and was specifically responsible for the, at the time, very strange sound of John Lennon’s vocal.

If you were paying proper attention to The Beatles, Tomorrow Never Knows was the final confirmation that the Mop Tops had gone, to be replaced by an exciting enigma that was exploring music and recording in ways that no-one had ever done before.

Geoff Emerick made a massive contribution to that. You don’t win Grammys for just turning up. I’ll talk about working with Geoff in a future post.

But all this Beatle talk, and Revolver in particular, reminds me that when I first heard Yellow Submarine it struck me with a sense of profound melancholy. I didn’t hear it as a singalong, but as an other-worldly excursion into all sorts of sub-conscious emotions that I couldn’t put my finger on.

I know what you’re thinking. Oh yes I do.

But in 1966, in Wolverhampton, we didn’t even know drugs existed. We could just about afford three pints of scrumpy on a Saturday night.

Fast forward eight years, and my next appointment walks in. He’s a guy named Pete Bennett, and he records under the name Rhys Eye.

Usually, in these situations, you were handed a tape, or a cassette, and you’d listen and then say “No”. Very, very occasionally you would say “Yes”.

But Pete Bennett was extraordinarily nervous. “I’ve got this brilliant idea.”

“Well, let’s hear it then”.

“Trouble is, it’s so simple, if I let you hear it, you’ll nick it”.

To cut a long story short, we finally agreed that he would come back the next day and I would present him with a signed statement to the effect that, whether I liked it or not, his idea was his idea and I would do nothing to compromise his ownership.

Which is how I came to record a cover version of Yellow Submarine that exactly fit with my own emotional reading of the song.

This is a version which might never have seen the light of day. I made the mistake of giving a copy to my contact at ATV Music, which by then owned the Lennon-McCartney publishing rights. I calculated that they would love this new lease of life for a song that was hardly built for cover versions, and would add their weight to promoting it.

How wrong I was. A few days later, he called me and asked me not to release it. “Why on earth not?” I asked. “Well, I’ve played it to John and he doesn’t feel it truly represents the song he wrote.”

To this day, I have no idea what this sham was about. Here was a publisher turning down a cover version and – get this – lying to me! No way had he played Rhys Eye’s version to John Lennon. (In any event, it was Paul McCartney who wrote the song, as John related in a 1980 interview).

But at the time, I had to make a decision. Effectively I was being told I would be defying John Lennon’s express wishes. In other words I would be upsetting one of my greatest heroes, and one of the world’s biggest and most revered stars.

Well, obviously, I released the record. I loved it; still do.

But no-one need have worried. It really didn’t see the light of day. Never got a play on Radio One, died the proverbial. If you’re still out there, Pete Bennett/Rhys Eye, I kept the faith.