Amherst Cinema goes behind the scenes of ‘Sgt. Pepper’
COURTESY SCOTT FREIMAN
Scott Freiman, a New York musician, brings his show “Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper” to the Amherst Cinema next week.
The drummer turned 72 this year, and the bass player — the guy who was once called “the cute one” — is now 70. The two other band members passed away years ago.
But the music of the Beatles lives on, inspiring new generations of fans and musicians as well as cover bands galore. Though John, Paul, George and Ringo disbanded in 1970, it was still worldwide news just two years ago when their music became available in Apple’s iTunes store.
Now a New York musician, composer and ardent Beatles fan is mining that interest to create a new sort of cottage industry: multimedia presentations that draw on rare audio and video of the band, plus his own encyclopedic knowledge of the Beatles, to offer a behind-the-scenes look at just how the Fab Four composed and recorded some of their most important albums.
Scott Freiman, who’s been playing and listening to Beatles songs since his early teens, will bring one of his growing repertoire of shows to the Amherst Cinema tonight. “Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper,” a two-hour look at what many music critics consider the most influential rock ’n’ roll album of all time, begins at 7:30 p.m.
Pop music pioneers
In a phone interview from his home just north of New York City, Freiman said he’s long been interested in how the Beatles, using 1960s studio technology that would be considered limited or even crude by today’s standards, recorded songs that still sound fresh, both from an engineering standpoint and as compositions.
“Above all, they wrote great melodies,” he said. “A real test for a song is if it sounds good when it’s played on just a guitar or a piano, and with the vast majority of Beatles songs, that’s very much the case.”
Freiman, a pianist who has composed music for television and movies and also runs a recording studio, added that the Beatles were also pioneers in popular music, developing chord progressions, harmonies and chorus-and-verse arrangements that had never been tried before. “They pushed things forward — that’s another thing that’s made their songs stand the test of time,” he said.
Freiman’s interest in trying to learn how the Beatles came up with those ingredients, and how those sounds and ideas were then captured on tape, inspired his presentations, which also examine two other albums, “Revolver” from 1966 and “The White Album” from 1968, as well as the seminal songs “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life.”
After collecting many Beatles outtake tracks and demos over the years — “There’s a lot of stuff floating out there in the ether,” he said with a laugh — and reading extensively about the group’s recording sessions, Freiman invited some musician friends to his house about three years ago and made a test presentation to them about some rare Beatles tracks.
“They all said, ‘You’ve got to take this on the road,’ ” he said. “So I started doing some lectures at colleges, to some corporations, and then I began expanding the shows and going to places like movie theaters.”
Freiman, who’s teaching a course on the Beatles at Yale University this fall — he also made a presentation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst earlier this year — says his audiences have included children as well as people who can remember seeing the Beatles when they made their first appearance in the United States, in February 1964, on television’s “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“I think there’s something for everyone, from people who already know a lot about the Beatles to the more casual fan,” he said.
Parsing Sgt. Pepper
For “Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper,” as he does for his other presentations, Freiman looks at each song and talks about how it was conceived and first recorded and how it evolved in the studio. He’ll play parts of songs in isolation — the lead vocal, for instance, or a harmony vocal or guitar track — and focus on how these individual parts were recorded and then merged.
For John Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” for example, he plays multiple early tracks of the song to show how Lennon and producer George Martin — known as “the fifth Beatle” for his role in shaping their songs — eventually devised the idea of adding old steam organ tracks, stitched together at random, to the song.
Other highlights look at how the Beatles used toilet paper wrapped around combs to imitate the sound of kazoos on “Lovely Rita”; initially sang background vocals in German on another song; and tried out different endings for “A Day in the Life” (before closing the song by pounding out an E chord simultaneously on several pianos).
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a natural topic for one of his presentations, Freiman noted, because of its landmark effect on pop music and the new studio techniques it employed.
“It was the first rock record to include printed song lyrics, it was the most adventurous album cover ever made, and it was the first album to have a record release party,” he said. “It was also the first new record the Beatles had released in a year, so there was just this huge buzz about it, a lot of pent-up excitement.”
The band also made ample use of layering, or “bouncing,” on the album, a relatively new technique at the time in which two recording tracks were mixed on a separate track, freeing up the first two tracks for recording additional sounds. The breakthrough in studio technology in those days was four-track recording, replacing the two-track system that the Beatles had used for most of their earlier albums.
Freiman also talks about the important role that Geoff Emerick, the lead recording engineer for the Beatles from 1966 to 1969, played on “Sgt. Pepper” and other albums.
“There weren’t too many [recording] tools available in those days — a little compression, a little echo,” said Freiman. But Emerick, he notes, was very good at using microphones for band members and their instruments in a way that enriched their songs and allowed them to experiment with sounds.
He presents his shows in the context of what was happening with the band at the time and the events of the era, like the social turmoil in the United States over the Vietnam War and racial issues. The Beatles made “The White Album,” for instance, during a time of growing tension in the group, as John Lennon became involved with Yoko Ono. His insistence that she sit in on recording sessions particularly rankled Paul McCartney.
But in the end, says Freiman, his focus is on the music. “I’m not looking at the Beatles’ biography or whether John was mad at Paul on a given day — I like to talk about the songs, because they’re just so good.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tickets cost $6.50 for Amherst Cinema members, $7.75 for seniors or students with a valid ID, and $8.75 for the general public. To reserve, visit www.amherstcinema.org or call 253-2547. Scott Freiman’s website is www.beatleslectures.com.