I used to wake up at about noon and put on my tie. In my final semester of high school, I had only one class: Art. It was during fourth period, so I had basically entire days free at home, without my family or friends to distract me from the crushing boredom that was slowly enveloping me like a weighted fog. Instead of thinking about my future or worrying about a career, I was lost in cassette tapes.
The previous summer I had purchased something that would eventually change my entire life: a Tascam Portastudio, part of the last line of decent cassette four track recorders that they made. I paid $300 for it, which was a fortune at the time, and I don’t recall how I obtained the money, but somehow I did. I played around with it, learned the basics, started recording songs by my friends as a way to practice recording techniques, and then set my mind to recording my first “solo” material.
I had always loved working with tape. My very first recordings were done with borrowed or stolen tape recorders, and my favourite pastime was to sit in my basement with my guitar and my notebooks, making endless “albums” of my latest material. Most of it was terrible I’m sure, but I was always convinced that the latest thing I had done was my “real” album, the one I would hypothetically make some day when I had the money or a real studio.
Somewhere along the way, my family had given me a copy of “The Beatles Recording Sessions”, an exhaustive book by Mark Lewisohn that chronicled every recording session by the band, in minute technical detail: who played what, which tracks were used, editing, bouncing, panning, arrangements, everything. It became my bible. When I learned that the bulk of their work, including “Sgt. Pepper”, was recorded using four track technology, it was a revelation. I saw immediately what I needed to do. Surely if they could capture such masterpieces on only four tracks, then I could do the same in my own small way. It was the beginning of a much bigger shift in my life.
The plastic box of knobs and sliders sitting in my basement wasn’t just a fancy tape recorder; it was a gateway into another world. It was a magic wand which I could use to conjure up anything I wanted. It was my ticket to a bigger life. It was the entire history of rock and roll, ready for me.
So I would wake up at noon, put on a shirt and tie (I loved the pictures of The Beatles smoking in the studio with their ties and their sleeves rolled up), drink coffee, and read the book while listening to the albums, then go downstairs and record. I read/listened to the entire catalog, cover to cover. The Beatles were my first real musical love, so this was hardly a chore. But for the first time I understood the minute grace of their art, the little details they inserted into each song, and the massive technological restrictions that forced them to forge fearlessly ahead without ever being able to go back and “fix” anything. For months it was the same routine: wake up late, put on shirt and tie, drink coffee, read, listen, record, and then eventually go to my art class. I even managed to convince my teacher to let me submit “audio” art instead of visual, which enabled me to justify all this time spent on non-academic pursuits. Instead of slaving away on a painting or something, I would just hand him a tape. He loved music so he totally supported this process, and he actively encouraged me to be weird and experimental (thanks, Mr. Pointer).
One of the things that I loved about this book was their late period, when The Beatles would spend whole days on things like Paul’s fourteen minute experimental piece “Carnival of Light”, or the sessions where they would track sound effects for things like “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” I loved how John was always searching for bizarre recording techniques and vocal effects (like his idea of the reverse Leslie speaker, where he’s the one spinning instead of the speaker cabinet). These concepts started to force their way into my own creations, and I remember becoming utterly fascinated with vari-speed and backwards recording. I would turn whole songs around backwards and screw with the speed, and often find something completely new and exciting, sounds I had never imagined I could make for myself. I did this for months until I had enough strange material to release my own CD, which I sent to the local paper and the local record store. I got reviewed, sold a handful of copies, and was forever hooked.
I owe this to The Beatles, a piece of technology that was already considered outdated, and a coffee table book that most people would have found incredibly tedious. In my shirt and tie, with my weird little tapes, I was walking in the shadow of The Beatles.