While My Guitar Gently Weeps - Reviews

Quoted from Recording Sessions: p.145-162

Thursday 25 July. Studio Two: 7.00pm-3.15am. Recording: 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (take 1). P: George Martin. E: Ken Scott. 2E: Richard Lush.

George Harrison had been patient. He too had new songs to record though, to use his own, candid, words - "I always had to do about ten of Paul and John's songs before they'd give me the break". George had suppressed his new material since the LP sessions began on 30 May, but in the end he would tape five songs for The Beatles, the first - and the most famous - of these being 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'.

Like so many Beatles recordings, 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' was to change considerably from conception to completion. On this first day the Beatles rehearsed several takes, all of which were taken away by George for home listening. But they also taped one proper take, still in the archive at Abbey Road. Or, rather, George Harrison taped it, for take one of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' was a solo vocal and acoustic guitar job (joined only near the end by an overdubbed organ) - and a very beautiful job it was too.

"The song changed considerably by the time they had finished with it," says Brian Gibson. "They completed the song on eight-track tape [more of this later] and this gave them the immediate temptation to put more and more stuff on. I personally think it was best left uncluttered."

Certainly a less cluttered recording than this take one could not be imagined. Nor a more exquisite unreleased recording, which - arguably - George has rarely bettered in his entire career. It lasted for all of 3:13, had a final verse not included in the final version and ended with a somewhat ironic "Let's hear that back!" call by Harrison up to the control room.

Friday 16 August. Studio Two: 7.00pm-5.00am. Recording: 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' [re-make] (takes 1-14, tape reduction take 14 into take 15). P: George Martin. E: Ken Scott. 2E: John Smith.

The 25 July acoustic version of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' had served its purpose only as a demo for the other Beatles. George Harrison now wanted the song to appear on record in much different form.

Recordings for 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' would run until 6 September; takes one through to 14 were made on this day, featuring the new basic rhythm track: drums (Ringo), bass (Paul), organ (John) and guitar (George). Take 14 went into 15 via a reduction mix running at approximately 42½ cycles per second, extending the leng th of the song from 3:53 to 4:53.

There remains a question mark over who produced this session, George Martin's name, as ever, being included on the recording sheet but one of the session's tape boxes clearly stating "The Beatles; Produced by the Beatles". "The 'White Album' was a time when George Martin was starting to relinquish control over the group," recalls Brian Gibson. "There were a number of occasions - holidays, and when he had other recording commitments - when he wasn't available for sessions and they would just get on and produce it themselves. He certainly wasn't around for quite a considerable period of time, although they'd always fall back on him for scoring and arranging things."

Tuesday 3 September. Studio Two: 7.00pm-3.30am. Tape copying: 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (take 15 into take 16). Recording: 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (SI onto take 16). Tape copying: 'Revolution' (of take 16, rhythm track only). P: n/a. E: Ken Scott. 2E: John Smith.

Recording 'Dear Prudence' at Trident had whetted the Beatles' appetites: they now wanted all their recordings to be eight-track. When they got wind of the fact that Abbey Road did have an eight-track machine, the 3M model in Francis Thompson's office, they decided to "liberate" it.

"The studios were never allowed to use any equipment until Francis had said that it was up to standard, which was great, fine, but when you've got four innovative lads from Liverpool who want to make better recordings, and they've got a smell of the machine, matters can take a different course," says technical engineer Dave Harries. "They must have been getting on to Ken Scott about it because Ken called me and suggested we get the machine out of Francis's office and take it along to number two." Understandably, this led to repercussions. "Nearly death!," jokes Harries. "I very nearly got the sack over that."

The availability of multi-track recording is a controversial subject in recording circles. Some say that the more tracks are available the better the recording. [At the time of writing, 1987, there is equipment which can provide up to and even beyond 96 tracks.] Others maintain that rock music can be made much more economically, and point to some of the greatest of all rock music, made on two- or four-track, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, for example. The danger of multi-track is a tendency to over-record. Brian Gibson recalls one Beatles session where overuse of the eight-track facility resulted in an extraordinary overdub. "There was one song, I can't remember the title, in which they'd added so many instruments that you just couldn't hear the drums any more. So they overdubbed Ringo playing a chair, a red plastic Abbey Road chair, slapping the drum sticks on the cushion and making a thwack to emphasise the snare beat, because they'd buried it."

According to Mike Sheady, soon to be second engineer/tape operator on sessions for The Beatles, the eight-track machine was taken from Francis Thompson's office before it was ideally suited for use. "Unless the tape operator remembered to mute the output from the machine when you spooled back and wanted to hear the tape travelling past the heads, it would send the spooling noise straight into the Beatles' cans, almost blasting their heads off. They got very uptight about that, understandably, because it can be very disconcerting."

The very first eight-track Beatles recordings at Abbey Road were 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' overdubs, so the first task was to transfer the existing tracks onto another tape for use as eight-track. Then the overdubs could begin afresh, with - for this song - six vacant channels now available. The Beatles - or to be more precise George Harrison, for he worked alone on this night - spent the entire session attempting to record a backwards guitar solo for track five of the tape, as Brian Gibson recalls. "George particularly wanted to get the sound of a crying guitar but he didn't want to use a wah-wah [tone] pedal, so he was experimenting with a backwards guitar solo. This meant a lot of time-consuming shuttling back and forth from the studio to the control room. We spent a long night trying to get it to work but in the end the whole thing was scrapped and it was around that time that Eric Clapton started to get involved with the song."

The only other output from this day's session was a copy tape of the 'Revolution' rhythm track from take 16, as completed on 12 July. This was made so that the Beatles could add a new vocal track - and therefore escape the Musicians' Union miming ban- during the shooting of television promotion al clips at Twickenham Film Studios on 4 September. For 'Hey Jude' Paul simply sang a new vocal over the existing model. The filming meant that the Beatles missed a day at Abbey Road, returning on 5 September.

Thursday 5 September. Studio Two: 7.00pm-3.45am. Recording: 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (SI onto take 16); 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' [re-remake] (takes 17-44). P: n/a. E: Ken Scott. 2E: John Smith.

The grand return to EMI studio two of Ringo Starr, his drum kit smothered in flowers. [Actually, Ringo had rejoined the group the night before, for the filming of the 'Hey Jude' and 'Revolution' promotional clips.] The first part of this session saw more work on the 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' eight-track tape, with two separate George Harrison lead vocals plus maracas, more drums and another lead guitar track all being superimposed. Still only six tracks were filled but that was as far as it went. George heard a playback, didn't like what he heard and scrapped everything. The Beatles then started work afresh on a re-remake. The scrapped version was quite different from the released version, with less prominent Harrison vocals and the backwards guitar and organ parts to the fore.

For the re-remake George steered the group through 28 more takes. These were numbered 17 to 44, obviously against George's wishes, for at the beginning of take 17 George himself announced into his vocal microphone "Take one!", as if to emphasise - to himself if no one else - that this new version would be substantially different from its predecessor.

And it was: the re-remade version of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' was the one which appeared on The Beatles. It had a basic track of drums (Ringo), acoustic guitar and guide vocal (George): lead guitar (John) and, alternately, piano or organ (Paul). By the end of the session a playback revealed that take 25 was the 'best' version, and the remaining overdubs - filling four more tracks - would be done on 6 September.
(Note. Take 40 developed into an impromptu jam which included briefly busked snatches of 'Lady Madonna' and 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', both with Paul as vocalist. These were preserved on the 'Beatles Chat' bits and pieces tape.)

Friday 6 September. Studio Two: 7.00pm-2.00am. Recording: 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (SI onto take 25). P: n/a. E: Ken Scott. 2E: John Smith.

Perhaps the most famous instance of the Beatles bringing in an outside musician to play on a studio recording was Eric Clapton's marvellous performance on 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', recorded as an overdub on this day. Not that this was preordained; George only suggested to Eric that he might wish to contribute a few hours earlier, when Eric was giving George a lift from Surrey (where they both lived) into London. Eric was reluctant to help out - "because no one plays on Beatles sessions!" - only for George to retort "So what? It's my song!".

Lead guitarists are known for socialising with others of their ilk; Clapton and Harrison had been friends since 1964, when the Yardbirds, of which Clapton was an esteemed member, had played support to the Beatles in a series ofChristmas shows. Their friendship blossomed especially brightly in the late 1960s and is still strong today.

"Eric behaved just like any session musician," recalls Brian Gibson, "very quiet, just got on and played. That was it... there were no theatrics involved. I remember Eric telling George that Cream's approach to recording would be to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, spending very little time in the studio itself, whereas the Beatles' approach seemed to be to record, record, record, and then eventually get the right one. The sessions were their rehearsals."

Clapton's superb solo, played on his Les Paul guitar, was just one of a number of overdubs recorded this day, which brought 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' to a conclusion. Paul played a fuzz bass guitar, George threw in a few very high pitched organ notes, Ringo added percussion, and George - with Paul adding nice backing harmonies - taped his lead vocal. Aside from making a unique contribution to a great song, Clapton's appearance on a Beatles session had one interesting side effect. As George was later to comment, "It made them all try a bit harder; they were all on their best behaviour".

Monday 7 October. Studio Two: 2.30pm-7.00am. Tape copying: 'Honey Pie' (of remix mono 1 and of remix stereo 1); 'Martha My Dear' (of remix mono 1 and of remix stereo 1). Stereo mixing: 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (remix 1, from take 25). Mono mixing: 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (remixes 1 and 2, from take 25). Recording: 'It's Been A Long Long Long Time' (working title of 'Long Long Long') (takes 1-67). P: George Martin. E: Ken Scott. 2E: Mike Sheady.

A 16½ hour session in which a new song was started: George's 'Long Long Long', at this point called 'It's Been A Long Long Long Time' but later abbreviated by the writer because he felt the title itself too long. The session tapes reveal that George was in a happy mood throughout, laughing, joking and bursting into busked versions of other songs, including 'Dear Prudence'. At one point he enquired of Paul and Ringo (again, John was not present for the session, nor for the song's overdubs), "Where did Mal get those joss-sticks? They're like Rishikesh joss-sticks!" Richard Lush attended many a Beatles session where joss-sticks were burned. "The people at Abbey Road didn't particularly like them," he recalls, "especially when the carpet and the whole studio was stinking of them, be it strawberry or whatever was the flavour of the month."

Whisper it quietly, but Alan Brown still has an authentic and unused Beatles joss-stick, in its original wrapper, picked up off the floor after a session had ended. "They used to burn several at once, sticking them into the slots of the acoustic screens. I'd go home at night my clothes reeking of them! I've never smelt joss-sticks of quite the same quality that they used. They had them specially brought in from India." Brown proves this by producing the 20-year-old packet and pointing to the details: "Special Durbar Agar Bathi, Sri Satyanarayana Parimala Factory. Proprietors: MV Narayana Rao Sons, Mysore, India."

It took 67 run-throughs of the basic rhythm track- acoustic guitar and vocal (George), organ (Paul) and drums (Ringo) - before the 'best' version of 'Long Long Long' was found and onto which the overdubs would be made. But there was one additional sound taped on this day. Chris Thomas, attending as George Martin's assistant, recalls, "There's a sound near the end of the song [best heard on the right stereo channel] which is a bottle of Blue Nun wine rattling away on the top of a Leslie speaker cabinet. It just happened. Paul hit a certain organ note and the bottle started vibrating. We thought it was so good that we set the mikes up and did it again. The Beatles always took advantage of accidents." Just to compound the sound, Ringo recorded an extra spurt of fast drumming for the same passage.

Monday 14 October. Studio Two: 7.00pm-7.30am. Stereo mixing: 'I Will' (remix 1, from take 68); 'Birthday' (remix 1, from take 22). Reeording: 'Savoy Truffle' (SI onto take 1). Mono mixing: 'Savoy Truffle' (remixes 1-6, from take 1); 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (remixes 10 and 11, from take 25); 'Long Long Long' (remixes 2 and 3, from take 67). Stereo mixing: 'Savoy Truffle' (remixes 1 and 2, from take 1); 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (remixes 10-12, from take 25); 'Yer Blues' (remixes 1-5, from takes 16 and 17 and edit piece take 1); 'Sexy Sadie' (remixes 1-3, from take 117); 'What's The New Mary Jane' (remixes 1 and 2, from take 4). P: George Martin. E: Ken Seott. 2E: John Smith.

And then there were three. On the morning of 14 October Ringo flew out with his family to Sardinia for a two-week holiday, leaving the final remixing and judgement on the double-album's running order to the remaining three Beatles and the production team.

The final recording for The Beatles took place during this session, with overdubs for 'Savoy Truffle': a second electric guitar, an organ, tambourine and bongos. These recorded, the song joined the remixing queue, with several songs still requiring stereo mixes. Stereo, though soon to replace mono, was still of secondary importance in 1968.

Perhaps the most interesting set of remixes was for 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'. "I was given the grand job of waggling the oscillator on the 'Gently Weeps' mixes," says Chris Thomas. "Apparently Eric Clapton insisted to George [Harrison] that he didn't want the guitar solo so typically Clapton. He said the sound wasn't enough of 'a Beatles sound'. So we did this flanging thing, really wobbling the oscillator in the mix. I did that for hours. What a boring job!"

Posted: 17 jul 2018

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