Q&A: Film director Bob Smeaton on remastered Beatles albums

Bob Smeaton:
Remastered versions of the Beatles catalogue will be released on Wednesday, giving listeners what the remaining members of “The Fab Four” say is the closest reproduction ever of how their music sounded in the studio.

CNN’s Peter Wilkinson went to EMI’s legendary Abbey Road studios and spoke to Bob Smeaton, who directed the Grammy-award winning Anthology series on the Beatles, about a series of mini-documentaries that are included on each of the remastered albums. Q) How did the idea of doing the documentaries on each individual album come about A) Originally what happened was, the albums were going to be released on iTunes but that deal, you know, fell through for whatever reason. Some sort of political reason. So we actually set about creating a mini-documentary for each of the albums, so that when you bought the albums on iTunes, if you bought the whole album, because on iTunes you can pick like one song, right, if you bought the whole album, as an incentive to buy the whole album rather than just to cherry-pick songs, you would get this mini-documentary. So you buy the album and get the mini-documentary as a download. When the iTunes deal didn’t happen, we thought we’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money creating these things, and it’s just a nice way to give people that aren’t that familiar with the Beatles a bit of background as to how the album came together and the period of time that it was recorded in and stuff like that. And it’s a nice little, you know, it’s not, really something that you’re going to watch a million times but it gives you good insight into the time that the album was made and some of the songs that were on it and some great… I think one of the best things about some of these mini-documentaries is, you know the Beatles when they used to record here in studio 2 in this hollowed room, they always had their tapes running in between songs and so most bands now, even then, when you start the recording you’d say “Okay guys we’re going to start recording now,” and the guy upstairs would press the red button and they would play the song. With the Beatles, because they were famous, they would keep the tapes running all the time so any chat in between songs would be on tape. So that when we were putting the mini documentaries and we were putting the sound bed together, Paul, Paul McCartney would say, “Why don’t you use some of that studio chat” So we went back to Giles Martin, George Martin’s son, who gave us so much material of the guys in the studio chatting between takes and “Okay John try it this way” or do this and that. So that became the big element of what made up the mini-documentaries which are really good little pieces. Watch more about the 21st century Beatles Q) Are there interviews with the band members A) What we did, one of the guys who works for Apple, Jonathan Clyde, had decided that what we didn’t what to do was cover old ground, like what we done in the Anthology where you saw the guys on screen talking. So we said look when we put these mini documentaries together we don’t want to see the guys’ talking heads. We don’t want them like this, sitting and talking. Because that’d been done before and even when we did the Anthology we noticed that over the space of five years, the guys would change so much from one year to the next. You know, George would have long hair and then he would have his hair cut. So when we were watching the programs they’d be changing all the time. So the decision was made that you wouldn’t actually see the guys, you would just hear them, which in a way it caused a few problems but it also meant that you could have an interview with Paul from 1964 and then the second part of his interview could be from 1975 and you’d cut them both together because you don’t see him. So we created a sound bed which was the interviews with the individual guys and then, with Sir George Martin, bits of studio chat and bits from the record. That was what we did first, we actually created almost like a radio program of that specific album and then we set about creating visuals that would cut, work against what was being said or what was being played. Look at photos of Abbey Road Q) And what were the greatest challenges in putting this together A) I think the greatest challenge was one, to keep an equal balance of the songs because with the Beatles, John wrote so many songs and Paul wrote so many songs and George wrote a bunch of songs and Ringo wrote some songs and it was try to keep the balance between the guys in the band and also just within the space of 4 or 5 minutes, just to keep it interesting visually and orally. We spent a lot of time on it. Even, people think, why did it take so much time But when you create something like that, something that’s only 4 minutes long, every second is precious. So, rather than just use one still image and say here’s a still of the Beatles in Abbey Road, we’d work with that still, we’d get 3D stuff going and some really cool images going, so it’s packed with interesting stuff sound wise and interesting material visually. Q) And with the clamor from Beatles fans for as much as possible to do with the band, do you envisage longer documentaries to go with each album featuring perhaps the music videos that were done at the time A) I think what we did when we created the mini-documentaries, we looked at them and we put them on a CD, a DVD back to back so they ran 13, almost in a row and one of the guys at Apple said they looked great, is there any way that we could look to expanding them and making a one-hour documentary and so I as the director said, “Give me a challenge and I’ll try meet the challenge.” So, we went back into the edit suite and we opened all the mini-documentaries out so instead of being individual pieces we added in extra material, extra interviews with the guys, extra songs and we actually created a one-hour documentary, which is now going around the world. So that’s great, I prefer that because it’s a longer piece. Even though the mini documentaries are fantastic, to actually see the Beatles career, the eight years when they were recording in the studio, it’s a rollercoaster ride. It moves so fast and the songs that they were playing. They went from playing R & B songs to inventing the album with “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver.” And then they became these guys with long hair and all the acrimony that went on but in the end, in the eight years, they created such a fantastic body of work. So to work that, listen to it in a one-hour long … it’s mind blowing, it’s fantastic. Q) Did the mini-documentaries feature some of the videos as they became later known as A) The mini-documentaries, what we did was, there were certain albums where the Beatles were one of the first bands that did videos as such, for “Paperback Writer,” ‘Rain,” some of the later songs. So it was a mixture of archive footage which we would buy in or the videos in which Apple owned, you know unseen material from when they did the “Let it Be” album. I’m not sure the guys watching this would know the stories behind “Let it Be” but they actually invited, they actually had cameras in there filming them for the whole 38 days that they were in the studio, that they were at Twickenham and that hadn’t been before and we were given access to a lot of that material. So for people that think they have seen all of the Beatles footage in the mini-documentaries, it’ll be “oh, we hadn’t seen that before.” So there’s a few little surprises in there both visually and soundbites that we’ve pulled in from the outtakes.

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Q) And so is there a lot of film footage that hasn’t been released that you might put out later on A) I think it’s like the guys at Apple, they’ve always got projects on the go and the “Magical Mystery Tour” film at the time it wasn’t deemed to be such a great success. But now in retrospect it’s the Beatles making a feature film and also making a feature film that didn’t have a script per se. It was the Beatles having a good time, and doing whatever they were doing at the time, so that’s still there. There’s a lot of out-takes from the “Magical Mystery Tour” film yet to be seen and you know after the “Magical Mystery Tour,” the next big project visually was the “Let it Be” film. You know there’s 40, 50, 60 hours of material there which is still yet to be seen. So I don’t think anybody’s got anything that I haven’t seen before. I think that I’ve probably seen everything that’s out there. But just because I’ve seen it doesn’t mean that you guys watching this will have seen it. So there’s still a few gems there. Q) And as a director yourself, what would you say was special about the Beatles’ visual impact above other musicians in the world A) I think what the Beatles did I think, they were a four-headed monster. They all moved at the same period and if you look at the way they changed from when they first came in the studio in 1962 with their suits and their ties on, within three years, two years later even, there’s footage in the mini-documentaries of the guys in the studio and John Lennon is wearing sunglasses and you see them changing from being these guys in suits where they’ve got longer hair and sunglasses and they’re just you know, for anyone, we work in the visual medium right, and they were such visual band. You look at them during the period “‘Rubber Soul,” “Revolver” in longish hair and sunglasses, they were then what every band now wants to look like. But nobody had done it before, nobody had looked that cool and they always looked cool. And I once said to Paul McCartney, “how come you never see a bad picture of the Beatles, you never see a picture … I’ve got photographs and I’ve got my eyes shut like this.” But the Beatles always looked great and in that medium, television, video, films and you just point the camera at them and for some reason they never looked bad and their clothes always looked good and something interesting is that there was definitely something going on there that was special between those four guys. During 1966, I’m sure you know they all went off and did their own projects. John went and filmed out in Spain and George went off to India to learn the sitar and Paul went off to do various things and Ringo was out making a film as well, and they came back into the studio to start recording the album that would be “Sgt. Pepper” right, and unbeknown to either of them, they all turned up with moustaches. Now, Paul didn’t ring John on his mobile because they didn’t have mobile phones then and say, “eh, John, I’ve grown a moustache.” It just happened together, I’m sure. They didn’t, I said to Paul, why, they never sat down and said “let’s grow our hair this long, let’s all wear sunglasses, let’s grow our hair really long and grow beards,” it just happened. It wasn’t premeditated. If you look at the Beatles they always look like a band. They all had short hair, they all had medium-length hair, they all had long hair, they suddenly you know. Sgt. Pepper, a band in those days didn’t dress up in those outfits. At the time it was like, hang on a minute you’re wearing these weird psychedelic military outfits. People didn’t do that. The Beatles did it first every time. Whether it was recording here, what they did with videos, live concerts, they were leading the way all the time. And the Rolling Stones were a couple of carriages behind them so to speak. Q) Do you believe that the Beatles effectively led to MTV A) I wouldn’t say it led to MTV directly but I think that, people say that Queen did the first video with “Bohemian Rhapsody” but before the Beatles, music was not front page news. The Beatles made music front page news. They got MBEs, they played Shea Stadium. So they took music from being the underground to being the overground. Suddenly your mum would know the name of John, Paul, George and Ringo, so before the Beatles she wouldn’t know the name of Elvis Presley’s band. She’d know Elvis, she might know Scotty Moore, but she wouldn’t know all of the guys. And the Beatles brought music to the foreground. They become popular culture, so to speak. Q) And is there anything you found making these many documentaries that you didn’t learn from the Anthology series A) I think that the thing… I knew most stuff anyway, but what I probably did learn most was from listening to the studio chat when the guys are speaking, how quickly they would record material. You know they would come in the morning and record like four songs in a day. It would be come on, take one, this is a great piece on the mini-documentaries for the album “Help.” There is a bit of studio chat where the engineer, it’s not George Martin, it might have been Geoff Emerick or somebody, says over the Tannoy, “Yesterday, Take One”. Paul McCartney says to George Harrison, I think it’s an F for you. So he’s telling George Harrison I’ll be playing an F and you’ll be playing a E or C or whatever. And it was that spontaneity … how quickly they’d record songs and then they’d record “Yesterday” and then move on to something else. So they weren’t aware that they were creating works of art. And then they’d do an album and then they’d be on to something else. You know they didn’t sit or stand around and say, we recorded a great song today, we recorded “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and it’s going to be number 1 in America. They were moving on quickly. And I think that’s the thing I learned, they were around for a short space of time: 62-70. That’s the thing I didn’t learn that I didn’t realize on the Anthology. Because you know the Anthology, it covered every ground and it had everything in there. It had what they were doing outside the studio. But this, as far as music and how fast that would change and how quickly they become fantastic song writers. They came in that early tentative steps with “Please Please Me” and harmonics on the records and then suddenly that exploded and that was it. Q) How did you choose the unreleased studio chat that you put in each video A) What we did was, we knew probably what idea of what songs we would use off the albums. And we made sure that any bit of studio chat that we had was true to the song. If they were going to play “I Saw Her Standing There,” we’d have a bit of studio chat we’d have a bit of chat from Paul saying it’s too fast. And the engineer would say OK “17 Take 1” because that was what “I Saw Her Standing There” was called originally. So we always kept the studio chat true to the track we were going to hear all the time all the way through so it didn’t have a bit of studio chat from 1969 in the first album. And you can hear that because say for instance on the “Magical Mystery Tour” album, no it’s not, it’s on “Sgt. Pepper,” Paul’s talking to John says and he says you know sing it like this: “cellophane flowers of yellow and green.” So Paul is actually telling or saying to John, “no try it this way.” And then John says “Oh great. I’ll try it.” And then they go with that in the track. So we always kept the studio chat true to what the song was that was coming up.

Q) And finally do you know if there are any plans to release the movies that the band made, in particular “Let It Be,” on DVD A) I know that “A Hard Day’s Night” has come out already. “Help!” came out, I think it was last year or the year before. I think there are plans afoot to put out “Magical Mystery Tour” and I’m sure cause there are outtakes from “Magical Mystery Tour” and somewhere down the line it’s “Let It Be.” But that’s not really my call, that’s the guys. But Apple and the Beatles don’t just throw everything out at once. It’s like they’ve remorphed these albums. They’ve waited until technology was at such a place where they can remorph these albums again. Whereas if they’d remorphed the albums back in 2000 then it would be “now technology is so much better let’s do them again.” I think they always put stuff out at the right time. Cause you know it’s the Beatles. Gotta keep the legend going.