Nearly a half-century after The Beatles broke up, the world is still talking about their music. But after four decades of commentary, is there anything substantive left to say about the inimitable work of the Fab Four?
Former USA Today columnist and author Ted Montgomery believes that there is. His book, The Beatles Through Headphones: The Quirks, Peccadilloes, Nuances and Sonic Delights of the Greatest Popular Music Ever Recorded, is an in-depth study of the music of The Beatles that focuses on very fine details discerned through a pair of high quality, high-fidelity headphones. While Beatles scholars Mark Lewisohn and Ian MacDonald laid bare the history behind The Beatles’ recording sessions, Ted’s book aims to do something a little different, as he serves as a sort of personal guide through the music that The Beatles made, enlightening the more-than-casual listener while he provides a running commentary on the ups and downs of the songs on each album.
Fascinated with the idea behind The Beatles Through Headphones, I reached out to Ted in March 2015 to talk about his book, his love of The Beatles’ canon, and some of his surprising discoveries.
How long have you been a Beatles fan, Ted, and how did you become one?
I became a diehard Beatles fan in 1970, the year they broke up! I never got to listen to a “new” Beatles album because they had all been released by the time I discovered them. I came to know the music retrospectively.
I grew up in a house in suburban Detroit with three older sisters who listened to Motown and the Monkees. That music coming from my sisters’ bedrooms is what I remember most as a little kid. It wasn’t until 1970, when I was eleven, that one of my school buddies got me interested in The Beatles.
The first Beatles album I owned (on vinyl, obviously) was Magical Mystery Tour. I coerced my mom into buying it for me as a Christmas present. I was fascinated by the colorful drawings and photos contained within the gatefold. This seemed to me like something extraordinary, and like nothing else in the current music scene. Next, I got Sgt. Pepper’s, which in my mind only added to the band’s aura of otherworldliness and astounding creativity. From there, over time, I got the rest of the band’s catalogue.
How did you come up with the unique idea behind your book, The Beatles Through Headphones?
The original idea came to me during the mid-2000s. One summer day I just decided to go down to my basement and listen to Sgt. Pepper’s on headphones all the way through. I heard some things I didn’t remember hearing over external speakers, and I began to take some notes. Then a day or two later, I did the same with Rubber Soul.
A few years later I found my original notes and decided to listen to the entire catalogue to see if every album had interesting, semi-buried sonic nuggets in them. They did. And since almost everyone nowadays listens to music on headphones or earbuds, I thought that it might be interesting to write a book about the sonic nuances discovered through listening to the Beatles canon on headphones. Perhaps it would get people interested in revisiting the superlative music of the greatest rock-and-roll band of all time.
What made you go down into the basement that day?
What got me to go down into the basement that day, strangely enough, was a tornado siren. It was summertime and the tornado sirens went off because a funnel cloud had been spotted in the area. So I thought I’d just go down there until the “all clear” came. It was really a chance thing.
So you’ve probably listened to Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s hundreds, if not thousands, of times throughout your life. Before you started working on The Beatles Through Headphones, did you feel as if you’d fully explored the sonic soundscapes of these albums, as if they could reveal nothing new to you?
I was always aware that the Beatles’ music was rich and dense and filled with interesting sounds, but it wasn’t until I really listened to the catalogue with a critical ear that I started to uncover some of the sonic nuances I chronicled in the book. I can’t emphasize enough that in order to hear the same things I did, the listener must use a pair of high-quality headphones. Not ear buds or those $19.95 cans you can get at CVS or Rite Aid. Those are notorious for sound leakage and poor fidelity.
Let’s start with Sgt. Pepper’s. How did it fare through headphones?
It’s not my favorite album. It was definitely groundbreaking for the time, and there are a few outstanding songs on it, of course, but the band and George Martin manipulated the vocals so much that it sounds funny today and hasn’t aged as well as some of their other albums. Paul’s vocals are so sped up on “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Lovely Rita” that he sounds like a teenager. Same with John’s vocal on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” They had this infatuation with vari-speed at the time and used it often, sometimes to the detriment of the track it was used on. Still, an album that closes with “A Day in the Life” has got to be considered a monumental achievement by any measure.
Then how do you feel about Let It Be, the Beatles project that was supposed to get back to the band’s roots?
I think Let It Be has aged almost as well as any Beatles album. It’s got several really fine songs on it. “Two of Us,” “Across the Universe,” “I Me Mine,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Get Back”—those are some seriously good songs. Drop the needle on it today and it sounds pretty damn good.
Let It Be…Naked seems to be a closer approximation of the album they were trying to make at the time, but part of the charm of Let It Be is the snippets of conversation at the beginning and endings of some songs, all of which were eliminated on Let It Be…Naked.
What about Abbey Road?
Much more polished album, with much more in the way of production values. Major overdubs on pretty much every track, and lots of vocal overdubs as well. This is the most interesting Beatles album to listen to on headphones from their late period.
For instance, Paul seems to have taken over almost all the keyboard duties for the band. He plays either an acoustic piano or an electric piano on nearly every track on Abbey Road, as well as the bass guitar, of course.
Also, Lennon doesn’t appear anywhere in the mix on “Here Comes the Sun.” It’s all George, Paul, and Ringo.
Let’s finish with your favorite album, Revolver, which was the record that really presented a whole new version of The Beatles’ music to the world. Obviously the final track, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” has a rich, layered soundscape which has a lot to offer the high fidelity listener, but what about some of the other songs? Were there unexpected pleasures on the rest of the album?
Revolver is the most cohesive album they ever made, and the musicianship, singing and writing is the best it had ever been to that point (and the best it would ever be, in my opinion).
On the last verse of “Here There and Everywhere,” Paul starts snapping his fingers in time with the song. This lasts until the end of the song, but the “third” finger snap is absent. He either missed it or it got buried in the mix.
Just before Paul “yawns” on “I’m Only Sleeping,” someone lets him know that it’s time to yawn. Can’t tell who because it’s buried way deep in the mix, but you can hear it on headphones.
Of course, John mutters an unintelligible syllable in “Good Day Sunshine” in the last verse (it almost sounds like a burp), and Paul sort of half chuckles as he sings the next line.
The twin guitars played by George and John in “Got to Get You Into My Life” are panned down so far that there are all but inaudible, until the break before the last chorus, when they are briefly brought up very high in the mix, almost to the point of overwhelming everything else. Then, during the vamping fade-out, the organ cuts out for a couple of seconds and then is brought back into the mix. Very strange.
I also like the combination of a fade-out and a cold ending on “Doctor Robert,” which was very inventive for the time in rock music.
And what about “Tomorrow Never Knows?”
“Tomorrow Never Knows” is interesting for all its weird sounds; backwards guitars, weird chanting, and the great drum part Ringo plays. Plus, they put Lennon’s vocal through a voice altering effect toward the end of the song. I like it mostly for two reasons: just like “A Day in the Life,” the title of the song is not mentioned in the lyrics, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” has only one chord throughout.
Ted, how have Beatles fans reacted to your book?
I’ve been astounded and humbled by the numerous messages I’ve received from readers who took the time to track down my email address to let me know how much they liked my book. That has been amazing.
Has there been any criticism of your work on the Beatles that you would like to address here?
You can’t expect to write a book and not receive some criticism. It’s just part of the deal. I tend to give less credence to online bookseller site reviews written by readers who hide behind the anonymity of their user names. The most gratifying responses have come from readers who have contacted me, and from the numerous reporters and radio show hosts that have covered the book in a positive way.
What’s next for you? Any plans for another book?
I’ve got a couple of irons in the fire. I’m about three-quarters of the way through a book of essays that I’ve been working on sporadically for a few years. I have a few other ideas that I would like to develop further. Time will tell.
Thank you Ted for taking the time to talk about your book. Best of luck on the next one.
Chad, my pleasure. Thank you.
A former columnist for USA Today, Ted Montgomery’s writing has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites. He lives in Novi, Michigan.
Chad Gayle is the author of Let It Be, a novel intimately connected to the music of The Beatles.