The Beatles Discovering the Moog on Abbey Road

August 8, 1969 was a productive day for the Beatles. In the morning they posed for the front cover photograph of their forthcoming album Abbey Road. That photograph became one of the most recognizable album covers in music history (read more about it here). In the afternoon they convened at the recording studio for one of the last touches on that album, the three glorious minutes that conclude the first side of the LP and feature a musical instrument brand new to the famed studio. This is the story of how the Beatles used the Moog synthesizer on Abbey Road.

George Harrison first set eyes on a Moog while he was in Los Angeles in November 1968 to produce the album Is This What You Want? for the Apple label artist Jackie Lomax. He was at the famed Sound Recorders studio, working on tracks with members of the legendary Wrecking Crew musicians including Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel and Joe Osborne. On the last day of recording a mammoth electronic instrument was brought in by Bernie Krause, who acted as sales representative for R.A. Moog, Inc. This was the modular Moog 3.

Moog Modular

Bernie Krause was one half of the partnership Beaver & Krause, who started selling and renting Moog synthesizers in 1967. Their efforts yielded dismal results to boot, but saw a substantial boost when they setup a demonstration booth at the Monterey Pop Festival. Showcasing a $15,000 worth of equipment (over $100,000 today) to pop and rock royalty, they were able to sell a number of synths to musicians including Roger McGuinn and Micky Dolenz.

Bernie Krause, 1971

During the Jackie Lomax session Bernie Krause was overdubbing strange sounds while fussing with his electronic machinery. Harrison, ever on the lookout for new sounds, was mesmerized. He asked Krause to stay after the session and play the instrument for him. He also instructed the sound engineer to keep the tape rolling, Krause unaware of that detail. Pieces from that recording found their way into the track No Time or Space from Harrison’s early 1969 album Electronic Sounds on the Zapple label, an offshoot of Apple geared towards Avant-garde and experimental music. If 25 minutes of what amounts to a synth sound effects demo is your thing, here it is:

A more interesting musical outcome of the meeting between Harrison and Krause was an actual purchase of a Moog by Harrison. The model he ordered included two five-octave keyboards with portamento control, a ribbon controller, ten oscillators, a white noise generator, three ADSR envelope generators, voltage-controlled filters and amplifiers, a spring reverberation unit and a four-channel mixer. It was shipped overseas to his house in Esher outside London, where he completed the Electronic Sounds album and then moved the electronic beast to Abbey Road in August 1969 during the final stages of recordings for the album bearing the studio name. Landing in Room 43, it was ceremoniously installed with the help of Mike Vickers of the band Manfred Mann.

The first song to benefit from the Moog in a Beatles recording session was John Lennon’s Beethoven-inspired Because, overdubbed on August 5th with George Harrison playing a quick bridge at 1:30 and again with a different sound at 2:12 to the end of the song. Other instruments on the track include an electric harpsichord by George Martin, Electric guitar by John Lennon and electric bass by Paul McCartney. And of course, those wonderful harmonies.

The next day McCartney took the helm playing the Moog with overdubs for his song Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. The song was written almost a year earlier during the recording of the White Album but was left unrecorded. It was rehearsed again early in 1969 during the filming of the recordings at Twickenham Film Studios of what would become the Let It Be album, but still remained unrecorded, although rehearsals for the song did make it into the movie. Finally in July of that year the Beatles did it justice, but not without much acrimony within the band. Lennon dismissed is as “more of Paul’s granny music”, and Harrison was frustrated with McCartney’s perfectionism in the studio:  “We had to play it over and over again until Paul liked it. It was a real drag.” This attention to detail went into such length as renting a real blacksmith’s anvil for the hammer sound effect. But we are here to discuss the Moog, so listen to the bridge between the verses and the Theremin-like sound in the second verse, and some more weird sounds sprinkled throughout, five different parts in all.

Alan Parsons, who was assistant engineer on some of the Abbey Road recordings, remembers the Moog: “Everybody was fascinated by it. We were all crowding around to have a look. Paul used the Moog for the solo in Maxwell’s Silver Hammer but the notes were not from the keyboard. He did that with a continuous ribbon-slide thing, just moving his finger up and down on an endless ribbon. It’s very difficult to find the right notes, rather like a violin, but Paul picked it up straight away. He can pick up anything musical in a couple of days.”

Moog Modular with Ribbon Controller

Another fine appearance of the Moog is on George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun, a song he wrote at Eric Clapton’s house when taking a break from the tiresome business meetings surrounding Apple Records, a company in shambles at that point: “Here Comes The Sun was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: ‘Sign this’ and ‘Sign that’. Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever; by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. The relief of not having to go and see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote Here Comes the Sun.”

One of the finest songs on the album, Here Comes the Sun includes a number of parts played on a Moog, most of them subtle to the point where many folks do not realize the instrument is played on this song. Listen carefully – if it is not guitar/bass/drums or a string orchestra, it’s a Moog. Actually I take it back – the hand claps are also real.

Contrary to Harrison who blended the Moog in a somewhat muted manner, Lennon took it to the other extreme on the heaviest song on the album, I Want You (She’s So Heavy). Closing the first side of the LP, it is the longest track in The Beatles’ recorded history, if we ignore the sound collage Revolution 9 from the White Album. It is also one of my favorite songs the Beatles ever made, featuring an interesting structure, great guitar work, Billy Preston’s Hammond organ, a wrenching vocal, 14 different words and a sound effect from hell, courtesy of the Moog. The song was a primal love song to Yoko Ono, which John described: “When you’re drowning you don’t say ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream.”

On the afternoon of that August day that started with the cross walk photo shoot, Lennon used only one component from the array of modules that comprised the Moog Modular 3. It was the white noise generator, starting at 5:15 into ‘I Want You’ and building up, with George Harrison controlling the knobs, for two and a half minutes to the end of the song and then, poof. Nothing. End of side 1.

That poof materialized almost two weeks later on August 20, a date that holds significance in Beatles history: it marks the last time all four were in the studio at the same time. Lennon remembered how that abrupt ending to the song came about in his less-than-scientific description: “It’s pretty heavy at the ending, you know, because we used the Moog synthesizer on it, and the range of the sound is from minus whatever to way over…Well, you can’t hear it.  That instrument, the Moog synthesizer, can do all the sounds, you know, all ranges of sounds, and we did that on the end.  If you’re a dog, you can hear a lot more.”

As usual, the most accurate account is by sound engineer extraordinaire Geoff Emerick: “And then there was the matter of how the song would end. When they recorded the backing track, The Beatles had just played on and on, with no definitive conclusion, so I assumed I would be doing a fade-out.  John had other ideas, though.  He let the tape play until just twenty seconds or so before the take broke down, and then all of a sudden he barked out an order:  ‘Cut the tape here.’”

“’Cut the tape?’ I asked, astonished.  We had never ended a song that way, and an abrupt ending like that didn’t make any sense unless the track was going to run directly into another one.  But that wasn’t the case here, because it had already been decided that ‘I Want You’ would close side one of the album.  My protestations had no impact on John:  his decision was absolute.  ‘You heard what I said, Geoff; cut the tape.’  I glanced over at George Martin, who simply shrugged his shoulders, so I got out the scissors and sliced the tape at precisely the point John indicated…and that’s the way side one of ‘Abbey Road’ ends.  At the time, I thought he was out of his mind, but due to the shock factor it ended up being incredibly effective, a Lennon concept that really worked.”

Here is the song in all its white noise glory:


If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this one about Moog’s main competitor in the 1970s and the musicians who played those innovative instruments:

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