Deconstructing the Beatles: Scott Freiman on how "A Day in the Life" is like Frankenstein
Besides blowing the mind of everyone who ever heard it, Sgt. Pepper broke a lot of ground: The album radically expanded the concept of what pop music could be, in the process inventing the studio technology needed to make it happen. There's probably not another person alive who can articulate what that process meant -- and means today -- better than Scott Freiman, a composer and recording engineer who moonlights as a Beatles lecturer. In advance of his two Deconstructing the Beatles presentations at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax tonight and tomorrow, we caught up with Freiman to talk about history, studio tricks and how he got into this line of work in the first place.
The Beatles: Now blowing your mind even harder.
Westword:You have a background as a composer and an engineer, and you employ that background in your lectures. How did you happen to come into this line of work, though, talking about the Beatles for a living?
Scott Freiman: Well, I've always been interested in the Beatles, and about two years ago I decided to take some of these rare tracks I had kind of lying around and figure out how they were made. And it was so interesting, I ended up inviting some people I knew over to discuss them with me, just some friends, and I did a little presentation. It actually lasted about five hours. But those people who were there for that first presentation, those were the people that kind of encouraged me to get out there and really make this something that's available for everybody.
So I started contacting some universities and things and they were interested and I just doing these lectures, and since then, I've been traveling around with it for about two years. So it's fun. It's been really interesting to take my interest in composition and engineering and technology, and my interest in the Beatles - it's just really interesting to hear all the work that goes into it. A lot of people know the finished product, but they don't necessarily know what goes into it, how it's made, and it's a process that's just really fascinating.
Presumably, though, that intricate process of engineering music is something that goes into anything you might hear on the radio. Why the Beatles? I mean, why focus on that band specifically?
The Beatles are just so iconic, and they're really influential. And there are whole generations of people who have grown up with them -- it's very common in my audiences to have anywhere from eighty-year-olds to five-year-old kids. I think the Beatles are one of the few groups that spans generations like that, where people know the songs so well you can talk about it. I mean, you could take Pink Floyd or the Beach Boys or Radiohead and have plenty to say about what went into it, but I just think the audience for it would be much more limited, because you don't have the same degree of really intimate familiarity that people seem to have with the Beatles.
There's also a tremendous amount of research out there, which is also helpful. There's just a ton of documentation about what they did and which instruments they're using on what tracks and what recording techniques they're using and where. Few people are really interested enough to read some of these sorts of technical books, so my job is to kind of take those stories and translate them into English, and make it interesting for people.
So how do you do that? Like, if I go to one of these lectures, what can I expect to see?
The lecture is basically a combination of rare audio and video, photos, track sheets -- which actually lay out what's playing in each track -- and then me, of course, kind of filling in the historical context, what's going on in the world, how they're influencing other musicians and what techniques they're sort of pioneering, and also what music is out there that's influencing them. I talk about how the tracks were written, what they're writing about, and the instruments and effects and techniques that they use to create the music.
And there are a lot of surprises along the way, a lot of stories I tell that are not well known. One of the shows I have that are going to be playing in Denver and Boulder, I'm talking about Sgt. Pepper, and all the experimentation they were doing in the studio. And there were a lot of other people experimenting, but how the Beatles were sort of leading the pack with that. And then the other show is about the White Album, which is a totally different story, where we're seeing the Beatles kind of starting to fracture and working alone a lot, and I talk about what were the fun moments, as well as some of the sad moments that happened while they were working on that album. And there are a lot of really interesting stories about these songs.
Can you give an example of that? What's one of your favorite songs to talk about?
I love talking about "A Day in the Life." It's a bit of a Frankenstein song that combines pieces of songs from both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and there's just a lot going on in it. There's a pretty strong Jimi Hendrix influence you can see, a John Cage influence. And then when it came time to record the orchestra on that song -- which was just this huge, full orchestra, which was something no other pop group had ever done before -- they literally didn't have the ability to record it. So I talk about how they ended up recording this orchestra when they're using a four-track tape machine and the four-track tape is full. There was really just so much studio technology they were using -- flanging, echo, just a ton of stuff that was invented at Abby Road.
Which is not to say that you have to be a studio geek or anything to enjoy it. I think this is a talk that appeals to people who think they know everything about the Beatles and people who just love the music and know absolutely nothing about how it was created. You don't have to be a Beatles geek, a studio geek, a musician. All sorts of people come to these things, and the crowds seem to really have a good time.
Don't miss Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper at 7 p.m. tonight and Looking Through a Glass Onion: Deconstructing the White Album at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax. Tickets to both showings are $20 ($15 for DFS members).