Geoff Emerick, Cheap Trick engineer Beatles tribute DVD

ST. PETERSBURG -- Last year, when singer Robin Zander and his power-pop pals in Cheap Trick decided to re-create a veritable Picasso of popular music, they knew they'd need a little help from a certain friend.

A lot of help, actually.

After all, covering one Beatles song in a live setting is daunting; staging the entirety of 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was deliberately, stubbornly, brilliantly made to NOT be performed live, is insane.

"It's all difficult to sing," says Zander, 55, a Safety Harbor resident and Tampa Bay's most visible rock star. "First of all, you have three of the greatest singers of rock in one band."

Last summer, at L.A.'s Hollywood Bowl and New York's Waldorf-Astoria, Cheap Trick staged critically lauded live tributes to Sgt. Pepper's, which was celebrating its 40th anniversary. They also covered other epic chunks of the Fab Four songbook.

And to make it all sound right, they called on the one man — the only man — who'd know how to handle such an undertaking: Geoff Emerick, the original engineer for Sgt. Pepper's, a man whose ability to match the imaginations of John Lennon and Paul McCartney helped start a musical revolution.

About the Hollywood Bowl show, the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Having the album's engineer, Geoff Emerick, behind the soundboard may have been the most authentic stroke of the night, but band interplay kept it real." They added, "Cheap Trick conjured the Beatles sound without getting buried by it."

Emerick was also the engineer on Cheap Trick's 1980 album All Shook Up, so he knew that the band from Rockford, Ill., could handle the one from Liverpool.

"It was great to get back together again," says Emerick, now in his 60s and still in demand. "It's not a pretentious project. It's not supposed to be better than the original. It's just fun . . .
The energy on this is just enormous."

Cheap Trick has never been shy about its main influence. Hits such as Surrender, I Want You to Want Me and If You Want My Love drip with the high harmonies and crashing crescendos of John, Paul, George and Ringo. So when they tackle the Beatles, the outcome is sublime.

"We figured Cheap Trick would poke its ugly head in there, but we were
true to the album," says Zander about the live performances. "It's a tribute to Sgt. Pepper's, not to Cheap Trick."

This spring, Emerick and Zander have been meeting at the posh Big 3 Studios on Central Avenue to work on a DVD of the New York performance. It's scheduled for release this summer, hopefully around June 28, when Cheap Trick will again play Sgt. Pepper's in L.A.

Then on Nov. 14, Cheap Trick brings Sgt. Pepper's home to us, at Ruth
Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Tickets will go on sale in August.

And to think John Lennon said it couldn't be done.

"John said when we were going to make the album that it could never be performed live," Emerick says. "It was just impossible with all the instruments."

Emerick is extremely humble about his achievements. "It's just part of my life," he says about his place in the pop canon. But he also acknowledges Sgt. Pepper's place in history. "We knew it was special when we made it," he says.

Emerick was there for both of Cheap Trick's Sgt. Pepper's performances, which included orchestras, full audio-video crews and special guests ranging from Aimee Mann to Joan Osborne to Ian Ball from Brit-pop band Gomez. But working the soundboard during the live show might have been the easy part — now comes the polish.

On a flat-screen TV in a Big 3 editing room, Zander is singing the Abbey Road cut Golden Slumbers. With his head cocked, Emerick is leaning on a sprawling soundboard, thousands of blinking lights and knobs before him. He's listening for something. "The picture," he calls it.

Next to him is Big 3's chief engineer, Jim "Pinky" Beeman, who follows Emerick's orders to fix reverb or erase foreign noises. At one point, Emerick hears a clicking noise — a few seconds later, everyone else does, too. Like a sonic detective, scouring every second of the show, he tracks down the culprit.

"It's the horns," he says, a smirk of disdain on his hang-dog face.

At one point, he isolates Zander's vocal. "Wow," says Zander, a man who has performed in front of millions of fans. "That's like standing there naked!" But Emerick finds nothing wrong with Robin's pipes. "His voice gets better with age," the engineer marvels. "It really does."

Big 3 executive Lou Mann is also in the room. He calls Emerick "Babe Ruth." "Geoff is like an artist," Mann hushes in reverent tones. "He's painting a picture. He's unbelievably meticulous."

That's for sure. Emerick was supposed to be done mixing and polishing the DVD a few weeks ago. Now there's talk he will return to Big 3 this month to finish the project. Emerick says he'll also be at June's return engagement at the Hollywood Bowl.

And he hasn't ruled out working at Big 3 for other projects. He looks around at the wood floors, the cool lighting, the state-of-the-art equipment, the baby of owner Bill Edwards. It's one of St. Petersburg's secret jewels.

"I didn't expect anything like this," Emerick says. "If I were stuck without a studio I'd come back here for sure."

Perhaps Emerick will also be working the soundboard at Ruth Eckerd? Zander leans in. "I don't know," he whispers. "He's expensive."

Cheap Trick — doing their classic hits — plays the Ford Amphitheatre July 30 with Journey and Heart. Tickets, $25-$125, go on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday;
ticketmaster.com.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/
popmusic.

Geoff Emerick, Cheap Trick engineer Beatles tribute DVD 05/07/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 13, 2008 9:32am]

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