That Imagine John Lennon will be a documentary rather than a more traditional Hollywood-esque recounting of his life is appropriate. The last images he left were those shaky news videotapes of him being unloaded from an ambulance into a Manhattan emergency room. From the brash and heady days of The Beatles, through the unmellowed bitterness of his later recordings, to his untimely .22 caliber death nearly eight years ago, Lennon's has been a life that demands examination, not trivialization.
One of Lennon's pencil-sketch self-portraits adorns the letterhead of the production company headed by executive producer David Wolper and producer/director Andrew Solt. Lennon also left his own soundtrack, of course, a discography that spans and chronicles a generation, its aspirations, its sounds and its technology.
Engineer Rob Stevens was an appropriate choice to act as musical curator of Lennon's dusty tape museum for the movie; Stevens had mixed Lennon's Menlove Avenue LP and his Live in NYC record and home video, as well as Yoko Ono's Starpeace. The robust, thinly bearded engineer/producer admits to having little patience with the more arcane technical aspects of recording, but his healthy respect for both the capabilities of his own ears and for Lennon's legacy prepared him for mixing the 11 post-Beatles songs that accompany Imagine John Lennon.
Staying true to the original recordings was a priority. "It wasn't really up to me to augment what was there," says Stevens. "It was a matter of taking the equipment I have and re-creating what had been. To a degree, I was a technological interpreter. You had to bring an acceptance of what was there to this project, because what was already there was clearly legendary. You would overlook small recording errors when you placed it in this context. This project was historical in nature, not pop. It had to be respected in that way."
Lennon recorded in various formats as technology, during the period of his solo career, went from the 4-track decks of Sgt. Pepper vintage to 8-track to 16. So it's with an irony that Lennon himself would have appreciated that, after his tracks were bumped to and mixed on 24- and 32-track digital machines, their final form would be 6-track stereo.
The 6-track mixes done by Stevens were recorded on the same tape reels that the original tracks had been transferred to (see illustrations). "On digital there's no crosstalk, so we figured, why not do that," he says. The Dolby approach resulted in a spread of information that made reliance on his ears critical: "You have to disregard where your pan pots are and just go with what you're hearing."
The Dolby DS-4 6-track Monitor Box system for 70mm film (expected to premiere at Manhattan's cavernous Ziegfield Theater), as described by Dolby rep Al Matano, is arranged with five channels set up behind the screen with left, right and center; a pair of left extra and right-extra channels, which contain information between right/left and center, also are subwoofer channels. Finally, the sixth channel for speakers on the theater walls is the "surround channel," which has a slightly delayed mono signal. According to the spec sheet that Stevens worked from, channel assignments for the movie were instruments on left, right and center; background vocals and lead vocal reverb left and right on tracks four and six, respectively; and dry lead vocals on track five. Songs in the film include "How," "Jealous Guy," "Oh Yoko," "Woman," "Starting Over," "Come Together" and "Imagine."
"Some of the tapes were 16-track, some were 8-track," recalls Stevens. "Imagine" was a trip because there were two different versions on 8-track. One had the basic tracks and basic vocals. But when [Lennon and producer Phil Spector] went to put the strings on, instead of going to a 16-track machine, they did a 2-track submix of the song, transferred that onto another piece of 8-track tape, then recorded the strings onto the other six tracks. But the movie mixes needed independent vocal, kick and snare tracks, so I went back to the original 8-track and flew the strings onto an empty track," Stevens notes that the recording was done in the days before sync was used; as a result, it took four or five passes to get the strings on the tape to compensate for the lag in machines.
The only major problem in the project cropped up when the track of Lennon's version of the Ben E. King classic "Stand By Me" was being readied. A long purgatory in storage had wreaked damage to the master-a sludge-like sap oozed from the tape, covering tape heads and rollers, like something that Steve McQueen might have battled in a long-forgotten horror film.
The lads during their pre-Beatlemania club days
"I knew about the conditions of these tapes since 1985," Stevens says. 'We were mixing Menlove Avenue-which was originally titled 'Rock & Roll II' as a sequel to Lennon's Rock & Roll album-which was made up from other tunes from the Lennon and Spector sessions. I put them up at Right Track Studios and couldn't get them to play for more than a few seconds at a time. At that point, no one wanted to do anything about the problem or the tracks since they decided not to use any alternate takes for that record, and they just sat there in storage.
"Earlier this year, when they wanted to use a mix of 'Stand By Me' for the movie, instead of using the 2-track master they had, they wanted to go back to the multi-track. We had to transfer it then because of the goop problem."
The "goop" problem was solved through a series of coincidences that started several years ago in some nameless Caribbean reggae recording studio and ended up in the lap of Lou Gonzalez McLean, president of Quad Recording in Manhattan. One of the employees of Time Capsule, a New York studio time broker, led Stevens to McLean. "I didn't believe him when Rob told me over the phone that the tape would slow down within 15 seconds," says McLean, a tall, thin gent with a passion for country music. "Every tape guide from start to finish was covered with this brown goop. It was all over the guides and heads. No wonder it wouldn't run. It wasn't just shedding, which I'm used to; it was molasses. The adhesive emulsion that bonds the oxide to the tape was coming apart and going onto the heads."
A copy of the 16-track, 2-inch tape had been made at Sound Works, where mixing was done by playing the track at 15-second intervals-about as long as it would run at one time-then splicing. "They wound up with a copy with 30 or 40 splices in it," says McLean. "And as good as anybody can be splicing tape, when you have that many splices, you wind up with one or two wrong spots."
McLean's solution was derived from his reggae experiences. "This is the problem that we always get from reggae tapes that come from the islands," he explains. "At one point I was the sound designer on a 1980 musical entitled Reggae, and I fell in love with the show and the music. Since I got along well with everyone on the show, soon they were coming to my old, smaller studio [prior to Quad's present location] to do overdubs and mix. They came to me with tapes they had started in the islands-it's like country music, where you have to go to Nashville to get the groove; you have to go to the islands to get the reggae groove-then bring the tapes up here to get a quality mix.
"But they would store tapes in the trunk of a car and take it to the beach with them or whatever. By the time the tapes got up here, they were in sad shape. I was forever making copies of them on fresh tape to work with them. Also, because a roll of tape costs four times as much down there, they have a tendency to reuse tape a lot, so you might face a piece of tape that was already five years old when a new recording was put on it.
"But I found a way to get these tapes to play. Basically, Studer tape equipment lends itself to playing games. You can fudge the tensions. If you set the tension too loose, you won't get enough tape-to-head contact, and if you set it too high, you'll slow down the machine and wear out your heads faster. The harder you pull the tape across the heads, the faster you accelerate whatever damage has been done to the tape," says McLean.
"But the first thing you have to do is clean the tape. I got an idea from the original 3M digital machine, which had a roll of cloth like substance that runs on its own little motor; the tape has to pass it before it gets to the heads. It keeps the dust off the heads. So I built a guide out of a microphone stand, put cloth on it and ran the tape for a while. Doing that, in combination with properly resetting the tension to just let it pull the tape across the heads, you get results." McLean adds that he needed to clean the heads extensively after each pass. "I don't think what I'm doing is terribly innovative. It just works," he says.
Following the cleaning process on the Ampex 406 tape, which took about an hour, the track was mixed at Quad. The remaining ten tracks were remixed at Sound Works onto two machines: a 24-track digital Sony for Capitol Record's own archival purposes, and a 32-track digital Mitsubishi for the 6-track movie mixes.
The remixing seemed to resist additions of contemporary technology, which was just fine with Stevens, who, rather than look for a consistency to the overall sound, tried to re-create the original sounds from each period of Lennon's recording life. Stevens did try adding triggered samples to the drums to fatten the sound, but he says, "It sounded wrong to hear a modem snare drum on something recorded in 1974. It just doesn't make sense and the overall sound was skewed: We were looking to represent the man's life, which spanned several time periods, so you don't want it to sound like 1988, you want it to sound like the time it was created in."
Stevens brought in CDs of Lennon's records to get a sense of what made the originals as magical as they were. He feels the result is true to those records, but cleaner and a bit bigger sounding. Other than the few drum samples used-which were printed onto the 32 track deck-no other rerecording took place. Actually, some of Lennon's own music was recorded onto 32-track technology: two 16-tracks hooked together.
EQ and effects were used with the original recordings in mind and close at hand. Digital delays replaced the tape slap that was such a large part of Lennon's sound. Stevens says Lennon also used an Eventide Harmonizer a lot when it first became available.
The original track sheets were straight-ahead in terms of information, Stevens recalls. The only curve ball came on the "Imagine" track. "It starts off with a mono piano in the middle," says Stevens. "After a few bars, the piano pans to the right side and another piano comes in and you have two pianos hitting together. Listening to the CDs was helpful, because I saw two pianos on the multi-track sheet and they didn't seem to sync up. Then, by subtle use of echo, you get the two piano tracks to fuse into a single piano. You can hear the flamming if you listen really closely, but you'd never notice it on the radio.
"The drums on 'Imagine' had a delay running through the whole drum kit that was in the background that I didn't put there. But I didn't really listen just for specific EQs. I listened for total orientation: when instruments came in and when they came out. 'Stand By Me' had four different guitar tracks, and I didn't want to have the wrong solos up. That's where the CDs really came in."
In retrospect, Stevens regards the experience as both curious and challenging. "What was interesting was that it spanned Lennon's career," he recalls. "I was fascinated by the fact that although 16-track was available, Lennon and Spector chose to do a 2-track submix and went 8-track to 8-track. On the Imagine album, they didn't seem to care too much what the snare drum sounded like, at least in the same terms we do these days. The snare drum was there to fulfill a musical purpose, but clearly that album was a song album. In those days, Lennon was writing songs, and the people at Sound Works said they hadn't had a project like this in a long time, where the focus was on the music, not on what the snare drum sounded like. In this case we were listening to an artist from a different era, in a sense. And I like the fact that artists who write from the heart are getting deals again."
Yoko Ono was not present for any of the mixes. "I couldn't see her wanting to be there to remix something she had mixed with him," Stevens says. "There were times when we mixed Menlove Avenue that she would come down, and I sensed it would be hard for her to listen because she would feel then what she felt [when the record was originally recorded with John], and feel it a lot."
The track "How Do You Sleep" ended up as a composite done from four different Lennon takes, including one from a videotape of a Lennon performance. Stevens remixed all the takes and used the pieces to build one complete take for the film.
Ultimately, Stevens is satisfied that Lennon's legacy is intact for the movie, and that the artist's original intentions have been faithfully preserved. "It would take a pretty large ego to say I can mix this stuff better than Lennon and Spector," he says. "They're not going to be doing dance remixes of this stuff. These are not films you're going to colorize."
Dan Daley is a Mix contributing editor.