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Classic Tracks: Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days”

Who could possibly predict that a five-minute recording of a Russian romance song composed in the early 1900s with English lyrics written in the early ’60s, recorded in July 1968 by a green 17-year-old Welsh folk artist, produced by a Beatle, and arranged by a jazz nerd with unlikely instrumentation would result in a Number 2 on the Billboard charts?

Engineer Geoff Emerick says “Those Were the Days,” produced by Paul McCartney and sung by artist Mary Hopkin, appealed to the public because of those unique qualities.

“It was so different for the time,” Emerick says. “Everyone loved it. It was one of those things like Paul’s ‘Mull of Kintyre,’ with the bagpipes. That record sold like two-and-a-half million records in two weeks. [It was Wings’ biggest hit in Britain.] Who knows about these things? We were always looking for something different, something spectacular every time we worked.”

(For those new to Mix, Emerick engineered many Beatles records under producer George Martin and received Grammy Awards for his work on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road. He continued to work with McCartney during Wings.)

The story with Hopkin and “Those Were the Days” is that model Twiggy saw the singer win the British talent show “Opportunity Knocks” and recommended her to McCartney, who then signed her to Apple Records. McCartney brought “Those Were the Days” to the table after hearing it in a London club performed by the English lyricist Gene Raskin.

Arranger Richard Hewson remembers the earliest moments of his involvement. He had recently graduated from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, during which time he and a gentleman by the name of Peter Asher had been in jazz band together. Hewson knew nothing about pop music.

“Stravinsky, Ravel, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane—I was studying orchestration and I was playing in a jazz band at the time,” Hewson recalls. “Peter Asher was a friend of Paul McCartney’s because Paul McCartney was going out with his sister at the time. I was at Peter Asher’s house and Paul was there with Jane and Peter said, ‘Oh Richard, Paul is looking for an arranger to do a record with this girl called Mary Hopkin. You can do arranging, can’t you?’ I said, ‘Of course I can,’ never having done an arrangement for a record before,’” He had, however, worked on Blow-Up with Herbie Hancock while still in college.

Hewson and McCartney spoke about what the producer had in mind for the arrangement, which only amounted to an instrument called the cymbalum. Interestingly, the percussion teacher with whom Hewson had been studying had a cymbalum.

“It’s a Hungarian instrument that is like a piano without the lid on, hit with hammers,” Hewson explains. “That’s the ding, ding, ding sound you hear on the song. He said that’s all he had in mind, and, ‘After that, do what you like.’ So I wrote the arrangement, and not knowing pop music, that’s why it doesn’t sound like the pop music of the time.”

“I immediately liked the use of the cymbalum, which John Barry used to use in a lot of his film scores,” Emerick comments.

As Emerick recalls, “I think we took a day out of the Beatles’ schedule so Paul could do this. We did it in Studio Number 3, Abbey Road.”

Emerick is the first to admit, that since the recording was 50 years ago, some memories have faded completely and some are vague, but he knows the equipment at Abbey Road included a Studer 4-track and REDD.51 console “with the Telefunken amps in it.”

“We did it on 4-track, 1 inch, because we didn’t have half-inch in England,” Emerick says.

Most likely they recorded the orchestra first at Abbey Road. Emerick recalls also present in the control room was McCartney’s English sheepdog, Martha.

Besides the cymbalum, Hewson arranged instrumentation for one clarinet, two trumpets, one trombone, a banjo, guitar, bass, tuba, six violins, four cellos and drums.

As for the orchestra, Emerick says, “It was screened off to the best of my ability. We didn’t have any gigantic sound baffles. They were just sort of cheap things. Number 3 Abbey Road is not as big as Number 2, and it was a bit of a squeeze. I got the best separation I could get between the brass, the woodwinds and so forth.”

Emerick says he would have used Coles 4038 mics on the brass, Neumann U 47s or 67s on the strings, a Neumann M 49 or 50 on the banjo and guitars, and possibly a Coles 4038 on the drums. He also says that he would have used a U 47 on Hopkin’s vocals. “I would have gone through a Fairchild 660 limiter,” he says. “It would have been on the fourth track of the 4-track.”

“The orchestra was probably recorded mono or just stereo, which would have given us two 2-tracks for orchestra, one for the rhythm track and one for vocals,” Emerick says.

Though Hewson doesn’t recall any of the contracted musicians on the session, one player does stick out.

“I’m pretty sure Paul played guitar on the session,” Hewson recalls.

While Mary Hopkin does not give interviews, she did email a corroboration about the guitar. She also addressed a question about McCartney, who was known to slap his thigh for rhythm on her album, Postcard.

“It’s hard to remember all the exact details from so long ago but here are a few answers for you,” she wrote.  “I did not play guitar on ‘Those Were the Days.’  Paul played acoustic guitar. Paul’s thigh slap was on my second single, ‘Goodbye,’ where he and I played the two rhythm guitars. I don’t recall who played the drums on ‘Those Were the Days,’ but since it was a full, orchestral arrangement [by Richard Hewson], I believe it was a session player, though Paul sometimes played additional drums [often enhancing Ringo’s basic pattern] on the Postcard album tracks.”

Both Emerick and Hewson recall that Hopkin was very shy and somewhat nervous.

“In the photograph of me, Paul McCartney and Mary in the studio, you can see her arms are folded tight around her body. Her body language shows she’s very nervous,” Hewson says.

Hewson says he does not recall that the recording of the orchestra took more than six attempts.

“I don’t remember it being like ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ which I did later with Phil Spector,” he says. “That was a madhouse. That job came through Paul very soon after.”

A personal memory for Hewson was when McCartney called him over at some point during the day. “He said, ‘Come over to lunch, I’m meeting Twiggy,’ so we all had lunch—Mary, Twiggy, Paul McCartney and me—and that was a big deal,” Hewson says.

Memories are vague on whether the track was cut all in one day or over the course of two, but the children’s choir, brought over from the Corona School, was recorded at Trident Studios.

“Whenever you wanted a choir of children on records back then you contacted an organization called the Corona School [Wikipedia has it as Corona Theatre School, which closed in 2013]. There would have been about 15 of them maybe,” says Emerick, who remembers that Trident had a mixing console of their own make and an 8-track. Emerick says he might have used C-12s on the children’s choir.

“It was different from everything around,” says Hewson, who remembers that the song hit Number 1 in England the day he got married the first time. “Part of why it was different I think is because I wasn’t a pop musician. It doesn’t seem like an American-type record at all.”

Hewson laughs as he reveals he was paid about 30 American dollars for his work on that record. “Arrangers don’t get royalties. They just get a fee. I got 25 pounds, which is about $30. But people said, ‘You got a career out of it, didn’t you?’ So I did get lots of gigs when it reached Number 1. My fee went up for ‘Long and Winding Road.’ I got $40 for that.” Seventy-one-year-old Hewson still plays music in the UK with the RAH Band (Richard A. Hewson), which still does records.

“So I guess that $30 started off my career that has kept me going all these years.”