Updated: Oct 6, 2019
by John Hanti with Steven Acker From their forthcoming book, "Escaping Gravity."
Like a million other teenage musicians in this world at the time, the defining moment of my life came on the night of February 9, 1964—the night the Beatles burst into our world with the biggest bang ever heard.
None of us will ever forget where we were and who we were with that night. I was at my cousin's new home in Transfer, Pennsylvania. Barely out of grade school, sitting on a hardwood floor, we gaped in awe at his family's black-and-white Zenith console as the spectacle unfolded before us.
From the moment Paul sang "Close your eyes and I'll kiss you" on The Ed Sullivan Theater stage, I was hooked. I knew—I knew—that this was what I would do for the rest of my life. Fifty-six years later, I am still at the mercy of that hook
To meet a Beatle—that became my lifelong quest. As of this writing, it has yet to happen. I have known and worked with three men who shaped the Beatles' music and their careers. I have been within buildings where a Beatle was present only one floor above me. I have twice played pivotal roles in the Beatles' secret recording history. I have stood only yards away from Sir Paul at his piano with nothing and no one between us but air, staring in awe without speaking a word,
Yet, coming face-to-face with John, Paul, George, or Ringo has eluded me. This is the true story of my many near-misses and the saga of the lost and stolen secret Beatles recordings once in my possession, now the stuff of legend.
TIMES SQUARE, 1971.
They called it "The Deuce." It was the Old Wild West updated and transplanted to the New East Coast. Times Square. 42nd Street. A smorgasbord of smut. Pimps and prostitutes, peep shows and panhandlers.
Lured by flashing marquee lights into gritty gardens of earthly delights, wide-eyed pilgrims fresh from the provinces stumbled dazed and confused into sticky seats to gape at lurid films like Chain Gang Women, Robot Love Slaves, and The Naked Nympho. Tame by today's standards, but to a wide-eyed innocent country boy like me from Western PA who thought Playboy was porn, it was eye-opening and mind-blowing, to say the least.
This was the spectacle we witnessed—my band and me—as we made our way uptown through the Deuce to our first late-night recording session at the Record Plant.
Our manager had booked downtime from midnight to 8:00 am. Eight hours for a thousand dollars cash. In those days, the inside workings of a New York studio during normal business hours was a sight seldom seen by the likes of us. That was when the Mad Men buttered the big studios' bread with their Madison Avenue advertising jingles. If we had been admitted, we would have seen frantic executives in grey coats and blue ties feverishly pushing anxious engineers, exasperated producers, and mercenary musicians to finish their commercial confections on time and on budget.
Time was money and in a 1971 New York City studio, time was at a premium--$175.00 to $225.00 per hour. Pressure, pressure, pressure. Interns scrambling for coffee-on-demand, producers pressing to get jobs done--"Where's that fucking sax player?" It was a 9-to-5 pressure cooker that could blow at any moment.
But when the big hand of the clock hit 12 and the little hand hit 5, that straight corporate world of crass, commercial music-making came to a crashing halt. For a moment, the world stopped turning.
Then, quite suddenly, swarms of eager Interns appeared like a parade of ants from nowhere to remove the mic stands, to empty overflowing ashtrays, to haul baskets of half-eaten lunches and half-empty coffee cups to trash bins in the alleys out back.
By day, the studios were essentially expensive office extensions for the suits to sell their wares. By night, they were creative wonderlands of epic proportions, Suits and ties gave way to DayGlo T-shirts and bejeweled blue jeans. Out came the booze, out came the pot, and in came the rock stars. Time to make the magic that made the records go ‘round.
"JOHN AND GEORGE ARE UPSTAIRS."
When we stepped through those Record Plant doors for the first time (doors that I now own), the whole building was buzzing. “John and George are upstairs with Roy Cicala,” someone whispered to me.
Roy was the owner of the studio. John and George were John Lennon and George Harrison. Roy, I was told, was mixing the legendary Concert for Bangladesh, a once-in-a-lifetime show he had recorded at Madison Square Garden. As I eased into the studio that had been allotted to our band, I spotted a pack of British fags lying on the piano—cigarettes I was certain belonged to either John or George. I pocketed them as a keepsake.
Ironically, eighteen years later I would come to own not only the front door I had just walked through but that very piano, as well. It was the piano that John played on most of his solo recordings, including Imagine.
The name of this band was Virgin--a bold statement for the times, but alas, we never made the grade. We were Midwest wannabe’s, I guess you could say.
So close, and yet so far away.
ALL THE BEATLES' MEN
Six years passed. I had migrated South to carve out my own little rock and roll empire with Tight Squeeze, one of the Gold Coast's hottest bands.
This is where I met Nat Weiss. Once the “companion” of the Beatles' late manager, Brian Epstein, Nat was a highly influential music business attorney in New York. He loved musicians, he loved good bands, and he loved Tight Squeeze.
Nat owned and operated a New York-based label he dubbed Nemperor Records, a tribute to the Epstein family's chain of record shops in Great Britain at the time Brian discovered the Beatles. Nat happened to catch Tight Squeeze at the Hollywood, Florida nightclub we then owned that also bore our name.
Tight Squeeze (the club) was a local industry hangout, a favorite watering hole for artists recording at Criteria, Bayshore and Triad studios who would drop by after their sessions. One night, Nat Weiss dropped by, too.
Nat was a classic, streetwise New York lawyer. Wearing a starched white dress shirt half-hanging out over his belt, stained by spittle and flecks of tomato sauce, chomping on a big cigar, piles of ashes on the tabletop before him that hadn’t quite made it to the ashtray, he would stare at you from behind 18-carat gold, wire-rim glasses with a hawk-like gaze that could pierce your very soul.
To a worldly man like Nat, naïve youngsters like me were wide-open books. His sharp mind laid bare the wide-eyed hopes and dreams that were written on our hearts and if he liked you
—if he believed in you—he would pull out all the stops to help you.
When I made my way back to New York City a year after that first encounter with Nat, we
resumed our friendship. Nat introduced me to the City and to yet another New York lawyer named Walter Hofer.
Walter was the attorney-of-record for the by-now broken-up Beatles. He administered and managed the Beatles' US corporations. As Nat had, Walter also took me under his wing, welcoming me into his family, both personally and professionally.
Walter was much like Nat in many ways, but without Nat's smooth sophistication. He was a street lawyer and a street fighter, not above waging legal battles well above the law. The New York music scene in those days was awash in unscrupulous hustlers. Determining whom you could trust with your life and whom you could trust only as far as your arm was long was always a challenge.
Despite their lack of social graces, Nat Weiss and Walter Hofer were men you could trust with your life. They kept me out of trouble and out of harm’s way.
Years before they launched me on my way to SST (and to this story) Nat and Walter virtually launched the music industry as we now know it; they were the first to recognize the immense value of merchandising and bring it under control. At the height of Beatlemania, untold numbers of marketing firms were making millions from Beatles boots, wigs, dolls and every other Beatle novelty they could dream up. None of that money was flowing into the Beatles' coffers. No controls, no royalties. The world had never seen this kind of mass appeal before. Yes, we had seen Elvis and Sinatra, but the hysteria and frenzy surrounding them were not even close to Beatlemania, nor were the merchandising fortunes being made at its height.
Only 28 years old, there I was in the middle of the two men who had harnessed the hysteria and made sense of a senseless phenomenon. I heard first-hand tales of how it happened, I heard Beatles demos and unreleased songs yet to be heard by the world-at-large. It was a heady experience. Still, I was no closer to meeting a Beatle than I had been in 1964.
So close, and yet so far away.
ONE DEGREE OF SEPARATION
In 1978, Roy Cicala signed my band to his label, Hologram. There I was again, back at the Record Plant, working with the man himself, playing the same grand piano I had recorded with seven years earlier and would one day own. Three years had passed since Roy’s last session with John Lennon. Lennon was baking bread and raising a son. Only one degree of separation between us, but still no chance of meeting that Beatle at that time.
Roy was a master at his craft. He had learned from the Masters, including the notoriously mad Phil Spector.
Spector had a nasty habit of brandishing big guns in the middle of sessions and frequently firing them into the ceiling, terrifying the artists in the rooms. Roy, too, was not above using guns for effect. Lose your focus, go off-track, push Roy's patience to the limit, and he would resort to a Spector-inspired production technique seldom taught in today's recording schools.
He would crank up the volume of the echo chamber channel, silently stroll out of the room into the chamber itself and fire his gun into wads of old socks mounted on the chamber walls solely for that purpose.
The sudden, loud shock within the control room of that massive explosion would knock unsuspecting musicians right off their seats. Oh, yea, they got the message, and the message was “Roy is not happy.”
Roy had his ways. Madman or genius? It was always a thin line.
THE LEGENDARY STOLEN BEATLES CHRISTMAS TAPES
In 1983, a gentleman from Texas named Rick Smulian contacted Walter Hofer. Smulian represented an investment group that had purchased a two-track master tape from Peter Bennett, who had once been a promotions man for The Beatles. On that tape were previously unreleased recordings and outtakes from the Beatles' annual fan club Christmas greetings.
Smulian was quite likable. He was outspoken—a real hustler, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. Rick had an idea, he knew what had to be done, and his only question was, "how do we do it?"
Smulian was searching for someone discreet, trustworthy, and highly skilled to mix these recordings into a presentable product in time for the upcoming Christmas season. Somehow, his search led to Hofer.
I was, by then, well-established in the New York music industry as the owner of SST. I had played a key role in the city's burgeoning backline business. I had produced critically acclaimed albums. So, Hofer handed the assignment off to me.
Alongside my ever-faithful recording engineer, Matthew Kasha, I eagerly took the ball and ran with it.
Matthew and I had a rare and special bond. We clicked on a deep, creative level. We knew without speaking how to get the job done. It was a deep and profoundly fulfilling creative partnership. This is not to offend the many other fine engineers I’ve worked with, but a producer is lucky to stumble upon that rare and special combination once in a career. I’ve been fortunate to have two such relationships in mine.
Sadly, Matthew was, at the same time, trapped in another relationship that ultimately stole him away from me and from all who loved him. On December 28, 2005, to my eternal sorrow, he succumbed to a dastardly drug addiction he just couldn't beat. It broke my heart and I still miss him to this day.
But I digress.
Matthew and I holed up in the penthouse mixing suite at Quad Studios on Broadway to begin the daunting task of making something intelligible out of the recordings' numerous vignettes, partial songs, outtakes, and comic narratives. Much of it made no sense whatsoever. John was always derailing the narratives with his loony humor, going off-script, and leading the others off into his madness. It was creative, yes, but in a most absurd and thoroughly un-commercial way.
Working day and night for two weeks to fashion from this mess a product Smulian could sell, our progress was rudely interrupted one day when I got a phone call from Rolling Stone magazine. They wanted to interview me about "the secret Beatles Tapes." I was stunned. Matthew and I had sworn an oath of silence about the project. How did this happen?
I soon found out that it was Rick Smulian himself who had intentionally leaked the news to start a buzz. It worked.
The studio phone rang for days. The news was out. Incessant calls came in from DJs across America expecting me to spill the beans. A DJ in L.A. caught me off-guard. "You are live on the air right now!" he announced. "What's the scoop?" I would not answer his questions. Kurt Loder of Rolling Stone published the story in the September 29, 1983 issue.
To find myself in the eye of this storm was exciting, but also needlessly stressful. And it was about to get worse.
We finally finished our task and took the completed masters back to my studio to place them in storage. The next morning, when I walked into the studio, the tapes were gone!
Missing, too, was one of my employees--a kid I was fond of. I call him a kid even though we were close to the same age. His name was Michael and he had been working with me for quite some time. Michael was a fine musician himself, but he was a problem child, a misfit perpetually on the edge. Sporting brightly colored hair and painted fingernails, he was, in a word, a punk.
This did not look good. I tried to quell my panic as I waited for the call I hoped would soon come and come it did.
"John, this is Michael. I have the tapes. I got tired of you taking me for granted. You haven't been fair to me and it pisses me off. You owe me. So, I took the tapes. You want ‘em back, you gotta pay me what you owe me, or I'll sell the tapes myself. "
He was bent out of shape, I think because I had not included him in the project. I didn't argue with him, I didn't raise my voice, I calmly put down the phone and called the FBI. He could not have picked a worse time to pull this stunt because Congress was in session, passing bills to criminalize the piracy and bootlegging of music. The FBI was under pressure to enforce anti-piracy legislation and Michael was about to become the national bootlegger's poster boy. They arrested him in Florida and threw the book at him.
All the major newspapers and TV networks carried the news. "Man arrested in Boca Raton, Florida in possession of stolen Beatles master tapes valued at untold millions of dollars." I listened with dread, fear, and helplessness as I heard my name explode like an atom bomb on the CBS Nightly News: "Secret Beatles tapes stolen from New York studio owner, John Hanti!"
Oh my God, I thought, I'm going to get sued. I'm gonna lose everything I own. My reputation is shot. No one will ever trust me again.
Michael's parents had to mortgage their house for his bail. His intent, I knew, was not really to bootleg the tapes. It was just an immature stunt to get my attention and pay me back for what he perceived as my injustices to him.
Of course, Yoko Ono heard about all this. Her lawyers brought the case into the Manhattan court. The judge ruled that until an investigation into how I acquired the tapes and who their legal owners were, they would be kept in a Federal Storage Building somewhere on Long Island. To my knowledge, they remain there to this day.
There was no trial. I was not called to testify. But I was the guy who had just lost a million-dollar asset belonging to Rick Smulian and his investment group. I was certain that I would, in turn, lose everything I had ever worked for.
I was wrong. I lost nothing.
You see, at that time, the federal government granted record companies a special deduction they called "four-to-one, non-recourse notes." Smulian and his group had purchased and planned these recordings as a tax shelter right from the beginning, but I did not know that. Why would I? All the hoopla escalated the tapes' value much higher than the investment group ever dreamed. Because of the theft, they were able to declare the escalated value as a total loss. The FBI's own statements backed them up: "These tapes are worth untold millions of dollars." The FBI spokesman himself said it on national TV!
The IRS had no choice. They approved the deduction in full. The investment group was quite happy, and I was onto the next adventure. I put the nasty business of the "Christmas tapes" behind me. But this is not quite the end of the story.
Though Rick Smulian never got to release his album of Christmas messages from the Fab Four, a certain cassette turned up in Houston shortly after the suit was settled--a Richy Records cassette tape of Christmas recordings by John, Paul, George, Ringo. My guess is that Smulian pressed a few test copies before the Apple lawsuit. If you can find one of these cassettes now, it might be worth a small fortune.
THE RECORD PLANT CLOSES FOREVER
In 1989, the Record Plant went into bankruptcy. Knowing that he would soon lose the studio's big tracking room to the escalating cost of doing business in Manhattan, Roy Cicala asked me to become his partner, hoping to open a new Record Plant tracking room in my Weehawken, New Jersey building. I said "yes."
I appeared before the bankruptcy court at Roy's side to help him plead his case--a last-ditch, Hail Mary appeal to save The Record Plant. But it was to no avail. "Too little, too late," the judge ruled. The Record Plant was no more.
Based on my court appearance, the trustee placed responsibility for the closing in my hands—a big job, to be sure.
I organized a complete list of gear for the auctioneer, pulled Roy's personal equipment off to the side, transported the remote truck to a safe location, and moved the grand pianos to my studio before demolition of the space began.
We knew that we would be building a new studio so I took everything I legally could from the studio, including its doors, the control room glass—anything that would be of value to the new studio.
The most difficult task of all, though, was the transfer of 24,000 master tapes from the Record Plant to my storage facility. Storing these priceless reels, cataloging them, and returning them to their rightful owners was a massive undertaking. It took over two years.
Aerosmith, Kiss, the Four Seasons—the list of legendary masters that I returned to the hands of the artists and producers who created them was as long as rock and roll history itself. One notable example: all the master recordings that would one day be assembled as Aerosmith’s Pandoras Box album.
Several items in the inventory were of special interest to me because they were directly related to John and Yoko. One of those was the "Baby Grand Guitar" that Yoko once created for a gallery show. Having no place to store it after her show closed, she gave it to Roy. He had a huge showcase cabinet built at the end of the Record Plant's main hallway where he proudly displayed it for many years. I saved that guitar from demolition when the Record Plant went bust and hung it inside my studio. Yoko told the bankruptcy trustee that she had not given the guitar to Roy. It was merely "on loan." Who's going to argue with Yoko Ono? The trustee ruled in her favor and compelled me to return the guitar to her.
THE SECRET "LOST WEEKEND" BEATLES SESSION TAPES
There were two other items in the list that have become truly legendary--master tapes recorded by Roy at the L.A. Record Plant during John Lennon's infamous 1973 "lost weekend." Few impromptu bands in the history of rock have been more illustrious than the band on these recordings. It was, for one thing, the closest thing to an actual Beatles reunion since their 1970 breakup. Joining John Lennon. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in the studio were Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, and drummer, Jim Keltner.
Roy never made copies of these tapes. Concerned for their safekeeping, he entrusted them to me. I took the tapes home after listening to them in the studio and placed them safely in my bedroom closet. I made no safety copies, either.
This was a party session, to put it mildly…and politely. Try to imagine, if you can, the world's best musicians making the world's worst music under the influence of the world's best drugs and alcohol, and you can imagine this session. Paul was quite concerned about the existence of these tapes, I was told, and wanted them buried forever. To allay his fear, I mailed a certified letter to him at MPL Communications. "The tapes were destroyed in a 1999 fire," I let him know, "along with my own home. There were no copies."
So close, and yet so far away.
THE CONCERT FOR NEW YORK CITY
September 11, 2001.
Entrenched with Roy Cicala in the building a better recording studio at SST. All was going well…until...
In the blink of an eye, our world took a turn for the worse.
Standing on a hill behind Stevens Institute in Hoboken, a mile or so north of SST. I watched in horror as smoke billowed from the World Trade Center Tower One. I cried as the second plane hit Tower Two.
Immediately, I ordered all SST crew and vehicles out of the city, instructed the staff to lock down SST, and told them to go home. I didn't dream that day that 9/11 would soon lead to another real possibility of meeting a Beatle.
Two weeks later, Paul McCartney announced "A Concert for New York." It promised to be a show of historic proportions. In more ways than one, it was.
SST was fortunate to be involved in the show. We were still too small at that time to bite off the backline and tech support assignments, but we did have a fleet of vans, which we donated to the producers to transport artists, crew, and gear in and around the city.
It was an honor to participate in an event this big and this important. We were still reeling from the attack. The National Guard placed armed guards around the SST buildings for six months because SST is located right at the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel and we had FBI agents in and out of the building every day. They had asked for access to the roof for surveillance purposes. A cell of the terrorist network involved in the attack had rented a building only two buildings down from ours, or so we heard. The FBI suspected them of constructing bombs there to blow up the Tunnel.
These suspected terrorists had moved into the building and parked three 24-foot box trucks outside adorned with huge lettering: "Acme Moving and Storage." It sounds like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon, but I assure you, it was not. It was as real as real gets.
The FBI found computers and bomb-making material within the building, but to my knowledge, no terrorists ever returned. It was one hairy and scary six months!
Back to the concert and SST.
We were given All-Access passes to the grounds. We had vans coming and going. Our vice-president was serving as the stage manager. Dorothy and I attended the rehearsals. Dorothy and I attended the rehearsals. She was SST's office manager at the time. We sat in front of the stage and watched the musical magic unfold. Rehearsals, pure and raw. No audience, just crew, techs, and musicians. They were quite candid about it--pulling off a performance of this magnitude in such a short time was no walk in the park.
Paul McCartney had pulled together an unprecedented coalition of the greatest musical artists in the world in only 40 days. We tried to remain inconspicuous as we watched the likes of James Taylor, Billy Joel, The Who, and Mick Jagger run through their sound checks.
Then it happened! There he was! Macca! Sir Paul himself, mere yards away!
He walked quietly past me, up the stage steps to the grand piano, and without a word, he began to play "Maybe I'm Amazed." Just Paul and his piano. It was a surreal moment for me. For once in my life, I was speechless. And then, he was gone.
So close, and yet so far away.
THE AFTER PARTY!
It was an incredible show, of course. More than four hours of performances, with Billy Crystal as MC. We had perfect seats and our All Access passes. It was history in the making.
Former President Clinton attended, along with every celebrity in the world, it seemed. Most importantly, the first responders and their families were there, and most tragically, so were the families of those who didn't survive that terrible day. The vibration of 20,000 people crying, laughing, mourning, venting their anger, showing their fear, yet feeling the power of their message to the world, is impossible to convey in word or film.
The energy in the air was something I will never forget.
Fortune rained down on me again. I was working in the studio with the girlfriend of the guy who owned one of the largest event planning firms in New York, a gentleman who was also closely involved in the Concert for New York. To show his gratitude and friendship for our role in the concert, he arranged two passes for Dorothy and me to attend the after-show party.
We were like two kids with free tickets to Disneyland, and a veritable Disneyland it was. Or should I say Dizzyland? I was so out of my element I was indeed dizzy.
Paparazzi were everywhere. When we entered the room, they thought we were somebody! Their flashbulbs nearly blinded me. It was sensory overload. There was Spike Lee and Ed Norton engaged in an intense conversation right in front of us. We bumped into Johnny Reznick, quite literally, who was riding high on the charts with the Goo Goo Dolls. Harrison Ford meandered through the crowd as if he were lost and looking for something. Billy Crystal sat at a table right in front of us eating chicken wings. Donald Trump sat two seats away, watching the band. Julia Stiles leaned against me and put her head on my shoulder while she continued a conversation with another partygoer.
Then, Sheryl Crow, Dan Ackroyd, Jim Carrey, and Sir Paul himself climbed up on the stage with the house band and sang Beatles songs! This entire circus played out only twenty feet in front of me. It was truly the most spectacular day of my life, and Dorothy's life, too—our first Triple A-List party.
Years later, when Johnny Reznik became an SST recording client, we reminisced about that party. I later met Billy Crystal, too, when I worked with him on a documentary film. I told him I was there that day and night and how amazing his performance was, considering the gravity of the evening. Without hesitation, he looked directly at me with a tear in his eye and said, "That was the hardest gig of my life."
I wanted so badly that day and that night to walk right up to Paul and say, "Hi Paul, I'm John Hanti," but I could not. I dared not. This was his day, not mine.
So close, and yet so far away.
STILL MISSING THE BEATLES: THE HARDEST NO I'LL EVER HAVE TO SAY
Time marched on. Now John and George were gone. Ringo became an SST client twice removed, but his path had yet to cross mine. By the year 2016, I had surrendered hope that I would ever meet a Beatle.
Fate then brought me into the orbit of Paul McCartney's new father-in-law that year. I met him in Las Vegas when I was invited to a dinner party he was attending. I went with high hopes that this might, at last, be the catalyst for an actual meeting with Sir Paul. It was not meant to be. Not once throughout the evening did his son-in-law's name come up. He was not there as Paul McCartney's' father-in-law, and I did not impose my dream on him.
Three years later, in the Spring of 2019, we took a surprise call at SST from Sir Paul's production manager. "Paul's been rehearsing for his summer tour in London," he said, "but he wants to complete the rehearsals in New York. We'd like to book SST's soundstage for two weeks, starting next week."
This was a call I'd been hoping for my entire life, but for the rest of my life, most likely, I will regret my answer.
The sound stage was already booked and paid for. I had to say "No" to Sir Paul McCartney. It broke my heart. Elton John once sang "Sorry seems to be the hardest word." I had never found the word "No" particularly difficult to say. But in this instance, it was by far the hardest word and the hardest "no," I will ever have to say.
So close, and yet so far away