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Sir George Martin: The ‘Fifth Beatle’ Looks Back (Interview)
Sir George Martin is inarguably the most successful music producer of all time.
If there’s anyone who can legitimately lay claim to the mantle of “Fifth” Beatle, it’s George Martin. Martin’s unparalleled production expertise, coupled with his profound talents as a musician, arranger and conductor, helped catapult The Fab Four to unprecedented waves of worldwide success.
Born in London in 1926, Martin has been an integral force in the musical scene for almost fifty years. Classically trained at The Guildhall School of Music, Martin parlayed his education with a job as assistant to Oscar Preuss, EMI Parlophone record chief. After Preuss retired in 1955, Martin was elevated to head of Parlophone where he worked with such disparate acts as Peter Sellers, Shirley Bassey, Stan Getz, Sir Malcom Sargent and Sophia Loren.
Prior to his involvement with The Beatles, Martin had a rich and diverse career, working in the fields of classical, comedy, jazz and light pop. His exemplary work with the legendary British comedy troupe “The Goons” further cemented Martin’s reputation –especially impressing John Lennon in particular.
But the course of George Martin’s life inexorably changed — as it did for four lads from Liverpool — on June 6, 1962.
This was the fateful date Martin first met the Beatles at a recording audition for Parlophone Records held at London’s Abbey Road Studios. Impressed more with the group’s cheeky charm and charisma than their as yet latent musical talents, (George Harrison even criticized the producer’s tie!), Martin signed the group to Parlophone, in the process making one of the smartest A&R moves in recording history.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about your musical beginnings at Guildhall School of Music and how that background influenced your later work.
George Martin: Well, I was very similar to both John and Paul in a way where I wasn’t taught music to begin with. I just grew up feeling music and naturally making music. I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t making music on the piano. I was running a band by the time I was fifteen.
RC: What was the name of the band?
GM: (Laughs) Very corny but I thought it was fantastic. The first one was a four piece and then it became a five piece. When it was a four piece I called it The Four Tune Tellers (laughs). And then it became George Martin And The Four Tune Tellers. Very clever. And I had T T’s on the stands in front. We made quite a little bit of money as well. And then the war intervened and by the time I was seventeen I was in the Fleet Air Arm which is part of the Royal Navy. We flew off carriers and we were fliers in the Navy. That was the tail end of the war.
I was four years in the service, I was twenty one when I came out. Having managed to evade Japan, I was all right. And I had no career. A professor of music who befriended me, he’s received from me during the war various compositions that I’d painfully put together. I went to see him and said, ‘you must take up music’. I said, “How can I, I’m not educated, I’ve never had any training?” He said, “Well get taught. I’ll arrange it for you.”
He arranged an audition for me to play some of my work to the principal of the Guildhall School Of Music and Drama which is a college in London. And he said ‘we’ll take you on as a composition student.’ And I got a government grant for three years to study. I started composition, conducting and orchestration and I took up the oboe. I took up the oboe so I could make a living playing some instrument.
You can’t make a living playing the piano. I just played piano naturally, I wasn’t taught. I didn’t take piano as a subject because I didn’t see any future in it, I didn’t rate myself as being a great pianist. I could never see myself making a living at it. I wanted to be a film writer. So that’s what happened. I was trained and I came out and I would work playing the oboe in different orchestras in the evenings and sometimes afternoons in the park, that kind of thing. I was a jobbing oboe player.
RC: Do you still play?
GM: No (laughs). I don’t think I could now. I took a job during the day to make some extra money, that was in the music department at the BBC. Then out of the blue I got a letter from someone asking me to go for an interview at a place called Abbey Road.
So I cycled along there and the guy said, “I’m looking for someone to help me make some classical recordings and I gather you can do this.” Because I was a woodwind player and educated by now, I got the job of producing the classical baroque recordings of the Parlophone label. And I got hooked.
Gradually this guy who was running the label gave me more and more work to do. I started doing jazz records, orchestral, pop of the period, it wasn’t rock. Over a period of five years I worked as his assistant gradually doing more and more. By the time the five years was up I was virtually doing everything. And five years later in 1955, he retired, he was sixty five years old and he left.
I thought somebody was going to be brought in over me because I was in my twenties still. But to my astonishment I was given the job of running the label. I was the youngest person ever to be given that job.
RC: Prior to your work with The Beatles, you worked in many different musical idioms. How did that impact your production skills? It seemed you were very willing to be experimental in your work with The Beatles.
GM: Oh absolutely. But I always was experimental even before The Beatles came along. One of the record I made was an electronic record called Ray Cathode which was collaborating with the BBC radiophonics people. I made a lot of what I call ‘sound pictures’ with actors and comedians because it was fun to do. I’m a person who gets bored quite easily and I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again. Once I was running the label I didn’t earn much money but I did have freedom to do what I wanted to do.
RC: Discuss your approach toward string arrangements. Your work on Beatles songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Glass Onion” is extraordinary.
GM: The writing of the parts is me and the requirements is them. It varied between John and Paul. Paul was generally quite articulate with what he wanted. Mostly we would sit down at the piano together and play it through and work out how it would sound. Paul still doesn’t know how to orchestrate but he knew what he wanted and would give me ideas and I would say ‘you can’t do that or you can do this’. We’d talk about it, talk it through.
John would never take that kind of attention. John was less articulate and much more full of imagery. He would have ideas which were difficult to express.
It was quite difficult for me to interpret. One of the problems was getting inside his brain and find what he really wanted. Quite often he would say, ‘you know me, you know what I want’. In the case of “I Am The Walrus,” when I first heard that he just stood in front of me with a guitar and sang it through. But it was weird. I said to him, ‘What the hell am I going to do with this, John?” And he said, “I’d like for you to do a score and use some brass and some strings and some weird noises. You know the kind of thing I want.” But I didn’t but I mean I just went away and did that.
RC: Didn’t you hire the Mike Sammes singers for that?
GM: Yes, that was a surprise for him. he didn’t know that. I thought well, let’s do this because it adds to it. I had a group of singers called The Michael Sammes Singers who were pretty corny people. They were very good at reading what you wrote. If you wrote something, they could pretty much sing it instantaneously. They were very good. In the score you’ve got the directions for them where they have to shout or all the glisses, the up and downs and the ha ha ha’s and hee hee hee’s and so on. And when we ran it through and John heard it he fell about laughing and thought it was so funny. So that’s why “Walrus” was such an important songs to put on the album.
RC: What orchestral arrangement that you did for The Beatles of which you’re most proud? “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a wild score.
GM: The Beatles wanted something unusual. Although at the core of it is orchestration that I liked to do. I liked to have clean orchestration. I’ve got various theories about orchestration. I don’t think the human brain can take it too many notes at once. For example, when you’re listening to a fugue of Bach or someone and you hear the first statement and the second one joins it, you can catch hold of that all right and then the third one comes in and it starts to get more complicated. Any more than that and it then it becomes a jumble of sound. You can’t really sort out what is what.
RC: Tell us about the time you tried to turn John Lennon onto a piece of classical music.
GM: He went back to my flat one night. We had dinner and were rapping away. We were talking about different kinds of music. I wanted to play him one of my favorite pieces of classical music. It was the “Daphnis and Chloe Suite Number Two” by Ravel, which is a gorgeous piece of music. It last about nine minutes and he sat through it patiently.
I mean it’s one of the best examples of orchestration you can get because it’s a swelling of sound that is just breathtaking. And he listened very patiently and said, “Yeah, it’s great. The trouble is by the time you get to the end of the tune you can’t remember what the beginning’s like”. And I realized it was too stretched out for him to appreciate in one go.
He couldn’t assimilate it. He was so used to little soundbites. A lot of people are nowadays. It’s the curse of advertising and television that we are now tuned to little jingles that we can connect and recognize right away.
And we can’t listen to anything longer than that, so consequently the way people write sometimes is to connect together a lot of little jingles, which is maybe not the best way of doing things.
RC: For a long time when asked about unreleased Beatles material you would state that it was all ‘rubbish’ and there was nothing worth issuing. Working on Anthology 1 , 2 & 3 disproved that.
GM: I was convinced that there was nothing in the vaults that people hadn’t heard that was worthwhile. But I was thinking like singles. Is there a great song that people hadn’t heard? No, there’s not a great song that people hadn’t heard, there’s little bits of rubbish. But what did emerge is I was given a brief by EMI who asked me to put together stuff that would reflect the visual Anthology that wouldn’t be a soundtrack, but like an accompaniment or a companion.
I thought the only way to do that is to see what there is. And I started listening, I found that there were different versions of songs that people would be interested in. The more I listened, the more I was convinced that people would want to have an analysis of what’s gone. In order, admittedly to give me more material, I would then put in things like Eleanor Rigby without the voices to show you the construction of it. Conversely, Because without the accompaniment to show you the beauty of the voices, that kind of thing. And I thought, okay, I’m spinning things out a bit here, but I think it’s valid.
RC: The alternate take of “Eight Days A Week” is wonderful, almost as good as the released version.
GM: That’s right. Yeah, people are interested in that kind of thing.
RC: The unreleased George Harrison song “You Know What To Do” was quite a treat. You listen to that an then something like “I Need You” and “Savoy Truffle” and George kind of blossomed all at once.
GM: He did blossom, didn’t he? To begin with, most of the songs he did were rubbish.
RC: What was the first song George wrote where your ears perked up and you thought he’s gotten much better as a writer? I like “I Need You.”
GM: (Sings chorus of I Need You) Nice little song. I remember the song I hated most of all, “Only A Northern Song.” “Taxman” wasn’t bad, typical George bitching about the world. Really, the one that I thought was better than any of those was “Here Comes The Sun.” I mean, that was the first time he showed real cleverness in a song. From “Here Comes The Sun” onward everything he did was pretty good.
RC: On Anthology you showed not only the musical side of the band but the zany side like on “And Your Bird Can Sing” where John and Paul are cracking up doing the vocal.
GM: Isn’t that super? (laughs) They were stoned out of their minds of course but it was also very funny. When I played it to Paul after I discovered it, I’d forgotten about it. We actually fell around laughing listening to it too. We had marvelous times. We had such fun in the studio. I have such happy memories. John was very funny. John would do impersonations and send ups of people, sometimes quite cruel, but always very, very funny.
RC: Whose idea was it to edit takes together on Anthology Two like “A Day In The Life”?
GM: Oh you mean to remake? It was the only way I could put the whole thing together as a song. And for that reason it was valid. It obviously wasn’t the way it was originally recorded, but then all I was doing was putting things together, I wasn’t distorting anything. If you’d done just the fragments it would have been a little bit boring.
RC: In the 70’s, John vacillated between loving and hating his days with The Beatles.
GM: John went through some very bad times like the Let It Be sessions. Later on he got pretty into drugs. During his time with May Pang, he admits it was a year and a half lost weekend.
RC: Hypothetically, if John were still alive would he have gotten involve with Anthology and recorded with Paul, George and Ringo?
GM: I think he would have taken part in it. I think he would have been very active in putting it together ‘cause John actually was an obsessive collector anyway. He would keep almost anything. I think he would have done. John actually regained himself at the end which was lovely. It was just too tragic having got back to himself that he was killed.
RC: When you met up with John in the 70’s he would tell you if he had the chance he would re-record every Beatles song. Could you understand where he was coming from?
GM: It’s a funny thing, John said this to me originally when we were spending an evening together and it shook me to the core when we were talking about old things and he said, ‘I’d love to do everything again.’ To me that was just a horror. And I said, “John, you can’t really mean it. Even ‘Strawberry Fields?’ And he said, “Especially ‘Strawberry Fields’!” I thought, oh shit, all the effort that went into that. We worked very hard on that trying to capture something that was nebulous.
RC: But I realized that John was a dreamer. In John’s mind everything was so beautiful and much better than it was in real life.
GM: He was never a person of nuts and bolts. The bitter truth is music is nuts and bolts, you’ve got to bring it down to horse hair going over a bit of wood, people blowing into brass tubes. You’ve got to get down to practicalities.
RC: How about you, George, is there one Beatles song you wish you could re-do?
GM: Would I like to do something again? No, I wouldn’t want to do anything again. I’m not a person to look back although having said that on this album I’m doing that.
But I’m not trying to do anything better than what we did.
I don’t honestly think I could do anything better than what we did. I think what we did was right.
It becomes solidified with time, you can’t imagine any other way of doing it. You get surprised if you hear someone doing something that works. When Joe Cocker came out with With A Little Help From My Friends, I thought that was great but that wouldn’t have worked with Ringo. So the answer is I’d rather leave it to history, thanks.
RC: When Paul, George and Ringo recorded the two new Beatles songs, “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love,” did they ask you to be involved?
GM: I kind of told them I wasn’t too happy with putting them together with the dead John. I’ve got nothing wrong with dead John but the idea of having dead John with live Paul and Ringo and George to form a group, it didn’t appeal to me too much. In the same way that I think it’s okay to find an old record of Nat King Cole’s and bring it back to life and issue it, but to have him singing with his daughter is another thing. So I don’t know, I’m not fussy about it but it didn’t appeal to me very much. I think I might have done it if they asked me, but they didn’t.
RC: Did you enjoy Jeff Lynne’s production of “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”?
GM: I thought what they did was terrific; it was very very good indeed. I don’t think I would have done it like that if I had produced it.
RC: What would you have done differently?
GM: Well, you see the way they did it you must remember the material they had to deal with was very difficult. It was a cassette that John had placed on top of his piano, played and sang. The piano was louder than the voice, and the voice wasn’t very clear and the rhythm was all over the place. So they tried to separate the voice and the piano, not very successfully.
Then they tried to put it into a rigid time beat so they could overdub easily other instruments. So they stretched it and compressed it until it got to a regular waltz and then they were done. The result was, in order to conceal the bad bits, they had to plaster it fairly heavily, so what you ended up with was quite a thick homogeneous sound that hardly stops. There’s not much dynamic in it.
The way I would have tackled it if I had the opportunity would have been the reverse of that. I would have looked at the song as a song and got The Beatles together and say ‘what can we do with this song?’ bearing in mind we have got John around as well somewhere. I would have actually have started to record a song and I would have dropped John into it.
I wouldn’t have made John the basis of it. So where possible I would have used instruments probably and we would then try and get his voice more separate and use him for the occasional voice so it would become a true partnership of voices. Whether that would be practical or not I don’t know, this is just theoretically the way I would tackle it.