The Fab Four's fifth, still going strong
The Fab Four's fifth, still going strong
The legendary Beatles producer, now 81, talks to James Adams about a six-decade career packed with legends, and not over yet
Globe and Mail Update
Saturday, May 5, 2007
George Martin chalks up his professional longevity to a talent for walking 'the tightrope of taste.' (Peter Power/Globe and Mail)
It's a bit dismaying to learn that Sir George Martin is now entirely deaf in his left ear and hearing-impaired in his right. After all, the fame, fortune and esteem he's enjoyed are largely the result of what those ears have discerned over the last six decades.
Then again, no one's going to say that Martin has lacked for sound. There must be universes of music still playing in his head, vast sonic collages assembled from the famous and not-so-famous melodies, harmonies and rhythms he's variously recorded, scored, played and imagined into existence.
Of course, it's his association with the Beatles that remains the touchstone of Martin's career. And it was the Beatles that brought him to Toronto's Elgin Theatre earlier this week, as the host of An Evening with Sir George Martin, a potpourri of reminiscences, music and imagery that he's been touring, in various incarnations, for the last several years.
At 81, Martin still has what Beatles biographer Bob Spitz calls "the aura." Tall and trim, his clear blue eyes and firm jaw convey a combination of authority and decency. Sitting in a chair in the Prime Minister's Suite at the Royal York Hotel just a few hours before his presentation, Martin answered the questions graciously and with seeming engagement, only occasionally cocking an ear for a repetition or clarification. Of course, he probably had heard every question thousands of times before.
Looking at pictures of Paul, John, George and Ringo from the early 1960s, when they first travelled to London from their Liverpool home to meet him, one is struck by their youthfulness. As Martin remarked, "Paul and George were still not even 20." Yet Martin himself was also a young man at that time - just 36. "I guess I was like a big brother."
Martin, like the Beatles, had played in bands in his teens, but in 1943, when he was just 17, he put music on hold to join the flying branch of the Royal Navy. "I didn't have to join. If I'd waited until I was 18, I would have been conscripted. But," he said, smiling, "I didn't fancy much being an infantryman, which is what would have happened. So I got ahead of the game."
Martin left the service in 1947, intending to pursue a career in music. Eventually, this led him to EMI Records in London and to his installation, in 1955, as head of its Parlophone division, where he recorded classical and Baroque, as well as pop crooners, jazz artists and comedians, most famously Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Amusingly, Martin thought the production biz would be only an interim engagement en route to what he considered his real ambition - composition.
"I've decomposed since then," he said with a chuckle. "But you know how it is when you're young: You're a musician, and you imagine you're pretty brilliant. I remember seeing a movie called Dangerous Moonlight. It was a wartime type of film, and the hero was a classical pianist and composer, and on the soundtrack was this thing called the Warsaw Concerto [by British composer Richard Addinsell] that I thought was terrific. I used to play it, in fact, and I won a competition playing it - £5, which was a lot of money back then. But the big problem was, I wasn't educated in music. I just had a natural feel for it and thought, 'Hey, I could do that. I'll write film music.' "
Eventually, of course, Martin did learn to read and notate music, and went on to work on lots of films, including the Beatles' first feature, 1964's A Hard Day's Night.
It's part of the group's lore that the man who came to be known as "the fifth Beatle" initially wasn't that impressed with John Lennon and company. "A rather unpromising group" with a batch of "very mediocre" originals is how his assessment has been quoted in some histories. However, Martin quickly came to like them.
They, in turn, soon came to respect and rely on him. It was Martin, lest we forget, who came up with - and played - the harpsichord-like piano bridge for In My Life after an unschooled Lennon reportedly told him he wanted "something like Bach." It was Martin, too, who gave Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite its astonishing range of circusy effects after Lennon announced: "I want to smell the sawdust in the ring."
Once Martin had the Beatles under his wing, the group's manager, Brian Epstein, began to send a bevy of Liverpudlians to Martin. He duly produced many chart-breakers for the likes of Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, among others. In fact, in Britain in 1963, for 34 weeks the No. 1 hit was a song produced by Martin. "It had never been done before," he said with undiminished pride, "and it never will be done again."
Yet Martin never saw any of these other acts as the equals, let alone potential usurpers, of the Beatles. Epstein "may have imagined himself as a latter-day Diaghilev, an impresario who could do fabulous things with people he deemed talented," Martin observed. "But the Beatles were unique, and I had made plenty of pop records before them, let me tell you. I knew they were something I hadn't come across before and, as it proved, the world hadn't either."
After the Beatles breakup in 1970, Martin worked the soundboard for such artists as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Webb, Neil Sedaka, the Little River Band, Kenny Rogers and Cheap Trick. Even Barbra Streisand was keen to work with him, but it never happened "because she wanted to do the record three weeks from the moment we met."
The one group Martin was most intensely involved with was America, that trio of U.S. army brats living in Britain who, in 1972, scored a monstrous hit with A Horse with No Name. Martin signed on with them a year or so later, and stayed around for seven albums that included such Top 40 hits as Tin Man and Sister Golden Hair.
"There was just something about the sound of their acoustic guitars that I loved," Martin recalled with a smile. "And they were helluva nice guys. I remember the first record we did - Holiday, I think - we did in three weeks, start to finish." Having spent more than 700 hours on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, such brevity was mind-boggling. "At the end, I said to them, 'You guys have been terrific. It's just too bad we've got a bit of a flop on our hands.' They looked at me ashen-faced and I said, 'Well, you can't enjoy making a record like this and expect it to be a hit as well, can you?'" (The record, for the record, was a huge smash.)
Named a Commander of the British Empire in 1988, then knighted by the Queen in 1996 - a year before Paul McCartney's investiture - Martin went into a kind of semi-retirement in 1999 as his hearing declined. At the turn of the century, he turned his attention to preparing a Yellow Submarine ballet or musical, only to have his ambition redirected when George Harrison came up with the idea of doing Yellow Submarine in association with Montreal's Cirque du Soleil, whose founder, Guy Laliberté, Harrison had befriended. In 2003, Martin was brought on board.
While he accepted the commission, which eventually became the hit Love show in Las Vegas, Martin said he knew he "needed help on this. I told them, 'I ain't the force I used to be. I'm not a master of modern recording techniques and my ears aren't so good.' But I knew a guy who could fill that bill impeccably, namely my youngest son, Giles."
It proved a fruitful collaboration. In fact, it was Giles who came up with one of the production's most audacious musical conceits: underpinning Harrison's Within You Without You with the rhythm track from Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows. "I told Giles, 'We're playing with the Holy Grail here, and I'll probably get slammed.' And he said, 'Oh Dad, you won't, but I will. I'm the precocious upstart.' "
Needless to say, no one got slammed. Once again, George Martin had walked what he calls "the tightrope of taste" to the other side. Bad hearing or no, "I still feel young," he chuckles, "and what you feel is not what you look."
Here are 2 reviews from people in Toronto who attended the lecture from the official Paul McCartney Forum: http://macca.devstars.eu/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=59067
PaulaJ: "I didn't know quite what to expect from this night, exactly. I had never been to any unique lives-type of talks before. When I got to the theatre I was buzzing with the anticipation of the evening. Most people were over 40 but there was a handful of teenagers too. I got the feeling their parents coerced them into coming. lol
The stage was simply set with a podium, flanked by two of those teleprompters with the glass panels, a 10' x 10' screen, and a nicely-upholstered Bergiere chair. I was sitting near the back (second last row) but it was a small theatre, so that was ok. (I'll get to the one problem with my seat later).
Sir George was introduced by an entertainment writer from The Globe and Mail newspaper (they were the sponsors). He reminisced about being a young reporter back in the mid-60's and receiving a copy of the Sgt. Pepper album to review. He brought the copy with him last night. It was in mint condition. It may have even still had the wrapper on it.
He then introduced Sir George. Everyone gave him a standing ovation for just walking onstage. Loved that! He is a very tall man, I'm guessing about 6'2" and was dressed in a dark blue suit, white shirt, and a green and blue tie. He looked very distinguished. He appeared somewhat frail and I was concerned that he would have to stand the entire evening. Despite being mic-ed, you had to listen closely to him speak as he has a rather low and quiet voice.
He began by saying he never imagined producing any more music in his life until the LOVE project came up. He spent about 15 minutes describing how the project came about, who was involved, and the huge task of milling through ever bit of Beatles sound to come up with the final product. One thing he said that I was very happy to hear was that the Beatles tapes were still in storage prior to LOVE and they decided, in order to preserve them properly and while they had the opportunity, they were transferred to digital - every song, every sound, every track. Fabulous!
He then went on to talk about his early days with Parlaphone - recording childrens' albums, The Goons, and Peter Sellers. He worked his way to the Beatles by describing his first meeting with Brian Epstein wherein Brian played the guys' first recording for him and he admitted to this day he thought it was awful. Despite that, he saw something in the guys themselves - their "cheeky humour" - that appealed to him.
He described how the various sounds on "Strawberry Fields" came about. One moment in the film, with Sir George at the control panel, really hit me. He was moving the phasers up and down and separated out John's vocal. He had such a warm look on his face and described how that vocal alone "makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It's very special". It was such a sentimental moment and I'm sure we all felt it - not just me.
There were funny stories of how the guys would pipe up and say things like "we need an orchestra on this song" not realizing that co-ordinating, scoring music for, and fitting them all into the studio was a monumental task. He showed a brief clip of the original trumpet player playing the part in "Penny Lane". I love that song! Another interesting thing was the orchestration for "Eleanor Rigby". Sir George had modelled it after the music in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho". Next time you see the movie, listen to the music as Marion (Janet Leigh) is driving the rainy highway after she steals the money. There was a split screen-sort of comparison. We all chuckled over that.
The talk after that was mostly spent talking about the Sgt. Pepper album, as this is the 40 year anniversary. He had clips of Paul, George, and Ringo describing different aspects of their part in the production. How the title of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" came about (Julian's painting), the difficulty Ringo had with hitting the final note in "A Little Help From My Friends" but with Paul's help managed to finally nail it, the fragmentation of the parts in "A Day In The Life" came about as well as all the little tricks and sounds associated with that song. (On the original masters, you can hear Mal Evans counting out the bars to the song), figuring out a way to get the orchestra (violinists) to play the crescendo at the end of the song by telling them to "not listen to the player beside you - just do your own thing", and how the BBC rejected the song - they wouldn't play it. Sir George shook his head over that one.
There was an interesting story of the recording of "For The Benefit of Mr. Kite". We all know John got the idea for the song from a poster he saw in a store. John wanted to capture the true sounds of a travelling circus/medicine show. They wanted a kaliope or pipe organ, but decided that was too much trouble and chose to work with the organ sounds they had available. Sir George had the idea of taking long lengths of tape and chopping them up into two-foot lengths. They finally had about a hundred of them. They then threw them up in the air and randomly fed them into the tape machine and, presto!, the sounds of a travelling show were made. John loved it! He said it was perfect.
We all laughed when Sir George said he visited John one day at the Dakota some years after the Beatles split up and John said, "You know, George, I would love to record all of our music over again". Sir George's head hit the podium in a fake faint. He thought John was mad! I suppose an artist always hears things differently later on and wishes they could change a some things. That was pretty funny.
The talk ended with Sgt. Pepper. He talked about how he found out about Brian's death and how devastated he was - how things started to fall apart after that. There was no discussion on any project after Sgt. Pepper. Nothing about the White Album or Abbey Road.
I could go on and on, but I think you all have a pretty good idea of how the evening went.
Thankfully, Sir George did use the chair several times to sit down during the film clips.
One last thing about my seat location. I was in the second last row and directly behind the last row was the sound board. Unfortunately, that back section could hear the sound guys giving cues for the show. There were a few times it got fairly annoying - when they were chattering too much. One guy behind me even had an official photographer beside him snapping pictures throughout the evening. He finally lost his temper and told them to keep it down. I don't blame him. It was annoying. The photographer disappeared and the sound guys, though still having to talk in the cues, were quieter too. Soooo.... if you're buying tickets for this event, keep your seat location in mind. As I said, Sir George speaks rather low and it's difficult enough to stay focused on his speech without outside noise. It's not like a pop/rock concert where this stuff gets drowned out.
Hope you enjoyed the review.
beatlefan46: "I was there as well. Actually I had posted topic a couple of days ago asking if anyone else was going. I had received an e-mail from the globeandmail which was putting on the event on Tuesday and since I was the only one going I was able to get 12th row on the left side of the stage. It was a perfect spot and great view of Sir George. I loved the film clips of the boys especially with Ringo since he always had something funny to say. Ringo was talking about how crappy they were playing and couldn't hear themselves sing because of the screams. Ringo said all he could do is "watch three bums" and keep steady with the beat! I could have listened to Sir George all night long. He received a standing ovation when he came on and was leaving the stage. I had tears in my eyes because I didn't want the evening to end. What an honor to be in the same room of the "5th Beatle.""
Sir George Martin at his lecture in Toronto's Elgin Theater on May 3, 2007. (Photo taken by MaccaSandy)
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