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Old Apr 27, 2007, 05:40 PM   #1
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Default 'Beatles split was a relief'

‘Beatles split was a relief’

By Rob Blackhurst April 20 2007

AIR Lyndhurst, the Hampstead church converted into a recording studio by Sir George Martin, hardly reeks of the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Inside the gloomy Victorian building are hanging baskets and a plaque commemorating a visit by the Prince of Wales. The rock musicians who have paused for lunch are not imbibing whisky and cigarettes in a dingy room. They are sitting on church pews in a light-flooded refectory, reading The Times and feasting on buckwheat salad and Shiraz while a genteel Louis Armstrong CD plays.
This, of course, is in keeping with the famously civilised spirit of Sir George. Photographs from Beatles sessions in the 1960s always show their producer looking dapper with a Brylcreemed parting and pressed suit, whatever psychedelic regalia the “boys” (as he still calls them) were wearing. As he greets me in an upstairs mixing room it’s clear that, at 81, the fifth Beatle has swapped sartorial elegance for comfort. He is in retirement mode – wearing grey trousers pulled high above his waist and a simple blue shirt – though a tweed jacket lies draped over a chair.
More than 50 years in the recording industry have taken their toll on his ears, and he sits next to me on a sofa so he can hear my questions. “I’m compos mentis but my hearing has gone to pot. It’s on a steep downward curve now.” There are shades of the boy who grew up in Islington as the son of a wood machinist that seep through his beautifully modulated received pronunciation.
Up until Christmas, Martin was working full-time for three years on one last project for his most famous act. With his record producer son Giles he helped develop Love, the Cirque du Soleil show based loosely around the lyrics to Beatles songs, which opened in November in Las Vegas. Together they trawled the Abbey Road archive to create its soundtrack of remixed and spliced-up Beatles tracks. But, though he’s announced his retirement almost as many times as Status Quo, this time he seems to mean it.
“It has to be my last album,” he says. “I’m lucky to be alive – let’s face it.” And, though he likes Coldplay and Radiohead, he seems more interested in his garden and his four children (and growing crop of grandchildren) than the charts.
Since the Beatles split up 37 years ago, Martin has had a comfortable portfolio existence – producing records for Jeff Beck, America and Paul McCartney, writing scores to films such as Live and Let Die and acting as custodian of the Beatles legacy, including overseeing the Anthology collections of out-takes in the mid-1990s. He’s also been treated as the unofficial master of ceremonies of the British music industry, leading the “three cheers for Her Majesty” at the Jubilee pop concert five years ago.
Fed up with the Scrooge-like attitude towards producers on a staff salary at EMI, Martin was one of the early pioneers of freelance working – and, from the mid-1960s onwards, hired himself back to the Beatles. (In 1963 his bosses gave him a Christmas bonus of four days’ pay, despite the fact that his records had secured the number one slot for 37 weeks of the year.)
The business he established – The Associated Independent Recording (AIR) company – built a series of studios, including one on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat in 1979. It became one of the most prolific studios of the 1980s – playing host to Stevie Wonder, Elton John and the Rolling Stones. But it was destroyed in the volcano eruption of 1995 – since when Martin has devoted himself to fundraising for the 8,000 islanders who lost their homes and their livelihoods. In May, 12 years and $3m later, he will be attending the opening of the fruits of his labours – a community centre where the population can “meet, play bingo and celebrate bar mitzvahs”.
One source of revenue for Martin’s Montserrat appeal has been 500 lithographs of his original 1965 string-quartet score for “Yesterday”, each signed by himself and Paul McCartney: “You can see the scratches and the rubbing out and the coffee stains – you really cannot tell the difference from the original. I’ve got the original and it’s been valued at £100,000 by Sotheby’s.” These days Martin turns down virtually all interview requests but one reason he’s speaking to me is that he’s keen to sell off the remaining 65 for £2,800 each.

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Old Apr 27, 2007, 05:41 PM   #2
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The accountancy habits of an old record label boss die hard. He’s fascinated by the economics of the Love show: “London or Broadway are like mice compared to the scale of Las Vegas. The theatre – which has 6,000 speakers – was specially built for the show and cost $150m. There are two shows a night five times a week. And the average price of a ticket is $120.” When making the Love album, the experimental boffin in him enjoyed exploring digital technology, which he would have “given his right arm for in the 60s”. Sounds that took him hours of Heath Robinson improvisation with the Beatles are now available at the press of a button. His son, well versed in digital manipulation, taught him some new tricks. He is wide-eyed: “You can bring up all the sound on the computer – and stretch them, compress them, bend them, turn them upside down and change keys.”

Revisiting the original master tapes and listening again to the studio banter captured between takes was a bittersweet experience now that two of the four Beatles are dead. To end the Love show, Martin uses a poignant piece of this snatched dialogue, John Lennon saying in a thick cod-Scouse accent: “Turn the red light off. This is Johnny Rhythm saying goodnight to yuz all.” “Isn’t that lovely?” says Martin, smiling with an almost parental affection. “Even now when I listen to that voice I have feelings of shivers down my spine. The funny thing is that John always hated it – and he was always begging me to do things with it.”

In view of the album’s near-unanimous rave reviews, I ask whether he was disappointed that it peaked at number three in the British charts and then went into freefall. “I was disappointed. But people didn’t need to buy it. They could take it off the air. The music industry is facing almost extinction at the moment with downloading. Technology, which was always our great friend, has suddenly turned into an enemy. It’s made a world of people who firmly believe that all music should be free.”

So what does he think of Paul McCartney’s decision to leave EMI after more than 40 years and release his next album through the Starbucks label? “That’s pretty smart, I think. Starbucks is where everyone goes – you don’t go into an HMV shopto buy a cup of coffee. It sounds radical – but his new stuff didn’t sell on the old catalogue anyway.”

Though it seems likely that, with the cessation of hostilities between the two corporate Apples, Beatles tracks will soon appear on iTunes, Martin worries that downloads are destroying the concept of the album that, with Sergeant Pepper, the Beatles did so much to pioneer: “One of the sad things about iTunes is that you don’t have to buy albums as they are. Now we’ve got a kind of fragmentation of individual songs that don’t belong to each other.”

Martin began as a professional musician during the war, aged 15, playing Jerome Kern and Cole Porter songs that he had learnt by ear in pubs with his dance band George Martin and his Four Tune Tellers. Via a combat-free stint as a navigator on fighter planes in the Fleet Air Arm (where he acquired his officer class accent and bearing), he entered the Guildhall School of Music and found himself, in his mid-20s, trying to earn a “not very good living” as a “not very good oboe player”. He got an invitation in 1950 to join EMI as an assistant to the head of the Parlophone label. At 29, when he took over Parlophone, he became the youngest ever person to run a record label. He remembers a world that seems closer to Edwardian England than the spirit of the modernising 1950s: “EMI was like the BBC. It was a hallowed institution. So there was a rigid class system.”

Martin produced a bewildering array of music – from original recordings of plays such as Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, to Scottish bagpipe music to Humphrey Lyttelton’s jazz band. But it was improvising sound effects in comedy recordings – with Flanders and Swann, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan – that later helped him deliver the stunning inventiveness of Beatles records. “Imagery in sound is most important. With Peter Sellers I experimented with musique concrète. It was a great preparation for when the Beatles came along.”

Desperate for his own act that would emulate the success of “the English Elvis” Cliff Richard, Martin half-heartedly signed the Beatles after every other big record label in London had rejected them. And here lies one of the great imponderables in pop music industry. If Martin hadn’t taken a punt on them in 1962, would they have gone back to Liverpool and given up before they’d even begun to write their canon of classic songs? He is typically modest: “Whatever happened they would have succeeded one way or another. It might have taken a little longer and they might have become solo artists, but they were talented people. They would have made it.”

He sighs and, for the thousandth time, sounds almost disbelieving as he tries to pinpoint how the charismatic but, in his eyes, musically undistinguished teenagers managed to achieve so much. “Together they had this magical, almost nuclear fission. They were like the four corners of a tower – and they were impregnable.”

Throughout the 1960s, Martin had to be in the studio at any time of day or night that the Beatles demanded – often until 4 or 5am. Physically and creatively, it was exhausting. “You had to use the extremes of your imagination to get what you thought they wanted to hear. It took its toll. I remember I would fall asleep in the middle of the session because I was physically worn out. I was chatting to George many years later. And he said: ‘I used to pop a pill in your tea to keep you awake.”

When the Beatles finally split up in 1970, Martin felt emancipated: “During the time I was with them my main concern was making them as good as they possibly could be, and to keep them together. When they split up it was a great relief to me because I didn’t have responsibility for them.”

Martin was the perfect madcap schoolmaster to the Beatles. Even though he’d never taken a drag of a joint, he shared their English eccentricity and love of jabberwocky-inspired fantasy – which influenced the startling scores he wrote to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus”.

Just as importantly, he kept their huge competing egos in check and tempered the excesses of their “free-form” jamming that, he says, “would bore the pants off you”. I ask what he, in turn, learned from his four star pupils. He answers without a second thought. “They gave me the courage to push the boundaries. Without them I don’t think I would have done it.”

Details of the Yesterday for Montserrat appeal are on www.georgemartinmusic.com
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