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."