George Martin: The Gospel according to George

 NZ Listener

Notice to aspiring bands: don’t bother sending any more demo tapes to Sir George Martin. Aside from the fact that he stopped auditioning unknowns a few years after he said yes to a band of unknowns called the Beatles, the great record producer recently announced that, at 72, he has recorded his swan-song.

Unsurprisingly, it is an album of Beatles tunes. This is not the first time he has reworked the classics: as early as 1964 there was Off The Beatle Track, by the George Martin Orchestra. This time, in an attempt to make an album “with a twist”, he has called in a collection of “friends and heroes” to perform the reinterpretations. No doubt there are those who will cry sacrilege when they hear Jim Carrey barking ‘I Am The Walrus’, Goldie Hawn vamping ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ Vegas-style, Robin Williams entreating us to ‘Come Together’, or Phil Collins mimicking Ringo’s drum solo from the end of Abbey Road.

With typical understatement, Martin has said he is “not a rock’n’roll person” and, if this album is proof, it does tie up the diverse strands of his recording life. The Beatles gave Martin his greatest success, but it was through his work with actors and comedians that he made his name.

As assistant producer at EMI’s Abbey Road studio since 1950, Martin took over the running of the company’s Parlophone label in 1955 and was immediately confronted with the task of making it viable. This was a tough call, as the label - unlike its competitors HMV and Columbia – had no American imports; no frank Sinatra, Mitch Miller, Doris Day or Guy Mitchell to rely on for big sales.

Martin hit upon an idea (“it was almost desperation, really”) – comedy. First, he teamed up with actor Peter Ustinov for a classical spoof single called ‘Mock Mozart’. In the decade before multi-track recording, Martin improvised a form of overdubbing by re-recording Ustinov singing along to the original tape. “Then I met a guy who had an ever greater facility for humour and making voices, who was kind of a stooge to Ted Ray on Ray’s A Laugh on radio. He wasn’t all that well known and his name was Peter Sellers.”

It is often overlooked how pivotal Martin’s work with Sellers and the Goons was in forming his bond with the Beatles. “When [the Beatles] came along, everybody else had turned them down because they weren’t very good at all. I was the joker in the pack. They had tremendous charisma, tremendous charm. They made me feel good to be with them and I thought, well, that’s a quality I’m always looking for with people. And they had a zany sense of humour, a tremendous sense of fun about therm.”

Goon-like, in fact. “It was in direct line of descent. And they knew me. I was comparatively famous and they knew I’d made all Peter Sellers’s records. They wanted to meet Peter, and they did and became quite good friends with him.”

Although Martin was initially unimpressed by Lennon and McCartney’s songs (“I didn’t know they could write, they didn’t show any signs of it then”), as their original material grew in sophistication, Martin’s comedy background came into play. “All the experimentation I’d done before seemed to fit in with them. I’d made a record before called Ray Cathode, which was a collaboration with the radiophonics unit of the BBC, using elementary synthetic sounds and loops, and that all paid off later on. I’ll never forget the first time I introduced backwards sound to John. We had recorded a song called ‘Rain’. They went out to dinner and left me in the studio playing around. I lifted john’s voice off the four-track and turned it around backwards and slid it around until it kind of fitted the beat. When they came back I said to John, ‘I’ve put a little bit of a different ending on this, do you want to have a listen?’ and I played it to him and he swore, ‘That’s absolutely… amazing, what is it?’ I said, ‘It’s you’, and he said, ‘Great, let’s do everything like that!’”

* * * *

It seems ironic that Martin, with his classical background and strait-laced demeanour, should have wound up at the heart of a 20th century pop revolution. His voice is “RAF officer, circa 1944”. His humour is schoolmasterly. (“Bollinger… so you’re a sparkling fellow, are you?”). But he disputes the popular myth.

“It’s funny that you say ‘coming from a classical background’. That is true, but it’s also true that I come from a band background. What isn’t generally written about me is that we had a piano in my house when I was a baby and I can’t remember not being able to make tunes on it, and I was never taught music. By the time I was 15, I was running a dance band. My sister was a vocalist and we used to play for hops. Then the war intervened and I went into the Fleet Arm. After the war, I had no training for anything and I was advised by a professor of music that I should study music. I got a three-year course at the Guildhall and took up the oboe as a sideline. But it was rather like the Beatles, not having been taught music and running a band… [except] they didn’t go through the process of an education afterwards.”

The posh accent, he has admitted, was cultivated only after he heard his working-class vowels played back on tape for the first time. “I’m always portrayed as being the schoolmasterly fellow, the gentleman, all that rubbish. I come from the same background as they do! My father was a carpenter. I’m working-class, lad!”

The Beatles’ break-up in 1970 was not a crisis for Martin. He left the public service-like security of EMI at the height of the Beatles’ success (“I walked out because they still wouldn’t pay me a royalty, while their sales people were all getting bonuses and commissions’), and went on to design and build studios of his own in London and the West Indies, while continuing to produce successful records for such acts as Jeff Beck, America and Cheap Trick.

“I had a series of affairs rather than a long-term marriage, in musical terms – a great relief because I didn’t have the ongoing responsibility of worrying whether the next record would make it to number one. And, of course, I got much more money. With the Beatles I was on a very low rate indeed, but with other people I got my proper producer’s royalty.”

Yet at the end of his career, he inevitably returned to the Beatles. It is a Lennon song, ‘In My Life’, that gave Martin the title for his final album. Or is it? Although Lennon has always claimed it as essentially his work (“I think Paul helped with the middle eight”, he grudgingly admitted to Rolling Stone), McCartney, in a recently published biography, gives a different account.

“I haven’t read his book,” says Martin, “and I’m not sure what he says on that, but I always regarded ‘In My Life’ as being John’s song, and the words must certainly be John’s. Now, whatever Paul contributed musically to it… he claims he did, does he?”

McCartney claims to have sent Lennon away for a cup of tea while he composed the entire melody to a rough set of Lennon lyrics. Martin hums. “Next time I see Paul I’ll tackle him on this… it’s interesting. It’s the gospel according to St Paul, as opposed to the earlier one according to St John. People do have different memories. I was with Paul in the studio once and I said, ‘Do you remember when Ringo picked up that thing and did such-and-such’, and he said, ‘No, it was George.’ ‘No, Paul, I definitely remember Ringo putting down his cigarette…’ and he said, ‘No, it was George…’ and then we fell around laughing. If we can’t get it right, what hope is there for history? History is bunk, there’s no doubt about it. History is memories and memories get distorted.”

Martin is sure about one thing, though, and that’s the “middle eight” of ‘In My Life’, a clever baroque pastiche centre around a piano recorded at half-speed, so as to resemble a harpsichord at normal tempo. He wrote that part.

Tags: poppaul mccartneybeatlesjohn lennonthe goonsabbey road

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