Saturday, December 22, 2012

He Had You Hooked on the Beatles


By MARC MYERS - Wiltshire, England
Moments after greeting this writer outside his 260-year-old summer home here, two hours west of London, Sir George Martin suggested we sit in a gazebo at the high end of a manicured lawn. "I used to do the mowing, but now I'm not allowed to operate heavy machinery," he said, grinning. Tall and more youthful than his 86 years, Mr. Martin strides with long, measured steps, his cobalt eyes alert with purpose. The problem is his ears. Mr. Martin no longer can hear music and he must rely on two hearing aids and lip-reading for conversations.

In a cruel twist, rock's most famous record producer has become a victim of the very music he helped elevate to a classic art form. Long hours of exposure to loud sound in recording studios have inflicted permanent damage. It's a topic he talks about openly in "Produced by George Martin" (Eagle Rock), a BBC documentary that will be released on DVD in the U.S. on Tuesday.

The sole producer of the Beatles' recordings, with the exception of their album "Let It Be," Mr. Martin has worked with dozens of other artists, including Cilla Black, Shirley Bassey, Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin, the Who and Celine Dion. A winner of six Grammys, he still holds Billboard's record for producing the most No. 1 pop singles—23 in all—and had two titles bestowed on him by Queen Elizabeth.

"A producer's role is still a mystery to most music-listeners, isn't it?" said Mr. Martin, whose cellolike voice is as soothing as it is commanding. "Put simply, my job was to make sure recordings were artistically exceptional and commercially appealing, maximizing the qualities of artists and songs."

Mr. Martin's early magic can be heard in the "hooks" that kick off many of the Beatles' hit singles. These hooks include the opening drum roll on "She Loves You," the initial ringing guitar chord on "A Hard Day's Night" and the first yelp on "Help!"

"For 'Can't Buy Me Love' in early '64, I designed a catchy opener for Paul that used the tagline at the song's corners. If you could grab teens' imaginations right away over the radio, you'd have them."

Born in London in 1926, Mr. Martin taught himself piano and could play Rachmaninoff just by listening to recordings. He attended private school on a scholarship in 1937, and in 1943 enlisted in the Fleet Air Arm, Britain's naval aircraft unit. "Formal music studies for me didn't begin until I was 21, at London's Guildhall School in 1947," he said.

Urged by a mentor to interview at EMI, Mr. Martin was hired in 1950 to assist the head of Parlophone—EMI's smallest label. "When my boss retired in 1955, I was named the label's new director, which was a shock to me," he said. Over the next seven years, Mr. Martin recorded classical ensembles, jazz combos and comedians, including Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.

In April 1962, Syd Coleman called. "Syd headed EMI's music-publishing unit. He asked me to hear a group managed by someone named Brian Epstein. When Brian came by and played their demo, I wasn't impressed. But when I met the Beatles soon after, they had so much charisma I offered them a studio test."

An hour-long test turned into weeks, and singles became hits. By 1965, Mr. Martin questioned his pay. "The head of EMI offered a raise, but it was so low compared to the revenue I was generating that I left to start my own company." With the formation of Associated Independent Recording (AIR), Mr. Martin was a free agent, and EMI hired him regularly to produce the Beatles and other artists.

In June 1965, Mr. Martin launched his rock-classical experiments, beginning with "Yesterday." "We had never done anything like that before—and no one else had either. When I first suggested adding a string quartet, Paul [McCartney] grimaced and said, 'I don't want Mantovani, thank you.' I said, 'It doesn't have to be like that—we can be more clinical. We can use a baroque string quartet.'"

When "Eleanor Rigby" was slated for recording a year later, Mr. McCartney pushed for strings. "My approach was greatly influenced by Bernard Herrmann and his film score for 'Psycho,'" Mr. Martin said. "He had a way of making violins sound fierce. That inspired me to have the strings play short notes forcefully, giving the song a nice punch."

Mr. Martin even played on a number of Beatles songs, including "In My Life" on "Rubber Soul." "I wrote a piano part that I couldn't perform fast enough. So I played the notes at half speed but an octave lower on the piano, recording at 15 inches per second. When I ran the tape back at 30 inches per second, the notes were at the right speed and in the correct octave. But the piano's personality also had changed, which is why it sounds like a harpsichord."

Mr. Martin's instrumental collages and overdubbing grew more imaginative on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in 1966 and '67. "On 'A Day in the Life,' we needed to bridge John's first half with the second half written by Paul. Paul suggested an orchestral orgasm, so I scored 24 measures, from the lowest note to the highest. I told the orchestra, 'Make your own way up there. If you're playing the same note as the chap next to you, you're wrong.'"

When our conversation turned to "Let It Be"—the Beatles' last prebreakup album release—the pain was still evident. "It's still a sword in my side and hard to discuss, even today. When we started in '68 and '69, John said to me, 'We don't want any of your production crap on this. We do it live. We're a good band. No overdubbing or editing.'"

But at the recording sessions, errors mounted, and upward of 50 takes were needed on some tracks. "We tried to assemble an album, warts and all, just as John had insisted. But it was a mess and shoved to one side. Later, I heard that John and George took the master tapes from EMI and gave them to [producer] Phil Spector, who did all the things that John wouldn't let me do. It was baffling."

By the late '70s, music was becoming harder for Mr. Martin to hear. "In the '60s, nobody warned us that listening to loud music for too long would cause damage. I was in the studio for 14 hours at a stretch and never let my ears repair. Today's headsets are causing the same problem for a new generation," said Mr. Martin, who is a vice president at Deafness Research UK, a London charity.

Before we headed indoors for tea, a final legacy question: How does it feel to be responsible for helping rock grow up and become timeless? "If I did, I didn't intend to," Mr. Martin said. "Rock should never grow up. It's the domain of young people and must stay young." A short pause followed. "You won't find me making any more rock and roll records."
Another great interview with Sir George Martin HERE.

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