George Martin, in 1962, long before he was knighted by the Queen of England, heard a demo tape at Parlophone Records at EMI in London. He was not impressed. But the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, insisted Martin hear the band live to understand their appeal. Martin agreed and when The Beatles performed for him in the studio, he was still unimpressed by their music. But he heard something particular and unique in the voices of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But as Martin explained to a packed Bovard Auditorium at USC last week, had he known every label in London had already passed, he might not have agreed to meet them.
The Grammy Foundation presented Martin, the 82-year-old “Fifth Beatle” and most successful pop record producer of all time, with their Leadership Award the night after his Bovard presentation, on the creation of The Beatles’ ground-breaking Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The weekend tribute certainly acknowledged his unparalleled 50 number one hits over five decades in the US and Great Britain. It must certainly take into account not only his utterly innovative and fascinating work with the Beatles but with names like Jeff Beck, Peter Sellers and the Goon Show, Elton John, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, The Who, Stevie Wonder and on into the stratosphere. But the instantaneous standing ovation that greeted Martin upon his arrival and departure from the stage at Bovard testified to his reputation as a gentleman as well as creative force in music.
From being an oboe player and wanting to design aircraft, George Martin evolved into scoring music and engineering, when, as he described it, a recording engineer wore a white jacket and wax discs were cut with lathes, as masters. From this, he inevitably ruled the roost at London’s Abbey Road Studios, which he called “a wonderful, musical toy shop.”
His influence upon The Beatles and their eventual releases first took hold when he heard “Please Please Me,” suggested they play it at twice the speed and turned it into a number one hit. Martin shared, with video clips, many anecdotes of this special collaboration, including urging McCartney to use a string quartet on “Yesterday,” a result that Martin claimed “…didn’t do too badly,” wringing laughter out of the audience with his understatement. More chortling was heard when the crowd saw a clip contrasting the strings on “Eleanor Rigby” with Martin’s inspiration for their use, Bernard Herrmann’s staccato violin bursts in the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho.
But Sargeant Pepper not only changed the direction of popular music; the process of recording and producing it was utterly novel and at times eccentric, experimental. “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” took over 100 sound clips of steam organs and mixed them together in a crazy quilt bed of circus sounds. And when “A Day in the Life” was recorded, Martin and McCartney, to the befuddlement of the orchestra, insisted they improvise the crescendo that comes before a final monstrous, echoing piano chord at song’s end. Martin revealed he instructed them, “If you’re playing the same note as the fellow next to you, you’re doing it wrong.” The orchestra eventually got into the groove. Martin recalls one member wearing a red clown nose and another using a monkey’s paw to play his violin.
Previously reviewed in these pages is the Cirque du Soleil production in Las Vegas of The Beatles Love, which Martin and his son Giles worked on in secret for three years, remastering and mashing together their favorite Beatle tunes for inclusion in the technologically staggering show. It is precisely this kind of challenge to grow and to tinker and to explore that signified the work of The Beatles and George Martin. It is what made their partnership so musically magical. The first album The Beatles recorded took just under 600 minutes of studio time, according to Martin. Sargeant Pepper took over 700 hours.
And despite the joy and freshness of so much of The Beatles canon, it is both amusing and thought-provoking to hear Martin tell of a time after the Fab Four split up, when he was visiting John Lennon in the Dakota in New York City.
Lennon confided that he wished he could re-record all of The Beatles music.
“What, even ‘Strawberry Fields?’” asked Martin, citing a favorite of both men.
Martin said Lennon looked down over the tops of his oval eyeglasses and replied in his droll way, “Especially ‘Strawberry Fields.’”
As Paul Valery said, “A work of art is never completed, only abandoned.” Martin seems to have impeccable taste in knowing when to throw in the towel on recorded music. And he’s not ceasing his exploration. He’s currently working on an eight-part history of recorded music that he’ll be hosting. On Record: The Soundtrack of Our Lives is scheduled to premiere in the U.S. on PBS in the fall of 2010.