George Martin is
inarguably the most successful music producer of all-time.
there’s anyone who can legitimately lay claim to the mantle of “Fifth”
Beatle, it’s George Martin. Martin’s unparalleled production expertise
coupled with his profound talents as a musician, arranger and conductor
helped catapult The Fab Four to unprecedented waves of worldwide
in London in 1926, Martin has been an integral force in the musical
scene for almost fifty years. Classically trained at The Guildhall
School of Music, Martin parlayed his education with a job as assistant
to Oscar Preuss, EMI Parlophone record chief. After Preuss retired in
1955, Martin was elevated to head of Parlophone where he worked with
such disparate acts as Peter Sellers, Shirley Bassey, Stan Getz, Sir
Malcolm Sargent and Sophia Loren.
Prior to his involvement with The Beatles, Martin had a rich and diverse
career, working in the fields of classical, comedy, jazz and light pop.
His exemplary work with the legendary British comedy troupe “The Goons”
further cemented Martin’s reputation – impressing John Lennon
the course of George Martin’s life inexorably changed – as it did for
four lads from Liverpool – on June 6, 1962. This was the fateful date
Martin first met the Beatles at a recording audition for Parlophone
Records held at London’s Abbey Road Studios. Impressed more with the
group’s cheeky charm and charisma than their as yet latent musical
talents, (George Harrison even criticized the producer’s tie!), Martin
signed the group to Parlophone, in the process making undoubtedly the
smartest A&R move in recording history.
while it’s his long-standing connection with the Beatles that is most
widely known, Martin is also responsible for working/and or producing a
historic work with The Beatles, he has produced sessions for a dazzling
array of disparate artists including Jeff Beck, Judy Garland, Pete
Townshend, Elton John, America, jazz great Stan Getz, Aerosmith, comedy
legend Peter Sellers, Bee Gees, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cheap Trick, Jimmy
Webb, Badfinger, Ultravox, Gerry & The Pacemakers, UFO, Billy J.
Kramer, Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker, Cilla Black and many more.
Sharp caught up with Sir George Martin for a career spanning chat.
us about your musical beginnings at Guildhall School of Music and how
that background influenced your later work.
Well, I was very similar to both John and Paul in a way where I wasn’t
taught music to begin with. I just grew up feeling music and naturally
making music. I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t making music on the
piano. I was running a band by the time I was fifteen.
was the name of the band?
Very corny but I thought it was fantastic. The first one was a four
piece and then it became a five piece. When it was a four piece I called
it “The Four Tune Tellers” (laughs again). Then it became “George
Martin and the Four Tune Tellers”. Very clever. I had TT’s on the stands
in front. We made quite a little bit of money as well. Then the war
intervened and by the time I was seventeen I was in the Fleet Air Arm
which is part of the Royal Navy. We flew off carriers and we were fliers
in the Navy. That was the tail end of the war. I was four years in the
service; I was twenty one when I came out. Having managed to evade
Japan, I was all right. And I had no career. A professor of music who
befriended me, he’s received from me during the war various compositions
that I’d painfully put together. I went to see him and said, “you must
take up music.” I said, “How can I? I’m not educated. I’ve never had any
training?” He said, “Well get taught. I’ll arrange it for you.” He
arranged an audition for me to play some of my work to the principal of
the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – which is a college in London.
He said “we’ll take you on as a composition student.” I got a government
grant for three years to study. I started composition, conducting and
orchestration and I took up the oboe. I took up the oboe so I could make
a living playing some instrument. You can’t make a living playing the
piano. I just played piano naturally. I wasn’t taught. I didn’t take
piano as a subject because I didn’t see any future in it, I didn’t rate
myself as being a great pianist. I could never see myself making a
living at it. I wanted to be a film writer. So that’s what happened. I
was trained and I came out and I would work playing the oboe in
different orchestras in the evenings and sometimes afternoons in the
park, that kind of thing. I was a jobbing oboe player.
you still play?
(laughs). I don’t think I could now. I took a job during the day
to make some extra money. That was in the music department at the BBC.
Then out of the blue I got a letter from someone asking me to go for an
interview at a place called Abbey Road. So I cycled along there and the
guy said, “I’m looking for someone to help me make some classical
recordings and I gather you can do this.” Because I was a woodwind
player and educated by now, I got the job of producing the classical
baroque recordings of the Parlophone label. And I got hooked. Gradually
this guy who was running the label gave me more and more work to do. I
started doing jazz records, orchestral, pop of the period. It wasn’t
rock. Over a period of five years I worked as his assistant gradually
doing more and more. By the time the five years was up I was virtually
doing everything. Five years later in 1955, he retired. He was sixty
five years old and he left. I thought somebody was going to be brought
in over me because I was in my twenties still. But to my astonishment I
was given the job of running the label. I was the youngest person ever
to be given that job.
Prior to your work with The Beatles, you worked in many different
musical idioms. How did that impact your production skills? It seemed
you were very willing to be experimental in your work with The Beatles.
absolutely. But I always was experimental even before The Beatles came
along. One of the records I made was an electronic record called “Ray
Cathode” which was collaborating with the BBC radiophonics people. I
made a lot of what I call “sound pictures” with actors and comedians –
because it was fun to do. I’m a person who gets bored quite easily and I
don’t like doing the same thing over and over again. Once I was running
the label I didn’t earn much money, but I did have freedom to do what I
wanted to do.
Discuss your approach toward string arrangements. Your work on Beatle
songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “Glass
Onion” is extraordinary.
writing of the parts is me and the requirements are them. It varied
between John and Paul. Paul was generally quite articulate with what he
wanted. Mostly we would sit down at the piano together and play it
through and work out how it would sound. Paul still doesn’t know how to
orchestrate but he knew what he wanted and would give me ideas and I
would say “you can’t do that” or “you can do this.” We’d talk about it,
talk it through. John would never take that kind of attention. John was
less articulate and much more full of imagery. He would have ideas which
were difficult to express. It was quite difficult for me to interpret.
One of the problems was getting inside his brain to find what he really
wanted. Quite often he would say, “you know me, you know what I want.:
In the case of “I Am The Walrus,” when I first heard that he just stood
in front of me with a guitar and sang it through. But it was weird. I
said to him, “What the hell am I going to do with this, John?” He said,
“I’d like for you to do a score and use some brass and some strings and
some weird noises. You know the kind of thing I want.” I didn’t but I
just went away and did that.
orchestral arrangement that you did for The Beatles of which you’re most
proud? “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a wild score.
Beatles wanted something unusual. Although at the core of it is
orchestration that I liked to do. I liked to have clean orchestration.
I’ve got various theories about orchestration. I don’t think the human
brain can take it too many notes at once. For example, when you’re
listening to a fugue of Bach or someone and you hear the first statement
and the second one joins it, you can catch hold of that all right and
then the third one comes in and it starts to get more complicated. Any
more than that and it then it becomes a jumble of sound. You can’t
really sort out what is what.
us about the time you tried to turn John Lennon onto a piece of
went back to my flat one night. We had dinner and were rapping away. We
were talking about different kinds of music. I wanted to play him one of
my favorite pieces of classical music. It was the “Deathless and Fairy
Suite Number Two” by Ravel, which is a gorgeous piece of music. It lasts
about nine minutes and he sat through it patiently. I mean it’s one of
the best examples of orchestration you can get because it’s a swelling
of sound that is just breathtaking. He listened very patiently and said,
“Yeah, it’s great. The trouble is by the time you get to the end of the
tune you can’t remember what the beginning’s like”. I realized it was
too stretched out for him to appreciate in one go. He couldn’t
assimilate it. He was so used to little soundbites. A lot of people are
nowadays. It’s the curse of advertising and television that we are now
tuned to little jingles that we can connect and recognize right away. We
can’t listen to anything longer than that, so consequently the way
people write sometimes is to connect together a lot of little jingles –
which is not maybe the best way of doing things.
you met up with John in the 70’s he would tell you if he had the chance
he would re-record every Beatles song. Could you understand where he was
a funny thing, when John said this to me originally was when we were
spending an evening together. It shook me to the core when we were
talking about old things and he said, “I’d love to do everything again.”
To me that was just a horror. I said, “John, you can’t really mean it.
Even ‘Strawberry Fields?’” He said, “Especially ‘Strawberry Fields!’” I
thought, oh shit, all the effort that went into that. We worked very
hard on that trying to capture something that was nebulous. But I
realized that John was a dreamer. In John’s mind everything was so
beautiful and much better than it was in real life. He was never a
person of nuts and bolts. The bitter truth is music is nuts and bolts;
you’ve got to bring it down to horse hair going over a bit of wood,
people blowing into brass tubes. You’ve got to get down to
the Sixties, did any of the other major British bands – like The Who,
The Kinks, The Small Faces and The Rolling Stones – attempt to have you
didn’t approach me, mainly because I was so damn busy. I really couldn’t
have worked any harder than I did. All of the people from Brian’s
(Epstein) stable came along; I was just about able to cope with those
and very little more. I had a tremendous roster of artists.
did work later in your career with another major Sixties band, The Bee
Gees. How would you characterize their talents?
Terrific songwriters. I remember going to meet with them in The Bahamas
when we were talking about doing the Sgt. Pepper film and they
played me the tracks that they just recorded for a new film that nobody
had ever heard about called Saturday Night Fever. I couldn’t
quite connect what I was hearing with the guys that I knew because it
was so hip. I was looking at Barry and Maurice and Robin and I was
saying it was a great dance sound. It could have been Motown, it was so
good. I asked, “Have you done this? It’s fantastic. You’ve got big hits
here.” I was enormously impressed. What was good about them was they
weren’t just writing good songs but they were writing good production
ideas into the songs the way that they were putting it together – and
the guitar work. Barry is very talented and the others also contribute
quite a bit too.
in the early 70’s you produced Jeff Beck’s now classic album
By Blow and you had him cover “A Day in the Life.”
and I had been mates for a long time although we hadn’t worked together
for a long time. But we’ve talked about working together and never got
around to it. And Jeff came to see me when I was working on the
Anthology at Abbey Road. It so happens that the day he came in Paul
was already there listening to stuff that I’d selected for him to hear.
It was then, in front of Paul, where we talked about him doing a track
for the album. Jeff said to me, “Can I choose the track?” I said, “Sure,
if you want to.” He picked “A Day in the Life.”
covered The Beatles’ “She’s A Woman” on the
By Blow album.
That’s right. It was good track, wasn’t it? He used “the bag” on that.
Anyhow, you could have knocked me sideways when he chose to do “A Day in
the Life.” I thought he would have chosen to do something like “Yer
Blues.” When he did it, I was very pleased to hear what he he’d done.
We also spoke to a
few luminaries in attendance at Grammy Foundation Starry Night Benefit
Honoring Sir George Martin who shared their thoughts on his importance
(legendary songwriter of Motown’s hitmaking writing team,
production work with The Beatles definitely had a big influence on our
production work. The tracks that he did like “The Long & Winding Road”,
they were so mind blowing and also new in their approach. George Martin
and The Beatles together were innovators and they brought to the table
so many new things and new approaches to music that made us work harder.
Those Beatle records were daring to take a chance and jump into the
fire. As writers and producers they just jumped out there and did it.
They didn’t follow the crowd, they had the crowd follow them.
As a member of ELO,
The Move and The Idle Race and an established producer in his own right,
Jeff Lynne’s musical style is profoundly inspired by The Beatles. Here’s
his take on George Martin’s legacy.
I think George
Martin’s approach as a producer was very classy. The decisions he made
in the studio, the way he blended instruments together, the way he
pioneered bouncing tracks across and back and forth from machine to
machine. He made records you couldn’t make in those days because you
didn’t have enough facilities. Now everyone has a million tracks to work
on but I’m sure they’ll never come up with anything as good as he did on
George has always
been a big inspiration to me just listening to the records he made –
like I said, just the class that he brings to it. He’s a wonderful
musician as well. I think that the two together is what makes him what
he is. He’s above the rest of everybody.
George Martin is
somebody that meant so much to the Beatles and the Beatles family.
That’s why I flew in from New York to be here for this event. As a
producer, he had a sense of that period and the time of the world as
well as the music. He had this feeling what would work well at the
Leiber & Stoller
What Lennon and
McCartney meant to the Sixties, the esteemed songwriting team of Jerry
Leiber and Mike Stoller meant to the pulse of the 50’s music scene.
George Martin initiated a whole world of sound and music. Even
though there were singers and performers, George Martin was the mind
that pulled it all together and made it more interesting than pop music
I feel the same way. I feel that he created out of working with a group
of extremely talented people. He created something that was beyond a
group of talented people because he brought his own musical genius to
that and created the Beatles sound.
Singer Tom Jones
worked with George Martin in the studio on “Come Sweep My Chimbley,” a
track earmarked for the
It was a Dylan
Thomas poem but then he did the music. It was good. We did it for the
Prince’s Trust and recorded it in George’s studio in London. That was
the first time I worked with him. I actually recorded it with George in
L.A. But we did the musical for the Prince’s Trust. As a producer he’s
so musical. He’s a great musician and he knows a lot about music and
he’s got a great sense of humor as well; he made a lot of comedy records
(The Goons, Peter Sellers) before he became famous working with The
Beatles. He’s such an easy person to get along with. As soon as I
started working with him I was in tune with him.
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