George Martin Recalls the Boys in the Band

The Beatles' producer goes track-by-track through some of the band's most memorable tunes

British pop group The Beatles holding their silver disc. Left to right are, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, George Martin of EMI and John Lennon on April 8th, 1963. Credit: Chris Ware/Keystone/Getty

Los Angeles — They will always remain "the boys" to George Martin — and he will always remain "the Beatles' producer" to every other group he takes into the studio. Always happens. Working with such stalwarts as John McLaughlin, America and Jeff Beck, sometime, somewhere, somebody says, "Y'remember on Sgt. Pepper, where the guitar turned into a chicken?"

Because the musicians were weaned on the Beatles' albums the same as Joe Doakes. The nine years of the Beatles provided us with a major history lesson in record production. Some would even call it a hagiography.

Their helmsman from the beginning was George Martin, a distinguished gentleman, now 50, who would not look bad saving someone's honor with sword in hand. A genuine elegantissimo, he once played oboe with Sadler Wells before becoming an A&R man at Parlophone. After a dowdy manager named Brian Epstein played him a demo record, he took the nervous Beatles into the studio for a tryout in June 1962, Nervous, because they grew up on the comedy albums Martin produced with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and The Goon Show. Martin, in turn, found the same sense of humor in the band. The band also had a veneer of arrogance. A front, of course.

Martin signed them up, and they recorded a single, "Love Me Do," backed with "P.S. I Love You."

Subsequent Beatles albums pushed the boundaries a little further, until Let It Be, which was supposed to be a return to primitivism but instead knocked everyone into a cocked hat, revealing irreconcilable differences in the group's personalities. They were saints together, cartoons apart.

George does not necessarily remember how they pushed sounds out of shape all those years. Sgt. Pepper, recorded on basic four-track machinery, explored new territories, yet emerged with density and clarity. It was all up Martin's alley. He always liked painting sound-pictures, on record, even as far back as the Peter Sellers days.

It was the kind of indulgence they were allowed, because the market stamped on the imprimatur. It was art by definition, because the receipts said so. The Beatles stopped touring and became storytellers with their records, and who knows how many groups reexamined their positions upon hearing the results.

A baby born at the time of that first record would now be 14 years old, which is why Capitol Records might think the time ripe for a Beatles revival with a two-record set, Rock 'n' Roll Music. We found Martin in Los Angeles, where he spends half his time these days, at Chrysalis Records, of which he is a partner. He received the album with a bemused expression and even wondered out loud if a repackaging is proper. He took the album to the stereo to refresh his memory but couldn't figure out how to operate the changer. A secretary put the record on. "That's revealing, isn't it?" he asked.

He pulled up short of apologizing for the thin sound and explained that the early sides were never intended for stereo release. But EMI/Capitol eventually released them in stereo and, as many people found out on their stereos, the voices were coming out of one speaker and the instruments the other.

When Martin was called into this album at the last minute, he found that the sides were being reissued in the original form. "And that's nonsense. It wasn't originally like that, you see. Because, first of all, the backing was about six or eight db lower than it should have been in relation to the voices.

"Going back to 1963, we in England didn't have any control over what happened out here, and they used to do some weird things. Anyway, when Bhaskar Menon [president of Capitol Records] asked me in to have a listen to this album, I did what I thought was necessary to make it a bit more palatable for today's market without destroying the intent of the original. And that's what you've got here."

"Twist and Shout" and "I Saw Her Standing There" boomed over the system. "I really can't remember whether this was done one the same day, but the first album we did in England was called Please Please Me. That had to be some of the first takes, otherwise you'd never get the impact. And, in fact, their voices generally wore out after two or three times anyway. It becomes a large blur when you record about 300 to 400 tracks.

"The first album we made was a very quick one, because 'Please Please Me' had broken out in England — this was, way before they were ever heard of in America. We wrote the record late in 1962, and I know that I would want an album to follow it up to cash in on the single. Which I wanted to call Please Please Me, obviously. And the only way of getting an album out of them quickly was to take all the stuff they knew inside out — they were performing regularly at places like the Cavern — and just record it. I told them, 'I want all your rock & roll numbers, all the things you know.' So we did things they'd heard, their versions of other people's records, like 'Anna,' 'Chains,' and those kinds of things. And we started I think at 10 o'clock in the morning and finished at 11 o'clock at night. We made the whole album in a day, mixed as well. Because we didn't mix in those days. You follow me?

"We made the album in a day. A lot of tracks were like that. They sound pretty rotten." He laughed genially.

"I Wanna Be Your Man"

That was Ringo singing live. Around that time we were doing a lot of double-tracking, especially if I had a voice I was uncertain about. A person with a very good voice doesn't double-track too well. But some voices sound really good double-tracked, and it is one way to get a very effective performance from someone who doesn't have too good a voice. We used to get up all sorts of tricks to cover someone if he had an off-note. I would put one note of a piano on it and splash it on that particular note.

When was it decided that Ringo would sing?

Whether he should sing at all, you mean? In those days the boys had a tremendous sense of unity. You know, they all came from pretty rough backgrounds and I guess being together as a quartet gave them a certain confidence in themselves, and they were a very tight group. They were very friendly with each other and they were very protective toward each other. And even Brian Epstein and I were outside that particular thing of the four-of-them-against-the-world.


I guess the boys, John and Paul, must have heard this on some American album, like they heard most of the early songs. They would play me a record of an American artist, generally a colored one, and say, "This is great. I wish we would sing like that."

That leads to "Long Tall Sally." Little Richard claims that he taught Paul that scream, back when they played Hamburg together.

Well, of course, in those days John, Paul, Ringo and George were unknown people, they were like the guys who walk in here for auditions. Little Richard was very big, and they just thought he was the greatest. They had their own idols, then. Chuck Berry was another one. Now, of course, these people are still alive and the Beatles have been legendary. It's rather ironic.

"Slow Down"

Listening to it last night, I laughed at George's guitar solo.

Oh yes? [He returned to the stereo to play that track. He studied the solo, a meandering, withering figure.] It's just there. Everybody knows about it. When the voice stops, the guitarist takes over. When the voices start again, the guitarist stops. [He nodded to the rhythm.] It's amazing listening to those again. The great thing about it was John's voice, which is still a knockout, a very good sound. Marvelous. The actual recording was rather primitive. The backing of that is quite tame, isn't it?

"Kansas City"

You always have the guitar solo coming in at the right point. You can hear that the recording is beginning to get more sophisticated, already a better recording, much more integrated. And we were able to overdub at this stage. The lead voice is Paul, with George and John on the backing.


Do you know that I was playing piano here? I always tried to get a live feeling in their recordings.

"Bad Boy"

Some of the songs stick out in memory more than others. Sometimes I've heard a song, and I'll say, "Oh, the Beatles. I must have recorded that." But I've really forgotten all about this one.

How did they psyche themselves up?

What do you mean? Drugs? Oh, no . . . they really did try to work up a lather in the studio, they really did try to do it. Which is awfully difficult to do under the clinical conditions of the studio.

This is a forgettable arrangement.

Yeah. This was a copy of a colored record. Or "black," you call them. I'm always being told they're the same.


Another Chuck Berry guitar solo. The same thing, whenever we had a rock & roll song. We said, "George, you've got eight bars. Play. Then out you go."

"Roll Over Beethoven"

With every album we would put in a couple of oldies, because they weren't writing too many songs anyway and we were needing more and more material. They would dig up stuff.

What they've done on this reissue, you see, is take all the uptempo Teddy Boy songs and put them together. They tend to sound a bit the same because they are the same. I guess it makes commercial sense. Like "Dizzy Miss Lizzie," you know exactly what's going to be on this one.

"Any Time at All"

That note [he dipped his fingers to indicate a descending bass line] — that's a piano, playing with a bass guitar. The sustained note. That note was what I used to call a wound up piano. And I used to do it with George's guitar. You would slow down the track to half speed, play the piano right down to the bottom, then bring it back up to normal again — and that would sustain and make the note twice as long. You compress the hell out of it.

Again, that was John's favorite gimmick, the tape echo on the voice. Like Elvis Presley used to have on "Heartbreak Hotel." It was tape feedback. I always used to love John's voice, and he was always asking to change it and distort it because he hated it.

By the time of 'A Hard Days Night,' their recording philosophy was changing.

Well, yes and no, nothing quite as luxurious as the later days. In A Hard Days Night, after all, we wouldn't take more than a day on each track, because they were very busy doing concerts, doing the film. Titles had to be done very quickly.

When did they begin to participate in production?

They learned very fast. They knew nothing at all about recording to begin with. They got the techniques right off, very soon. This question of production, I think every artist participates in production, in whatever record's made. They always made suggestions, even if it was "Take off your tie." [This refers to the first comment George Harrison made to Martin in the recording studio, when Martin asked if anything were wrong. Harrison replied, "Well, for a start, I don't like your tie." It's semifamous, and Martin still remembers.]

"I'm Down"

That's John playing organ, playing it with his elbow. [He makes a sweeping motion.]

"The Night Before"

We're getting later now. All we've heard so far are the very primitive ones in the early days.

Starting with 'Revolver,' they really got adventurous; Lennon said he found out about playing tapes backward, as on "Tomorrow Never Knows," by taking tapes home at night.

No, I can claim a first here. I actually started doing stuff like that for him. And I introduced him to it and he was knocked out by it. They all got tape machines and they all started experimenting with sounds, and Paul discovered, off his own bat, that if you made up a loop of tape and took off the erase head on the machine, you could actually build up a sound on a loop which saturated itself. This was kind of a hobby for them.

They would come in and bring me tapes of all the loops and we would play them just for a giggle, like crossword puzzles. And when we were in the middle of Revolver, when we made "Tomorrow Never Knows," that was all the tapes that they had made at home, made into loops. We had about 20-odd loops or more that they had brought in, at varying speeds. And I played them and listened to all of them and I said, "Chuck this one, I don't think much of that one. There's Paul laughing, sounds like a sea gull, keep that one."

You know the words are from the Tibetan Book of the Dead? John wanted his voice to sound like a Dalai Lama on the top of a hill. He wanted it very sort of atmospheric. We laid down the track with Ringo on drums and a tamboura drone, and I put John's voice through a Leslie speaker to make a weird noise. For the background we've got all these tape loops, and I got tape machines from all over the building at EMI; in fact, we used 16.

Drugs also must have been an influence in these productions. At least it affected the music.

It certainly affected the music, but it didn't affect the record production because I was producing. It just sometimes made things a little bit difficult, that's all.

Did it concern you?

Not too much, there really wasn't all that much disruption. There were moments when the boys tried to keep things from me, in that respect. I think they were protecting me as much as themselves. And I would put my blind eye to the telescope anyway. I didn't let it get in the way too much.

I saw the music growing, but I rather saw it like Salvador Dali's paintings. I didn't think the reason for it was drugs. I thought it was because they wanted to go into an impressionistic way. I wasn't looking for any sinister reason for it. I hotly denied it when people put two and two together and made five, like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" meaning LSD. Obviously, drugs were an influence, but not that much. I think it's people wanting to find a reason for it. Maybe I'm being naive even today.

The boys weren't particularly clear on what they were doing . . . in their own minds. One of the greatest problems, always with John and Paul, particularly John, was trying to find out what was going on in his mind. He wasn't particularly articulate, in saying what he wanted. Of course, when you're dealing with a dreamlike substance, it's very difficult to be articulate. My main job was trying to get out of him what he was trying to get. It came together more in the mix than it did in gradual growth. I saw the ways things could be done, for example, cutting things together in the track. We had a lot of barnyard animals on "Good Morning." There was a chicken sound in one of these, and a guitar noise from another thing. By cutting the two of them together, the guitar actually turned into a chicken.


There's a great deal of guitar distortion. That was done deliberately because John wanted a very dirty sound on guitar and he couldn't get it through his amps. What we did when we made this record was just overload one of the preamps on the recording. We got such a kickback on that. People said, "Do you realize this record is distorted?" We said yes. "How can you let a record go out like that?" Because they wanted it that way. And even today, Capitol was worried because it's very definitely distortion on the record, and no matter what you do you'll never get rid of it. I said, "Put a disclaimer on the jacket and tell people about it."

"Back in the U.S.S.R."

Now we're coming into the really late stuff. Did anyone ever make a hit of this with another recording? Do you know?

Well, it's a burlesque of the Beach Boys.

Sounds a bit dated now, doesn't it?

"Helter Skelter"

[Shakes head.] No substitute for noise. That was just a giggle. Done after they came back from India. You know, they wrote all the material for the White Album when they were in India.

Part of that album and "Hey Bulldog" here are very cold and nasty.

They came through a bad time about then. I was puzzled about the White Album, why they wanted to make a double album with all the material — they had about 36 songs, they wanted to get into the studio and record them all, and they shouldn't have. And I tried to plead with them to be selective and make it a really good single album, but they wouldn't have it. I realized, later on, why. It had something to do with their current contract with EMI. If they issued so many titles, the contract ended earlier than it would have otherwise.

They were growing apart, as well.

Don't forget that Brian had died, and Brian was a unifying influence on them.

Were they working together?

Oh yes, they were going through tremendous changes. Let It Be was the worst time of all. Really disruptive. The White Album wasn't too bad. They did work with a will, but it was a bit — at that time I didn't think they were particularly, shall we say, inspiring. I don't think they were particularly artistic. They were sort of businesslike, and "Let's get these songs recorded." And I think it came out that way.

Paul said recently that George missed occasional sessions around the time of 'Sgt. Pepper.'

Not too many. He didn't like Paul's bossiness. George wanted to be in the front with the other two. And I'm afraid he didn't get a great deal of encouragement from me, either, which was unfortunate for him. Basically because he didn't have the talent that the other two had. He is talented, but when you have two like Lennon and McCartney, who are so enormously talented, it's silly to look elsewhere. So I kind of tolerated George. Sometimes, in looking back, I regret I didn't encourage him more.

He must have felt that, just being tolerated. Perhaps the feeling holds over today.

I don't think so. George and I are good friends, we were chatting on the phone the other day. I don't suppose George and Paul have talked too much. I mean, Paul . . . the disruption really came with the women anyway.

Attending recording sessions?

Where you have very close personal relationships between two men, and one of them goes off and gets a girl, and the other one goes off and gets another girl, and the two women don't particularly like each other . . . then there's a divergence.

I don't think Paul minded Yoko — Yoko's fine, nothing wrong with Yoko — except that she was always there. When she wasn't well, she had a bed in the studio, and the other boys got fed up with that. I think that was the beginning of it. And almost in self-defense, Paul got Linda. There you go.

"Got to Get You into My Life"

This is being issued as a single. In those days they would hear a record coming from this country, where they have some really good brass sounds. They'd say, "Let's try some." So we would get the brass players in the studio and I would write down the parts for them. As you can tell, they're very simple parts, just held notes.


"Taxman" recalls the 'Batman' theme song.

An awful lot of George's songs do sound like something else. For example, the biggest hit he ever had, of course, was "Something," in which the line is "Something in the way she moves." There actually was a song called "Something in the Way She Moves," a James Taylor song. Quite a big one. And that was written a long time before George wrote his "Something." He had copyright problems on a lot of songs. For "My Sweet Lord," he was sued, wasn't he?


This was supposed to be just a jam number. Probably was, when it was recorded. That was John's song. Not much to say about it, just sort of a rock & roll riff thing going on. Just based on that riff.

"Hey Bulldog"

Bulldog, that was a dog by the way. It was a track we did that was just a throwaway thing. It was put into the Yellow Submarine album because the Yellow Submarine people desperately wanted new material. The boys didn't dig the film at all because they weren't involved with it to begin with. It was a pain in the ass. They said, "We really don't need this in the album, let's just give them that one."

"Get Back"

That was done on the roof as a gag, really. We were recording at Apple at the time. They said, "Let's go and give a concert on the roof." Just a silly thing to do. On the roof of the Apple building in Saville Row. We had high-powered speakers aimed at the streets below, so we gathered quite a crowd. They couldn't see anyone; all they could do was hear them. And the police station in Saville Row is only about 500 yards away. So within about 30 seconds of the first notes coming out, the police rang up and said, "What the hell is going on? Pipe down." And when it went on, they raided the place. Eventually they burst in on the roof and shut them up.

It's said that the end of their touring meant the end of their collaborative songwriting.

Well, they never really wrote songs together. I mean, they collaborated. But John and Paul never sat down and said, "Let's write a song." John would write the germ of something and say, "I'm having trouble with the middle eight, what do you think?" Paul would say, "Try this."

But it was fairly soon after we started recording that they started really going their own ways in songwriting. And just helping occasionally with the odd lyric. Even "A Day in the Life," which was a collaboration, was very-much first-part John, middle part Paul. You can hear that, too — they're like separate songs put together.

John's reputation was that he was lazy about writing but fast at recording, while Paul was supposedly meticulous.

Well, we're talking about a period of, certainly, eight or nine years. I don't think John was ever lazy as such, I think he was growing into different kinds of music than Paul. Paul was always the down-to-earth one. Paul was a strange mixture — he's proved to be the most successful of the lot, but he was a strange mixture of corny show-biz kind of music and also a desire for rock & roll. Paul would be just as likely as anyone to turn out a great "Helter Skelter" or "Long Tall Sally" when he'd want to do those. And he'd sing his voice out, till it was sore, so he'd get the right kind of sound. He actually hurt himself doing it, before recording. But there were two ends of him. It was pretty obvious that if anyone would write a musical like Cole Porter, it would be Paul McCartney and not John Lennon. Because John was the rebel, the Dylan of the group, and much more a word man than Paul. Paul learned about words from John.

So it was a perfect union.Some people look at their breakup rather like their own divorced parents.

People talk about the breakup of the group as though it was tragedy and so on, which is nonsense; they don't say it's amazing how long they lasted together. What other group has lasted as successfully as they? And as amicably as they? For nearly a decade. It really is pretty remarkable. It's amazing to me, human nature being what it is, that they didn't break up earlier under the strain of enormous superstardom. They were living in a golden prison all that time, and living with each other and not growing into individual lives. Now they're living individual lives and enjoying it. Good luck to them.

Did you ever feel edged out of the production?

Particularly Let It Be, yes. Basically because they were going through an antiproduction thing anyway. John said, during Let It Be, "I don't want any production gimmicks on this. I want it to be an honest album. I don't want any overdubbing of voices, got to be live. I don't want any editing. If we're going to do it and make a mistake, that's hard luck. It's going to be honest."

But it got to the point where we would do a take, and he would say, "How was it, George?" I'd say, "Well, it was pretty good, but it isn't perfect." And he'd say, "Was it better than the other one?" And I'd say, "It was a little bit better than take 46 but not quite as good as take 53, and the back drums weren't quite as loud as they were in 69." It just became ludicrous. You're trying to get the perfect one, live, it's ridiculous. And the album that I made of Let It Be, originally, was built on that premise that he insisted on. I was very shocked later on when he took it to Phil Spector and Phil overdubbed heavenly choirs and lush strings and harps and things, and John over-dubbed the voice and did all the things he said he shouldn't in the first place.

I thought we were through then. I wasn't happy and I didn't want to go on. And I was very surprised when they came back to me afterward and said, "Look, let's try and get back the way we were in the old days. And will you really produce the next album for us?" Which became Abbey Road. And . . . it was fine. We really did work well, we worked nicely together. That was the last album. Wasn't issued last — Let It Be was issued after that.

Even on Abbey Road we were very amicable, very friendly. After the Let It Be thing, we really did try to work together. But John was never really into a production bit. I wanted to try and make side two a continual work. That was Paul and I getting together because Paul really dug what I wanted to do. I was trying to make a symphony out of pop music. I was trying to get Paul to write stuff that we could then bring in on counterpoint, or sort of a movement that referred back to something else. Bring some form into the thing. John hated that — he liked good old rock & roll. So Abbey Road was a compromise too. Side one was a collection of individual songs. John doesn't like tone poems, or whatever you call it.

All the reunion talk must be a heavy "pressure to perform."

I think it would be a terrible mistake for them ever to go into the studio together. I'd hate to see that happen. What happened was great at its time, but whenever you try to recapture something that existed before, you're walking on dangerous ground, like when you go back to a place that you loved as a child and you find it's been rebuilt. It destroys your illusions. The Beatles existed years ago; they don't exist today. And if the four men came back together, it wouldn't be the Beatles.