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Q&A: George Martin

Beatles' producer says it's time to just let it be

October 23, 1998 12:00 AM ET

It's hard to imagine what the last forty-eight years would have sounded like without him. Simply stated, no producer has impacted music like Sir George Martin has. This week, the seventy-two-year-old knob-twiddler/guru is officially hanging up his headphones with the release of In My Life, a selection of some of his favorite Beatles songs sung by his "friends and heroes."

The twelve tracks on the album -- including Goldie Hawn's breezy cover of "A Hard Day's Night," longtime collaborator Jeff Beck's instrumental take on "A Day In the Life" and Jim Carrey's maniacal "I Am the Walrus" -- are a fitting refrain to a career that saw Martin release more than 700 pop, jazz, folk, soundtrack, classical and comedy recordings.

Among the output, thirty No. 1 one singles and sixteen No. 1 albums in England, as well as twenty-two No. 1 singles and nineteen No. 1 albums in the States. Oh yeah, he also signed the Beatles. Rolling Stone Network sat down with the legendary record maker on the eve of his retirement. Some have gone, but he has certainly remained.

How does this record fit into the scheme of your life?

It is my last record. That's absolutely certain. Not to be too dramatic about it, it's just that somebody somewhere sometime has to call it a day. You know, I was twenty-four when I first started producing records and I'm now seventy-two. That makes forty-eight years of recording, and I've been very blessed because I've worked with the best people in the world and I've had a marvelous amount of success. I've been very lucky.

In a lot of ways this record symbolizes your career. You have the comedy aspects, the instrumental aspects. Was that the idea behind it?

Yeah, I mean my life has been a mixed bag and this album certainly has been a mixed bag and it covers quite a lot of ground. But the essence of making an album like this was to have fun, really. I thought if I'm going to have a last record, I might as well enjoy it. And that's why I selected some friends to start with, to work with, people I knew I'd get on well with. And then heroes, who I felt I'd get on well with.

Speaking of which, Jim Carrey was an interesting choice.

I didn't know that Jim could sing. I was taking a gamble here. I contacted him and said, "look I've got a crazy idea. Would you like to talk about it?" And when I was in Los Angeles I went and had lunch with him. He went for the idea. He told me he could sing, so I got 'round a piano with him and ran through this song. I needed someone who, first of all, could get their tongue around all these very difficult words. Someone would could sing with a good sense of rhythm, someone who'd give a bit of a zany quality to it, because it needed that. John Lennon originally did it fairly straight. I mean, there was no overt humor in there. But I think if you're going to do an alternative version, you might as well bring out the humor on it anyway, and Jim Carrey certainly did that. Again, it was a sense of fun that we were imbued with and we certainly had a great time doing it. Jim came over to England to record it and he brought over a whole gang of friends. Actually, he was on his honeymoon at the time, to be honest....

You went out on a limb with that Sean Connery spoken-word track, didn't you?

(Laughs)He was a singer, Sean. He was a dancer as well, did you know that? In the early days of Sean's career he was in the chorus of South Pacific in London and I guess people started taking notice of him after the Bond series. But I didn't want him to sing. I said, "Sean, if you sing it can be anybody. But if you speak there's no question about who it is." And anyway I didn't want the song sung. You can't get any better than Lennon on that song. And it was such a poignant song; the words mean so much to me. I wanted them to be spoken and I wanted Sean's voice to be heard, because it's such a great speaking voice.

Some critics have said you should have played it straight with this album. What's your response to that kind of criticism?

If people don't like it, they don't have to buy it. I think that any of the criticism we might get is due to something of a misunderstanding here, in that a lot of people seem to think that Beatles songs are a holy grail that musn't be touched. That's there's something sacrosanct about Beatles songs. Believe me, there ain't. They're great songs and they're a lovely heritage that the Beatles have left us; they're like Gershwin. And there's no reason why anyone shouldn't have a go at them if they feel like it. I'd rather listen to Jim Carrey doing "I Am the Walrus" than I would listening to Frank Sinatra doing "Something."

Is there one session -- be it Beatles or not -- that stands out in your mind as the most memorable?

Gosh, I've got so many memories of so many sessions it's difficult to pick one out. I remember the first time I ever let them hear what a backward sound was like -- this was before Pepper. It was with John; we'd done a track called "Rain," and the band went off to have a meal. While they were away I got [engineer] Geoff Emerick to lift off the multi-track of John's voice and put it onto a quarter-inch tape. Then [we] took it back to front, slid it around until I found a good spot -- one little phrase worked very well. By the time John came back it was there. I said "listen to it, see what you think about it," and he said "What the hell is that?" I said "It's your voice backwards." And from that moment everything had to be backward: guitar solos, drum sounds and so on. It was a very innovative time -- and very rewarding.

Anything you'd like to be remembered for?

(Laughs) I don't want to be remembered at all. I'm quite happy.

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