George Martin Recalls the Boys in the Band
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.