In 1971, I wrote a college paper on the use of electronic music studio techniques in popular music. The paper, one of the favorite things I did in college (having to do with a course, that is), talked in detail about how Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix used the tools-such as tape speed change, looping, echo, reversal, splicing, reverberation and so on-developed by the pioneering composers of the electronic medium. These techniques opened up huge new vocabularies of sound to pop musicians and created a new type of rock music that could never (well, until the advent of samplers, which was quite a ways in the future) be performed on the stage.
In my introduction to the paper, I noted, “By far, the most important contributors to this new field were The Beatles, whose use of tape-manipulation techniques on such albums as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour set the example for all of those to follow.” My friend and fellow music fanatic Carl, when he read that paragraph, immediately opined, “That’s an understatement.” “Yes,” I acknowledged, “but I don’t know how to put it any more strongly.”
Maybe today I do. How about this: What the Beatles were doing between 1966 and 1969 was so brilliant, so revolutionary, so liberating, so mind-blowing, so fall-on-the-floor-frothing-at-the-mouth amazing, that almost everything else, then or since, pales in comparison. And all of the toys and techniques that we use in the recording studio today, in fact, all of our careers, are a direct result of those projects.
Of course, when it came to the studio, the Fab Four were actually five, the fifth member being the classically trained George Martin, who redefined forever the role of the record producer. Known as Sir George Martin since 1996, he recently announced his retirement, sat for an in-depth interview by Larry the O for Electronic Musician (it’s in the February issue; shame on you if you missed it) and embarked on an eight-city public lecture tour, meeting fans and talking about his career, focusing especially on the creation of Sgt. Pepper.
The story of The Beatles and how they changed the recording industry has been told many times; they were perhaps the best-documented pop culture phenomenon in history. A wealth of material can be found in Martin’s still-available 1979 book, All You Need Is Ears, and there are countless others, both by people who knew what they were talking about and those who didn’t. But in such a complex and inspiring story, there are always more things to hear-insights, off-the-cuff remarks, little interpersonal exchanges-that can cast new light on the era and the people in it. Martin’s current lecture tour (which I caught at the second stop, the sold-out Berklee Performance Center in Boston) goes over much old ground, but he also offers enough new material to keep even the most jaded of pop music journalists, as another icon of the era put it, starry-eyed and laughing.
Martin is not a charismatic public speaker; his presentational style is more suited to small-group conversation. But he had the crowd in his pocket from the moment he appeared. In fact, he garnered a standing ovation before he even made it to the stage, and throughout his 75-minute lecture and ten-minute question-and-answer period, except for the laughter and applause, you could hear a pin drop. He initially had some trouble reading from his text and coordinating with the videos that accompanied his talk, but he got more comfortable as the lecture progressed, and it wasn’t long before he had the whole crowd convinced they were in his living room.
“I was known as a comedian’s producer,” he said, “which stood me in good stead when I met The Beatles. I started doing comedy when I started with Parlophone, since nobody else was doing it. I thought if I fell flat on my face, no one would notice.” Besides his success with such seminal assemblages as The Goons and Beyond the Fringe, he had a Number One record pre-Beatles with a group called The Temperance Seven: “They were called that because there were nine of them and they drank like fish.”
As to how the legendary collaboration came about in the first place, Martin said, “The Beatles were rejected by every record company, including ours, and were regarded as something of a joke in the business. When Brian Epstein was told to come see me, he knew he’d hit rock bottom.”
Quick jump to 1966, which, Martin reminded us, was not a good year for The Beatles. There had been death threats in Hamburg (which I had never heard about before), and an unfortunate, unwitting snub of the Philippines’ most famous shoe fetishist, Imelda Marcos, resulted in the band being unceremoniously booted out of the country (“They made them carry their own bags at the airport and turned off the escalators when they got there”). And, of course, John’s remarks about their audience being larger than Jesus’ hit the teen press in the States and resulted in bannings, burnings and other enlightened responses. Meanwhile, their concerts were becoming circuses. On one of the many videotapes Martin played, Ringo says, “The screaming was like a thousand jet planes. If I tried to play a fill, it would just disappear. I’d be watching the other guys’ buns to see where the beat was.”
So the decision was made that year to devote their time to making records, and the motivation was there to create music that couldn’t be performed. The first experiment in that direction was “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which got its name from a park Lennon loved as a child. McCartney, also appearing on video, explained that “Penny Lane” was his response to that: “It was a place John knew, because we’d go there when he came over to my place when we were kids.”
Under pressure from EMI to get something on the charts, the two songs were released together as a single, something Martin called “one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. It meant the airplay was split between the two songs, so it only made it to Number 2. People were wondering if The Beatles were finished.” Meanwhile, because they wanted record buyers to get “value for their money,” the two songs couldn’t appear on the next album, and what was to be Sgt. Pepper had to be started from scratch.
The album, cobbled together from bits and pieces, was not a “concept” album at the beginning. “The opening audience ambience came from a Beyond the Fringe recording I had done in Cambridge,” Martin told us. The whole idea of Sgt. Pepper, which came about halfway through the process of making the album, was something that came to Paul after a trip to the United States-now that the band was done touring, they were free to travel on their own. “He started talking about the album being songs that Sgt. Pepper’s band would write, not that The Beatles would write.” Even the brilliant transitions between songs didn’t emerge until after they were all recorded and they were assembling the final master: “Originally, the ‘Sgt. Pepper Reprise’ was supposed to come after ‘A Day in the Life,’ but we knew that nothing could follow that. So we put it before, and there was John’s acoustic guitar coming up from under the applause. Then we found the way the guitar count-in at the beginning of the reprise sounded linked beautifully with the chicken squawking at the end of ‘Good Morning.'”
“A Little Help From My Friends” was written by Paul especially for Ringo, since he had a “limited range,” using only five adjacent notes. “Except for the last note-and when he recorded that, all the others were out there in the studio with him, singing along, to give him confidence.” On video, Ringo recalled, “The first line was originally, ‘Would you stand up and throw tomatoes [pronounced to-mah-toes] at me?’ Well, people were throwing all sorts of things at us, and I didn’t want to give them any ideas, so I made them change it.”
“Ringo was underemployed during the making of the record,” recalled Martin, “because after he laid his tracks down, there wasn’t much for him to do, except wait around in case we needed some extra percussion. He says his one memory of doing the album was that was when he learned to play chess.” Ringo again: “I was lucky to be in a band with three frustrated drummers. They could all play drums, but each of them knew only one style.”
On “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” John wanted to bring in a real steam-driven calliope, but Martin found out that, besides the nightmare of having such a contraption in the studio, calliopes weren’t played by hand but were programmed, like player pianos, using punched cards. “Just for us to make a card punch so that we could tell it what we wanted to play would have taken forever,” he said. So instead, they built up the sound using a foot-powered harmonium, Lowrey and Hammond organs, with long-suffering roadie Mal Evans puffing away on a bass harmonica. Martin played the fast organ riffs with the tape running at half-speed- “As you all know,” he told the crowd, most of whom did know, “it makes you sound bloody brilliant.” And while Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick were pulling off the legendary cut-up-the-tape-throw-it-in-the-air-and-reassemble-it-at-random trick, “John was like a kid in a candy store.”
At one point, “A Day in the Life” had 24 bars of empty space in the middle of it. “You can hear a little alarm clock at the end of the 24 bars, which let us know when to come in,” he said. “I asked what they wanted to put in there, and they said, ‘Let’s have a symphony orchestra.’ I said, ‘Okay, what will they play?’ and they said, ‘Anything they like.’ They didn’t understand that symphony musicians can’t play anything unless you put music in front of them.” Martin sketched out the charts for the players, telling them, “‘Don’t listen to the chap next to you. If you’re playing the same note he is, you’re playing the wrong one.’ All their lives, they’d been told to try to play as one man-in a few minutes, The Beatles changed all that.”
After the “orchestral orgasm,” the first idea was to have “a giant ‘hummm,’ like a Tibetan chant. I can’t tell you how pathetic that sounded.” The giant piano chord that they ended up with required three of them to play at the same time, and then to hold their breaths. “At the end of it, the amplification was turned up so high,” Martin said, “that if anyone of us had coughed, it would have sounded like a bomb.
“I was a little worried we were taking people too far with this album,” he told us. “But the head of Capitol Records in the U.S. came by, and I played him ‘A Day in the Life,’ and he was absolutely gobsmacked. ‘I never heard anything like it,’ he said. I knew if we had him, we’d got it.”
And the multitude of faces on the album cover? They were a logistical nightmare-not just setting up the photo collage, but getting permission to use the likenesses of all the people on it. Remember, this was long before the Internet, and people still felt they had a right to their own images. “EMI insisted that we get clearances for all of them, but they wouldn’t do it themselves. So Brian hired his old assistant to make the phone calls and letters. Leo Gorcey, an actor who had been in the Dead End Kids, wanted $500, so we painted him over. Mae West wrote back, ‘What would I be doing in a Lonely Hearts Club?’ So we got the four of them to write her a letter expressing their admiration for her, especially for her having spent ten days in jail for obscenity, and she relented. Think about how much that letter would be worth today-certainly a lot more than the $500 Gorcey wanted!”
By the time you read this, Sir George Martin’s tour will be over, but some 10,000 people will have been privileged enough to experience it. We all owe more to this man than we can possibly express, and this tour was a reminder of that. But it was also his way of giving something back to the audience (or a very small segment thereof) who allowed him to pursue such a brilliant career. And my way of thanking him is to let him have the last word:
“Music, I was told, was a nice thing to be able to do, but it wasn’t something sensible people tried to make a living at. To me, it didn’t seem any more hazardous than flying for the navy [which he did in World War II]. I always followed my gut feeling, whether it was whether I should go into music, or should I sign this band or do this film. And it’s always worked. If you’re a gambler, and you always bet the favorite, you end up losing money. If all you care about is statistics, you might as well be in the insurance business.”