Interview: Sir George Martin (PT. 3)
The music and voices were all computerized. So much for worrying about musicians showing up on time," I quipped playfully. Sir George laughed. Yes, but there's no replacement for real musicians. The human quality is so essential to music and you miss it when it's not there."
In Part 3 of my conversation with Sir George Martin for the Wall Street Journal, the esteemed producer talked about making Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album...
Marc Myers: What provoked you to start overdubbing extensively on Sgt. Pepper? New technology?
Sir George Martin: EMI was always slow to adopt new technology. As a result, we made Sgt. Pepper on four tracks. What I would do is fill up two tracks of the stereo with the backing instruments—bass, guitars and drums. Then I would overdub a voice on the third track. On the fourth, I might overdub another voice. And then—oh, damn it, I've used up my four tracks [laughs].
GM: I mixed down the four tracks to two tracks and would start again. But you can't do that too often. The most I've ever done is three tapes to tapes, because each time you do that, the sound quality gets worse by the square of the times you've done it. So, for example, if you do three transfers, you are nine times worse off from the original sound
GM: Pet Sounds was a great record. We all loved it. What was so good about it was the way the Beach Boys sang, the way their voices moved, and the contrapuntal quality of Brian's writing. So I don't know about raising the stakes, because Brian has since said to me, When we heard what you'd done, we tried to do better." So it had been a question of competition between the two bands, which I didn't realize at the time.
MM: Was Phil Spector's production style an influence?
GM: I listened to everything—Brian [Wilson] in particular. I thought Phil Spector's Wall of Sound was a fake. All he was doing was using lots and lots of instruments—two and three pianos and a lot of strings and brass and so on. He didn't write the orchestrations. So there was no particular magic to what he was doing except that it was successful.
GM: No, we didn't hear them during Sgt. Pepper.
MM: But both the Beatles and the Beach Boys were on Capitol. Is it really that inconceivable?
GM: For one, we were in England and they were in L.A. Second, nobody at EMI would ever have thought of acting as a go-between. The EMI people were dead from the neck up. You can print that, too [laughs].
GM: I think that would be A Day in the Life, even though the overdub wasn't my idea. It was Paul's. The song remains a wonderful work. Every time I hear John sing the song, it stirs me. The curious thing is that John had written the first part but couldn't think of what to do with the second half. He said to Paul, I'm short. I haven't got a middle. Do you have anything I can use?" Paul said, Not really. I just have this: 'Woke up, got out of bed..." and so on. John said, That'll do, that'll do."
MM: But the two songs couldn't have been more different.
GM: That's right. Paul's part was completely alien to John's part—"I heard the news today, oh boy." It had nothing to do with Paul's part at all. Paul rightly said based on how much they had and needed: We're separated by 24 bars. Can we do something with that?" So we recorded it that way—the two sections joined by a big 24-bar hole in the middle. We just had the piano playing in the middle with [road manager and friend] Mal Evans counting off the bars. If you listen carefully, you can hear his voice in there saying, 13, 14, 15" and so on.
GM: I thought it probably needed a long guitar solo, or that Paul and John might ask me to write something. It was Paul who said, Why don't we get the orchestra to do a bit of a musical orgasm, from the lowest notes to the highest highs."
MM: What did you think?
GM: I thought it was a great idea but, of course, it had to be organized. You can't just go up to an orchestra and say, There are 24 bars here boys, you start on the bottom note and finish on top." You can't do that. So I wrote the score. It started out with the heavy stuff [sings] and then I wrote in the lowest note on each instrument at the start of the 24 bars and finished on an E-major chord at the highest end of each instrument.
GM: At every bar line, I made a little mark approximating where they should be, so they had markers on the way up. This allowed the strings to slide up quite slowly. All of the musicians had to pace themselves. After I put the music in front of them, I explained what we were trying to do. I said, Now listen gentlemen, we're going to go from A to Z in 24 bars. I want you to make your own way up there. I don't want you to listen to the guy next to you. Make your own journey, and if you're playing the same note as the chap next to you, you're wrong." That was it. We did it, and it was pretty effective. Not effective enough though.
MM: Why not?
GM: It needed to be bigger. Bigger in sound, bigger in feeling. We had the space in Abbey Road's Studio One, so we did two more overdubs with all that sound going on. After that it sounded pretty good.
GM: Sgt. Pepper, without a doubt. Magical Mystery Tour was rubbish [laughs at his own audacity]. It wasn't really rubbish, of course, but it wasn't a complete studio album, as Sgt. Pepper had been.
MM: Fine, but why do you think it's so inferior, as a package?
GM: Well, name me a great concept song on there.
MM: Strawberry Fields? Penny Lane?
GM: They weren't on there. They were singles that were added.
GM: Blue Jay Way—OK, pretty good.
MM: Fool on the Hill?
GM: Fool on the Hill—not bad. Not really great though. It was a bit of a meander. Lovely song and I enjoy it still, but not a great song.
GM: Because it's not Strawberry Fields or Penny Lane. Those songs were written about John's and Paul's childhoods. Strawberry Fields was written first. I thought it was the best song I had ever heard in my life. And then Paul comes along with Penny Lane—his song about Liverpool. That was brilliant, too. Fantastic. Strawberry Fields in particular had this otherworldly character.
MM: You put them back-to-back on the same single. Good move?
GM: The worst bloody thing I ever did in my life. It split them. It split the success of two great songs. It was the first time in 11 singles that we had failed to reach No. 1. In England, the record dealers who tended their charts were divided. Some put Strawberry Fields on there and some preferred Penny Lane. So the single split the difference and kept both songs from reaching the top. That was the stupidest thing I ever did.
GM: Because [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein [pictured above] had come to me saying he was worried about the Beatles slipping down the charts. He thought they were going down. He thought this was the end of their hit-making good fortune. He said, I want you to give me a really good single." I said I couldn't give you any better than this one because it's fantastic. It turned out to be too much of a good thing. But I'm curious: Why do you like Magical Mystery Tour so much?
GM: Ah, that makes perfect sense. In the U.K., Magical Mystery Tour was a special double album with two, three-track extended-play singles. Yours was a single album, of course. In Britain, Beatles issues were on Parlophone and in American they were on Capitol. We had no control over what went out into the market in America.
GM: Tracks were eliminated by Capitol because they didn't want to pay the additional copyrights. You had 11 songs per album in the States, we had 14. In England, the copyright was on the album and divided among the songs. In America, the copyright was on each song. So by trimming our albums, Capitol always had three leftover songs for the next record in America. They'd collect them and then release another album.
MM: What was the result on your end, as a big-picture producer?
GM: It threw us all off kilter. I was very cross about that. These LPs in the UK were complete works as we envisioned them, and Capitol was snapping off songs and creating new albums with extra songs that weren't conceived as complete packages or organized by us. I wasn't happy with Capitol anyway.
GM: Early on they had turned me down so many times when I sent along Beatles singles in '63. Capitol was purchased by EMI in 1955, and the man who was responsible for English imports at Capitol was Dave Dexter. Every song I sent, we'd get the same reply from him. When I sent Please Please Me, he said, No George. Not suitable for our market. Sorry." Next I sent From Me to You. Sorry, George. It just isn't right." I sent him She Loves You. George, you just don't understand. America is different from England. Don't you understand that? This won't sell in America."
MM: A little frustrating?
GM: I got so bloody angry. I finally went to my boss at EMI, Len Wood, and said, Look, I know we're not allowed to have our records on any label in the States except Capitol. But I'm so sick to the teeth. I want you to agree with me that we can offer these to another label."
GM: He agreed. The American labels were Vee-Jay and Swan. But they had their own financial and promotion problems, so their Beatles releases didn't make much of an impact. Finally, Capitol came on board with I Want to Hold Your Hand in December '63. They couldn't possibly have refused that. Then, of course, they turned 180 degrees and said, These are our boys. They're wonderful guys, they're wonderful songs. We're very proud to have...the Beatles!"
MM: Was the White Album overkill?
GM: At the time I thought so. But in retrospect, I was wrong. Back in '68, I didn't want to release a double album. I wanted to make a really wonderful single album. But the boys had been abroad in India with the Maharishi. While they were there, they wrote lots of songs for themselves, and they came back wanting to record all of them at once. There were over 30 of them.
GM: I pleaded with them, asking them to be sensible about these, to take the best ones for an album. But they wanted them out. So we recorded them all and made the White Album. In retrospect, the White Album has been a great success. So they obviously knew better than I did.
JazzWax tracks: All of the Beatles U.K. releases have
JazzWax DVD: Produced by George Martin (Eagle Rock), a DVD and Blu-Ray of a BBC documentary with additional material, is being released today in the U.S. You'll find it here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Strawberry Fields, the A-side of the single...
And here's Penny Lane from the flip side...