George Martin (Part 1)
An interview with the man who helped start it all.
Often described as the best known record producer in the world, George Martin has a wealth of recording experience behind him. From the early days with The Beatles right up to the present day with The Police, George Martin's skills are constantly in demand.
Recently George turned those skills to writing his book 'Making Music', which looks set to become the definitive work on the record business.
In this special 2 part feature, he discusses with Mike Beecher the book's contents in relation to his life as a top producer.
What I'd like to do, George, is talk to you in relation to the book, 'Making Music'. How did it come about?
"I've been thinking about a kind of comprehensive book for some time. I'd realised there was no such thing on the market as a book which covered the whole range of pop music and I thought I'd have a go at it. One of the problems was that the wider the area you cover the less detailed you can be in the individual parts but, nevertheless, I thought it would be a good idea to have a guide. It's not by any means meant to be the final word on anything, it is meant to be a guide — and there is in fact quite a good bibliography at the back giving people an indication of how they can study further things. But it does cover pretty well everything I can think about in pop music from songwriting, orchestration, arranging, producing, engineering, even to the business side of making videos and performing.
I originally started out writing it myself in my spare time, apart from making records, and then I realised that although I'm fairly versatile, which I think is one of the prerequisites of a record producer by the way, I still didn't know absolutely everything about everything and any person who says he does is a liar. So I thought, 'well let's get the people who really know' and fortunately I'm in a very privileged position of having a lot of friends in the business who are the experts and the top people in the world.
From the word go everyone was so enthusiastic about the project that I got courage from this and as I went along it became easier because people wanted to be part of the book. I found it fascinating because I would ask some people if they wanted to write it themselves or, if they didn't want to write, we would do it another way. A lot of people are quite good at talking but they're not very good at writing and I did want it to be fairly easy to read, so in most cases I conducted interviews with the people, kept it on tape and then I would go back, do my homework and write it up as though they'd written it themselves.
So, for example, I spent a day with Paul Simon at Easthampton, Long Island, and we had a fascinating day together because he knew what was coming, I'd already spoken to him, so you know "I want to get your brains on this, Paul" and he dug deeply into his past notes on songs that he'd written and he sort of described his experiences from 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters' onwards and described how he wrote songs today which in itself was fascinating. He told me that in preparing to talk to me he had started to analyse himself and he learnt things about himself that he hadn't realised before, you know it was a kind of self-analysis thing, fascinating.
It seems a lot of people at this time are very excited over talking about what they're doing, it's changing so fast they want to get a piece of that action, don't they?
In talking about the way people arrive at their final result I found that it apparently opens up for themselves certain literary possibilities. For example, getting hold of Cleo Laine and getting her to tell me about her approach to music. This was one of the most important points, not just tuition on how to sing or how to play guitar or whatever, but their psychological approach to music and what they feel about it and I found that very interesting.
Simon Frith who was talking about popular music said that "Technological and commercial developments have changed the processes of music-making, but have not changed people's reasons for playing and listening or the nature of musical experience". Do you agree with that?
I think that's very true. He deals with the history of music from 1950 onwards which really covers the whole of the rock 'n' roll business, and it's interesting because for me 1950 was the year that I started in the record business and I've seen tremendous changes. In those days we didn't even record on tape - we were on direct disc in mono and in shellac, so the past thirty years have been an incredible light year quantum jump and now we have compact discs and digital recording and every conceivable microchip you can think of in the studio and it's a very sophisticated process indeed.
For example I have just been working on a film where we've been recording 24-track, playing 24-track back at the same time and overdubbing 24-track locked in to cameras and capturing everything live in multi so if you want to hear something different on playback they could do so and still be locked to the cameras which was quite a technological feat. But even this is fairly easy nowadays with the equipment available.
What film was that may I ask?
This is a film I've been making with Paul McCartney called 'Give My Regards to Broadstreet'. But this only serves to emphasise that technology has gone so far that we can hardly go any further. We now have virtually perfect recording which throws the emphasis more upon the content which comes back to our point that the music itself is the most important thing of all. The means of translating it onto an apparatus that people can hear is now so perfect that we can concentrate more on the music itself.
How much do you think musicians follow conventions these days and what sounds good? There is a paradox in the need to stay still to be part of the current popular scene to be commercial, but then you also have to move on to be successful. Do you see that as being still the formula?
I think so. I think there are a few dead ends which people do tend to go up and electronic music can be one of those dead ends. Electronic music has been terribly exciting, but I do like to use it in conjunction with conventional writing and instruments. The people that become the slaves of the electronic music rather than masters tend to find that they are becoming a bit soulless and robotic themselves.
Leaving aside the music technology for a moment, how important do you think the singer is now to the success of the music?
I think that the importance of the singer is coming back, there's no doubt about it, and the big stars are still there. I think it's fairly significant that right now the biggest person in England is David Bowie and he's not an electronic musician at all. And the success of people like Phil Collins and Michael Jackson in America, emphasises that - a young man who is obviously geared to modern sounds but who is still very much a human performer and not an electronic voice. I think the human voice is very important. Spandau Ballet are almost 'middle of the road' but they produce some beautiful sounds - listen to their back-up vocals, they're really super.
With the increased availability of technical processing machines, do you find yourself offering more alternatives, say more ideas when producing a band or artist?
Only for the framework, they don't alter the problems of, first of all, 'is the song good' and secondly 'is the singer giving a great performance'. No amount of technological advancement will help those two things and they're the most important questions of all. And if the singer doesn't give really well and he isn't singing well, then I would just as soon go home.
But does that come from you as a producer rather than the artist who may be relatively inexperienced? You may know that a harmonizer could be just the thing so that is the one item you might mention to them. Does it still come down to you as the producer to organise that side?
Well that aspect is part and parcel of the trade. I regard that part of it as being the tricks of the trade - every producer has a few up his own sleeve.
I mentioned versatility before and that I've had to become more versatile as the years have gone by, as each new development came along. I was very aware that I had to master it. For example going way back to the times before the Abbey Road album I spent two weeks in California with Bernie Krause and Paul Beever learning how to handle the Moog Series 3 which, as you know, is an antique instrument now because I bought one and we used it on 'Abbey Road'. So consequently as each new thing came out I was very anxious to learn what it could do for me and use it as part of the tool. I remember saying to Paul McCartney that if there was too much echo on something you couldn't get rid of it, and then of course Kepex came out with noise gates and now you can take echo out, this kind of thing. So in keeping up one always learns new things, and that's been a fascinating part.
Do you make a conscious effort to learn about new instruments?
Yes. There's so many new tools, so many little toys. I tend to have my favourites, I mean there are certain things which are so marvellous but they do take time, a thing like the Fairlight for example. A Fairlight is a marvellous machine, you can waste an awful lot of time with it, it's great to play with.
Moving onto another area, do you see a big growth now in the video/music demo, is that going to be very much more useful to you in listening to people's music?
Not really to me, but it certainly is a means of selling isn't it? I'm a bit long in the tooth to be impressed by that, I think the music is still the most important thing.
If you are thinking of taking on a new band then it helps if you can't see them personally. But I don't think it ever makes up for seeing them live in a performance. The way they react to an audience is important too.
A lot of pop music creation started with the rhythmic idea, then the melodic and harmonic structure, adding together all the elements that we know to form the complete picture. Do you think there's any precedence to these now? There are certain groups perhaps ignoring some of those sections in the traditional sense.
It varies so much with the individual. Some people start with their music first. Talking about McCartney I think Paul generally starts with his music first and lyrics then come later. But you can't be hard and fast on that. I've actually worked with groups who didn't know what the song was going to be until the track was laid down - and I found that very frustrating. I would say 'where are the words', and they'd say 'Oh, we haven't written them yet'. 'Well what's the tune', 'Tune? Well we haven't thought of the tune yet, we're just laying down the backing', and that was completely the wrong way round!
I think the song is the most important thing and I think that comes from inside one's mind.
Sandy Loewenthal's chapter on the 'Popular Song Analysed' says that there are many more sources of inspiration now available to the composer. Is it important for you to restrict your styles to maintain your success as a producer?
No, I think that if a producer is to be valuable he's got to get the best out of the artist concerned so that no matter what anyone says he has a subsidiary role, he's not the popular image of the svengali dangling the string, I don't believe that at all, never have done. I think that a good producer, whoever he's tackling will get inside the mind of that person and see what he's trying to bring out. Whether you're working with John Lennon, Ultravox, The Human League or David Bowie, you've still got to go in and follow up where the material is and what the fellow is good at, and try and get that over.
Bob Barratt on songwriting, says that the song itself is not the key selling factor but is more a coat hanger on which the record producer can hang some saleable sounds.
It is an interesting comment which I don't wholly agree with actually, I mean this was the important part of the book, I did want to get other people's points of view and not just slam my own down. Personally I think the song is the most important thing on a record. There are a lot of people who think that it is just a vehicle for the record production, the gimmicks or the singer's voice.
Most studios have an embarrassing array of 'toys' anyway and one of the things that worries me about studios in general is that the hardware is so expensive. It doesn't come down in price and people demand better equipment so consequently the recording costs go up. In our studios in London I think we have to charge something like £75 an hour, but when you know that the desk itself cost £117,000 and each tape machine costs £40,000, it doesn't require very much knowledge of business to work out how much it costs to pay that back, and that frightens me! So if you then have to include MicroComposers and all the range of synthesizers as a normal part of the studio equipment, your hiring charges would be fantastically vast - too high.
Do you think that there's a trend towards musicians wanting to know more about the sheer techniques of music making?
I think there is. People do want to know more, people are always asking me questions, 'How did you do such and such', 'What's the way of doing it', and that's another reason for the book, it is very explanatory. I mean, little tricks of the trade like using a Kepex to punch holes in sound, which I deal with in the book. I'm sure most people don't realise that that's a very useful little trick to have.
Paul McCartney has a chapter on songwriting and it is fascinating just thinking of your career with the Beatles and how you developed ideas. In 'I Am The Walrus' you use tape editing to a large degree and of course, you and John Lennon were attributed to the word 'flanging'.
Yes, that is true. That was just a joke to begin with, because way before the Beatles I used to do all the Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan stuff on radio, and in fact when I was looking for a Sinatra type voice for Peter Sellers songs, I got Matt Munroe. I didn't want to use Matt Munroe's name so I used Fred Flint! So 'flange' was just another of our joke words and when we first did ADT on John's voice and let him hear the result he thought it was absolutely marvellous, he came up and said 'fantastic, what you done, that's great and what do you call it?'. And I said to him, 'Oh, it's very simple, John, all we've done is taken the voice, split it in two, and added a double wiflocated sploshing flange'. Which was just a bit of gobbledegook. And he laughed and said after that 'well let's flange the voice again'.
Now that really applied to ADT, and I was quite surprised some years later to be working in America and have someone talk to me about flanging. I said 'where do you get that from', and he said 'I don't know, it's a way of treating the voice electronically with tape'. I said 'yes I know that but where did you get the word from', and he said 'well they get it from putting their finger on the flange of the thing', but that was someone explaining it after the event. Now you have real flanger units. The word has come to mean something slightly different of course.
How much is the chart success needed to launch a band these days?
It's very difficult. It's very difficult to sell an album without having a single success. It is true that people do buy success. So that if you have a song in the charts then people will want it because it is in the charts.
Your range of artists is so diverse that obviously some of those people will never be chart toppers. Do you still have to work on the fact that they are recognised and established artists so they will be successful for you?
Yes, I mean some people come to me expecting that because I make the record that it will have a chart success, which is a bit silly in a way. I always regard myself as a bit of a jockey, a champion jockey, and Lester Piggott can't win a race by himself - he's got to have a good horse under him, and I feel much the same way. I can't make a record with someone who is not any good.
Next month: Part 2, the concluding episode with the man who helped start it all.
Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2
Interview by Mike Beecher
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