George Martin (Part 1)
An interview with the man who helped start it all.
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.
Interview by Mike Beecher
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