Heroes (Part 11)
George Martin 5th Beatle/2nd Part
John Morrish concludes his two part analysis of George Martin the 'fifth Beatle'.
Of all the innovations associated with the Beatles, none was sadder than the "Double A-side" single.
Invented as a political necessity for the "We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper" single, designed to balance the competing claims to prominence of the group's two chief creators, it went on to broadcast to the world the increasing unworkability of the Lennon/McCartney partnership.
The partnership remained a legal entity long after it had ceased to have any practical meaning whatsoever. True enough, the boys would still chip in ideas for one another's songs, even when they were at loggerheads about everything else. It was a sort of reflex action. But by the time of the winter 1966 sessions intended to produce a follow-up to "Revolver", even the most casual listener was bound to be aware of the sharp disparity in musical approach between the two principal Beatles.
Those sessions were the beginning of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", though a nervous Brian Epstein made a decision to rush-release the first two of the songs as a Double A single, called "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever".
By this time, George Martin had achieved a significant amount of personal liberation on his own account, by escaping the ridiculous contract he had with EMI which obliged him to produce regular three-minute miracles as a (poorly) salaried employee.
By December 1966, Martin was a freelance producer, the first "company man" to break free. But the Beatles were still with EMI, and although there was no obligation to use the Abbey Road Studios in the latter years of their careers, everyone seemed to prefer it. Above all it had formidable technical resources, in terms of newly-invented equipment and in-house ingenuity.
Both "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were highly innovative as recordings, and yet thematically they cling to nostalgia, at least as a starting point. But what they do with that nostalgia could hardly be more different. "Penny Lane" was actually recorded second, in January 1967, but in terms of development it seems to come first.
Paul McCartney's song is a verbal collage of real places and, apparently, people. Typically, it prefers to list these things rather than saying anything about them except on the most epigrammatic level (ie, the nurse who feels she is in a play and "she is anyway").
Paul's nostalgic strain, not usually confined to his own experience but including the memories of his relations and even older people, was to become dominant in his career (think of "Pipes of Peace", "Mull of Kintyre", need I go on?). But before "Penny Lane" it had never found the appropriate style of arrangement.
Paul proposed to remedy this by asking the versatile George Martin to style his arrangement around the B-flat piccolo trumpet passage in Bach's 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, third movement. So Martin called in David Mason of the London Symphony Orchestra, who stood around while Paul hummed the notes he wanted and George wrote them down. Or so the story goes. One complication is that what we hear on the record is a speeded-up B-flat piccolo trumpet, so Martin would have had to allow for that, and incorporated the necessary transposition because it is a transposing instrument. He knew his stuff. Sadly, one of George Martin's few lapses in taste is his knack of making small horn sections sound like the Tijuana Brass. On "Penny Lane" the effect is mild, but on later pieces by Paul such as the mock-Twenties "Martha My Dear" it sounds grim. Still, "Penny Lane" does boast a bass line that J S Bach would have felt proud of.
"Strawberry Fields Forever", though, was something else. Or "something else", as they said in those days. Now Martin had to find a way not only of satisfying two very different writers, but of satisfying two different instructions from the same writer. The result was the Beatles' longest session to date on a single song.
John Lennon's song exists in two other versions to the one we know. There's a version said to be take one, including some rather spacey slide guitar, and there's a complete mellotron-led take (take 7) that makes up the first half of the finished song. The second half of the finished version comes from take 26, a fully stringed arrangement.
It is well known that Martin had to edit together two different complete versions to make a finished product that pleased the demanding Lennon who wanted the best of both worlds, both the rocky beginning and the strident brass and strings of the second half.
The problem was that the two versions were in both different keys and different tempos. Luckily, the faster one was in the higher key, which meant the two could be brought together by adjusting both their speeds using the varispeed EMI recorders that were one of George Martin's favourite devices. To my ears, the mellotron version is in Bb, so it was slowed down to bring it to the final version's A. Martin recalls that the two were a semi-tone apart, with one being sped up and the other slowed down. That would have left the finished song somewhere in between two keys, but of course having joined them up it was easy enough to make the final piece of tape run faster or slower to find a pitch and tempo that suited.
In subsequent years, it was a constant complaint of Lennon's that he had only really ever been interested in basic rock'n'roll, and that all the experimentation had been other people's ideas. That does not accord with the historical facts.
Certainly on the next album, "Sgt Pepper's", it was the demanding (not to say ungrateful) Lennon whose songs got the most attention. It is difficult to imagine what a song like "Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite" would have become in less sympathetic hands than those of George Martin.
"John said to me: 'I've got a song called "Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite" and I want it to sound like a whirligig, fairground noise', " Martin told Tony Palmer.
So that's what he did, using two electric organs, one playing a swirling run recorded at half-speed. Then he used his old Peter Sellers-era skills with tape to incorporate the sound of steam organs. "I got dozens of old steam organ tapes, playing everything from Sousa Marches to the Liberty Bell. I cut the tapes into 15-inch lengths and told the engineer to throw them all up in the air, which he did. Then I told him to pick them all up and stick them back together again, which he did. Finally, we reshuffled them a bit until we had a tape that had no musical shape and was nonsense.
"That's how 'Mr Kite' was done. Like a jigsaw puzzle. There was nothing clever about it," he said. Well, you could have fooled me, George. But as he said on another occasion, "I tried lots of experiments like that which didn't work out, but of course, I don't talk about those."
"Sgt Pepper's" was, of course, recorded on four-track, which must be one of the most ballyhooed-of facts about this most ballyhooed-of albums. But don't expect the same results on your Teac: in all cases, tracks were bounced from machine to machine, mixing down each time to get extra space, and for the final, climactic "A Day In The Life", two machines were linked together by the clever device of driving the motor on the second machine from a 50Hz tone recorded on the first. It was apparently a nightmare to keep running. As Martin says, "Well, that was all we had. I would have recorded on more tracks if I'd had the machines."
These days the album sounds as dated as most other 1967 products, but that song "A Day In The Life" is something of an exception. It was an exception, too, in that it was a genuine joint effort (no pun intended) between the principal two Beatles. The full story of its recording appears in Neville Stannard's excellent discography "The Long and Winding Road".
John and Paul had put together a song with three verses and a very different middle section. Between the various bits they had left, on George Martin's advice, rests were inserted of exactly 24 bars. These were counted out by the faithful roadie Mal Evans, with the help of an alarm clock. You can still hear both. In between the music that had already been recorded, Paul wanted an orchestra to "freak out". George Martin was not impressed, and pointed out that orchestral musicians would not really know what to do if asked to "freak out". In the end he brought in a 41-piece orchestra, wrote out the main harmonies for them, and then produced a separate "freak out" score for each player.
This simply showed a line rising from the lowest to the highest note of the instrument's range, with the instruction poco a poco gliss, or slide up bit by bit. The final crash comes from three pianos and a harmonium. Engineer Geoff Emerick was told to hold the faders right down for the final chord, sliding them back up thereafter, so that at the end you can hear the EMI airconditioning in all its glory. After that follows a 17kHz note aimed at the Beatles' canine followers, and a celebrated loop of gibberish that when played backwards allegedly says, "Fuck you like a superman". Either that or "Paul is dead"... "Sgt Pepper's" was a hard act to follow.
And the Martin/Beatles relationship was never again so fruitful. Some reviewer with a sense of mischief had described the album as, "George Martin's greatest work to date," a quip that drove McCartney to distraction. And Lennon was never that impressed with the Martin magic.
There followed a selection of rather uninspired nursery rhymes and dirges, things like "All You Need Is Love" and "Hello Goodbye". The "Magical Mystery Tour" was such a disaster as a film it was difficult for anyone to raise much enthusiasm for the music. In retrospect, the old Lennon/McCartney duality is there as strong as ever, in the opposition between the gentle "Fool On The Hill" and the anarchic "I Am The Walrus". That seemed about as far-out as things could go, what with the constant major/minor police siren drone and the bizarre intrusions of a radio play. The story goes that the play just happened to be on at that time, but there's no doubting that it helps the overall air of menace by the fact that it just happens to be "King Lear" we are hearing, Shakespeare's most nihilistic play. Would they have kept it in if it had been Noel Coward?
With Brian Epstein dead, a power vacuum was created into which McCartney attempted to step.
It was no surprise, then, that McCartney's songs should become the usual A-side, while Lennon provided B-sides and the better album tracks. By the time of "The Beatles", aka the White Album, the band had become four musicians all heading in different directions.
The record carries the strange double credit, "Produced by George Martin. Orchestrated by George Martin." Certainly, his arrangements are more prominent here than ever, as he tries to breathe life into a series of fragmentary and chaotic "songs" by presenting them as parodies or pastiches. But in a way when we think of George Martin we do not think primarily of his orchestrations, but of his consummate skill at getting good sounds from a few basic instruments. Working on the White Album must have been something of an ordeal, since the Beatles, now reaching personal and professional crises of their own, seemed determined to make him go against all his instincts. Because many of the sounds on this record are ugly indeed. It veers from the skilful and tasteful evocation of the Twenties "Honey Pie", to the sheer noise and pretension of "Revolution 9".
"Abbey Road" was the return to professionalism. Paul asked Martin to produce an album like he used to.
"I said, 'Well, Paul, I don't know whether it will work. I'd love to if I'm able to, but in order for me to be able to do that, you've got to agree to be produced, and you've got to do what I say'."
They did what he said, although as an album it suffered from the fact that none of the group really wanted to work on anybody else's material. It was the end of the line, though a happy ending. Then came "Let It Be", an album that was appropriately lampooned by The Ruttles as "Let It Rot". It was a disastrous experience when it was being made, before "Abbey Road", and it was a disastrous record when it was released, tarted up by Phil Spector at his most distasteful.
George Martin's career did not end with the Beatles — indeed, he still works with McCartney from time to time — and he's done impressive work for artists as varied as Jeff Beck, Stackridge, John McLaughlin, America, and Gary Brooker.
But it was in those years, 1963-1969, that George Martin made an apparently indelible impression not only on music, nor just Britain, but on the whole world. Match that, Trevor Horn.
Most people have probably got a compilation or two, but if you want the real Beatles' albums, you can't beat "Rubber Soul", "Revolver", "Sgt Pepper's", "Magical Mystery Tour" (better than the original EPs), "The Beatles", and "Abbey Road".
Then there's "Songs For Swinging Sellers", still as biting as it was in 1958, even if some of the targets are a little obscure. For George Martin's post-Beatle work, try Jeff Beck's "Blow By Blow", Stackridge's "The Man In The Bowler Hat", Gary Brooker's "No More Fear Of Flying", or, if you've got a strong stomach, Paul McCartney's "Tug Of War".
"The Long & Winding Road" Neville Stannard. "All You Need Is Love" Tony Palmer. "John Lennon 1940-1980" Ray Connolly. "Shout" Philip Norman. "Abbey Road" Brian Southall.
Feature by John Morrish
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