Production Values (Part 2)
Part two, in which we meet the fifth Beatle, George Martin, and also brush with Trevor Horn's Fairlight.
Part two of the producer's story by John Morrish. How the faders were twiddled from the Beatles to the Buggles.
Before The Beatles there was British pop music. That meant British jazz, British big bands, British crooning and a weird little blind-alley called skiffle.
But there was also George Martin, a slightly stiff Englishman whose job was to produce that kind of stuff for Parlophone, EMI's third-best label. But he also did comedy, where he learned all about what people in the business call FX, perhaps better known as The Art of Noises.
When he got the Beatles, they had more than enough noises of their own. Out of tune drums, rattling basses and amplification that was just plain bad, and a collection of songs drawing Martin to the conclusion that these boys were funny — perhaps an exciting live act, but composers never.
So the elegant Mr Martin rolled up his sleeves (in the evenings when EMI allowed that kind of informality) and painstakingly rejigged the early and unconvincing offerings of the Four Lads Who Changed The World.
The man who changed the lads had a serious education in music. Now he was getting another one, and when the two factions came together the result was a new amalgam of Liverpudlian aggression and Manchester Square urbanity. Martin began as arranger, became orchestrator, later co-experimenter. The (late) arrival of 4-track encouraged the eager Lennon & McCartney, and the slightly dubious Martin, to make the studio their compositional tool, exactly as their US counterparts were doing.
By the time of "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", the "greatest composers since Schubert" were ransacking the medicine cabinet for inspiration, while Uncle George (as the sneering Lennon would call him) performed at least equal miracles fuelled only by tea and sandwiches from the EMI canteen. 'A Day In The Life' was the high point of the method, the point at which the wave broke.
The boys wanted a 41-piece orchestra to freak out. The meticulous former orchestral player wrote a part for each musician so that the freaking out would at least be in time. The "Pepper" album was the beginning of the end of that kind of common purpose.
So where do we place George Martin, in hindsight? The fifth Beatle? The third member of the great songwriting duo? One measure of proof is, I suppose, the lack of anything startling from Martin after the demise of the Beatles. But consider their work without him.
George Martin invented the 'art' of production in this country, while remaining for the early years at least a (rather poorly) salaried employee. Later he won his freedom, and invented the 'business' of production too. For both those, he deserves his place up on Mount Olympus.
Meanwhile, down on the nursery slopes, we find a number of producers whose work stands out not simply for its commercial success but because it has a recognisable voice of its own. Sometimes that voice comes through loudest when it is at its most self-effacing, for instance in the work of Glyn Johns.
Glyn Johns is the least trendy of producers. Here's a man who, in the age of sampling and digital recording, actively prefers to use a set of ageing valve microphones, no effects other than reverb (and what reverb it is), and a limited number of tracks to aid concentration. His proudest boast is that he records artists: what you get is the sound they make, an attitude that places him in a direct relation to the early American pioneers like Sam Philips or Leonard Chess.
In other words, there's an involvement with the performers that goes beyond the technical into the realms of inspiration. Listen to one of his three Joan Armatrading albums and you'll appreciate that Johns' contribution is not just about recording and arranging: it's also about providing a time, a space and an atmosphere within which musicians can work.
Chris Thomas was given his first job by George Martin, and like his mentor he's more of an interventionist than Glyn Johns, taking a hand in the music, arranging, orchestrating, doing the business for material that sometimes doesn't sound worth it. In 1972, you may recall, he played the newly-marketed Moog synthesiser on a ditty called 'Son of My Father' for his producees Chicory Tip.
That's not to say that he hasn't done good records. He has, of course, many of them for a whole set of big names from Roxy Music and Procol Harum to Elton John and the Pretenders, usually big, free-spending customers who want a production whose invention will mirror and complement their own. Oh yes, and he did the Sex Pistols album with Bill Price, an adventure the true story of which has never emerged. One day...
Different again is Brian Eno, someone who deserves the name egghead for his almost unique willingness to allow philisophical and theoretical concerns inside the studio itself. Many producers, though not the best, I suspect, fear the activity of the mind in the studio in the same way actors fear whistling. Strange. Eno's own records have become increasingly arid territory for those who like some connection, however tenuous, between music and life. But at his best he's still shaking people up, making them play the wrong instrument or operate along lines dictated by chance, and that can only be good. When he did U2's recent "The Unforgettable Fire", he spent a long time simply talking to the band. I wonder if it'll catch on?
That's enough about individuals. Now that we're nearly into the present, it might be a good idea to pull back from the trees to have a look at the wood. Producers we know about, but what's happening to production?
Well, the first thing to say is that a lot of solid dependable names are producing a lot of solid dependable records.
There's not much point in listing them, it would only produce some unlikely groupings. I'm sure you know the kind of people I mean. They've usually done one album for Ultravox, or the Banshees, and one for XTC and one for Squeeze and one for the Thompson Twins, etc. There are new sounds here, usually, but not a new sound, if you see what I mean.
Then there are those who are more self-consciously innovative and self-promoting, striving to make records that shout "Trevor Horn" as much as they whisper "Dollar" or "Frankie". Trevor Horn's fame rests largely on his ability to organise other people to, for instance, produce lush string parts for ABC or Fairlight crashes and screeches for Frankie. But what happens when people come to you for your distinctive Fairlight sounds and then, having made a successful album, buy a Fairlight of their own? The efforts of that kind of producer to make the business a capital-intensive area, making music out of cash rather than people, are liable to collapse.
In America, we saw how people like Phil Spector and Leiber and Stoller devoted themselves to making records that simply could not be copied. In the era of sampling, anything can be copied, which makes the role of producer as "creator of unique sounds" something of a historical leftover. And puts the emphasis more firmly than ever on the musical part of the process.
And with that in mind, what can we learn from the fact that self-production, perhaps with big-name assistance when it comes to mixing (Steve Lillywhite for the new Joan Armatrading album, for instance), is making something of a comeback? Will the new Beatles need a new George Martin?