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George Martin’s Day in the Life

George MartinForty five summers ago, George Martin granted me a long interview for the Melody Maker. It was a very enjoyable experience: he was most courteous of men, and his answers were full of fascinating detail, with the occasional gentle indiscretion. He spoke in some depth about his experience of working with the Beatles, all the way from “Love Me Do” to Abbey Road, and the result was published in three parts, on August 21 and 28 and September 4, 1971. Lennon and McCartney were at war with each other that year, and some of what he said got up John’s sensitive nose, provoking a couple of letters from New York, the first of which you can see above. But when I asked Martin about the making of “A Day in the Life”, he responded with a very thorough and interesting description, giving a vivid snapshot of the creative relationship between the producer and the four young men he always referred to as “the boys”, a partnership based on his willingness to entertain their interest in taking risks and their respect for his experience and integrity. Had he, I asked, been responsible — as rumour then had it — for sweeping up several seemingly disconnected musical episodes from the studio floor and sticking them together to create a masterpiece?

No, let’s explain that. John had this song, which started off with his observation, and his part was the beginning and the end, and Paul’s was the middle bit. We started recording it with Paul on piano and John on guitar, and we decided we needed another riff in it, and Paul said, “Well, I’ve got this other song — ‘Got up, got out of bed…'” — and he was going to make that a separate song. He said, “You can use it if you like, put it in your one. Will it fit?” They thought about it for a bit and decided it would work, and they wanted something different in it but they didn’t know what.

They decided that they were going to put a lot of just rhythm in it, and add something later. So I said, “Let’s make it a definite number of bars, let’s have 24 bars of just rhythm in two places, and we’ll decide what to do with them later.” They said, “How are we going to know it’s 24 bars, because it’s a long time?” So we had Mal (Evans) standing by the piano, counting “One… two… three…” and in fact he had an alarm clock, because he was timing the thing as well, and it actually went off. On the record you can hear Mal saying, “Twenty one… twenty two…” if you listen.

When they’d done it, I asked them what they were going to do with those bloody great gaps. Paul said he wanted a symphony orchestra, and I said, “Don’t be silly, Paul — it’s all right having 98 men, but you can do it just as well with a smaller amount.” He said, “I want a symphony orchestra to freak out.” So I said, “If you really want one, let me write something for it.” He said, “No, I don’t want you to. If you write it, it’ll be all you. Let’s have just something freaking out.” I said, “Let’s be practical. You can’t get an orchestra in there and say, ‘Freak out, fellers,’ because nothing would happen. They’d just look embarrassed and make a few funny noises.”

So I booked a 41-piece orchestra, half the normal symphony orchestra, and I spent some time with Paul and John. I wrote out the obvious underlying harmonies, and during the main 24-bar sections John and Paul suggested that we should have a tremendous shriek, starting out quietly and finishing up with a tremendous noise. So I took each instrument in the orchestra and at the beginning of the 24 bars I wrote down their lowest note, whatever it was, so that the cello, for instance, had a bottom C, and at the end of the 24 bars I gave them their highest note related to the chord of E. And throughout the 24 bars I just wrote “poco a poco gliss(ando)”, and when it came to the session I told the musicians that they had to slide very gradually up and those people in the woodwind who needed breaths should take them at random. It was just a general slither.

But when we came to do it, the boys said they wanted to make a real event of it. So they got all their friends to come along and dress up and at that time Mick (Jagger) and Marianne Faithfull came along and all their Apple shop friends — the Dutch people — and there must have been about 40 of them, all freaking out with joss sticks. Paul said, “We’re going to be in our flowers but we don’t expect you to do that because you’re not that kind of person.” I said, “Thank you very much.” He said, “But I want you to wear evening dress, and the orchestra, too.” So I booked the orchestra in evening dress, and when it came to the point Paul had brought a lot of carnival gear — funny hats and false noses — and I distributed them among the orchestra. I wore a Cyrano de Bergerac nose myself. Eddie Gruneberg, who is a great fiddle player, selected a gorilla’s paw for his bow-hand, which was lovely. It was great fun.

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17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Many thanks for sharing this, Richard.
    JP

    March 9, 2016
  2. Patrick Hinely #

    Sir George’s unique gift was to take the Beatles’ boundless energy and give it sublime form. Long has it struck me that Martin’s orchestral music for the Yellow Submarine film and Kurt Weill’s Second Symphony are waters from adjacent wells if not the same spring.
    Is there anywhere online one can read your entire interview with Sir George?

    March 9, 2016
  3. Ivor Williams #

    Thanks Richard. Loved that.

    March 9, 2016
  4. stewart gunn #

    lovely piece….so many charming anecdotes coming out…..Sir George was a real one off, RIP

    March 9, 2016
  5. Chris Michie #

    Thanks, Richard. A great story from your brilliant archive.

    I also have a story about George Martin in problem-solving mode. I was a tape-op at AIR Studios when Martin produced an album for Seatrain in 1971; I worked on all the album sessions, which were recorded and mixed by Bill Price. I was slightly miffed when I wasn’t invited to accompany Bill when he went to the US to record the following album, Marblehead Messenger, but perhaps I wasn’t as essential to the production team as I had imagined. However, when Martin and Price returned to AIR I had an opportunity to observe them tackle an extraordinarily difficult remix project — what became “Icarus” by the Paul Winter Consort.

    Martin and Price had done an album’s worth of 16-track sessions with the Consort at the house in Marblehead that Price had kitted out as a studio, but Winter had also booked some recording sessions at another studio, and had re-recorded some tracks. He now wanted the final album to be assembled from the best bits of the two recordings. To illustrate his preferences, Winter had already (I think) edited the multitrack masters — now they just needed to be mixed.

    Unfortunately, the two sets of 2-inch multitrack tapes had not only been recorded by two different engineers in two different studios, but the track layouts were completely different. The bass would hop from track 1 to track 12 (for example), and the drums sounded completely different either side of each edit. Further, the additional recordings had been made at a non-Dolby facility (AIR was an early adopter of Dolby’s noise-reduction system and Price had sourced Dolby equipment for the Marblehead setup).

    Bill Price, a heroic figure in any history of the UK recording scene, dealt with these problems efficiently and pragmatically, “zeroing out” and resetting the Neve board at every edit, and then attaching the latest mixed sequence to the preceding snippets to check for continuity. I tried to concentrate on running the tape machines and switching the Dolby in and out. The whole process struck me as impossibly complicated and there’s no doubt it had been made unnecessarily difficult by Winter’s high-handed intervention. But Martin and Price just got on with it, while I tried to rewind to the same place on the tape without the help of a counter (this was before the days of automation and programmable tape machines, so you just made a series of hopefully distinguishable marks on the back of the tape with a chinagraph pencil). The two-track master mixes had as many edits in them as the multitracks, if not more.

    The result was sublime. Maybe Martin and Price had some reservations, but I always thought that the finished product was extraordinary, and a very smooth production. I had never seen such a massive reconstruction project before and I hoped never to be involved in anything as technically daunting ever again.

    March 9, 2016
    • Wonderful story! That also possibly exoplains why George Martin described Icarus as “the finest album I’ve ever made”.

      March 9, 2016
    • I’d better try and listen to ‘Icarus’. Re Seatrain: I seem to remember that one of Lennon’s letters to the MM, addressed to George Martin via me, ended with a PS: “By the way, I hope Seatrain are a good substitute for the Beatles…” Or words very much to that effect.

      March 10, 2016
      • Colin Harper #

        And were they? 🙂

        (PS Brilliant story, Chris!)

        March 14, 2016
      • Patrick HInely #

        The seeds soon to blossom as Oregon were sprouting vigorously on parts of ICARUS, such as the Walcott/Towner tune “Juniper Bear” – Martin’s production fine-tuned that energy which permeates the Winter Consort’s prior live recording ROAD, which itself remains the best single example of Oregon’s potential and capabilities before that band was officially formed.

        March 24, 2016
  6. Michael Rüsenberg #

    Dear Richard, in case you don´t know it yet – this will be of interest to you: http://www.jazzcity.de/index.php/news/1759-django-wird-sgt-pepper Talk to you soon in regards of our interview in London, mid-April. Best Michael

    March 11, 2016
  7. Wonderful

    March 14, 2016
  8. Thank you for your tribute to George Martin. His journey through life was, indeed, a magical musical tour. I just had to cue up my copy of Sgt. Pepper… to give another listen to “A Day”… while re-reading Martin’s account where he practically deconstructed the recording process down to its atomic structure. Thanks, too, for including this in your post… I now have a deeper sense and even greater appreciation of Martin’s genius. Who would’ve thought it possible that after nearly half a century, I’d be hearing things that I hadn’t realized were there all along… as well as a better knowledge for what I did know was there.

    https://thomasbonich.wordpress.com/2016/03/10/the-sound-barrier-breaking-5th-beatle/

    March 24, 2016
  9. Steve Hurrell #

    Thank you for this tribute, Richard. I felt privileged to be introduced to him when he was working with Chrysalis Records in the late 1980s.

    By chance today I picked up my copy of The Word from July 2009 wondering whether I should throw all my back copies away. I’m glad I didn’t, and now will not. I couldn’t stop reading and found this appreciation of George Martin in an interview with Jeff Beck, by Charles Shaar Murray.

    “George Martin had just heard this demo I’d made, and he said he be pleased to do an album [which turned out to be both ‘Blow by Blow’, which won Beck the first of his three Grammy awards and its sequel, ‘Wired’] I was so thrilled that Sir George was interested, to have this pillar of respectability there looking at me, when he’d done all those amazing gymnastics with The Beatles. He was ‘more’ than a Beatle. He was the sound guy, the arranger… I’m certain he gave ’em some of those three-part harmonies that they didn’t have when they were playing the Star Club”
    “What George loved most was that we didn’t say, ‘This is how it goes, George’. He was a fifth member of the band, which would explain why he turned up every day and gave us his full attention. The magic that he had was that he didn’t force anything. He said ‘If you don’t feel like playing, lets go round the corner and have coffee’. He was trying to see where we were going to lure us into a certain area where we would listen back and say, ‘This is where we wanted to go but din’t know how to. Thank you, George'”.

    March 26, 2016
  10. Hello, Richard! Love this story and tribute. Beautiful. I am very happy that I stumbled upon your blog this week. Thank you for sharing your incredible and genuine experiences. Cheers!

    May 13, 2017

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