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Posts tagged ‘George Martin’

Sgt Pepper at 50

Sgt Pepper at Abbey RoadThey’ve kept Studio 2 at Abbey Road looking much the way it did in 1967. The walls and movable screens are still covered with the sort of perforated acoustic pasteboard once found in record-shop listening booths. If you look up, you’ll see the window high in the wall through which George Martin looked down from the control room on “the boys”, as he always called them. Behind the cupboard doors you might even find random things to scrape or shake, as the need arises. There are scuffs and stains; like the interior of a vintage car, it has a patina.

It’s a tourist attraction now, of course; apparently you can have your wedding there, which is useful for EMI since the demand for big recording studios is no longer what it was. But there can’t be a better place in the world to listen to the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was almost entirely recorded there before being sent out into the world on June 1, 1967.

Last Monday, half a century later, about 100 people gathered in Studio 2 to listen to Giles Martin, son of George and inheritor of the mantle of sonic curator of the Beatles’ legacy, as he talked about remixing Sgt Pepper and then played the 96kHz/24bit result over a rather lavish sound system.

Some of those to whom the record always sounded pretty decent in any circumstances will inevitably harbour reservations about such a project. On the other hand, it sounded fantastic — as it was almost bound to do, given the emotional resonance of the setting. But there’s no doubt that the ministrations of Martin fils have exposed elements of the music inevitably obscured in the original mixdown from the four-track tape, and by the perfunctory way the original stereo mix was achieved at a time when only the mono version really mattered.

As often happens when you listen really closely to the Beatles, the most striking thing is what a great band they were, irrespective of all the trappings. “They really dug in,” Martin observed. “They didn’t play quietly ever.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the vicious guitars on the introduction, the wonderful swing-time bass on “With a Little Help From My Friends”, the fabulous tangle of sitars, tamburas and dilrubas on “Within You, Without You”, and the great drumming on “Lovely Rita” and the Lennon sections of “A Day in the Life” are all brought to the fore or otherwise enhanced by the subtle rebalancing of individual levels. An album so rich in incidental detail — to a degree arguably beyond the capacity of the technology then available — can certainly benefit from such restoration, if handled with care and sensitivity.

I remember being in a record shop on the morning that Sgt Pepper arrived. I’d once had a Saturday job there, so I was allowed to take the first copy out of EMI’s brown cardboard box, put it on the shop turntable, and listen while examining the lavish packaging. I found it impressive, of course, but nowhere near as engaging as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Help! or With the Beatles. I still feel that way. Giles Martin calls these sessions “the pinnacle of their collaboration — the happiest time they ever had in the studio”, and presumably he had his father’s word for that. The songs and the approach to presenting them were certainly a product of what he calls “the accelerative universe” in which they were living at the time. But, while admiring the artistry and the breadth of imagination that went into “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” or “When I’m Sixty-four”, I wouldn’t care if I never heard half Sgt Pepper‘s songs again.

“A Day in the Life” and “She’s Leaving Home” are masterpieces, of course (and it took Monday’s playback to make me realise what a great line “Leaving the note that she hoped would say more” is). As, it goes without saying, are “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, recorded at the start of the album sessions in November 1966 and included in the various formats in which the 50th anniversary edition will appear in the last week of May (full details here) — although Martin dismissed the notion that those two tracks should now be inserted into some kind of revisionist running order. That was just one of the “spiritual and technical challenges” he talked about having faced, and on this one he made the right call.

What can safely be said is that Giles Martin has done Sgt Pepper no harm. He hasn’t sprinkled some kind of artificial digital fairydust on the masters, and he hasn’t distorted the internal workings of the music. And anyone who would rather listen to a mono vinyl copy on a Dansette is still quite at liberty to do so.

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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.