This material is taken from the transcripts of interviews I did with The Beatles’ producer, Sir George Martin, in 1997 and 1998. Some of it appeared in MOJO, some was used by his publicity company; the remainder is unpublished elsewhere.
He was promoting ‘In My Life’, an all-star album of Beatle songs re-worked by guest artists like Goldie Hawn and Sean Connery. It wasn’t much good, so I’ve steered away from it in the questions that follow.
Sir George himself was always a pleasure to meet, rather an old-world gentleman, very learned and courteous.
Paul Du Noyer: Was it your background in comedy that attracted the Beatles?
George Martin: My background in music rather than comedy. But the comedy records that I’d made, first of all I enjoyed doing them, and I’d done a lot of spoken word, I used to do all the HMV Children’s Series, Enid Blyton and Toytown, that sort of thing, I cut my teeth on those. But the reason I went into making records with Peter Ustinov and Peter Sellers, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann and so on, wasn’t because I wanted to abandon music, it was because in 1955 after five years as an assistant I suddenly became head of a label. I was running Parlophone Records, and everything that went out was my responsibility, I decided what was released to the unsuspecting public. It was a very small label but I was responsible, and up against me were the big boys, all the American imports, they had Elvis Presley, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, Guy Mitchell, all the big American acts and they were the records that sold in this country.
Now poor little Parlophone had no American input, and it was a jazz label too and Scottish country dance music; Humphrey Lyttleton and Dankworth and Jack Parnell were on the roster, and it wasn’t a big commercial label, I had to make it work. So I had to find a way that wasn’t a direct frontal assault, there was no-one in England who could combat Frank Sinatra, I had to get in round the cracks, and Peter Sellers was my way of doing it. So when I made the first albums with him and arrogantly called it the Best Of Sellers, my bosses thought so little of it that they wouldn’t allow me to make a 12-inch album: ‘This has got to be a cheap album, make it a 10-inch’ and I had to.
Of course they were wrong and they upgraded it to a 12-inch eventually; we made three albums, the last one was with Sophia Loren, Goodness Gracious Me was a big hit. And Temperance Seven hads a big hit, I got my first Number 1 with them, with You’re Driving Me Crazy: at the time I heard the news I was actually recording four young men in Cambridge, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller. So it was a way of selling records, at the same time music was still there, Temperance Seven, Vipers Skiffle Group, Matt Monroe, Ron Goodwin and so on.
Did you see any potential in British rock’n’roll before the Beatles?
Yes, it was just a question of finding the right person. I actually looked at Tommy Steele and didn’t accept him because I thought he was a cardboard imitation, he was being backed by the Vipers Skiffle Group when I signed them. I was wrong and I should have taken Tommy. But in fact Tommy wasn’t a great recording artist, he was a great artist but he didn’t sell that many records; he did to begin with but quickly petered out. What did turn the tables was Cliff Richard, and when Cliff came along and Norrie Paramor signed him up, it changed the face of British music. It wasn’t hard rock’n’roll, it was very English, something that poor old Cliff’s had to live with all his life, because he’s never made it in the States. But I did envy Norrie with Cliff, he was selling lots of records. I took on Jim Dale, who was rock’n’roll and got to Number 2 with him, but he went into acting, took the legitimate route. But I was still looking for something when the Beatles came along, and I found them.
I gather it was not their songwriting which first clicked with you?
In those days performing songwriters were not the norm. Cliff was not one. You had to find someone who could put over a song and then you had to find a song for them, it was part of our jobs and we used to haunt Tin Pan Alley and go around the publishers to listen to new material and pinch ideas from America. When the Beatles came along the stuff they offered me was not very good at all, Love Me Do was the best thing I could find and I knew it wasn’t a big hit. PS I Love You, One After 909, not the greatest of epoch-making songs, were they? And I didn’t know that they could write great songs, I wasn’t convinced, but once they got on their golden treadmill they were inspired and they transformed themselves, they grew like hothouse plants, they’d suddenly sprung up into writers of stature. They did their homework, they studied, they didn’t go to college but they listened to records and learned what made them tick. They listened to a Burt Bacharach song or a Carol King song or a Motown song, and they’d work out how it was done and how the answering voices worked, they got very facile very quickly.
What is your assessment of John and Paul as writers? Did they educate each other?
They worked very closely, in the beginning, They were inseparable, they so were so excited by each other. They each would start off with their own idea and then the other would shape it, toss it around, and you can generally tell which songs are which. As they went on they tended to write more of their own songs, with the other just offering a suggestion, or if they got stuck for a word. They would be critical of each other but it was a collaboration of competition: if one wrote something really good, and they did, then the other would say, Shit, I wish I could do as well as that, and they’d write something better, they’d keep doing that, upping the ante.
What were their respective strong points? John as a words man, Paul with the greater gift for melody?
That is true to a certain extent but it’s a little bit bland. The thing that irritates me the most is that John was the rocker and Paul was the ballad man. But then you listen to Helter Skelter and what the hell’s that about? Then you listen to something like Julia or Imagine or Because, what the hell’s that about? I think it’s true to say that Paul had a stronger sense of melody and harmony that appealed to the main mass of the public more, and John had a kookier way of dealing with lyrics, but they did influence each other enormously, so I think that Eleanor Rigby was Paul’s lyric writing but I doubt if he would have written that unless he’d met John. And I doubt that John would have written something like Imagine without Paul’s influence.
John actually said to me when we were talking about I Am The Walrus – because when he played it me first of all I was gobsmacked, I didn’t know what to make of it, and I had to do an arrangement for him – and he said to me, ‘Well let’s face it George, I don’t expect to walk into a bar in Spain and hear someone whistling I Am The Walrus’. And that summed it up, you would hear someone whistling Michelle or Hey Jude, but John’s songs were not as popular as Paul’s. And if you dissect Lennon and McCartney, they shared all the royalties and all the performing rights, I bet you’ll find a good 65% are Paul’s writings that got the performing rights, when you know what Yesterday’s done, the biggest performing song of all time. So that was what John was conscious of.
But I think the talents were equal, they were different but equal and they were both enormous and I still marvel at what they did. When I went through all the work for the Anthology, I spent two years doing it, one of the things I realised was that after an interval of 30 years, I realised what a good band they were, and how well they performed, and how well they had to perform because I made them. Even when we did a simple thing such as the opening of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band where the three of them sing in harmony, they would naturally do it live on one mike, they would balance themselves and get the harmonies right, it wasn’t a question of one laying down a voice and adding a harmony and three weeks later another guy doing another harmony. They did it then.
And sometimes, in a thing like She’s Leaving Home when John and Paul both sang on the song, and I had very few tracks to play with, I’d already used up two tracks, I had two tracks left for my vocals but I wanted to double track them, and I didn’t want to go to another slave, I didn’t want to lose another generation, so they had to sing together and I had to put different echo on one voice to get the space, so when they’re doing ‘She’s leaving… what did we do with our lives’ and so on, that was on two mikes but on one track, and they did that perfectly. So then I said ‘Right fellas, now do it again, and we’ll double track it.’ And they did, that was how good they were.
How would you summarise the contributions of George and Ringo?
They were part of the solidity that was the Beatles. Without them it wouldn’t have worked. They were a quartet. Obviously they weren’t the main creators, although poor George, whom I neglected, I do confess, did emerge as really quite a songwriting talent. But they were both… George was much more than just the guitar player, he actually did contribute a tremendous amount to the thinking behind the songs and the influence of music, the Indian things that were brought in even as early as Norwegian Wood, that was George. And Ringo, apart from being a bloody good drummer, he used to think about the sounds that that the drum makes, he used to tune the drums and create near-timpani sounds, his drumming in A Day In The Life was unique but more than that he was a catalyst too, like the cement that bound them together. You know how when you put Araldite together you have to mix the two things together then it becomes hard? Ringo was like that, and he always had a word for something and his word was always accepted, and if John was doing something he wasn’t sure about he said, ‘What do you think of that, Ringo?’ and if Ringo said ‘Crap’ then John would abandon it. He wouldn’t think twice. So Ringo was a kind of critic too. He didn’t have a great deal to do once his drums were done: if you ask him what his memory of Sgt. Pepper was it was learning to play chess. But he was an invaluable part of the quartet.
Was Yoko’s arrival a disruptive element?
Yes. It was uncomfortable because she was the first one to break the stronghold. Here you had a castle of four corners. Even I wasn’t a part of that. And they were impregnable, the four of them together were bigger than any individual parts. And then Yoko comes in and one corner is exposed, it’s certainly no longer the strength it was, and when she was ill her bed was brought into the studio and so it was just uncomfortable, the rift began to show and I was unhappy about it. It wasn’t a question of liking or disliking it, it was an element that we weren’t used to dealing with, and it was uncomfortable and it was the beginning of the break.
Do you regret that they split when they did? Could they have developed even further?
Probably. But on the other hand it wasn’t unanimous, the way I would have wanted it to go and the way it was going. I mean, Pepper was a kind of revolution in a way because it marked the change from their writing songs which could be performed on stage, to writing songs which couldn’t be performed on stage, and the reason for that was they had decided they would never perform again, and they were able then to let their imaginations soar unconfined in the workshop, which was the studio. And therefore I pompously thought that we were creating a new art form, I thought that we were combining the best of both worlds bringing all elements in, classical music, synthetic music and avant garde music into rock’n’roll and creating something that was really worthwhile and representative of our time. And it kind of wobbled a bit after Brian died, with Magical Mystery Tour and then started fragmenting with the White Album, although the White Album had some great tracks in it. But I felt there were too many tracks in it. And Let It Be was a mess.
And when Abbey Road came round it was consciously trying to get back to roots, back to the Pepper days, and I’d always said to them, ‘I think you should think in symphonic terms, you should think of using some of your elements as keynote parts in a symphony: OK that was a nice little bit of song, let’s bring that back later because it’ll work against something else, put it in a different key, turn it around back to front, have it going up and down, whatever, and think of it in terms of form.’ And Paul thought it was a good idea, in fact the long Abbey Road side is a stab at that, it’s not a perfect thing but it’s not bad. But John didn’t see that, John thought, ‘What the hell, we’re in rock’n’roll, we’re making songs, we’re not making a symphony; I like Come Together, let’s put another song in.’ So we compromised and one side was a collection of songs and the other was the long one. Now, if John had felt the same way that I did, we would probably have gone on to something that was possibly better that it was, but it didn’t.
And in fact after Abbey Road the whole movement dropped anyway because along came punk rock and the Sex Pistols singing God Save The Queen and music changed enormously, and we didn’t know where the future lay; we didn’t know that vision was going to dominate sound as it now does, you can’t sell records without television and so the vision is more important than the music and the way people move and the way they look is more important than the way they sound. Hence Spice Girls hits, Michael Jackson in some of his wilder movements.
Did you follow the Beatles’ solo work closely?
I followed it but I wouldn’t say I was a great fan.
You were involved in some of what Paul did.
I was involved. And of course I would hear what John did. Yoko actually said years later, I wish you’d recorded Double Fantasy, and I said, Well you never asked me. And I think Imagine was very good. I think John did a lot of good stuff, and Paul did too, but it wasn’t as good as when they were together and I think they have to accept that. Paul went through a long period when he was writing stuff that was OK but I think he’s excelled himself with his last one, I think the Flaming Pie album is a very good one.
Would you have wished to produce the later singles, Free As A Bird and Real Love?
I wasn’t asked to.
Would you have wished to?
I was uncomfortable about using dead John on a record, and I heard the quality of what they had to deal with and it was quite a problem. If I had been asked to do it then I probably would have done it, but I wasn’t asked. But I didn’t have any great regrets about it, So it was no skin off my nose really. I think if I had produced it it would have been a different sound, but it doesn’t matter.
Have you enjoyed your career in the music business? You don’t have the spivvish character people associate with it.
I was very lucky to go in the music business at the time I did. I didn’t know it but my timing was impeccable. There was a revolution going on, we were on the brink of changing over from shellac to vinyl, on the brink of stereo, on the brink of computerisation although that came later and all the synthesisers, that came later. But in the early 1950s life was very primitive. So I was in on the ground floor at a time when there were only about 10 producers in the country, instead of about 39 million. So I was very fortunate. I was very classically minded in those days when I came in, I took on the job because it gave me a bit more bread and enabled me to go on doing my music and playing in orchestras and so on, and I got hooked on it, I thought it was a fantastic business, I loved it, I loved the creativity of the studio. But the business side of it has changed, it’s become a very ruthless business, a tough business. I don’t envy anyone starting today, I think young people have a really hard time. There’s a lot of talent around, a lot of good people and I think a lot of frustration goes on, and it’s not always the best people who succeed, that’s one of the ironies and sad things.
You’ve kept abreast of technological developments, but have they been altogether desirable?
If I say not then I’m even more of a dinosaur than I am. I think we tend to miss the point that everything has become more easy to achieve, hasn’t it? I have my own laptop, I can answer my own mail, I can type a letter and have it printed out without a secretary, almost as quickly as it takes to dictate something. So technology helps in every way to make things easier and certainly you know you can press a button and get the sound of an express train which would take you a little while to record if you wanted to do it any other way. And in the studios multi-track enables the ‘layer of cake’ process to go on ad infinitum, you can be infinitely choosy about what you do. All it does though, multi-track, is to delay decisions on things, you’ve still got to get down to two tracks whatever happens.
Technology doesn’t make the music any better, ithe creativity of the human mind is what you’re going to do with it, so what you are dealing with is a range of tools that are more sophisticated, so you can make your shape with more delicacy, you can use your tools with greater effect, but the thought has to be there, the creativity has to be there. And some people will mistake technology for creativity, and it’s so easy to make really quite a good sound of absolute rubbish, with modern technology. So I regret that. So long as kids understand that, and work through it and use the technology to their own advantage then there’s nothing to be lost.
As you end your career are you broadly optimistic or pessimistic for popular music?
I’m quite optimistic about popular music. It goes through many phases but I do believe there is a lot of talent around and a lot of interest in sustaining that and I think that we will see good music. We’re going through a fair trough at the moment, I don’t think there’s anything great at the moment, but I think that something’s going to emerge and we’ll hear a new talent bursting forth with the creativity we’ve seen before, It’s impossible to say what it will be but I think it will happen. I have more hopes for popular music than I do for classical music. I think classical music is having a rough time, because the window of opportunity in classical music is so narrow now, it’s all been done.
The audience is the root of the problem, not the people making it. Because of our business, because of the record industry, they have access to such a wealth of music that they don’t want to hear anything new. Classical music is suffering a downgrade. In this television series that comes out in December, I’ve got a three part series called The Rhythm Of Life in which I talk about music, I put this view to George Solti, I had him before he died, I had him playing some stuff and I said to him, George, do you think it’s possible in today’s society of high technology and so on, is it possible for someone to be born who could emerge with the original brilliant talent of a new Mozart or a new Beethoven in classical music and take the world by surprise and say, Fantastic, this is a genius and creating new wonderful music that no-one’s ever heard before?’ He said, ‘You’re asking the wrong person, you’re asking an old man, and old men are pessimists.’ He’s probably right. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll still ask the question.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t think it’s possible.’
And if you want to be really pessimistic you can look at the history of man, and he’s been making music for 80,000 years, they’ve just discovered that Neanderthal man actually made a kind of a flute out of a bone, and unquestionably people used to sing before they could talk. So we’ve been making music for a long time. But it wasn’t until really the last millennium that we’ve known music in the Western scale that has achieved the grandeur that it has, and there is a kind of curve from Palestrina upwards, through Bach and Beethoven into the wonderful treasure chest of music that we have. But what’s been written in the past 50 years that’s great, that’s going to last in 100 years time? Is it possible that we’ve seen a golden age that will never come back? We’re listening to dead music all the time now, we’re not listening to new music.
Except within popular music.
That’s why I say I’m more optimistic about popular music than I am about classical music. There you go.
Is In My Life your last project?
Unquestionably. I’ve been turning people down left right and centre. The reason is not just that I’m getting old and senile and crotchety, but it’s also that I’m going deaf, when you go deaf you’re not too good at record producing, it’s like a painter going blind. So I’ll quit while I can still hear a little bit….
People say you don’t really mean it do you? I do mean it. In two weeks’ time I shall be 72. Isn’t that time enough to pack it in? Recording is a young man’s job. And I’ve been doing it for nearly half a century. I’m full up with music now. So it’s time I left the stage and I’m quite happy about it.
What will you do with your time?
Oh shit, if I had any time. I’m longing to have some time. One of the problems is that you get asked to do an awful lot and you haven’t got time to do them all. If I were to do every request that came to me I wouldn’t have time to do the requests let alone do anything else. Things like, ‘Spare me half an hour because I’m writing a thesis,’ or ‘Will you come and attend an opening of such and such?’. And I guess that ever since last year when I got the knighthood, that makes you more vulnerable, people think, Oh gosh yes we’ll have him for this charity or to do that. So I spend half my time, politely as I can, fending off people and half the time doing things that people ask me to do. But what I want to do with my time is spend more time on things that I really want to do. I want to sail my boat a bit more, I want to travel a bit more, I want to play snooker a bit more, I want to make models, I want to do a bit of sculpture. And I also want to do a little bit of music. And of course there’s this place (Lyndhurst Hall).
Who, outside of the Beatles, are you most proud of working with?
If I quote one then I have to quote lots. If I mention John Dankworth and Cleo Laine then I’ve got to mention Paul Winter of the Winter Consort, I’ve got to mention America, Mahavishnu, so many people. My old friends like Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, and Anthony Hopkins, there are too many great talents I’ve worked with, it’s rather like thank you’s at Oscars, you can’t thank everybody.
Where would your career have gone without The Beatles?
I don’t know, it’s a bit like saying, What would have happened if The Beatles hadn’t met you? The Beatles weren’t The Beatles we know when I met them. Ringo wasn’t part of them. I don’t know. I think I would have gone on making records, who’s to say? I’d actually been making records for 12 years when I first met them, and I suppose I would have just had a normal career. Obviously I doubt if I’d be a knight by now because it wasn’t fashionable in those days to give non-classical musicians honours, but we broke the mould on that one, which is nice.