Welcome back to Beatles Month!
We’re joined today by Kenneth Womack, author of a two-volume biography of George Martin: the label head and record producer who worked with The Beatles from the beginning of their recording career and was so instrumental to their success that he is often referred to as “The Fifth Beatle”.
Ken’s two books were amazing to read and tell a familiar story from a perspective that was completely new to us, so we were really excited to talk with Ken and learn more about the role George played – and the conversation fully lived up to our high expectations.
We talk about:
- The similar background and particular blend of two character traits which George had in common with the four members of the band
- The surprising state of The Beatles’ original songs when they met George, how he reacted to them, and how they managed to salvage a very inauspicious start!
- And what changes George made to their songs after the height of Beatlemania that is perhaps the reason they are still so renowned now, fifty years on.
Preparing for this interview really made us realise just how little we’d known about the part George Martin played in the trajectory of The Beatles and just how pivotal he was to their great success. It really casts a new and interesting light on it all, and we hope you’ll enjoy learning about it as much as we did.
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Kenneth: Hi, this is Ken Womack, author of Sound Pictures and Maximum Volume, the story of George Martin, magisterial Beatles producer, and I’m here with you on the Musicality Podcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show Ken. Thank you for joining us today.
Kenneth: Aw, thank you so much. I’m glad to be with you.
Christopher: I would love to understand how you came to focus on George Martin. He’s such a seminal figure in the story of The Beatles, but one that is often under-appreciated or not recognized as much as he maybe should be. Where did he come into the picture for you or where did your interest in The Beatles generally begin?
Kenneth: Well, I’ve been thinking about The Beatles for about 40 years, in a scholarly way and which is to say most of that time. And I’ve always been fascinated by their artistic trajectory. It is unparalleled, their ability to go from the beginning of their primitive sound and end on such an illustrious high note 50 years ago at the end of this summer with the Abbey Road album. It’s quite remarkable. In fact, I find no other analog for it in literature or fine art. The Beatles really are a class into themselves and as I really endeavored to try to understand that the obvious place to make a go of it was with George Martin. He was the guy who was often the debut audience for many of their greatest songs. And if he was at the inaugural audience, he was second or third to hear his magnificent songs for his inspection and, what a privileged place to be. Right. The guy who was there when they said, “What do you think of Yesterday.” Or “In my life.” Or what have you. I was interested in digging into that story and taking a deep dive.
Christopher: Terrific. Well, when you put it like that it does seem obvious. The influence he could have had with that initial feedback on any one of the songs we now consider classics for 50 plus years. I’d love to dig into George’s back story because we’ve been talking on the show recently about The Beatles and where they came from. But George Martin was a fairly well-established record industry persona in the UK before he ever encountered The Beatles. So could we begin with his own musical backstory? Where did George Martin get started in music?
Kenneth: Well, for many years he was a scratch pianist. His family, which was very, very impoverished, he was in fact, if you throw him into the mix with The Beatles, he is by far and away the most, the poorest for lack of a better word. He was unrefined. He had a thick cockney accent. He was born on the wrong side of the tracks and famously during the war years chose to restyle his accent and to masquerade as being posh. Thousands of men did this at that time, particularly folks who were in the service, they would come back and be a new man. And George was one of those guys. During the war years he had a correspondence with Sydney Harrison, who was an esteemed music professor at the Guildhall in southwest London. And he and Harrison essentially taught him how to go from being a scratch pianist to one who was conscious of notation, key time signature, et cetera.
You cannot overstate Harrison’s role in George Martin’s life, just as you can’t overstate George Martin’s role in The Beatles. So those were very formative experience and is for him. And when it comes to working with those guys, Ringo used to say, “Never forget, we’re rednecks from the sticks.” But that’s essential to their story. And Ringo understood this implicitly. And so did George Martin. He was a redneck from north London, which were the sticks for many folks of that era. He had a lot in common with them. Even though he was established in the record industry, he wasn’t established in the way he wanted to be. And so when he starts working with these rednecks from the sticks and Brian Epstein, who as we know when George Martin meets him, has been a manager for just slightly over two months.
He’s a faker too in his own way. And all six of these guys end up coming at the industry in a sideways fashion. Which is how industrial disruption occurs. Right? It’s Steve Jobs and Wozniak in their garage. That’s how people upset industries rather than going through the ranks. That’s what’s fascinating about their partnership to me.
Christopher: Gotcha. Well, I was saying to you before we hit record that I’ve so enjoyed reading your books because I’ve long been a Beatles fan and knew a bit about George Martin and his work with them and maybe the influence he’d had or the role he played, but I knew almost nothing of his own backstory. And so it was really interesting to learn he was actually what some people would consider a prodigy as a musician early on, his early years, he seemed to be extremely good at music even though his family were not particularly musical. Is that right?
Kenneth: That’s right. And if it weren’t for an uncle who worked in a piano factory, they wouldn’t have had a piano. I mean, they simply didn’t have that kind of money. And George very fortunately, they move out, outside of London and George has access to a really great education out on the countryside where they would bring in folks like Sir Adrian Bolt and the London Philharmonia and George would be able to experience really high quality classical music as a school kid. And while I’m sure a lot of the other kids were sitting around bored, George just couldn’t believe what he was experiencing. And really there was a life in music for him somewhere. Even if he doesn’t make it with EMI, I imagine it would have been close to his heart.
Christopher: Yeah. And let’s just talk a little bit about that because I think if you took a snapshot at that age, 12 maybe you might look at him and say, “This child is gonna go on to be a musician.” And in some sense he did. And in some sense he didn’t. He had a quite different role in the music industry. Maybe you could just give us a kind of nutshell summary of how he came to work at EMI, what happened in those intervening years.
Kenneth: Sure. And it’s important for us to take a moment and think about his poverty. George because he, he may have a beautiful as Mark Lewisohn calls it, “cut glass voice.” That’s really the extent of his upper-classness, right? He’s still a guy who didn’t have a lot of options. So his future was being made for him. Going to the service was important for him. He really didn’t have a lot of other options, after the fleet air arm he would have been fortunate to work as a clerk for the rest of his life and perhaps found a way to be, in proximity to music, but certainly not the role he had. And Harrison, again, whom he called his fairy godfather, gets him into the Guildhall, which would not have happened otherwise and connects him with Oscar Preuss at a EMI’s Parlophone subsidiary.
So none of those things happen without this one man helping him. It was a signal moment in his life to make that connection with Sydney Harrison because really no one else was giving him that kind of leg up. He simply didn’t have access. When he gets in the door at EMI, of course he knows nothing about the recording industry. He knows it’s the piano because he’s been studying it for three years at the Guildhall. He’s also studied the oboe, although he dislikes it. The one skill he really brings to that experience is he does know how to, he knows a lot about arrangement and orchestration. That’s his great gift, if he got nothing else out of the Guildhall, it’s that.
And so he was handy to have around the studio. He was really Preuss’s assistant, but he was handy to have around for that reason, often because those sessions were a flat 90 minutes. And back in those days at EMI studios now Abbey Road, they met 90 minutes. That’s what it was. So you got in and you got out and having a guy around like him who in a pinch can help you arrange a piece for recording was very handy.
Christopher: I see. And we’ve talked on this show a few times before about the role of mentors and how they can shape a young person’s life or a musician’s life at any stage. Can you speculate or do you know what Sydney Harrison saw in George Martin that made him take that kind of godfatherly or mentor role?
Kenneth: Yeah. There was a sense of patriotism to it, quite frankly. those were very brutal years in the UK. And here’s this man, Sydney Harrison an esteemed professor and radio commentator. And he really approached it as an opportunity to give back. George was not the only young person he was carrying out a correspondence with but George was keen on getting better. And so they would exchange musical notation through the post and they connected in that way. It really was though a sense of duty. This was a way that Sydney Harrison, who was older and was back home in the city could help the war effort. And of course, lots of folks help the war effort in any way they could. This just happened to be his way. He did see something in George, although remember for the longest time, he didn’t even meet him.
He was a guy that he knew through the mail. Eventually he’s able to simply keep helping him and helping him along. And undoubtedly when they’re at the Guildhall school together, they do develop a kind of friendship, which is very important. Although George was frustrated in those years because again, most of the kids his studying with, if you study music right, you’re of a certain class and privilege and George wasn’t of that class and did not have those privileges. Those were tough times for him to try to work with all these posh kids.
Christopher: and once he got to EMI, he was kind of acting as assistant for the head of the Parlophone label. Is that right?
Kenneth: That’s right, yeah. Preuss was his …was the head of the label. He had been operating and as a kind of one man show for 30 years, I’m sorry, about 25 years at this point. And George comes along and suddenly he has for the first time an assistant, which is a good thing because work was stacking up and everybody needs help. But it was a bad thing because think about it, Preuss for a very long time if it is a man and suddenly he has to find out what kind of work to mete out to this young guy, but they eventually found themselves in a kind of partnership. There was a natural “us versus them” affinity that occurs because for many years Parlophone was a … Because they were the third label, they were always on the chopping block and Preuss’s plan was to save them. Always having an eye toward what he thought would be their eventual demise. He and George found a natural kind of connectionship, comradeship rather and this ability to tilt at EMI and try to save the label.
Christopher: I see. And they were two really big things reading through your book that stood out to me in that period, we’re talking about before George Martin ever encountered The Beatles. And so it’s fascinating I think to look at who he had become by the time that fateful event occurred. And the two things that jumped out at me were how he had been pushing the limits or the expectations of what could be done in sound recording at that time. And the other was that he didn’t kind of put his oboe away and slam the piano lid and go into business. He actually did keep up some artistic work on the side. I’d love if we could talk a little bit about those two. Maybe we could start with the sound recording aspect and what kinds of things he was doing that we’re not maybe normal at the time.
Kenneth: Well, sure. He was coming into the studio as a kind of outsider, he would see it differently than all of the mainstays who’d been there at Abbey Road for years. And what George saw was a kind of underutilized space. He thought that it could be this kind of magic workshop as opposed to a place where you just come in, record your songs and get out. And that’s how we approached it. And there’s this, an important moment with Peter Ustinov where they record a piece called “Mock Mozart” and they experiment rather with kind of primitive multi-tracking to try to layer multiple voices from Ustinov one on top of the other to create this kind of funny recording. So he saw it very early on as a place where you could create what he liked to call “sound pictures”.
The industry wasn’t quite there yet. It really was about getting hits out as quickly as possible and simply moving the corporate ball forward. In terms of his own sort of side musical life he disliked the oboe intensely, but he did busk a lot in parks to try to make extra money. He had a young family in the 1950s, and money was a considerable issue for him. Later in the decade he will have an extra marital affair and he will move to the city. And so quite suddenly he has in a way two households to support and through his eventual wife, Judy Lockhart Smith, he’s able to make connections to the film industry.
Her father, Kenneth Lockhart Smith was sort of the doyenne of the field and George could get some freelance work that would allow him to score a few films and create a little extra income which he needed because he was on a flat contract even after he became head of the Parlophone label where he received a standard annual salary and no residuals. So to make any extra money, George had to go out and find it as a kind of freelancer.
Christopher: what I found so interesting was that you described his first meeting with The Beatles and you kind of set the scene in terms of what George Martin was looking for at the time, which you know, if you’ve just read about his artistic background and the fact that he was still, as you say, busking or playing with a band or writing under a pen name, he was writing his own songs. It’s quite surprising to hear the perspective he had. And it also seems at odds with what you just said, which was that he was on a flat salary. Like he had no incentive to bring Parlophone a hit. But at that stage where The Beatles walked into his life, as you put it, he was looking for a “bring the house down”kind of group. Is that right?
Kenneth: It absolutely was. I mean, he was deeply ambitious and very competitive and he has an arch enemy by this period. If the fellow named Norrie Paramor. Norrie was the head of the Columbia label, which was in a way the First Label, if Parlophone’s the Third Label, Columbia is the moneymaker. And cliff was just killing it with a, I’m sorry, Norrie was killing it with cliff Richard. And they had something like 19 top three hits, or top five hits rather in the late 1950s, early 1960s. And George was extremely jealous. That was his biggest motivating factor. He wanted to be like Norrie. And what he wanted more than the artistic experience was he just wanted to kill it. And I think that, that was for many years his problem, he really was more motivated by getting what he called a fireproof act as opposed to something that was in a authorial or artistic statement.
I think we can all sympathize with that kind of rage for success. He didn’t really know what it sounded like and he didn’t really know what it looked like, but when he meets Brian Epstein in February of 1962, in his mind, he’s thinking, there’s no way that thing I want it’s going to be these guys from Liverpool. I mean, he spent his whole adult life at this point trying not to be aligned with folks from the sticks.
Christopher: Looking back, I think it’s easy to see it as a magical combination in his personality that he clearly had this creative drive. He was experimenting in the studio. He was collaborating with the Radiophonics Workshop that any Brit would know is like the kind of origin of interesting sound experiments in that time. And he was writing his own music. He was still composing and writing songs. Clearly he had that creative spark in him and wasn’t interested or willing to put it aside purely for the sake of business ambition. But at the same time as you say, he was very driven. He was after that big hit and that kind of commercial success. I think that’s an unusual combination to see.
Kenneth: Absolutely. And again, he’s just naturally competitive. He wanted to beat Norrie at Norrie’s own game. Norrie had a new E type Jag and George wanted a Jag too, Norrie would come right there and in the Abbey Road, the tiny car parked there in front of the building and he would just park that gleaming new car in front of the building and George was ready. He was ready to hit it big. And “why hasn’t it happened yet?” and that was both his ambition, but it was also his curse. Because when you’re thinking that way, you’re mitigating your ability to do the hard work that it takes. And one of the important aspects for students about The Beatles’ story and George Martin’s role in it is that they worked like dogs.
They didn’t just come in and live a kind of leisure life. They worked like dogs to improve. And so I talked earlier about that trajectory, that seven year trajectory that they take from ‘Love Me Do.’ To ‘Abbey Road.’ And it’s marked by hard, hard work and toil.
Christopher: And so let’s just set the context a little bit. We now know where George Martin was coming from before he met The Beatles. What had they been up to up until the point where they encountered George Martin and signed.
Kenneth: Well, the key for them was to get a contract, a record contract. They were ready to take on Great Britain. And you know the joke John would say, “Where are we going? To the topper most of the popper most.” And that was their plan. They had probably little, if any ability to do it. Brian was the perfect manager for them. If nothing else, he too wanted to make it big at something. And so he was ready to do that. He also had a secret weapon and I’m not sure how much he understood at the time. That’s a study for another day. But Brian also ran the biggest record store in the north with NEMS. And that was a lot of clout. If you’re Decca or EMI, you want this guy to be happy, any interaction you have with him needs to be a good one because when Brian goes back to Liverpool, he’s going back to this very successful regional record store and they need to, of course, make sure he’s always satisfied and happy.
This allows him to open some doors very quickly. But when it comes to George Martin’s door, the problem is, he hears some things that don’t sound right to him. So first, he’s saying that they’re going to be bigger than Elvis, right. Well, George Martin hears that and he says, “That’s absurd.” It just happens to be the one time it’s true. But he thought that’s absurd, and then he also says, “Well, they’re from Liverpool and George Martin thinks what every London producer and A&R man is thinking, that’s absurd. We’re not here to bring Liverpool acts to the capitol. The Beatles were really pushing back against some pretty fearsome forces, but the one thing they did have in their corner was they could get in the door through Brian.
The first store they get into is Decca on January 1st, 1962. They fail the audition as opposed to the one on January 30th, 1969 when they finally pass the audition, but they fail the audition and it has as much to do with their regional status as anything else. The band that gets signed is from London, no surprise there. And the second door that opens is George Martin’s. And eventually that leads to them getting a contract and meeting him in June. But again, that only gets them in the door.
Christopher: And I love how you told this story in your book because again, it would be easy to look at it with a half glance and say, “And then they met and they worked happily ever after.” But of course it wasn’t necessarily going to be an auspicious start. George Martin, as you just pointed out, was not primed to love a group from Liverpool who had high expectations for themselves. How did that encounter go and how did it end up with them partnering?
Kenneth: Well, I mean it went very badly. George Martin. No, I mean it doesn’t go well, at least initially, he’s downstairs in the basement cafeteria having beans on toast or whatever and he is not with them in the studio upstairs. He leaves that to his underlings. He doesn’t see any point in it. The contract calls for him to record six sides with this band and that’s it. He plans to be over and out with them. He does not expect to be surprised. He’s called up eventually after a mishap with Paul McCartney’s bass amplifier. I spoke with Ken Johnson the great EMI engineer and eventual director of the studio. And I said, “What was the first thing you ever heard from The Beatles?” And Ken said, “A giant farting sound.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “It was the sound of Paul’s bass amp dying when Paul plugged in, in the studio.” And Ken was called in to try to fix it.
And a few minutes later they called George in too. The big moment and it’s in all the books and it is very true, occurs when George is lecturing them, John, Paul, George and Pete about how terrible they are essentially and all of the changes they need make. And he says, “Do you have anything you’d like to say?” And George Harrison says, “Well, for starters, I don’t like your tie.” And the reason why that is so important, it’s not just that Harrison was being a smart ass, right? I mean the guy is what? 19. He is a smart ass. What was interesting about it was that George Martin had made his name finally at EMI on comedy. He loved to laugh. And these guys went into a hard day’s night like act where they just joked and made inside jokes about each other.
And George Martin said later that when they left, he had tears running down his cheeks because he was just so jazzed by spending time with them. He really didn’t like their music, but he liked them and they’d connected in this kind of camaraderie. And George just adored them as people. But that of course barely got them there.
Christopher: I think that’s so fascinating for us to know that when The Beatles arrived there, their music was in a state where, one of the top A&R guys listened to it and said, “It’s not really good enough.” He was ready to send them away. And almost immediately he started playing a part in helping them get it to the state we now know and love and …
Kenneth: Absolutely. And George, actually a couple of the EMI heads had rejected them twice. So really there at the bottom of the barrel at one point before George finally comes through with the contract in May, Brian, excuse me, John Lennon joked to Brian that next we’re going to have to go for the Woolworth label. It was that bad. They were at the bottom of the barrel. In fact, they were having to do what we all understand as musicians at a certain point: they were thinking, do we have to get real job?
Christopher: And so George Martin took a liking to them. And how did he save them from having to go work at the chippy?
Kenneth: Well, he doesn’t save them. They save themselves. Again, he’s whole expectation is six sides and he’s out. The first record is going to be a combination of an original song they’ve written, called “Love Me Do.” And his plan was to be a side, to be a Mitch Marie composed song. And these two pieces he imagined would be their first record. He’d get another two out there. They’d all fail and that would be that, in September when they come back, George scolds them, now they have Ringo as their drummer. George scolds them because they attack these non original songs. He’s cover versions that he wants them to do. And he says, “What have you got?” And in the moment they present, “Please, Please Me” Which was a Roy Orbison sort of a slow dirge of a song.
And George hears it and immediately goes into the best thing he does by the way, which is head arrangement. He hears the song and he says, “Why are you not playing that fast? That’s a better fast song.” Well, of course they didn’t know to think of that. It was kind of an absurd rhetorical question, but they responded very, very well by going back to Liverpool and rehearsing it. So when they came back the next week, it was fast. It was electric, and then they had his ear. And of course, it’s an important moment. Everybody likes to be right, right? So when George Martin hears that they have taken this song, which he felt with subpar and really turned it into something, that was a light bulb for him, that was a magic moment. And he began to be reeled into their story in a very different way at that point.
Christopher: And you point to that character trait of being teachable, being coachable as important in their relationship. I think it’s something that people wouldn’t guess The Beatles had. They’re these magic musical aliens that came in and okay, maybe there was some infighting, but they just did their thing. But clearly that was not the case for George Martin, at least – they listened and they took on that feedback and they responded.
Kenneth: Sure. Imagine all of the other kinds of reactions they might’ve had to that, they might’ve said, “Well, it’s a slow song. Thank you very much.” That we are the artists here, it’s a slow song and that’s what it should be. It’s going to stay a slow song. They could have had a diva moment they could have half-assed it to be quite frank and gone through the motions, but instead they rightly obviously took this older man’s advice. He’s 36 when they meet him, they feel it’s the oldest man in the world as far as they’re concerned. But they go back and they really, to use the cliché they put their noses to the grindstone and they create a new song out of the old one. And there’s the lesson for all of us, right? What they did also was they let this other guy have his way in.
George Martin, when they do that and they go and they commitment themselves to his musical vision for the song, he is now in a way complicit in their enterprise. It’s a very smart politics. Your listeners should think about that, suddenly they’re involved. He’s now involved in their fate. And once that happens, you begin to take an interest in it and by November when they’ve recorded what will become the chart topping version of, Please, Please Me George Martin’s ready to take the risk. He brings them in for a meeting and he says, “Let’s make an album.” And of course their jaws dropped, “An album? Us?” They went from thinking about Woolworth and getting real jobs to, we’re making an album with EMI.
There’s a famous moment that George Martin loved to talk about, but he wouldn’t tell you the other end of it, when he refinishes recording, Please, Please Me, he pushes the talk back and he says, “Gentlemen, you’ve just recorded your first, number one”, the best part is what they do. They roll on the floor laughing. That is how absurd … Right? It may have been the thing they wanted most in the world, but it was absurd to them, that happened to other people, to real people, to privileged people, not to us.
Christopher: And maybe it’s impossible to say, but if you had to, the fact that they were receptive to that input and they were willing to take this advice on board and increasingly listened to George Martin for these kinds of creative decisions, how much do you think that was their appreciating the musical point he was making versus the fact that they too had this blend of creative artistry and a desire to be a commercial success and they were listening to the A&R guy and trying to do what would please him?
Kenneth: Well, I think after those first few months when Love Me Do improbably becomes a top 20 hit and then their next single wins the lottery. George Martin had a lot of stock. I think they would have done just about anything he said for any reason. It’s hard to – and Brian Epstein would not have let him get away with not doing that – It’s very hard to measure that, but his value becomes clear so quickly that for a very long time, his word alone is enough to satisfy. One thing I also learned while writing these books, and it’s very important when you think of history and I thought a lot about it during the composition and that is that really until 1966, 67, really, Sergeant Pepper, The Beatles are not a settled question.
They’re really, they’re up in the air. They still may have had to sell shoes in 1968, for all they knew it wasn’t going to last. In fact the line at the time was, you’ll be a flash in the pan. Well, The Beatles listened to that and George Martin listened to that. They didn’t want to be a flash in the pan. They wanted it to be for all time. But they also knew enough about reality to know that there were lots of bands that came along and nobody knows where they are now. Right. So that really motivated them to keep working and keep trying to stay the biggest act in the world, even during their heyday. They were very motivated by that. There was no settled question about was what was going to happen. They knew, particularly being hardworking northerners that they needed to keep putting out great material if they were going to last. And so that was always a motivator for them. I don’t know that they stopped to think much further than that.
Christopher: And it’s such a rare dynamic, I think in the history of the musical greats, you often have artists who are very hell bent on their artistic vision and you often I think have artists who are taking guidance from on high to make sure their career is a success, but to have that back and forth and that balance that The Beatles were clearly incredibly creative, incredibly innovative. And they also had this producer who brought his own artistic ideas and sense of the industry. It wasn’t all one or the other, right?
Kenneth: No, it absolutely wasn’t. And it was, I think he was probably also useful as were many of the members of their sort of very small circle, their entourage in the sense that he was there. He was ballast during a crazy period. I mean, I don’t know that anyone really can understand their experience between 1962 and 1965 is really nothing like it. And even beyond, for Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, I guess it’s never stopped. Right? They’re in this very unusual eye of an incredibly unique storm, and to have this person who is the sort of a safe haven where they go to experience the thing they do better than anything else in the world, which is write these chestnuts and record them.
George of course during this period is the engine, I believe. In fact, I’m quite certain of this in terms of success because he has been itching to bring in strings, which he does with his quartet on Yesterday to use piano effects, which he does with his windup piano effect on, In My Life, and the result. And it’s also of course the result of his belief that the studios is just kind of magic workshop. The result is, after 1963 and 64 when The Beatles are really a very narrow demographic of kids from what, 14 to 22, by the end of 1966 on the other side of songs like Michelle, again In My Life, Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, and of course the kid song, Yellow Submarine, their demographic is from about three to 93. It’s really remarkable. And if you’re thinking about The Beatles in a commercial way, that is a magnificent and massive part of their story because they took a very narrow demographic and they essentially created immortality out of it.
Christopher: Yeah. And for anyone who isn’t familiar, maybe let’s just circle back and talk about those two examples you mentioned of where George Martin changed the orchestration and the sound of the songs they were working on in quite a substantial way.
Kenneth: Well, in the case of Yesterday, Paul had this song that had been kicking around for a while. George hears it and he sees his moment. What he was good at with them, with these four incredibly busy guys who were being pulled in so many directions, what he was very good at, was seeing a political opportunity. Sometimes he would retreat, sometimes he would go in and charge. And this is one of those moments where he charged forward, he said, “That’s perfect for a string quartet.” And McCartney said, “Okay.” And suddenly this new Beatles is birthed. And then we have John Lennon with the flutes on, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”. And that opened doors. It opened one door for George because it was fulfilling for him to be a composer and an arranger. But of course then it also opened these demographic doors, which you cannot underestimate the value of. The “In My Life” example is, it’s a tape effect where George would record at half speed. He called it his wind up piano effect because he could barely play that at full speed, but it has speed he can nail it and then play it back at full speed. And you have this intricate almost harpsichord-like sound and what he would do with the windup piano on songs like that one, “Lovely Rita”, some of “Abbey Road” for example, “Rocky Raccoon”, is he would create ambiance. He would create a kind of setting. The piano sound that you get in Rocky Raccoon sounds like a honky-tonk piano. In “In My Life” it sounds baroque. George was able to create setting for them and it was something fairly easy for him to do, but it really made their sound, sound more sophisticated. Actually it made them more sophisticated.
Christopher: And … Yes, certainly sounds that way. And how much, I grew up in the UK and had a dad who loved The Beatles, have a dad who loves The Beatles. And so I was familiar with George Martin and he was the famous Beatles producer. And, I often heard was he was the guy that made them do crazy tech stuff in the studio. They were playing their instruments and he’d come in and do all kinds of crazy stuff. Obviously that’s a massive simplification. But how much was he that bridge from their kind of tight “band playing some music” to this much broader world of sounds and different textures and styles and what we came to know them in their later years for being very innovative and groundbreaking in?
Kenneth: Well we have to give a lot of credit to his team. Again, I mentioned Ken Townsend earlier who would come in and rig together whatever they wanted to try to make something work. So he had an incredible team that probably had them playing at a much higher level than they should have been. Given the timeframe and the technology of the day. The big change is 1966 when Geoff Emerick becomes their full time engineer. When they have ideas, George and Geoff can go huddle and come up with ways to make them possible like bringing, Tomorrow Never Knows, to fruition. Where John wants to sound like the Dalai Lama on some distant mountain top or, Strawberry Fields Forever, where they have two songs in different keys and different paces, tempos rather, and they need to merge them together. He now had a partner in crime who could help them do those sorts of things.
They really didn’t challenge them in terms of you come up, in terms of, George Martin rather wouldn’t say, “Here’s a crazy thing. Go do this.” They would come with their vision and George would make it happen. Really all of the sort of other-worldly ideas were all The Beatles, George Martin simply had to find ways, often ways to rig so that they could come up with those sounds.
Christopher: Yeah. It’s such a fascinating and complex dynamic they had. It’s not just this and it’s not just that, it’s the combination of creative artistry and business ambition or commercial ambition and the kind of diplomacy or political awareness you referred to there. It’s hard to imagine it working without all three of those.
Christopher: And so you’ve gone deep into George Martin and his role in The Beatles’ phenomenal trajectory. What would you say are the biggest lessons a musician today can learn from looking at that relationship and the amazing success that resulted in?
Kenneth: Well, there’s the importance of collaborators and understanding the chemistry that you have. We know that bands break up and collaborators break up because of creative differences. The Beatles story is a hard one to use for any kind of measuring tool because it’s so anomalous, you’re talking about lightning in a bottle. It’s hard to compare that or use that as something that’s instructive other than to say, it’s often our egos that get in the way, right? It’s often our egos that are telling us you’re the best there ever was, and I’m going to fight hard for my artistic creativity and my place in the universe, but there are places in the universe, all five of them were very inextricably linked to one another. And consequently, after 1969, they’re never as good as they were again.
They reached some artistic heights that are glorious and indispensable, all five of them. But when they were there in the studio, there was nothing better than what they could do. They could take anything and create a master work out of it. Now, they were willing to put in the hard work, of course, but they really had a unique fusion. But the lesson, if there is one, is that we are so often, when we’re in those situations, I mean, we’re never in those situations when we’re in a kind of creative organization and we’re doing really well, there’s that little voice, right? It’s saying to us, “Well, you know what? I am really good and surely whatever I can do will translate when I’m not with these other guys.” The one person who seemed to understand that yet not necessarily learn from it was John Lennon.
And he said, when the magical mystery tour film was such a Debacle, right? He said, “We should know that just because we’re great musicians, that doesn’t mean we’re going to be great directors too, those skills are not transferable. Just because James Joyce is a great writer. It doesn’t mean he should get behind the camera.” That’s a really tough lesson and to keep yourself in check about something when your ego’s raging is very difficult to do. And their egos had been raging since 1964 when there were three separate television specials in the UK and the US about the genius of Lennon and McCartney and really in the great sweep of The Beatles. They hadn’t done anything yet.
Christopher: Gotcha. Well there is so much I think we can learn from this story and I think you’ve shed such light today for a lot of people who weren’t familiar with the role of George Martin in that trajectory. But I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of all the amazing stories and explanations that are in your books. So I can’t recommend highly enough your two volume biography of George Martin. Please let people know where they can go to learn more about your work and pick up a copy of the books.
Kenneth: You bet. My George Martin books of course are available at wonderful online booksellers like Amazon for example, but also you can go to my website kennethwomack.com and you can learn a lot more about The Beatles and George Martin and where to find these books. And thank you so much. This has been a great conversation.
Christopher: Fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us. We’ll have links to those in the show notes for this episode and just a big thank you again Ken for joining us today.
Kenneth: Absolutely. Thanks so much.
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