After an hour spent chatting in the cozy sitting room of Sir George Martin’s summer home several weeks ago, it was time for me to make the two-hour drive back to London. I said farewell to Lady Judith, Sir George’s wife, and Sir George and I walked out to my car on the gravel drive.
As I looked around for the last time, there seemed to be an unusually casual feel to those trimming his hedges and tending shrubs and lawn. They were locals I’m sure who have always protected the Martins’ privacy and are grateful for the work he offers them around his property.
Before I departed, a few photos. As Adam, Sir George’s manager, grew comfortable with the lens, Sir George and I vainly removed our glasses. And as we waited for Adam to adjust, I realized our heads were just a foot apart and at the same height. In the quiet interim, Sir George turned and looked me squarely in the eyes. What an electrifying feeling, I thought, as I forced myself to retain his gaze and look deeply into his.
At first I was somewhat surprised by just how royal blue his eyes are. Like precious stones. But more importantly, as we stood for about 15 seconds locked in a truth search, I saw tenderness and a warm thanks. The pride and awareness of accomplishment were still there, but also in that gaze was a poetic vulnerability and pleasure that his singular contibution was being recognized.
In Part 4 of my interview for the Wall Street Journal, Sir George talked about the recording of Let It Be, producing the Goldfinger theme, and his loss of hearing...
Marc Myers: How would you have produced Let It Be differently than what we hear now?
Sir George Martin: Well I had produced the original [laughs]. Let It Be is a big sword in my side. By then, John had gone off to New York and didn’t seem to like anybody at that point. He was going through a very moody phase. He was sloughing everyone off—Paul, George, Ringo, me and [their music publisher] Dick James [of Northern Songs Ltd.] in particular.
MM: Where did things start to go bad with the album?
GM: From the start. John came to me and said, “I want to make this clear: we don’t want any of your production crap on this.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “No overdubbing. We do it live. We do it for real. We’re a good band. No additions of other instruments. None of your orchestrations. We’re a band. We’re a good band. We can do it.”
MM: That’s pretty blunt.
GM: It was. John laid down these strictures. He said, “Moreover, we’re not going to edit. All of our masters will be finished works in the studio.” This meant no splicing if there were mistakes or sound problems. If that happened, we’d have to do complete re-takes.
MM: How did that work out?
GM: In the studio, we started to record. I’d say, “Paul— that was very good but can we do another one? There’s a bit of a glitch on the bass.” So they’d do another one. “How was that?” John would say. I said, “Well, John, you probably heard it. You made a mistake in your thing.” He’d say, “OK, let’s do another one.” [Pictured above: John Lennon and Paul McCartney during the Let It Be sessions]
MM: How many takes?
GM: On some tracks, upward of 50 takes. We were going through take after take trying to get the song right, raw—without any artifice. Ordinarily we would have spliced-out the mistake and splice in the fix. Not this time.
MM: Was this frustrating?
GM: The process was driving me up the wall. And it was driving them up the wall. When we were finished, what we had in the can was a mess. They walked out. I had with me by this time [engineer] Geoff Emerick, whom they had shoved into the wilderness. They didn’t like what he did. I guess they would have liked to have pushed me into the wilderness as well but they didn’t dare.
MM: What happened next?
GM: We recorded all over the place—Twickenham Studios and some at Abbey Road. I was getting more and more tired of it all. Then the Beatles brought in Glyn Johns, a very good engineer and producer. He was the one who kept the session together and made careful notes. At the end of it, we put together an album—warts and all, just as John had insisted—and gave it to EMI. But it was never released, thank god. It was shoved to one side.
MM: What happened next?
GM: Paul came to me and said the Beatles wanted to go into the studio again to make another album. I said I didn’t think I wanted to do it. I had been bruised enough, thanks. Paul said, “No, we really would like you to do what you used to do.” I said, “Without John?” Paul said, “No, I’ve spoken to John and he’d be very happy. So we went back into the studio and made Abbey Road. John was as sweet as pie, and it was a good record—doing what they used to do.
MM: After Abbey Road, how did Let It Be wind up released?
GM: I heard later that John and George had taken the tapes from EMI and given them to [producer] Phil Spector, who then did all the things that John wouldn’t let me do. It was baffling.
MM: What did you think of how the Long and Winding Road turned out?
GM: I wouldn’t have orchestrated it that way, but that sounds like sour grapes. And I think it is. Because it’s a very good track. Paul actually is more bitter about how it turned out than me because it was his song. I was very disappointed with the entire affair, and even today, talking about it is painful.
MM: What surprised you most about how Paul and John wrote songs?
GM: What’s the question, Marc? [Sir George became a bit testy here, under the impression that I was still asking about Let It Be]
MM: How did Paul and John work together on songs?
GM: [Brightening] They worked together early on. But as they matured, that changed. They were kids, really. Paul and George were 19, with Paul turning 20 first. Gradually they made their own lives, deciding how things should go. Generally speaking, they were creating separate works.
MM: I love your orchestral albums of Beatles songs.
GM: [Laughs] I was never very proud of them. The Hollywood Strings had already done something like that. I don’t know, they weren’t really my taste.
MM: Were they commercial adventures to raise money for your studio, AIR?
GM: Yes, of course. I’m glad you like them. You’ve made me feel much better. On the other hand, it shows you’ve got appalling taste [laughs].
MM: Is your hearing loss a result of listening too carefully and closely to loud music?
GM: No. It’s because I wasn’t listening carefully enough to the music. If I had been listening carefully, the music wouldn’t have been played for so long and wouldn’t have been so damned damaging to my ears. I didn’t know.
MM: What do you mean?
GM: I mean in the 1930s, everyone smoked cigarettes. No one said to them, “Hold on, put that out because you’re going to kill yourself. You’ll get cancer of the lung.” Nobody said that. And people were still smoking over the decades that followed, until there was awareness.
MM: And in the studio?
GM: Well, in the ‘60s, nobody said to us, “Don’t listen to loud music for too long because if you do you’ll go deaf.” I guess I found out too late. The fact is it isn’t just loud music that takes away your ears.
MM: How so?
GM: You can be by an airplane when it takes off and it’s not going to damage your hearing. You might have a bit of ringing, but you won’t really damage it. The damage is caused by loud sounds, multiplied by duration of those loud sounds.
MM: So people today who walk around all the time wearing white headphones are in trouble.
GM: They are. I tell young people that if you’re in a loud environment, like a disco or a very loud concert, after every hour, take 10 minutes and go outside and walk around. It doesn’t matter what songs you’re missing, you’re saving your ears. Let them repair. I never did that.
MM: How long were you in the studio each day?
GM: I was listening to quite loud sounds for 14 hours at a stretch, day-after-day. The other thing people don’t realize is the damage is not always apparent very quickly. One day it first sneaks up you.
MM: When did you first become aware of your hearing loss?
GM: In the ‘70s, I started to realize I couldn’t hear the top range the way I used to. It hit me when I was in my own studio and was doing some paperwork in the control room. One of the engineers came in to adjust the levels of the tape machine. To do that, you run a tape of tones through the machine, record them and adjust the playback heads.
MM: What happened?
GM: He was doing this, and I looked up and saw all the needles going to the right. But I wasn’t hearing anything. Visually I can see it was loud but I couldn’t hear that. I said, “Bill, what’s that frequency you have going through there?” He said, “It’s 12 kHz.” I said, “Oh shit.” I knew I no longer could hear 12 kHz and never would again.
MM: You produced Shirley Bassey [pictured] singing Goldfinger, with John Barry’s orchestration. In the intro, are there just two trombones?
GM: It’s trumpets and trombones. One of the trumpets reaches a semitone higher than the other, which produces that extreme sound.
MM: The vocal attack you got out of Shirley Bassey remains incredible, especially how she holds the last note.
GM: I’ve had plenty of attacks from Shirley Bassey [laughs]. Before we did Goldfinger, we did I Who Have Nothing, which also was dramatic. She still is something. The days of those kinds of singers are gone.
MM: On John McLaughlin’s Apocalypse, what's the George Martin touch?
GM: That’s probably the most difficult project I’ve worked on in my career—but also the most rewarding. I loved every second of it. The music was so intricate, but fantastic, too. The track that started the second side—Smile of the Beyond—was performed by John’s keyboard player, Gayle Moran, who today is Mrs. Chick Corea.
MM: How many takes?
GM: About three. Gayle wanted to go and do more. But I said, “That’s the best thing you’ve ever done, let’s leave it like that.” It’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve produced. John’s writing is so exceptional. I was standing on tiptoe in my producer’s shoes. For John, a 5/4 beat is like having honey for breakfast. 13/16 is more like it. He’s got some of the most complicated cross-rhythms. So when it came to editing, I had to physically do the editing myself, because it required knowing exactly which note to go through.
MM: If I said that George Martin helped rock grow up and become timeless, how would you change that?
GM: If I did, I didn’t intend to. Because rock should never grow up. Rock is the domain of young people. Rock can improve and it can get better. But it’s vital that rock stays young. [A pause as Sir George looks off at the countryside.] You won’t find me making any more rock and roll records.
JazzWax tracks: John McLaughlin's Apocalypse is easily the finest of his Mahavishnu Orchestra recordings. You'll find it here.
In addition to all of the British groups and artists mentioned here in the past four days, Sir George also produced Paul and Linda McCartney's Live and Let Die, Jeff Beck (Blow by Blow), albums by America, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Cheap Trick (All Shook Up), The Who (Tommy: Original Cast Recording), Elton John's Candle in the Wind 1997 and many more.
JazzWax DVD: Produced by George Martin (Eagle Rock), a DVD and Blu-Ray of a BBC documentary with additional material, is being released today in the U.S. You'll find it here.
If you're in New York, the documenary will be showing at Lincoln Center next week onSeptember 19 at 8:15 p.m. and on Septemeber 22 at 8:30 as part of the International Festival of Films on Art.
JazzWax clips: Here's the George Martin Orchestra playing This Boy. The easy-listening orchestra was set up in the mid-1960s by Sir George to generate revenue to help support AIR, his recording studio...
Here's John Barry's arrangement of the Goldfinger theme, produced by Sir George Martin and sung by Dame Shirley Bassey. Dig the final held note by Dame Shirley...
Here's Sir George Martin in his kitchen offering up his recipe for making the perfect gin martini. This is from the new BBC documentary. You'll also get to hear that great cellolike voice...
Wait, there's more!
In today's Wall Street Journal, I have two articles in the "Friday Journal" section. One is my interview with Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys on Elysium, their new album (go here). It's adult pop at its best from the duo who brought you West End Girls in 1986, at the height of the Brit-pop invasion.
My other article for the Wall Street Journal today features an interview with fiddler-singer Amanda Shires and singer Caitlin Rose. Both sing tracks on Lowe Country: A Tribute to Nick Lowe (go here). If you're unfamiliar with Nick Lowe, you're in for a treat. The Brit-pop songwriter/balladeer has a strong country streak, and on this album country artists return the love.