Monday, March 21, 2016

Sir George Martin [1926-2016] - RIP

As I look back on the past two or three months of this blog, it has come to resemble an obituary column.  Sadly, that trend continues here.  George Martin died on March 9, 2016.  He produced records for many people in a very long and storied career, but all you really need to know is this – he produced The Beatles.  He signed them to Parlaphone when all other record labels wouldn’t.  He was very different from record producers of his day.  He didn’t have a “signature sound” like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.  He did not impose his own personal vision on the people with whom he worked.  He did not take for himself a cut of the Beatles’ songwriting royalties, which was a common practice for a long time.  He didn’t bring in studio pros to play their instruments [except for a different drummer on ‘Love Me Do’] – only the instruments the Beatles couldn’t play.  Only once did he try to get the Beatles to record something they didn’t write [he wanted ‘How Do You Do It’ – they held out for ‘Please Please Me’, their first #1 single].  In another move that was against type, he didn’t try to make the Beatles into a group of a front man and a bunch of sidemen, like Billy Haley and the Comets or Buddy Holly and the Crickets.  There was no ‘John Lennon and the Beatles’.  He encouraged Lennon & McCartney to keep writing their own songs when most artists at the time didn’t.  Not to be overlooked, he wasn’t a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of producer. While he would often make suggestions as to how to arrange a song, he also made their weirdness come true.  If they had a request to provide a certain sound they heard in their heads, more often than not George Martin made those requests become reality.  This final point will be the focus of today’s blog.  For this I lean heavily on two sources:  The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Anthology, and the webpage The Beatles Bible.  There are hundreds of interviews from the principals [John, Paul, George, Ringo and George Martin] from which I draw upon as well.

George Martin wrote many a string arrangement for the Beatles.  The exceptions were She’s Leaving Home. The Long and Winding Road, I Me Mine, and Across the Universe.  But some of those arrangements [string, vocal or otherwise] were such that one can’t imagine what the songs would sound like without George Martin’s contributions.  What are some of these magical moments?

Please Please Me [1963] – When Lennon & McCartney first brought this song to George Martin, it was a slow, bluesy song like what Roy Orbison would do.  Martin didn’t like it – he suggested they double the tempo.  The result – the Beatles’ second single, and their first-ever #1 in Britain.  "Congratulations, gentlemen," he told them, "You've just made your first number one."

A Hard Day’s Night [1964] – I’ve often said the opening chord to this song is like the sound of the Big Bang of the British Invasion.  There is more than meets the ear here.  Not only does George Harrison play a Fadd9 chord on his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, John Lennon plays the same chord on his Gibson J-160 6-string acoustic guitar.  Paul McCartney played a simple D note [on the fifth fret of the A string on his Hofner violin bass], while George Martin played a Steinway grand piano [D2, G2, D3, G3 and C4].  To tell the difference, compare this to any live version where only George Harrison plays the chord.  The live versions are thin in comparison to what they did in the studio.  If you think you can do the whole thing on just a 12-string guitar, you can’t get there from here.

In My Life [1965] – That’s George Martin himself playing the baroque piano solo.  He played it at half speed and then sped the tape to make it sound like a harpsichord.

Yesterday [1965] - This was the first Beatles recording to feature only one Beatle; Paul McCartney and his acoustic guitar.  It was George Martin’s idea [and his arrangement] of adding a string quartet to the song.  The result is the most-covered song in history.

Rain [1966] - The backing track was recorded at a fast tempo, and then they slowed the tape playback to normal speed to drop to tone.  This gave the song a woozy, drugged-out feeling.  I found that if you want to play along it’s easiest to tune your guitar to Open G.  Standard G chords just don’t sound right otherwise.  John wanted the backwards signing at the end, and George Martin gave it to him.

Tomorrow Never Knows [1966] – Revolver [which I think is better than Sgt. Pepper] is the record with backwards guitar solos, tape loops, big thunderous drums, Indian instruments, just all kinds of crazy stuff.  Many tape loops were played simultaneously, and the sounds you hear are how the faders on the recording desk were moved.  It was a live performance mix-on-the-fly of tape loops instead of instruments that can’t be duplicated.  John wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a hilltop.  But instead of flying to Tibet to capture the sound, George Martin fed John’s voice through a rotating Leslie speaker, the kind that’s used in a Hammond organ.

Strawberry Fields Forever [1967] – According to Lewisohn, this one took 55 hours to record.  There were two versions of Strawberry Fields.  The first was closest to the tempo you would recognize today.  It has the Mellotron opening and George’s slide guitar.  John wanted to do it again, only he wanted brass and strings and stuff.  After doing both of them, he told George Martin he liked the first part of the first version, and the second part of the second version, and oh by the way could he join the two parts?  It was easier said than done because ProTools didn’t exist.  Everything had to be done manually – cut tape at the right time, join them together.  The two versions were in different tempos and different keys.  John didn’t have a clue how this sort of thing worked, so he placed all his faith in George Martin – “you can fix it!”  He sped up the first, slowed the second and got it to work.  The edit is at 57 seconds if you’re interested.  Listen closely and John’s vocals sound just a tad more drugged out after the edit.

I Am the Walrus [1967] – If you listen to the early version of this song, there’s really not much to it.  There’s electric piano, a barely-heard guitar, bass and drums.  Then George Martin scored it for a sixteen-piece ensemble.  He also added the Mike Sammes Singers [eight males, eight females], whom he got to do stuff like "ho ho ho, he he he, ha ha ha", "Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper" and "Got one, got one, everybody's got one".  He never did drugs, but you’d never know it when listening to this.  Add John’s most sneering vocal, and you have an acid-drenched nightmare.  This is what an acid trip sounds like [I don’t know from personal experience, but I have a good imagination…].  This is the Beatles song I listen to the most.

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite [1967] – Inspiration for this song by John Lennon came from a circus poster.  Most of the words from the poster are in the song.  John wasn’t musically articulate.  He told George Martin he wanted a circus atmosphere, so he could “smell the sawdust.”  He got some of EMI’s calliope tapes, cut them into 12-inch sections, flung them into the air and reassembled them at random.  Add to this a Lowery organ, a harmonium, a Hammond organ, and harmonicas of various sizes, and there’s your carnival.

A Day in the Life [1967] – Paul McCartney was very much into the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen.  It was from Stockhausen that Paul got the idea to put the orchestral bits into this song.  George Martin described how he made it happen:

At the very beginning I put into the musical score the lowest note each instrument could play, ending with an E major chord. And at the beginning of each of the 24 bars I put a note showing roughly where they should be at that point. Then I had to instruct them. 'We're going to start very very quietly and end up very very loud. We're to start very low in pitch and end up very high. You've got to make your own way up there, as slidey as possible so that the clarinets slurp, trombones gliss, violins slide without fingering any notes. And whatever you do, don't listen to the fellow next to you because I don't want you to be doing the same thing.' Of course they all looked at me as though I was mad...

I Want You [She’s So Heavy] [1969] – George Martin once told John Lennon about the power of silence in recording music.  John internalized that lesson.  Three minutes of a mass of overdubbed guitars, white noise created by a Moog synthesizer, and a wind machine played by Ringo created a trance, only to be ended suddenly by John telling engineer Geoff Emerick to cut the tape in mid-bar instead of letting the music fade.  If John had it his way, that’s how Abbey Road would have ended.  George Martin planted the seed for this song’s ending.

All You Need Is Love [1967] - George Martin's orchestral arrangement, for which he was paid £15, contained elements from one of Bach's Brandenburg concertos, Greensleeves, and Glenn Miller's arrangement of In The Mood, in addition to the distinctive introduction of La Marseillaise.

Good Morning, Good Morning [1967] – After all the animals have finished chasing each other, a chicken clucks at the very end, which morphed into the first guitar part of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band [Reprise].

Because [1969] – The three-part vocal harmony was arranged by George Martin.  He had them do it three times, so there are nine voices on the song.

Abbey Road Side Two Medley [1969] – George Martin had always been telling the Beatles to ‘think symphonically.’  Paul McCartney took the idea and ran with it.  Both he and John had bits of unfinished songs.  Why not stitch them together into one, long operatic-type piece?  Lennon didn’t like the medley idea, but somehow he got talked into contributing three parts – Sun King, Mean Mr. Mustard, and Polythene Pam.

Eleanor Rigby [1966] – George Martin wrote the score.  Given that no Beatles play any instruments on the song, one could make the case for this being a McCartney/Martin song.  The vocals are stripped away for the version that appears on Anthology 2.

Good Night [1968] – John Lennon wrote this as a lullaby to his son Julian for Ringo to sing. As with Eleanor Rigby from 1966, no Beatles play on this – just a string section scored by George Martin.  When he asked John Lennon how he wanted the score to sound, John said he wanted it to sound “Hollywood”.  After the chaos and disorder of Revolution #9, Good Night closes the White Album.

RIP George Martin, the real Fifth Beatle