The Man Who Shaped that Fab Four Sound

Beatles producer George Martin talks about breaking mikes and other tinkering

They had been rejected by everyone. Back in 1962, all the big London recording companies had given the fledgling Four the thumbs down, recalls Beatles producer George Martin.

When Martin listened to the group's demo tape, he understood why. The recording quality was ''appalling,'' he remembers, and the style of the songs not much better - ''Over the Rainbow,'' ''Besame Mucho'' and Fats Waller's ''Your Feet's Too Big,'' to name a few. Interspersed were some freshly penned tunes of their own such as ''Love Me Do'' and ''P.S. I Love You.''

''Pretty rotten songs, really,'' says Martin, adding with a good-humored emphasis, ''and they still are. You could hear a certain vitality there, but it was pretty rough. Most people who [first] heard the Beatles thought they weren't much use.''

Martin was working as a recording producer for Parlophone, a small label under the umbrella of EMI. Known for his comedy records with Peter Sellers and the Goons, a wacky precursor group to Monty Python, he was looking to branch out into pop music. Still, with not a great deal of enthusiasm, he agreed to meet the young Liverpudlian lads.

''It was kind of instantaneous,'' Martin says. ''We simply hit it off. I thought they were terrific. They were kooky. They were unusual. They were a little bit arrogant, but it was fun as well.''

The now-renowned producer, who has won multiple Grammy Awards (most recently for Broadway's ''Tommy'' album), Martin commands his own AIR Studios. Downstairs, the rock group Simply Red is recording a new CD. Others, such as Elton John, Lisa Stansfield, and Disney Productions (for ''The Lion King'') have also made use of AIR's facilities and, most of all, Martin's musical guidance.

It is clear why the Beatles also took to him quickly. He is the epitome of cool, collected good sense, coupled with a total lack of self-importance.

''I don't think anybody except George Martin could have worked so closely for so long with the Beatles,'' says a British actor who knew them all in the 1960s. ''They wouldn't have trusted anyone else - and no one else could have put up with them.''

The bond remains strong. When asked if Paul, George, and Ringo have changed much over the years, Martin, who sees them regularly, says with obvious warmth in his voice, ''I've grown up with them. They're my friends.'' He pauses, then laughs: ''And they're still the same arrogant, opinionated devils they always were; success hasn't changed them in that regard!''

As the world braces itself for a TV event that, until a short while ago, nobody ever thought would happen - a reunion of the living Beatles who, for the first time, tell their own story, along with the release of a double-length CD which Martin has just finished producing. It is interesting to reflect that Beatlemania might not have happened if George Martin and ''the boys'' hadn't clicked. Generally regarded by Beatle biographers as the ''fifth Beatle,'' he was vital to honing their work into a distinctive sound.

Martin explains that in the early days both he and the Beatles were keen to produce music that had the loudness of American rock-and-roll. No one in Britain had yet been able to match that kind of thumping noise.

The Beatles introduced Martin to the music of Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Bo Diddly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly. Martin agreed their stuff was great, but the technology did not exist in Britain for anything remotely similar. Could he not have simply imported the hardware?

''No,'' says Martin, ''because it's not just technology. It's a combination of the type of song, the type of arrangement, the type of singing, the type of playing, the instruments in the studio, and above all knowing how to use the technology to put it on a disc.''

They had to wing it. Using comparatively antiquated microphones and creaky four-track recording equipment - pop songs today typically use dozens of tracks - Martin came up with, for example, such revolutionary ideas as putting mikes very close to the drums and bass guitar. No one had done that before. For starters, the mikes could not withstand the enormous vibrations for any length of time. How did Martin manage?

''We broke a lot of microphones,'' he replies cheerily. ''I mean, we damaged loads of equipment.''

But he finally helped create what they were aiming for - and more. Soon American producers and musicians were beating a path to Martin's door trying to learn some of his secrets.

In fact, the Beatles' number that cracked the all-important American market, ''I Want to Hold Your Hand,'' is a good case in point. When compared with the then Top-10 croony hits from, say, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee, and groups such as the Four Seasons, the Beatles' dynamic, up-front drums, the distinctive, rhythmic hand-clapping, the undisguised Liverpudlian-accented singing, the pulsating bass, came across as totally unique to early '60s teenage ears - on both sides of the Atlantic.

''I was consciously trying to get a sound that grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and said: 'Listen to this,' '' Martin says. ''With that song, it technically all seemed to knit together.''

In the beginning, the producer guided the Beatles on how to get the most from a song - how long to sing the chorus, where to end it, and so on. With ''Can't Buy Me Love,'' for instance, McCartney wrote it to kickoff with ''money can't buy me anything to keep me satisfied.''

Martin explained to him that it had no impact. A song needed a hook, an opening grabber. ''I said to him: 'Let's start off with drums, then 'Can't buy me love,' two times. On the second repeat, I suggested changing chords.''

Martin sings as he describes it, with the unexpected downward chord change. ''Now there was an introduction. Paul liked it, so we kept it. Then we were ready to go into the verse.''

A few years later, by the time they were making the Sgt. Pepper album together, the lessons were well learned. With all Martin's drumming in of ''starting with a hook,'' Lennon by now instinctively knew how to begin a piece like ''Strawberry Fields'' with, ''Let me take you down,'' as if telling a story, rather than a more obvious line from the body of the song.

Martin concedes that, after the Beatles dissolved in 1970, none of them alone has yet to match what they achieved artistically as a group. Arguably, McCartney's ''Maybe I'm Amazed'' single and the ''Band on the Run'' album, all of which Martin produced, came the closest. And, of course, there is Lennon's ''Imagine.'' But the consistent inspiration was gone.

''Those four people together,'' muses Martin, ''became something much stronger than those four individuals. That's true of their songwriting, their recording - everything. Together they were impregnable.

''There is no question that when they broke up, Paul missed John and John missed Paul,'' Martin says. ''I actually think Paul would like to write material today like he used to write. But there is no one alive now that can give him that spur.... Yet, don't forget, as a twosome they wrote nearly 300 great songs. That's more than Cole Porter or Irving Berlin or Jerome Kern ever did. That's certainly more than enough for one lifetime.''

* Martin's book, 'With a Little Help From My Friends,' has been recently published in the US by Little, Brown.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.