Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Later Years 1966-2016) by Kenneth Womack - book review
He's often been regarded as a studio Svengali, the so-called fifth Beatle who gave the Fab Four their winning sound.
Yet, as the much anticipated second volume of Kenneth Womack's in-depth study shows, George Martin's influence over those Merseyside moptops might well have been mesmeric but it was anything but sinister.
In his own words, Martin insisted modestly: ‘I was merely the bloke who interpreted their ideas.’
The ace producer acknowledged that these were ‘coming through thick and fast, and they were brilliant,’ adding: ‘All I did was make them real.’
At times you sense the heaviness resting on Martin’s shoulders, such as the briefest of briefs from John Lennon to beef up the sound of the 1967 single Strawberry Fields Forever with cello and trumpet accompaniment, before the group reconvened a few days later.
‘Do a good job, George,’ Lennon instructed as he left the control room, ‘just make sure it's heavy.’
The focus in Womack's first book, Maximum Volume, was on Martin's early years, from his birth in 1926 - his impoverished family living in what was basically a tiny converted garage - through to the triumph of The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album which was yet another chart topper as the legendary producer turned 40 in early 1966.
You could say this second book offers more of the same. Much, much more of the same. But that is far from being a put-down. It is exactly what readers should expect and enjoy, considering Womack’s incredible level of research into his pet subject.
Anything less would have been an anti-climax for this final tome which picks up the thread for 24 lengthy chapters, together tracing Martin’s remaining 50 music-dominated years until his death in 2016 at the age of 90.
The American author - regarded as a world expert on The Beatles - again tackles the extensive process of recording sessions at the famed Abbey Road studios. Time after time, you feel like an eavesdropper as you follow the creation of classic tracks, now so long a part of popular culture. Songs slowly take shape from simple keyboard doodling or strummed acoustic guitar to a fully fleshed-out multi-million-selling magnum opus.
Womack describes the shift in the studio dynamic throughout the last half of the 1960s as being like a teacher-pupil relationship which had evolved into a genuine creative partnership.
And the successful proof is there to hear - and here to read about - through Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the soundtracks of both Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine, the sprawling double so-called White Album (official title: The Beatles) and Abbey Road.
The Beatles’ final album, the long-delayed, wayward Get Back project which eventually emerged as the LP Let It Be, was another matter entirely, released in May 1970. That was almost a month after the band split up.
Marketed as a ‘new phase’ Beatles’ album, the promotional campaign highlighted ‘the warmth and freshness of a live performance as reproduced for disc by Phil Spector.’
Martin, who had invested hours in the recording studio, later showed his disgust by remarking: ‘the album credit reads ‘produced by Phil Spector’ but I wanted it changed to ‘produced by George Martin. Over-produced by Phil Spector’.’
Listeners to the fledgling Radio 1 back in 1967 might remember Theme One, the station’s flagship signature tune, which opened and closed programming each day. Womack reveals that the BBC’s original choice for composer had been Paul McCartney but when he demurred, George accepted the challenge.
Beyond The Beatles, other artists who fell under the mature Martin studio spell included Jeff Beck, whose 1975 Blow by Blow netted a platinum album for Martin and the guitar virtuoso.
The following year saw him work with US folk rock band America, while in 1980, Cheap Trick’s All Shook Up album featured deft references to The Beatles, as well as Martin’s turn at spoken word performance on Love Comes A-Tumblin’ Down.
Later that decade, Martin was reunited with Paul McCartney and their collaboration produced three LPs: Tug of War, Pipes of Peace and Give My Regards to Broad Street.
Then in 1995, the producer was back in the Abbey Road studios with the ‘Threetles’ - working with Paul, Ringo Starr and George Harrison - during the production of The Beatles Anthology project.
Knighted in 1996 for his contribution to British music, it would be a full 10 years before audiences heard the fruits of Martin’s ultimate ‘collaboration’ with the scouser songbook.
He joined youngest son Giles to ‘reimagine’ and blend together multiple strands of many of The Beatles’ best-known songs to create the Grammy award-winning soundtrack for Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas musical Love.
There was studio trickery aplenty but the project also marked the 80-year-old’s final orchestral session when he conducted musicians in a string arrangement to be incorporated into George Harrison’s original demo of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which the two had recorded together back in 1968.
Baton lowered forever, the emotional verdict of that fifth Beatle was: ‘it wraps up an incredible period of my life with those four amazing men who changed the world.’ With a little help from their friend...
(Orphans Publishing, hardback, £20)