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Straight From (Henry the) Horse's Mouth

By Winona Patterson

I was fortunate enough to see Sir George Martin on his lecture tour on the making of the Sgt. Pepper album Thursday, 4 March 1999 at the Park West in Chicago. I have had a lifetime fascination with the Beatles; when I was a music major in college, my senior paper for my Music of the 20th Century class was on Sgt. Pepper. Although I feel I know quite a bit about that album, I was still quite eager to listen to the stories from the man I consider to be the "fifth Beatle"!

The evening began with us scrambling to find a seat. Luckily, one of the people I went with "knew someone" and although we got there only 20 minutes prior to the start of a general admission show, we got good seats in the middle of the audience. I had felt like a giddy teenager all week (even though I am 24!), and just to be in the same building as Sir George was enough for me. Chicagoland fans will know WXRT's Terri Hemmert as the perennial Beatlefest emcee, and she was there to handle the honor of introducing Martin to the eager audience. She started with his background, his childhood and how he got involved in the recording business, and his founding of the Parlophone label, a comedy record division of EMI. Like his involvement with the Beatles, comedy records were something that nobody thought would work, and he was laughed at when he started out, but once his comedy records took off (with the likes of The Goons and Peter Sellers), people took Martin seriously. Hemmert then introduced Rick Nielsen, guitarist from Cheap Trick, for whom Martin has also produced records. Donning his trademark baseball cap and sunglasses, Nielsen did a token quick introduction of Martin. A short video montage of pictures and movies of the Beatles and George Martin flashed on a projection screen on stage (including one of my favorites, a picture with Martin wearing a horn on his head!), and then he appeared.

The audience immediately jumped to their feet, and with applause and whoops and hollers, welcomed Sir George Martin into their hearts. Personally, I was moved to tears to be in the presence of the man who helped shape the Beatles' craft. After graciously accepting the warm welcome, Martin settled down to the task at hand--weaving his tales of working with the greatest rock group ever! He started with the story of his AIR recording studio in Montserrat, which was struck down with a 1-2 punch: damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1989, and destroyed by a massive volcanic eruption in 1995. He talked of his idea to hold a fundraising concert for the 15,000 inhabitants of the island. The roster included Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Sting, Mark Knopfler, Elton John, and the late Carl Perkins, and I am sure most of us have seen the concert on public television or on video.

He then moved on to what we all came to hear--his involvement with the Beatles. All of us know the story of a desperate Brian Epstein hawking around his Decca demo tape to anyone and everyone who would listen, but nobody would take them as recording artists, and George Martin, the producer for a comedy label, was the last resort. What Martin didn't know was that the Beatles had already been rejected by Parlophone's parent company, EMI! Martin mentioned that he was attracted to them because of their charm first, and musical talents second. He told of numerous times when their thirst for something new exasperated him--"They were never content with what they could see or hear. They were exhausting and invigorating." Video clips from The Beatles Anthology and a BBC special on the making of Sgt. Pepper were shown-interviews with the "Threetles", Phil Collins talking about the importance of Ringo Starr as a drummer, and even David Mason, the man who played the piccolo trumpet on "Penny Lane"! The most revealing clips were of Martin, positioned at the helm of the primitive 4-track recording machine used to record Sgt. Pepper>. On various tracks, he fiddled with faders and tracks, playing one track at a time. Hearing the 3-part harmonies on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" a cappella brought shivers down my spine--I had never realized how complex and intricate the harmonies were. He told of how he enjoyed the counterpoint voices in "She's Leaving Home" and "Getting Better." He also played the amalgam of steam organ sounds that he and Geoff Emerick assembled for the background on "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" and the recording of the original speed of the last part of "Strawberry Fields Forever." He mentioned that he thought releasing "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" as a double A-side single--and therefore leaving them off Sgt. Pepper--was a mistake, relaying the story that arguably the most innovative single the Beatles released did not hit #1 in the U.K. (most likely due to it's double A-side status), both songs essentially cancelled each other out on the charts, and were edged out by Engelbert Humperdink's "Release Me."

Of course, the most memorable song on the album is "A Day in the Life." Martin started by telling that John and Paul both had parts of songs that they needed to finish--John had verses, and Paul had a middle eight. Although at first glance, they don't seem to fit together, they, with the help of Martin, made them work. He played a video clip (from The Beatles Anthology) of him at the board, and played just John's vocal track from an early take--"Even in this early take, his voice is enough to send shivers down the spine." What most affected me about seeing the clip is the way Martin looks at the interviewer when John starts to sing--a knowing smile with just a hint of watering eyes, you know that he is recalling the exact day that John sat at the microphone with his guitar…and most likely also recalling the December day in 1980 that shattered all of our dreams. They decided that they wanted a big crescendo as the fill between John and Paul's contributions, and they expected Martin to just bring in a full symphony orchestra, which would amount to about 80 people. Martin talked of how he had to explain to symphony musicians (who are trained to listen to the other players) how to not listen to their neighbors--"If you are playing the same note as your neighbor, you are wrong." This direction, along with guideposts helping the musicians play from the lowest possible note on their instruments to the highest possible notes, aided the musicians to end on their E major chord. Martin was only able to obtain 41 musicians for this monumental task, and we all know the story of the orchestra in evening dress with red clown noses and gorilla paws and balloons in bassoons! He also related the ideas of how to end the song, including a group of people humming, which didn't work well. The finished product is a 43-second E major piano chord, played on three pianos, and as the pianos faded out, the faders on the control board were pushed up to the maximum, to get the longest chord they could. Remember, the synthesizers we are familiar with today were not in existence in 1967.

He even spoke of the Peter Blake collage that was used as the cover of the album. He mentioned that Brian had to get his former assistant to obtain permission from all the people (or their estates) they had selected to be on the cover. A familiar story of this is Mae West's "What would I be doing in a Lonely Hearts Club?" After personal pleas from the Beatles, Ms. West agreed to appear on the cover.

On a sad end to the evening, Martin recalled when he and wife Judy (who was in attendance that night) went to their quiet retreat in the country a couple months after the release of Sgt. Pepper. The Beatles themselves took a little vacation from the studio--they were enjoying a retreat in Bangor, Wales with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. As the Martins walked into a pub, all fell silent (which he had been used to, being relatively famous). The bartender said, "Sorry to hear about your friend." Martin had no idea what he was talking about, and asked him what he meant. He replied, "Mr. Epstein--you do know he's dead, don't you?" How tragic to hear of a close friend and business partner's death in such a way! I thought it was fitting and even symbolic to end the lecture with this; most people (even the Beatles themselves) would say the Beatles' best creative period ended with Sgt. Pepper and Brian's death.

Although I knew most of these stories from my habit of reading anything reputable about the Beatles I can get my hands on and the aforementioned research paper (if anyone wants to read it, let me know!), it was great to hear these stories straight from the horse's mouth. Many die-hard Beatlemaniacs will already know most of what he has to say, but this is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Copyright © Winona, 1999.

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Copyright ©1999-2006 Winona Patterson.