Beatles producer George Martin offered a fascinating look into the group’s creative process during a multimedia presentation for members of the National Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences Friday at Los Angeles’ Bovard Auditorium.
The event was part of a larger NARAS tribute to Martin the following evening, which featured performances by Burt Bacharach, America and Michael McDonald, and presentations by Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison.
Martin, 82, joked that he’s always been blessed with great timing. During World War II, he was just about to ship off to the South Pacific when the conflict ended. Moving on to EMI as a staff producer, he was initially unimpressed with the Beatles recordings played for him by the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, and he had no idea the band had been rejected by every other label.
But Martin had the band come in to audition, on the hopes they had something he could pick up live, and wound up signing them right away. He said he shudders to think about what another rejection would have meant for the Beatles’ future, much less pop culture in general.
Martin then traced his own evolution alongside the group, helping it incorporate string arrangements and other traditionally non-rock instrumentation into its music. Part of the accompanying DVD projection showed how similar Martin “Eleanor Rigby” score was to Bernard Herrmann’s famed music for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” with Martin playfully jumping back and forth from playbacks of each.
The pinnacle came in 1967 with “Sgt. Pepper,” which the Beatles jumped into after opting to stop performing live. Martin discussed a host of tracks from the landmark album, playing John Lennon’s early voice-and-guitar demo of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and discussing how the song then evolved into the widescreen epic it became.
Ironically, Lennon told Martin before he died in 1980 that he wished he could re-record everything the Beatles ever did. When Martin asked incredulously, “Even ‘Strawberry Fields?,'” Lennon answered, “Especially ‘Strawberry Fields!'”
Other intriguing tidbits were shared about “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”; Martin instructed engineer Geoff Emerick to cut up old tapes of organ music, threw them in the air and onto the floor and then reassembled them at random, running the new sounds concurrent with the song’s main organ melody.
Martin is now largely retired, but in 2006, he and his son Giles utilized original Beatles multi-track masters to create new music for the Cirque du Soleil show “Love” in Las Vegas. A DVD chronicling the process, “All Together Now,” was released last month.
The producer is now working on a PBS series, “On Record: The Soundtrack of Our Lives,” set to air in late 2010.