Book Review – Maximum Volume – Biography of George Martin

I’m so sad to hear the news of the passing of dear George Martin. I have so many wonderful memories of this great man that will be with me forever. He was a true gentleman and like a second father to me. He guided the career of The Beatles with such skill and good humour that he became a true friend to me and my family. If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George. From the day that he gave The Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. – Paul McCartney

This book covers Martin’s life till 1966 and is, effectively, Volume 1. Volume 2 (“Sound Pictures”) is slated for publication in September 2018. This book’s title refers to not only musical volume but maximizing sales volume. 

I have read a number of books about the Fab Four, most recently a book called Tune In, also Volume One of a series. But every single book I have ever read is, or has been, a biography of the band’s rise to success from their perspective.

So it was refreshing to find out that there was a biography, written by Kenneth Womack, being published (Sept. 1, 2017) about their legendary producer, George Martin. Martin died in 2016 at the age of 90.

This book is filled with interesting detail not only about Martin’s studio practices but also about his personal life. And not just interesting but also surprising detail. (Incredibly, I have read very little about Martin so pretty much everything not covered in Beatles books was new to me. This despite the fact that Martin has released his own autobio.)

Now you may well know that George was a good-looking, patrician, upper-class Brit who was producing a bunch of working class Scousers from Liverpool. And so you would be wrong on that. Martin, a Londoner, was a working-class kid himself.

Born in London, he grew up during the depression. His father was a carpenter who could not find work. The family sometimes had no heat and George’s father would put hot water bottles near his feet to keep them warm. Martin remembers clearly being embarrassed when his father got a job selling newspapers in the street. He felt bad seeing the old man shivering in the cold.

But certainly, you may be thinking, things got better for George as someone must have paid for that Oxford education. Nope. Didn’t have one. The last school (other than musical education) I can find a record of is Bromley Grammar School, a secondary (11-18 years old) school in London. Any university degrees he has appear to be honorary.

So if not from the halls of Eton, where then did that upper-class accent come from? Well, George did not much like his “hello, guv” accent and consciously worked to change it. (I did exactly the same thing with my Philly accent.) He first listened to broadcasters on the BBC, later emulated officers of the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. Martin served honorably in the military for several years but never saw action.

George was musically gifted, having taught himself piano at the age of eight. Nobody knew where it came from as his parents had zero musical ability. Prior to the service, he had spent time playing in bands. I found it amusing that band members had to ride their bicycles from gig to gig. The piano, of course, was at the venue.

But he and the drummer had to ride their bikes side-by-side holding the bass drum between them. (Ringo, before he had a car, used to carry his drums through the streets of Liverpool. He had to carry his toms and hi-hat forward then go back and get his bass drum before somebody nicked it. I’ve been to Liverpool. It’s a tough place.)

After his stint in the service, married and at a loss for what to do for a living, through a mentor he got a job at the EMI conglomerate, specifically the Parlophone label. Parlophone was the weakest link in the EMI empire, a label basically going nowhere.

The book details how Martin singlehandedly (not much help from EMI) used his creativity to build Parlophone up into something. He learned recording techniques such as doubling vocals and slowing down pianos to get a unique sound.

Famously, Martin produced England’s Goon Show comedy troupe (including a then-unknown Peter Sellers), also working with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. Additionally, he recorded Graham Chapman and John Cleese prior to their involvement in the greatest comedy troupe of all time.

(In 1969, Sellers and Ringo would co-star in a movie called The Magic Christian. Today it’s probably best-remembered for Badfinger’s version of Paul McCartney”s “Come and Get It.”)

In addition to some novelty records he made, Martin’s Sixties comedy albums not only revitalized the fortunes of Parlophone but also tickled the funny bones of four certain Liverpool lads.

The book relates the oft-told tale of how Brian Epstein – down to just about his last viable label – met Martin in early 1962. And how the otherwise unimpressed Martin gradually took to the Beatles, not just because of their music but also because of their personalities. (Pete Best was still their drummer BTW.)

After their first recording with Martin, the producer basically chastised them and their performance for twenty minutes. When he asked them if there was anything they didn’t like, George Harrison said, “Well for a start, I don’t like your tie.”

The room had been tense as hell till Harrison made that crack. They all – including Martin – burst out laughing and the ice was broken. Martin’s thought was, basically, those guys make me feel happy. If they make me feel that way, imagine how they’ll make the fans feel.

I won’t go into all the details but a few months later, the Beatles had a new drummer (Pete Best out, Ringo Starr in) and the Beatles started recording with Martin. (This just a few months after the death of their mate Stu Sutcliffe.) After only a few months working together, the band released a minor hit (“Love Me Do”) and, in early 1963, a major smash (“Please Please Me”) which had greatly benefited from a suggested tempo change from Martin.

What this book reveals is how Martin was very much a part of the Beatles’ sound. No, he didn’t write their songs. But he was a composer and orchestrator. And with his vast studio knowledge, Martin was able to help the Beatles realize the sounds they had in their heads. Granted, Lennon and McCartney (and Harrison) wrote Sgt. Pepper. Now try to imagine it without all that lush production.

The other thing this book reveals is just how ambitious Martin himself was. He was always looking to better his situation, always looking for either profit-sharing from the artists he worked for or to find a pop band he could help bring to the top.

What comes through clearly is his immense and enormous pride in having been a part of the Beatles phenomenon. I can tell you as a fan that my hopelessly irrational Beatle-worship extends to George Martin. He walked on water as far as I’m concerned.

Well, on a musical level anyway. If I’m an honest reviewer, I have to mention that Martin treated his wife rather shabbily, practically abandoning her when she wouldn’t grant him a divorce. And he conducted an affair right under her nose for years. He was a great producer. He was no saint.

After Martin got a measure of fame, others immediately wanted to record with him. They weren’t necessarily rock bands but artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, who recorded “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and Judy Garland. He’d already been working with Shirley Bassey.* And of course, Martin worked with Jeff Beck on his Blow by Blow album and did other work over the years. But clearly his finest moments occurred with the Beatles.

Should you read this book? If you’re a Beatles fan, unquestionably. Not only will you get the story from a different perspective but you will also better understand the life of a producer. BTW, prior to George Martin in the UK and Phil Spector in the US, there really was no such thing as a record producer per se. George was an “A&R manager,” basically leading artists through the recording process with very little input from them.

I dug this book thoroughly and I eagerly anticipate Vol 2. Your enjoyment of it is likely a function of your interest in the Beatles and the (frankly sometimes tedious) recounting of their studio work. And, of course, the well-above-average life of Sir George Martin.

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(Note they are wearing ties at Abbey Road. That’s the way studios were back then. The engineers, for whatever reason, wore white lab coats.)

*Martin produced Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” for the same-named James Bond movie. Present on the session were guitarists Big Jim Sullivan who gave Ritchie Blackmore lessons and went on to work with Tom Jones. And some bloke named Jimmy Page.

☛These four songs (Besame Mucho, Love Me Do, PS I Love You and Ask Me Why) constitute the first songs the Beatles ever recorded at Abbey Road. (June 6, 1962). They were recorded in that order. The only two that survive from that session are the first two. I added the others in for a complete set. This version of “Love Me Do” has Pete Best on drums.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Book Review – Maximum Volume – Biography of George Martin

  1. Great post! I think Paul nailed it in his quote when he said that George was like a father figure to him. I have often wondered how the band would have developed without his generous guidance.

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    1. Oh, I’m convinced (as was Martin) that the Beatles would still be the Beatles. I think, though, that maybe they went further faster in part because they were, collectively, a great team. Same sense of humor, same work ethic, same high sense of quality, same ambition. If they’d been stuck with some old-fashioned producer they would have had to fight him most of the time. Martin was open-minded and creative and from what I’ve read, you couldn’t say that about most of those studio guys in that era. No Enos or Rick Rubins yet.

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    1. Yes. I went back and read your Beatles post and know that I am quite a bit bigger fan than you of their overall work. But I too have a special affection for their early years when they were just a bunch of scruffs from Liverpool and were not yet burdened with being THE BEATLES. “Please Please Me” (for one example) is as irresistible a pop confection as was ever written and I still find it exciting to listen to today. I play it on guitar (simple) and when some chums come over, we sing it lustily if not always in tune. BTW, it’s the vocals as much as anything that made those guys. I’ve seen a few Beatles tribute bands and they never quite get the mix right.

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