Book Review – Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin, The Later Years, 1966-2016

The Music Enthusiast is certainly aware of and sad to note the passing of Aretha Franklin. He’ll have a tribute to her further on down the road. 

Roughly year or so ago, I wrote a post about a book I had read called Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin. The Early Years, 1926 – 1966. As the title indicates, it is basically a bio of Mr. Martin from childhood through his time in the military through his early years as a producer. And then on to producing a band called The Beatles that – it turns out – were pretty popular in the 60’s.

One year later there is a sequel called Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin. The Later Years, 1966 – 2016. I managed to get my hands on an advance copy but I happened to be at Barnes and Noble and it’s out now. Here is my review.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way. Like its predecessor, this is an excellent book, great read. If you’re not a Beatles fan, then perhaps your only interest might be in the inner workings of a producer under a certain amount of pressure. If you are a Beatles fan and you’ve read everything else, there is no excuse not to read both these books. (Full disclosure – the publisher sent me both books gratis with no strings attached. No remuneration for yours truly and if I mercilessly brutalized the book, well, that’s the risk they took.)

The exciting thing about this book is that it covers not only the last chapter of Martin’s life, but also the most adventurous and, one might say, avant-garde time of the Beatles’ existence. The Beatles last live concert – Apple rooftop aside – was in late August 1966. They’d pretty much had it with the road – especially after their disastrous Philippines visit – leaving them free to plow their creativity into the studio work.

And boy, did they ever. Having already done Rubber Soul, their remaining albums were Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles (White Album), Yellow Submarine (for which we’ll forgive them), Abbey Road, Let it Be.

Prior to my reading this book, a fellow Beatlemaniac friend of mine argued that minus George Martin’s influence, the Beatles would still have been great but that a lot of what we heard was studio trickery. I argued that all the flanging* in the world won’t save you from piss-poor songs.

But while we were both to a certain extent right, I think my chum was onto something. This book lays out that it wasn’t just, say, one or two albums that had effects. No, there was plenty of backwards instrumentation, voice manipulation, speeding up and slowing down of pianos and such on pretty much everything. According to the book, all of this – especially use of a technique called ADT** that they laid on with a trowel –  was fairly routine.

But all that said, it’s quite interesting to read about the innovations these guys came up with. No matter what the Fab Four wanted, Martin could do it. (Well, engineer Geoff Emerick could do it. Martin was the maestro, the arranger.) And he did at all on four-track because even though at some point eight-track was available, EMI were too fucking cheap to spend money on the biggest act in the world.

Brian Wilson and the Beatles (especially McCartney) had a mutual respect and got into a friendly (if deadly serious) competition. When Wilson heard Rubber Soul he said, “I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made. I liked the way [Rubber Soul] all went together, the way it was all one thing. It was a challenge to me … It didn’t make me want to copy them but to be as good as them. I didn’t want to do the same kind of music, but on the same level.”

Then shortly thereafter, the Beatles released Revolver and – within a year – Sgt.Pepper’s. And the greatness of these together with Wilson’s own personal problems sent him into a nervous breakdown. I could be wrong here, but I think Pet Sounds was the last great thing he ever did.

For just one illustration of Martin’s collaboration with the lads, consider the making of “A Day in the Life.” While the idea for the song clearly germinated with Paul and John, they left two 24-bar gaps in the song that they wanted to fill in with an orchestra. (They didn’t have budget for a 90-piece orchestra so Ringo said “just hire half an orchestra and have them play it twice.”)

When it came to the {symphony} musicians, George wrote, “I knew it was of little use telling them to improvise. They were used to working from written parts, no matter how strange. I suppose it was difficult for the Beatles to fully understand that. They had never needed a note of written music in their lives. Why should anyone else? Of course, if we had approached the symphony musicians in those days without a prepared score they would have laughed us out of court.”

So Martin wrote “the lowest possible note for each of the instruments in the orchestra. At the end of the twenty-four bars, I wrote the highest note … near a chord of E major. Then I put a squiggly line right through the twenty-four bars, with reference points to tell them roughly what note they should have reached during each bar … Of course, they all looked at me as though I were completely mad.”

David Crosby became one of the first outsiders to hear “A Day in the Life” before it was released. They had just finished it,” Crosby notes. “By the time they got to that last piano chord, I was just a dish rag. I was completely, absolutely stumped. I didn’t know you could do that.”

Anyway, there are plenty of great Beatles anecdotes in this book, largely from the perspective of a producer. But the Beatles break up about 2/3 of the way through the book. And so I thought, well now what? It’s not that Martin never did anything ever again in his career. But clearly by any measure it would have taken a miracle for him to find another band on that level. And he never really did.

And so, the rest of the book manages to be interesting almost despite itself. Because even though Martin worked with artists like Cilla Black, Jeff Beck, Seatrain, Stan Getz and John McLaughlin, (not to mention McCartney solo), he also produced lesser-known artists such as David and Jonathan. Who? Right. And frankly, those bits of working with lesser – sometimes much lesser – artists is where my attention occasionally flagged.

But the book overall remains interesting not so much because Martin never topped himself again. It’s interesting because you say to yourself, well what does a 44-year old man (his age at Beatles breakup) do with himself for a second (if not a third) act?

And in addition to producing artists (and getting knighted), after years of being underpaid and mistreated by EMI, Martin and some partners launched AIR studios. They started out in Piccadilly Circus and with their backgrounds and state-of-the-art equipment, were immediately successful.

AIR has outlived Martin although it long since decamped to Hampstead, a suburb some 4 miles (6.5 km) north of London. Martin started up a successful studio on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. The last album ever recorded there was the Stones’ Steel Wheels in 1989. Later that year, Hurricane Hugo put Air Montserrat out of business for good. The buildings still sit there to this day, eerily covered over by weeds.

The last thing I’ll say about this excellent book is something I did not know which is that by the time of his death, Martin was profoundly deaf. This is, in part, why his son Giles remastered Sgt. Pepper for its 50th anniversary.

George Martin died on March 8, 2016 at the age of 90. There were times that John Lennon in particular felt that Martin was taking too much credit for the Beatles. But this book proves that George gave credit where credit was due.

But let us now give credit to the great George Martin. Minus him, the Beatles would still have put out those albums. But one wonders if they would have been the same.

Case in point, Phil Spector’s overblown production of Let It Be. Spector was a great producer before he blew a gasket. But if I’ve learned anything it’s that you need the right person for the right job. And that person, for the Beatles was George Martin.

Sources: Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin. The Later Years, 1966 – 2016. Kenneth Womack. Chicago Review Press. Wikipedia.

*According to historian Mark Lewisohn, it was John Lennon who first called the technique “flanging.” Lennon asked George Martin to explain how ADT worked, and Martin answered with the nonsense explanation “Now listen, it’s very simple. We take the original image and we split it through a double vibrocated sploshing flange with double negative feedback.”

Lennon thought Martin was joking. Martin replied, “Well, let’s flange it again and see”. From that point, when Lennon wanted Automatic Double-Tracking he would ask for his voice to be flanged, or call out for “Ken’s flanger”.

According to Lewisohn, the Beatles’ influence meant the term “flanging” is still in use today, more than 40 years later. The first Beatles track to feature flanging was “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver, which was recorded on April 6, 1966. When Revolver was released on August 5, 1966, almost every song had been subjected to flanging

**Automatic double-tracking or artificial double-tracking (ADT) is an analog recording technique designed to enhance the sound of voices or instruments during the mixing process. It uses tape delay to create a delayed copy of an audio signal which is then combined with the original.

The effect is intended to simulate the sound of the natural doubling of voices or instruments achieved by double tracking. The technique was originally developed in 1966 by engineers at Abbey Road Studios in London at the request of The Beatles.

 

19 thoughts on “Book Review – Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin, The Later Years, 1966-2016

  1. This sounds fascinating. I greatly enjoy watching YouTube videos of George Martin. He was a quite charismatic man, who always had something interesting to say, especially when talking about The Beatles.

    I’m pretty sure their records wouldn’t have been the same without him. For example, there wouldn’t have been the distinct string arrangement in Eleanor Rigby, which he wrote. I also understand he evolved from essentially being a dictator on the “Please Please Me” album, where he essentially told them what to do, to becoming an enabler to realize their ideas.

    Like

    1. All true. Actually they all evolved. The Fab Four went from being studio novices to learning from the master. It’s probably too much to say that their roles reversed entirely. But for one example, late in thei recording career, Martin criticizes something McCartney is playing. McCartney says, “Then you come down and play the fucking thing.” So not only were the roles changed over time, they eventually felt freer to go toe-to-toe eith their mentor.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Beatles were a perfect storm, but it all comes down to the music, and Martin was truly the “5th Beatle” in that regard (actually, the 4th… sorry Ringo). There’s a good documentary of him that I saw on PBS (it’s probably on YouTube now, as is everything else).

    I agree that Brian Wilson’s last masterwork was the “Pet Sounds” album. But there are individual songs here and there. Two that stand out, in my mind, are “Surf’s Up” and “Til I Die.” The last-named is simple and short, but absolutely beautiful.

    Like

    1. Martin’s role in the Beatles story has certainly been no secret. This book is not day-by-day but gives a good idea of what his involvement was as much as anything else. Sometimes it was true collaborator, other times it was just “add a dollop of ADT.” He felt that his contribution to ‘Abbey Road’ was his his most significant. “There’s far more of
      me on Abbey Road than on any of their other albums.”

      Like

  3. I have a pile of books that I’ve read ( and many more waiting to be read) on this music thing we love. If I was to read anything to do with the Beatles these would probably be the ones. I like the behind the scenes creative stuff. How it comes together to get the final mix. You did use the word “excellent” so you got my attention. I really don’t care about the girlfriend, guru stuff etc. This sounds more up my alley. I’m interested in the music and the process.

    Like

    1. There’s so many books about these guys I’ve lost count. Basically there seems to be the “how the Beatles became famous” and then the “behind the scenes” ones. I’ve read enough of the former that I’m now really digging the latter. And yes, both books are excellent. The author is, I think, to be commended for making even the non-Beatles parts interesting. And of course, this is “what it was like to be George Martin” not being a Beatle. BTW, I didn’t have you pegged as a big Beatle fan. Am I wrong?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like music Doc and the Beatles made some real good music. But I think you know I lean a little left on the dial. Plus I’m a rocker and the Beatles were originally rockers. Their really early stuff i dig. ‘”Baby It’s You’ is a CB fave. Plus they always gave a nod to their influences like the Everly’s, Chuck Berry etc. I think a little like Elvis (except they were still making quality stuff) things became more about the non music part with people and less about the creativity. When I hear people compare the Beach Boys and them I don’t get it. Maybe because they were so called Pop bands. You’d be able to speak on that better than me. Plus by the time they got to the end weren’t they cutting individual songs but still calling them Beatles tunes? I will end with that I dug Paul’s first few solo albums and some of Georges work.

        Like

        1. As to the Beach Boys, no I’ve never put them anywhere in the same league with the Beatles. I’ve never even really written about them. That said, the Beatles sure enough took them seriously. Note that Brian Wilson was a one-man Beatles – composer, arranger, conductor, producer. So he was doing everything that the Fab Four were doing and I don’t think the other guys were as much contributors as he was. They have one album considered great (Pet Sounds) and a bunch of good tunes. And I do like them when they come on the radio. But it would have to be someone else to tell you why they’re in the same league because I don’t agree and so cannot.

          I think that even earlier in the Beatles career John and Paul were really writing a lot of stuff separately and calling them Lennon-McCartney. The other guy would add something but for the most part, the guy that sang it was the primary writer. It just became more blatantly obvious by the time of the White Album. I agree with you on the solo stuff. I already did “All Things Must Pass” and have to queue up a McCartney one. I never thought John had a great album that was solo. Or I did at the time but they’ve faded. There’s maybe two Ringo songs I like.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. All well put Doc. I never got the ‘Pet’ thing but music is always about individual tastes. So much good music out there for CB to listen to. I still have lots of good listening in me. As far as this book goes I’ll be reaching for it ahead of a lot of the other ones in this genre.

          Like

  4. Steve S. I just wanted to write a note to thank you for your review of a recent Ry Cooder concert and links to performances. I enjoyed it very, very much. Good to see recognition for a truly outstanding artist who is overlooked by main stream music lovers. I traveled to Phoenix to watch his show this past weekend and it was uplifting, awesome and one I will not soon forget. He doesn’t tour often as I waited years to have the opportunity to see him in concert, and it was surely a wonderful experience. Thank you!

    Like

    1. Sure, my pleasure. Funnily enough, it had never occurred to me to go see him. He was just a record guy for me, you know? Then I saw he was coming and decided to give it a shot. It was well worth it. I even convinced a buddy of mine to see him in Philly with Emmylou Harris!

      Like

  5. 50 years is a massive chunk of time to classify as “The Later Years” imo lol. I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall in Abbey Road at that time, especially while recording The White Album and Abbey Road. George Martin was brilliant, he helped make The Beatles into legends and in turn The Beatles made him into a legend. He changed musical history (and possibly world history) forever.

    Like

    1. Good point about the later years. I suppose they could have had three volumes, one being the mid-years. But Martin’s post-Beatles career – while not threadbare by any means – was quite as eventful. Martin was everything you say – the right person in the right place at the right time.

      Like

What would you say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.