SIR GEORGE MARTIN
George Martin talks about his new classical collection and his years as one of the most important man in the music industry. His love for real music, the future of pop, and how he misses George Harrison.
Despite constantly telling himself "I really must retire", Sir George Martin is still a very busy man. Fresh from overseeing the musical arrangements for the Queen's Jubilee party, the "Fifth Beatle" has already embarked on preparations for a charity benefit in the memory of Spike Milligan for later in the year, and is just about to launch a new series of classic CDs in the USA called Sir George Martin presents.
For the series, Martin cherry-picked a selection of works from the greatest classical composers, compiled the sleeve notes and oversaw the artwork, all of which carries a picture of this unfeasibly sprightly and relaxed looking musical elder statesman
Despite fifty years in the music business he's still passionately attached to all of its elements, not least the running of Air Studios in Belsize Park, a huge church converted by Martin especially for recording orchestras
Q. Can you tell us about your love of classical music?
A. Classical music's always been my love although I'm one of those people who doesn't believe there's anything wrong with either rock 'n' roll or jazz or folk music or classical music, as long as it's good. I'm a self-taught musician and when I was 15 or 16 I started playing what I thought was classical music. With this classical series we're looking to turn people on to classical music who haven't really listened before - the kind of people who've been stuck with the television unfortunately. We've presented it with anecdotes, which reflect how music affected me when I was young. We thought this was the most effective way of getting the music over.
Q. Why now?
A. Well because there are a lot of young people who have grown up in very much a television society. Young people tend not to listen to music - they tend to see it. They listen with their eyes and popular music certainly has deteriorated, because the vision is more important than the sound.
Q. Would there be a point in time when you saw this trend actually starting?
A. It definitely wasn't before the '60s because videos didn't exist then. As far as I can remember the video we did for Strawberry fields or Penny Lane was probably the first video of all time in that it was designed specifically to promote a record. Things have moved on a long way since then… I suppose really it began in the '80s where the image became more important than the sound and you had very attractive young people gyrating impossibly to music - that was what started this off.
If I was allowed one special wish, I would wish that pop music became more solid again, that people studied the art of writing a good song again instead of just sitting over a computer and programming a drum track with clever noises.
In the '60s we were lucky. We were thrown together and were allowed to take risks. When I worked at EMI in the '60s my pay was disgusting but I did it for the love. I loved being in the business and although I didn't get paid much I did get freedom. I could be as outrageous as I liked, which is why initially I went into comedy. We were outrageous with some of the things we were doing with The Beatles. Some of them didn't come off but a lot did and we took risks, which people seemed to like. At the time I did worry that I was pushing our frontiers out too fast.
Q. Is there anyone currently working in music who you think is writing classic songs?
A. Well it's going out of fashion because the songwriters who wrote intelligent lyrics found that they weren't getting their wares across and so it's become a dying art… There is a semblance of … I do hear one or two people who want to have a bash. Noel Gallagher is very, very aware of the importance of a song.
Some young bands have broken through and used the internet to their advantage. Bands like Radiohead have worked that way and Coldplay. I'm particularly fond of Coldplay and their singer, Chris Martin. He's a most intelligent and adventurous musician...
There's a kind of conspiracy… (laughs) it's not deliberate! There's a coalition of taste, which is partly the record business, partly the broadcasting business, partly the effect of young people being given what they want. It all seems to work out now that people are very unimaginative and they won't take risks. If a particular record is big then, they say, this one sounds a bit like it so we'll do that. It happens in all the arts.
Q. What is the difference between working in the music industry now and, say, 40 years ago?
A. There's a lot of music that doesn't see the light of day and lots made without genuine instruments at all. I can handle a computer, I can handle Pro-Tools but that's not being a musician. The fundamental thing is that music must come from the heart. Computers don't have hearts.
I once worked with a group before we did a track the drummer would programme his drum machine to work out exactly what he was going to do. When we came to record the track, he'd plug in the drum machine and he'd reproduce every sound as it happened. I said to him one day: "I'd like to try you without this," and he said: "Oh, I can't. It's the way I work." In the end I insisted and took the machine away and he couldn't play! He really couldn't play without it. He was completely driven by a robot.
Q. You've worked with so many people, is there anyone alive or dead you wished you could have collaborated with?
A. I've been very lucky to work with the best and that rubs off on you. I don't think there's anyone I'd like to make a record with now, partly because my hearing is going in my old age and you can't make very good records if you're going deaf. I still have lots of friends in the business - I was over watching Paul in Dallas recently and it was inspiring to see him in front of an audience. Although I've recorded music for over fifty years the paradox is that my favourite way of hearing live music is live. When I recorded the Gershwin tribute album and we had stars like Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Cher, Sting and so on, every track we recorded was live. Sting came in to this very studio and a trumpet player and he made it up on the spot.
With The Beatles, they were a bubblegum kind of group and they started to get more adventurous. I think it all started on Yesterday when only Paul was present. John didn't even come to the studio and Paul had never even seen a score before. I'd written a score for a string quartet for Yesterday and he was puzzled by it. But it worked! A string quartet, a voice and a guitar and it just worked. He loved it and wanted to do more and so it led to us starting Eleanor Rigby, which was even more complicated. Even John, with I Am A The Walrus is a really complicated score but he loved it, loved all the complicated sounds you could create.
Q. Were you a fan of rock 'n' roll before you started working with The Beatles?
A. I wasn't really aware of rock 'n' roll until Elvis. There was a tremendous revolution when he came along because music in this country was rather gentle stuff. The records that people liked were tuneful but they weren't particularly rhythmic. My first encounter was with skiffle and when The Beatles came along I didn't know what to do. My first reaction was "Where's the lead singer?" because they all seemed to be singing at the same time. Of course The Beatles were all experts at rock 'n' roll. They studied it like an art form and knew it inside out.
Q. In your view, what was the impact of rock 'n' roll on Britain?
A. It had a huge impact. Until then we were such a grey nation. We'd been through a horrible War and we'd had rationing. In fact the post-War years were worse than the War. I was thirteen when the War started and flying with the Royal Navy when I was seventeen. When I came back there was still tremendous rationing - we were allowed half a pint of milk a day for example. Coupons! You couldn't buy a new shirt because you'd spent too much on handkerchiefs the week before. It was dull, grey and the young people were longing to kick over the traces of the past. The young were saying, "Let's live".
Q. You're still a very active member of the British record industry. What are the main issues facing the industry today?
A. I don't think the average person realizes quite what a problem there is in the music industry today. In the first place, technology has given us the ability to copy impeccably, which means that people can get music for nothing. That's fine if you're on the receiving end but if you're a musician or a writer you starve.
The other problem is the downloading for free. The record industry has yet to find a way of combating it. It's become more and more expensive to sell fewer and fewer records and record companies are having a bad time. The big companies in fact, are facing extinction. EMI, for God's sake, are talking of selling off Abbey Road studios. If they did it would be sacrilege but it shows you the plight.
Q. Do you think this is a possible scenario? That with the majors going we could see an explosion of creativity from the underground?
A. The way it happens is so complicated today. If I stumbled across a young girl or young boy who writes their own songs, looks great, moves well and I want to sign it'll cost me £1m just to get started because you've got to have an album, pay for studios, mastering and so on. When you've made it you have to promote it with a video. It's such a big risk signing anyone now...
Q. Finally, what's your fondest memory of George Harrison?
A. George was such a good man in all senses. He was a generous person and if you were his friend he would be so incredibly loyal, very quiet. He had his own fixed beliefs on life generally. He was a fine musician. He didn't deserve what he got. There were many things that contributed at the end.
After The Beatles he helped some friends in the film business and it was very successful for a while. Eventually though it lost money, although it didn't deserve to. George eventually found himself with a bill for £25m. That too was such a great strain. Then of course that awful attack in his house which was just so incredibly traumatic and he found himself fighting for his life. Without dear Olivia (Harrison's wife) who had great courage and eventually laid the guy out he could have died then. All these things told on his health. In a way, I miss him more than John though I miss John greatly as well.
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