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Remembering Record Producer George Martin, The 'Fifth Beatle'


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember George Martin, the British record producer who's credited with helping The Beatles develop their sound. He died yesterday at age 90. Martin produced 13 Beatles albums between 1962 and 1970. He offered advice, created arrangements and helped them execute their unconventional musical concepts. Before working with The Beatles, he'd produced pop and comedy albums as well as symphonic and choral recordings. Martin was a classically trained musician and was the first to encourage The Beatles to use orchestral musicians on their records. I spoke to George Martin in 1980, back when FRESH AIR was a local radio program in Philadelphia. He told me that when he first started working with The Beatles, he wasn't sure about their songwriting skills.


GEORGE MARTIN: They showed no evidence of being great writers to begin with - in fact, they weren't. After "Love Me Do," I was convinced that they were a hit group, but I knew I had to find a hit song for them. And I was scrabbling around all the publishers looking at the material, and I eventually found something that I thought was good. And I gave it to them. I said, look, we're going to record this, and with this you'll make your fame and fortune. This will be a No. 1, I promise you. They obviously weren't too keen on it. It wasn't their song, but they did it. They had to. And the song was called "How Do You Do It?"

And they made a very - well, quite a credible record of it. I've heard it recently. It's not bad at all. But at the end of it, they said, look, we don't really want to record other people's material for singles anyway. We don't mind putting one on our albums, but can we do one of our own? And I said smugly, well, if you can do something as good as that then I'll listen to it, but otherwise no. So they said well, give us a few days and see if we can come up with something. So they revamped "Please Please Me," which they'd had before, but it wasn't quite in that style. And they said they thought they had something. And I said, OK, we'll go into the studio and make it, and we did. And at the end of the take, I said, gentlemen, you've got your first No. 1.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Last night I said these words to my girl. I know you never even tried, girl. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Please please me, whoa yeah, like I please you.

GROSS: Let's get back to the first tune that you recorded with them and that's "Love Me Do." The band right before that had had a different drummer than Ringo Starr. Who was the drummer and how did Ringo end up in the band?

MARTIN: Well, when I first met them and on the first tapes that I'd heard, the group was the three others and Pete Best - no Ringo. And Pete Best, in fact, was a very good-looking young man, a kind of sullen beauty about him. And he had a kind of James Dean-ish (ph) quality. But he wasn't too hot as a drummer - at least I didn't think so. And on the original tests, I said, you know, look, when we come to do our first single, I don't want to use Pete Best. I want to use a session drummer.

Well, unknown to me, the boys also felt the same way, and they were wanting to get rid of Pete anyway. So that my decision was a very convenient reason for them getting rid of him. So he got the boot. Poor Petey missed out on a fortune. And they looked around for another substitute, and they met up with Ringo who was playing in another Liverpool group. And when the next session came along, they bring in Ringo larger-than-life and say, well, our new member of our band. And I - aloof - said well, OK, I'll try him out. But I've got a session drummer I've already booked - Andy White. We'll use him if you don't mind. So we did a take with Andy.

And then I condescendingly allowed Ringo to have a go. And of course, Ringo was a very good drummer. And he quickly settled into the band. And in fact, his coming into the band was a kind of catalyst for the band. They kind of gelled then. They really got themselves together. And from that moment on, it was The Beatles against the world really.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1980 interview with George Martin, who died yesterday at age 90. Here's an excerpt of the interview in which we talked about producing The Beatles 1967 album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Martin told me that during the period those songs were written, John Lennon and Paul McCartney weren't - they weren't co-writing songs. They were each writing their own.


MARTIN: By this time, they were writing quite different material. You could tell that - distinguish between their writings very easily. Contrary to most people's supposition, they very rarely wrote together. They did in the early days write "From Me To You" maybe together, but almost every song they wrote was a solo composition where the other one might help out with a word or two. And even though it's labeled John Lennon and Paul McCartney, looking back at it, you can easily tell which one's John and which one's Paul.

The Pepper idea only emerged after Paul had had this idea of writing a song called "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," which was a kind of jolly little jingle. And it was his idea I think, which suddenly turned it around saying, look, how about if we make the song sung by the band themselves as though it was an actual performance by this fictitious band?


THE BEATLES: (Singing) We're Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. We hope you enjoy the show. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, sit back and let evening go. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's wonderful to be here. It's certainly a thrill. You're such a lovely audience. We'd like to take you home with us. We'd love to take you home.

MARTIN: Really, the songs don't link up very well. I mean, there's no real reason why we should have such diverse songs on it. It was a collection of songs still, but I tried to make it a coherent whole. And when we started - when we finished all our basic recordings, I then tried to link the whole lot together by means of sound effects and running one into another and so on. It was at that stage where the record almost grew of its own. It was like a crystal. It seemed to have a life of its own. And during most of the recordings, the boys were going through their sort of druggie phase anyway. They were fairly high quite a lot of the time. I'm sure they didn't really realize what was happening, but it just did seem to involve almost of its own generation.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Somebody calls you. You'll answer quite slowly, a girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

MARTIN: In "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" that song was built entirely around a poster that hung in John's house. You know how one decorates a house with odd things you pick up. Well, this was a genuine old circus poster, and on it were practically the lyrics of the song almost entirely as they are now. Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite, there will be a show at 10:15 on October the 27. The Henderson twins, Pablo Fanque's fair, Harry the horse - it was all down there. And he just wrote it into a song and came to me with it and wanted to do it, have an imagery of a circus. I always likened John and his songwriting - he had tremendous imagery. I regarded him not as being a drug person but more of a Salvador Dali of music. You know, he had a very free reining mind.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) For the benefit of Mr. Kite, there will be a show tonight on trampoline. The Hendersons will all be there, late of Pablo Fanque's fair, what a scene. Over men and horses hoops and garters, lastly through a hogshead of real fire. In this way, Mr. K will challenge the world.

MARTIN: Obviously he wanted a calliope kind of sound. And I knew I needed steam organ sounds - you know, the kinds of things that used to be in fairs, fairground organs, which were driven by steam engines. And there were - and there still are - in existence many records of these. But they almost invariably play PD (ph) tunes, like "Stars And Stripes Forever," and that kind of thing -marches. So I got a few of these records together. And I put them on tape. And I got the engineer. I picked out a few extracts. And I said to the engineer, OK, now, I want you to cut those tapes up into lengths of about a foot or 15 inches each. And having done that, he looked around - man, what do you want me to do with them?

I said, well, fling them up in the air. Of course, I was reputed to be eccentric anyway. SO he did just that. And now what do I do with them? I tell him, you pick them up again. And you put them back together again - but in whatever order it comes to. So he started tacking them all together. And he then quickly realized what I was on about. I wanted things to be in the wrong order. I wanted it to be jumbled - just a jigsaw of sound. And oddly enough, when he put it back together, a lot of the sounds were too much like the originals. So we had to turn things backwards - the odd bit here and there - and take it out and put it a few bars away. But we came up, eventually, with a hodgepodge of sound. It was just a kind of maelstrom of sound. It didn't - there was no particular tune at all. But it was calliope. It was steam organs, and it did give that sound. So I overdubbed that over the whole of the piece. You can hear it there, the kind of wish-wash background.


GROSS: During that period and a little later on, a lot of people used to get high and play Beatles records backwards and listen for secret meanings.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Were there big secrets in those records?

MARTIN: There was - they were exactly what people - people found in them what they wanted to find. There was no messages. We'd put nothing in there. That was not intentional. At the end of "Pepper," when we put it all together, we did two things which were in-jokes for us. One was to put a ridiculous amount of sound in the run-out groove and the other was to put an 18 kilocycle - kilohertz note on the end of it for dogs, we'd say, because poor dogs hadn't got anything to listen to. It was just an in-joke. We just did it for the heck of it. And the sounds that I put on in the inner groove, I just said to the chaps, the boys, all right, go down to the studio and do anything you like. Just sing anything or shout anything you like. And I just - they just do about five seconds of mumbo-jumbo, which really wasn't anything. And I lopped off two seconds of it and made a loop of it and put it on the run-out groove. Well, it so happened that people started playing it backwards and finding out all sorts of obscene messages, but it certainly wasn't intentional.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) I'd love to take you home.

GROSS: George Martin died yesterday at age 90. We recorded that interview back in 1980 when FRESH AIR was a local radio program in Philadelphia. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


SARAH PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark) The O.J. Simpson you've never met, the face of a batterer, the abuser, the murderer.

GROSS: I'll talk with Sarah Paulson, who plays prosecutor Marcia Clark in the FX series "The People Vs. O.J. Simpson." We'll talk about preparing for the role, how it changed her impressions of Clark and what it was like to meet her. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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