In His Life

Beatles producer George Martin tries to pass along the wisdom of the ages.

George Martin has never been a technophobe--far from it. During his more than forty years as a producer--most notably with the Beatles--he eagerly embraced advances in recording methodology, and the studios he oversaw were always equipped with the latest gadgets and gewgaws. For these reasons, his decision to conduct interviews over the Internet rather than the telephone (an antiquated device by the standards of the computer era) makes perfect sense. However, this move has less to do with remaining au courant than it does with a debility that's crept up on him of late. To be specific, Martin, a man whose career was based on his great ears, is losing his hearing.

When Martin discusses this malady, he shows no signs of self-pity. Indeed, the glitches and delays caused by the conversational mode he's picked prompt a good-humored joke: "I'm beginning to think that my hearing isn't quite as bad as Internet technology!" He then describes his problem in matter-of-fact terms. "My frequency range is now well down, so that I tend to miss consonants in speech, particularly in crowded places or on bad telephone lines," he says. "But music is not too bad, and most instruments are within a 4 kHz frequency range."

Nevertheless, Martin knows better than to risk his reputation by staying in the ring too long. With In My Life, a wildly erratic collection of Beatles material put out under his own name last year, he officially retired from the record-making business. But he isn't ready to step away from show business entirely. At an age when most people in his position would be content to rest on their laurels, he's touring the country as the frontman of The Making of Sgt. Pepper, a multi-media presentation intended to take fans behind the scenes of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a 1967 Beatles platter that may be the most famous rock album ever made.

Whether Sgt. Pepper's is also the finest disc of its sort to come down the pike is a matter of considerable disagreement. Several polls of listeners and critics have placed it atop the rankings, yet naysayers, including yours truly, have argued that it's not even the best one by the Beatles; in my opinion, 1965's Rubber Soul and 1966's Revolver are more consistently entertaining and enlightening. But setting aside debates over its quality, the full-length is unquestionably among the genre's most influential releases, an opus that stretched the boundaries of rock via advanced production, the incorporation of musical styles such as classical and Indian music, and its sheer, unadulterated ambition. That it also played a role in spawning a heaping helping of the twentieth century's most excessive and unlistenable music is just as indisputable: Without it, some of the lousiest rock operas and much of the most irredeemably pretentious art rock might not exist. Martin, though, says that he paid little attention to the terrible creations that arose in the LP's wake: "I didn't listen to the bad ones, and to be honest, I was too busy making records to be too concerned about what other people were doing."

Of course, Martin has a vested interest in minimizing the negative effects of Sgt. Pepper's and maximizing the positives. He delights in talking about the work he did before and after he became associated with the Beatles and suggests that it took him quite some time to fully accept that the public at large was primarily interested in him because of his close association with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. ("I do give talks about other things--music in general," he points out. "But people seem to want to know about the Pepper story.") Still, he's done his bit to maintain a steady flow of Beatles-related product ever since the band's 1970 breakup. Among the projects he's shepherded into the marketplace are the soundtrack to the laughably lame 1978 film adaptation of Sgt. Pepper's, all three volumes of the extremely successful Anthology series, and a plethora of other repackages. And of the three books he's written about his experiences, two (All You Need Is Ears and Making Music) feature the Beatles prominently, and the third, With a Little Help From My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper, places them squarely in the spotlight--with him right there beside them. To put it plainly, Martin has done his damnedest to keep his Beatles past very much in the present tense.

Martin's own story is less well-known than that of his associates from Liverpool. He was born in London on January 3, 1926, and as he grew, he steadily gravitated toward music. Upon his graduation from the Guildhall School of Music, he became a professional oboe player, but he didn't truly find his niche until he was hired as an A&R rep by EMI Records in 1950. Five years later, after helming well-regarded productions spotlighting personalities such as Stan Getz, he was tapped to head EMI's Parlophone imprint. There he became known as a comedy producer, thanks to sessions he helmed with the Goons, a nutty team headed up by Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, as well as the "Beyond the Fringe" squad of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook.

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