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In His Life

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.

In the beginning, Martin's interest in rock and roll was primarily mercenary; the music didn't do much for him, but its profitability was awfully tantalizing. By the early Sixties, he was actively looking for an act capable of raking in as much cash as then-popular warbler Cliff Richard--and even though he was uncertain that the Beatles fit this bill after listening to a primitive demo given him in 1962 by the quartet's manager, Brian Epstein, he was interested enough to arrange a meeting with the players. Martin was underwhelmed by the songs that Lennon and McCartney brought in with them (in his opinion, only "Love Me Do" rose above mediocrity), and he thought then-drummer Pete Best was an exceedingly weak timekeeper; largely because of Martin's misgivings, Best was replaced by Ringo shortly thereafter. But he was struck by the boys' charisma--luckily for them, they were very fond of the Goons--and he eventually became convinced that their qualities could be successfully exploited.

He was right, obviously, but he admits that it took some time for him to realize how truly talented the musicians were. In fact, Martin even threatened to seek tunes from other writers if the compositions Lennon and McCartney were concocting didn't improve. They responded promptly.

"One of the great things that happened with the Beatles in the early days was the incredible speed with which they learned how to write good songs," he says. "The pressure was on them when they knew that I didn't think much of their early stuff and was going to use other material. This spurred them to do their homework and really get to grips with what people wanted. After that, they never disappointed me, and I was continually surprised that they gave me such good material; it was fresh every time.

"The first time they really connected with me was when they came up with the speeded-up version of 'Please Please Me,'" he goes on, referencing a ditty that reached the third slot on the American sales charts in 1964, over a year after it was put in the can. "In its original form, it was a dirge worthy of Roy Orbison, and I told them to double the speed, which seemed to work. P.S.: I like Roy Orbison."

After "Please Please Me" became England's top-selling single, Martin and the Beatles put together an album of the same name that juxtaposed Lennon-McCartney efforts such as the timeless "I Saw Her Standing There" with an exuberant cover of "Twist and Shout" and other U.S. favorites. With the Beatles, which arrived in Britain in late 1963, used a similar formula to even greater effect; the Beatles became the brightest luminaries in England, and after appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show the next February, they did likewise in the States.

The next several Beatles long-players were either repositories for terrific singles or movie tie-ins, but Rubber Soul was something else--the first offering by the foursome that was entirely conceived with the album format in mind. The overwhelmingly positive response that greeted both it and Revolver inspired the Beatles to block out time for a successor so that they could concentrate on it without being constantly interrupted by touring or promotional activities. The five months that they spent making Sgt. Pepper's was widely regarded to be extraordinarily indulgent; today, many industry types would consider it to be expeditious in the extreme.

In the prologue to 1994's With a Little Help From My Friends, co-written with William Pearson, Martin doesn't shy away from making grand statements about Sgt. Pepper's: He calls the record "a musical fragmentation grenade, exploding with a force that is still being felt. It grabbed the world of pop music by the scruff of the neck, shook it hard and left it to wander off, dizzy but wagging its tail. As well as changing the way pop music was viewed, it changed the entire nature of the record game--for keeps." He subsequently details the rendering of "Strawberry Fields Forever" (an opulent studio concoction that prefigured the quirkiness of Pepper's) and the numbers that made the final cut: "When I'm 64," "A Day in the Life," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Good Morning, Good Morning" and the rest. In the process, Martin presents himself as the music's facilitator--the fellow who found a way to bring to life the seemingly crazy ideas that were presented to him. And while he doesn't make the mistake of taking all the credit for the album and regularly pats his charges on their heads, he goes out of his way to underline his accomplishments. For instance, he traces the effects trickery heard on "Tomorrow Never Knows," from Revolver, to 1962's "'Time Beat/Waltz in Orbit,' a compilation of electronic sounds composed by a certain 'Ray Cathode'--me!"

As horn-blowing goes, this is pretty subtle, but it's also just a tad unseemly, and unnecessary, too, since Martin's triumphs are readily available for all to hear. The initial batch of Beatles records are clean but punchy in ways that few Sixties offerings on either side of the Atlantic were, and by Rubber Soul, Martin had perfected an even more compelling sonic signature. Although the bass, drum and guitar sounds came together powerfully, there was space between them in the mix that allowed listeners to appreciate them individually. (McCartney came to be known as such a superior bassist in part because his contributions could be heard better than those of his peers.) Martin's ability to arrange string, horns and other instruments that were out of the ordinary for rock back then was equally peerless, and his affinity for studio tinkering opened many doors as well. Predecessors as disparate as John Cage and Tod Dockstader had played around with recorded loops, the manipulation of tape speed and other sorts of aural collage, but Martin was the first to adapt such procedures to the mainstream. By doing so, he expanded the palettes of future pop artists--and for this, everyone from the Apples to the Dust Brothers owe him a debt of gratitude.

The splash created by Sgt. Pepper's was followed by a thud: 1967's Magical Mystery Tour was filled with top-drawer songs and has stood the test of time quite well, but it was judged a disappointment by critics of the day, and the television special made to accompany it flopped. Lennon, meanwhile, had begun to revolt against the esoteric turn the Beatles' music had taken, and he ached to get back to a more elemental approach. This led to tensions between him and McCartney, Martin's primary champion in the group, that eventually spelled the Beatles' end. In 1970, after the band split, Lennon sat for a series of interviews in which he bared his fangs at McCartney and, by association, Martin. "You see, for quite a few of our albums, like the Beatles' double album, George Martin didn't really produce it," he claimed. "I don't know whether this is scandalous, but he didn't." He added, "That's nothing personal against George Martin. He just doesn't...He's more Paul's style of music than mine."

With a Little Help From My Friends attempts to disprove these assertions, detailing Lennon's enthusiasm for the experimentation that lifted "Strawberry Fields," "A Day in the Life" and other tracks of the period far above the ordinary. Martin now chalks up the change in attitude that came later to poorer living through chemistry. "John's rebellion against ornate production was, I think, part of his general rebellion," he says. "At that time, his actions were influenced a great deal by drugs."

Whatever Lennon's reasoning, he didn't work with Martin again after the Beatles folded their tent, but McCartney did, on the soundtrack for the 1973 James Bond flick Live and Let Die and the solo albums Tug of War, Pipes of Peace and Give My Regards to Broad Street. A slew of others also lined up to collaborate with the master. Martin's post-Beatles credits include recordings by such shlockmeisters as America, the Little River Band, Peabo Bryson and Kenny Rogers, as well as worthier vinyl from Jeff Beck (Wired and Blow By Blow), the Mahavishnu Orchestra (Apocalypse) and Cheap Trick (All Shook Up). And in the late Nineties, he put his production stamp on the biggest-selling single ever: "Candle in the Wind," Elton John's tribute to the late Princess Diana.

But predictably, Martin got more ink for his association with Anthology, three assortments of Beatles odds and ends that included "Free as a Bird," a 1977 Lennon demo to which the surviving Beatles sang along à la 1991's "Unforgettable," in which Natalie Cole duetted with her father, Nat "King" Cole, 25 years after his death. Martin doesn't deserve the blame for flipping this "Bird"--ELO veteran Jeff Lynne produced it--but he was deeply involved in selecting the other Anthology curios. "My approach to the Anthology changed as I went along," he says. "I didn't realize that I had forgotten about so many little gems. It took two years to produce the Anthology albums, listening to every track of every take in existence. It was a traumatic experience equivalent to living one's life again, but I'm very glad I did it, and it finally closed the book for me on the Beatles saga."

Not quite. For his studio swan song, In My Life (subtitled With Heroes & Friends...), Martin chose to remake Beatles songs with a new cast of characters. And a bizarre lot it is: Bobby McFerrin and Robin Williams (yes, that Robin Williams) eviscerate "Come Together"; Goldie Hawn (yes, that Goldie Hawn) transforms "A Hard Day's Night" into a coy lounge tune; Jim Carrey (yes, that Jim Carrey) violates "I Am the Walrus"; and Sean Connery (yes, that Sean Connery) intones the lyrics of "In My Life" as if he's just been awakened in the middle of a nap. It's hard to know just what Martin was shooting for with the CD, but the result is an amusingly wrongheaded treasure trove of drecky awfulness. The folks at Rhino Records who put together Golden Throats, a multi-volume assembly of hilariously crummy songs by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Telly Savalas and others who should have thought twice before stepping in front of a microphone, likely think it was the best disc of 1998.

Given this misstep, Martin is probably better off aiding boomers who are eager to relive Sgt. Pepper's. "It's not about nostalgia," he insists about his upcoming extravaganza, "although if you're talking about Pepper, you are going backwards. But I'm looking forward to my lectures. It's a good way of meeting people and getting feedback."

If he can hear it, that is. "My impairment is undoubtedly due to self-abuse--listening at far too high a level many years ago, when I didn't know better," he says. "And being 73 doesn't help, either! I'm sure that a lot of young people are going to be deaf in years to come." Until then, Martin hopes that he can "encourage young people to be adventurous in what they do in music" and to take better care of their listening organs than he did. Because to appreciate his work with the Beatles, all you need is ears.

The Making of Sgt. Pepper, with Sir George Martin. 8 p.m. Friday, March 5, Paramount Theatre, 1631 Glenarm Place, $24-$29, 303-534-8336.