‘Nepotism? I’m all for it’
Compiling a new Beatles LP is one of pop’s most coveted jobs. How did Giles Martin get it? (Clue: his dad’s called George.) By Alexis Petridis
Wednesday November 15, 2006
The graffiti on the wall outside Abbey Road studios normally concerns itself with events that took place 40 years ago – but now, among the avowals of undying love for the Beatles, there are messages dealing with more recent developments. "Marry me, Paul," reads one. "I have my own money."
Inside the famous London studios, past and present are also in collision. Security around the forthcoming Beatles compilation, Love, would shame a category-A prison. To hear the 80-minute "collage" of intricately remixed and overlayered Fab Four tracks, devised for thetheatrical troupe Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas show, you are required to sign in, leave your worldly goods behind and pass through a metal detector.
If the weight of history and the level of security give the studio an intimidating air, this seems to have passed Giles Martin by. Perhaps that’s because of his family connection – he is the 37-year-old son of Beatles producer George – or because he spent three years here, piecing Love together in a small studio "next to the toilets".
With the nonchalance of a man stepping through his own front door, Giles strides into the building past a gaggle of Americans. "They’re here for the launch of a book called Recording the Beatles," explains Giles. "I ordered a copy. They saw my email address, and wrote to me going, ‘We went to see the Love show and it’s fantastic. We wanted to get your dad a copy of the book, can we send it to you?’" He sighs. "They still charged me $100 – and my dad got his before me."
So much for the power of nepotism, eh? "Yeah," he smiles. "Nepotism should be alive and well in the music industry – and I’m trying to support it." The more waspish commentator might remark that Giles would say that. Love has catapulted him into the global spotlight: the album is credited as a co-production with his father, but 80-year-old George’s role seems to have been mostly advisory.
Compiling a "new" Beatles album is one of rock’s most coveted jobs, and it seems to have been blithely handed out to the boss’s son. To his credit, this fact has not escaped Giles. "Imagine the number of people that wanted this job," he nods. "I’ve had people coming up to me going, ‘You bastard, I really wanted that job.‘"
He is keen to point out that "this whole thing didn’t stem from letting George and his boy have a go in the studio – it was a need by the powers that be at Apple", but frank enough to admit his father’s role in securing him the position. "You could argue that I’ve got the job because I’m George Martin’s son, which is absolutely true, it really is. I’m being absolutely honest about it. But I’m proud of the job I’ve done."
Even the most zealous Love refusenik would have trouble objecting to Giles in person. If they weren’t won over by his personable manner and self-deprecation, there’s always the possibility that they would simply be stunned by his resemblance to his father. His voice is almost identical, soft and plummy – which, he says, proved problematic during an attempt to break into hip-hop: "I worked with a guy called Major, trying to write a single for Liberty X, but nothing came of it. I’m a public schoolboy – you try not to be, but I bloody am."
You can see why Apple thought him the right man for the job, not least because he shares with the Beatles’ notoriously secretive company a polite discretion when it comes to matters Fab. Occasionally, he hints that his father might have told him rather more about the reality of working with the Beatles than the cheery anecdotes George trots out for public consumption (so famously well-worn that they inspired a Big Train comedy sketch, in which George is kidnapped and chained to a radiator, but all he will tell his interrogators is that, well, the Beatles never took drugs in front of him, and George Harrison once said he didn’t like his tie).
"There are stories, you know, of John in the studio," Giles begins, but then the subject swiftly changes. He claims the Beatles never played a major part in his childhood – "It’s not as if I grew up in a yellow submarine and we talked about the Beatles all the time" – but it’s fairly clear they cast a certain shadow.
When he announced his musical aspirations, his parents apparently reacted with horror, but Paul McCartney provided encouragement. "I was learning to play guitar, which my parents were nervous about. We used to go down and visit Paul and Linda, and Paul said to me, ‘I’ve heard you started writing songs, that’s great.’ It seemed so weird for an adult to say that to me. All I’d really known up to then was, ‘Haven’t you done your geography homework?’"
In addition, when Giles’s indie band Velvet Jones failed, and he turned to producing, he seems to have suffered a similar curse to that faced by the Lennon and Starr offspring: doomed to toil in their fathers’ shadow. "If you put a certain type of tape echo on a guitar, it sounds like the Beatles. When I did it, everybody went, ‘Oh my God, it’s just like working with George.’ Or I’d do a demo in Nashville and people would go, ‘Oh, I don’t know about the song but great production.’ And you go, ‘What are you talking about? It’s just a guitar and voice. Do you think you might be reading a bit too much into my name here?‘"
After splashing around in the Britpop shallows – the closest he came to a brush with fame was discovering unlamented retro-rockers Kula Shaker – he went to work with his father, who had begun to go deaf. He served on projects including In My Life, the critically mauled collection of Beatles standards reinterpreted by Phil Collins, Billy Connolly and Sean Connery among others, and the 2002 Golden Jubilee Party at the Palace.
His father wasn’t involved with Giles’s biggest success to date: "I heard there was a Charlotte Church type looking for a producer; they sent me her voice, I put some guitars and pianos to it, and they said, ‘This is exactly what we’re looking for.’" The album, by singer Hayley Westenra, sold 2 million copies. "I suddenly became the most successful classical producer of the year."
Nevertheless, leaving light classical music behind to work on Love doesn’t seem to have been an enormous wrench. "I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it because I thought I’d only get criticised for it. My view was that I wanted to get out of the crossover classical world." Somewhere behind the well-modulated tones is a hint of sarcasm: "It’s not like they’re not going to take me back to do Ave Maria because I’ve ruined Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band."
Having conspicuously failed to ruin Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Giles finds himself in a curious position. Love has made him one of the most famous record producers in the world. Can Giles capitalise on its success, or is it back to Ave Maria? He seems unconcerned. "It was just nice to be working with a really good band," he says. "I mean, you’d have to be a real numpty to screw the Beatles up."
The Times November 17, 2006
Beatles and mash with the fifth Fab
The release of a ‘new’ Beatles album has brought George Martin back into the spotlight. Pete Paphides met him
Though looking remarkably spry for an 80-year-old, Sir George Martin seems momentarily confused. “Hezbollah want to kidnap me? Why would they want to do that?” Sitting opposite him in an office at Abbey Road studios, his son Giles, 37, is attempting to explain the sketch — written by the creators of Father Ted, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews — in which Arab terrorists take the venerable Beatles producer hostage.
“It was from a show called Big Train. The joke was that you’re always talking about your work with the Beatles — and even being kidnapped by Hezbollah can’t stop you going on about it.” Alas, Martin seems no clearer as to what to make of it all. “And when did this happen?” he inquires. “Round about the time Anthology came out,” says his son. “I just didn’t tell you about it because I didn’t think you would find it funny.” The perplexed response from Martin suggests that his son’s initial instincts were correct. However, as the producer explains, there’s a perfectly good reason why people only ever see him talking about the Beatles. “People rarely ask me about anything else,” he shrugs.
That’s hardly likely to change now. His years as an esteemed producer of comedy records — among them, Peter Ustinov’s Mock Mozart and Goodness Gracious Me by Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren — were probably not foremost in the minds of the UK Music Hall of Fame awards steering committee when they decided to induct him. This being a week before the awards ceremony, he sounds profoundly unexcited at the prospect of being honoured. “
What does it entail? A bloody great headache,” he blurts. “I’m in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. That should be enough, shouldn’t it?” Though he doesn’t mention it during our encounter, one presumes the “headache” to which he is referring is the awards’ grand finale — a Golden Slumbers medley redux, scored and conducted by Martin himself, with added gospel choir. On reflection, there isn’t an orchestra on the planet that can prevent the voices of Johnny Borrell and Corinne Bailey Rae curdling upon impact with each other. Unwittingly, the whole exercise proves Giles Martin’s point that “Beatles music only starts to sound like Beatles music when you have the Beatles playing on it”.
It was a conclusion that he and his father had three years to come to — the exact period of time that elapsed between the conception and execution of a “brand new” album by the Fabs. In 2006 there may be nothing significantly new left in the Abbey Road vaults, but the Beatles’ Love bears rich testament to hitherto unexplored possibilities. Pieced together by father and son for Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles-inspired show that opened in June in Las Vegas, the 80-minute collage of Beatles tunes takes its cues from the recent trend for mash-ups, records in which DJs (often illegally) mix together different songs to create “new” tunes.
Appropriately, Love is a labour of pre- cisely what it calls itself. Where the originals couldn’t be bettered — A Day in the Life, All You Need is Love — they rise up fully formed among the ever-shifting landscape of Beatles fragments. But elsewhere, you think of the video for the 1995 Anthology “newie”, Free as a Bird, in which a mythical Beatleworld opens up around you, complete with pretty nurses selling poppies from a tray and running piggies. Songs you thought you knew backwards (including Sun King, which actually is played backwards) reveal new colours when juxtaposed against other songs. If, until this point, you couldn’t be talked around to the childlike vulnerability of Ringo’s singing on Octopus’s Garden, hearing it over the sweeping strings of Good Night might change your mind.
Although the project emerged from George Harrison’s friendship with the founder of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberté, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the remaining Beatles would assent to having such liberties taken with their music. So it was only natural that Giles Martin (previous experience, Kula Shaker, Velvet Jones) should have been asked to audition with a demo. The clincher, it seems, was his idea of putting George Harrison’s Within You Without You over the lysergic landslide of Tomorrow Never Knows. “It’s a shame that Giles hadn’t even been born when we made Sgt Pepper,” says his father, “because that version would have been terrific on there.”
Deploying the self-deprecation that seems common to both father and son, Giles is swift to add that not everything from that original demo found favour with the surviving Beatles. Paul McCartney gently disavowed the 37-year-old of the notion that it was a good idea to remove his piano part from Hey Jude and use the percussion from Sun King “to create a sort of Mexican mariachi band effect”.
With EMI’s latest six-month profits down by a whopping £22.4 million from last year, to just £18.6 million, the company is relying on Love to perform well — though just how much of those royalties George and Giles Martin stand to receive for an album which so blurs the line between production and wholesale reconfiguration is open to speculation (neither party is willing to disclose the maths). As far as the younger Martin is concerned, these are peripheral issues. Right now the main issue for him is a sense of relief — not just that McCartney and Ringo Starr have given their blessings to the finished album — but that early reviews of the album have been positive. No one, as yet, has felt moved to cry sacrilege. And if they did, you would surely have to draw to their attention the spirit of creative randomness with which many of The Beatles’ finest moments were created in the first place.
George Martin’s role in Fabs lore as the plummy, paternal facilitator of those moments cannot be underestimated. In this respect, he says that his relationship with John Lennon was especially fertile with creative possibilities. “Both John and Paul knew what they wanted, but John always struggled to express it — which meant he would always end up talking in metaphors. He had great ideas, but I wasn’t quite sure whether I was delivering them. I Am the Walrus was a case in point. He wrote it and told me he wanted me to write a score to go with what he had. So, in a way, that’s me trying to get into John’s head.”
If Lennon and McCartney’s encounter at the Woolton Parish Church garden fête in 1958 stands as the century’s single greatest moment of musical serendipity, then the Beatles’ alliance with Martin must run it close. Having already broadened his sonic palette with comedy and classical records, Martin’s hunger for new ideas kept his mind open. Indeed, by 1962 Martin was making experimental records of his own. Released under the futuristic pseudonym of Ray Cathode, Time Beat showcased many of the techniques — tape loops, backwards voices — seized upon by Lennon when he first steered the Beatles into truly psychedelic waters with Rain. “I was always playing about with tapes, and the Beatles were constantly pushing me to see what else I had to show them.”
However, Martin adds that the most vital quality he brought to the mix was discipline — which was necessary, he explains, because of the technological limitations of the age. “If you only had two four-track machines to work with, then those tracks were precious. I couldn’t waste them. And Giles would get frustrated when we were doing this album, because he would want to use the voice from a song and discover that it couldn’t be separated because that track also had a cowbell on it.”
If every creative enterprise requires discipline, it was a point that Martin inadvertently proved all over again with the release of his last Beatles-related project. For his In My Life album, released in 1998, the producer invited some of his favourite pop and movie chums into the studio, where they proceeded to “interpret” their fave Fabs moments. Obviously, it’s only proper that the man who signed the Beatles is allowed to do whatever he wants in perpetuity, but some of us who saw the accompanying documentary still struggle with those mental images of Jim Carrey gaily tiggering around the recording booth, all the better to tease out the dormant wackiness in I Am the Walrus.
When the subject is raised, Martin Jr is swift to play down his involvement. “I just engineered it,” he smiles. Was he there when Phil Collins told the world about his idea to extend the drum solo in Golden Slumbers to “make it more interesting”? A long pause ensues. “Yes, well. I didn’t have a creative role in that one.” The conversation turns to Goldie Hawn’s appearance on the same record, who George Martin says he knew “from way back when”.
“You fancied her!” pipes his son, and for a moment you wonder if he isn’t too old for a clip around the ear.
“Behave yourself!” says his father.
A week later, at Alexandra Palace, Giles Martin’s teasing is abruptly put into perspective by the reception meted out to Gordon Brown by sections of the audience as he attempts to induct Martin into the UK Music Hall of Fame. Given the famed gentility of the man that Brown is here to honour, it all seems a little unseemly. Nonetheless, deliberately or otherwise, the jeers serve to underscore a question thrown up by Brown’s duties here. Where, you wonder, are the surviving members of the group whose ideas his musical midwifery helped to bring into the world? Martin has the air of a man happy to manage without the extra fuss that their presence here would bring. To be part of the Beatles’ story and yet to enjoy relative anonymity, he says, has been “like a lifeline to me and my family”.
Besides, it wasn’t so long ago that he saw McCartney. At a 40th wedding anniversary party held by Martin and his wife Judy, the silver-haired producer recalls a touching exchange between mentor and musician. “It was just a lunch with some friends, really,” he remembers. “The only showbusiness people there were Cilla (Black), Rolf Harris and Bernie Cribbins. But dear Paul drove 130 miles to be there. Anyway, as he was leaving he said, ‘It’s lovely to be an ordinary person again’.”
“At which point,” adds Giles, much as Lennon might have once done, “we got him to do the washing-up.”