Though looking remarkably spry for an 80 year-old man, 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 Rd studios, his son Giles, 37, is attempting to explain the sketch – written by Father Ted co-creators 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, Sir George seems no clearer as to what to make of it all. “And when did this happen?” he enquires. “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 Sir George Martin suggests 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 prior to the Awards, 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 Sir George 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 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 attempts to forge hitherto unexplored possibilities. Pieced together by father and son for Cirque Du Soleil’s eponymous Beatles-inspired which recently opened 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.
The Beatles Love is a labour of precisely what it calls itself – if you like, an album-length equivalent of the video for 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, the producers’ decision to place it over the sweeping strings of Good Night seems designed to make you listen with fresh ears.
Though the project emerged from George Harrison’s friendship with Cirque Du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the remaining Beatles would assent to having such liberties taken with their music. As the musical exploits of Julian Lennon and Dhani Harrison have shown us, it doesn’t always run in the family – 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 born when we made Sgt Pepper,” ventures his proud father, “because, that version would have been terrific on there.” The younger Martin’s relief at positive early reviews of the album is palpable. No-one, as yet, has felt moved to cry sacrilege. And if they did, one might counter by drawing to their attention spirit of creative randomness with which many of The Beatles’ most deathless moments were created in the first place.
George Martin’s role in Fabs lore as 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 Fete 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 to possibilities that, most of his contemporaries wouldn’t have countenanced. Indeed, by 1962, Martin was making experimental records of his own. Released under the suitably futuristic pseudonym of Ray Cathode, Time Beat showcased many of the techniques – tape loops, backwards voices – seized upon by John 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 cowbell on it.”
If every creative enterprise requires discipline, it was a point that George Martin inadvertently proved all over again with the release of his last Beatles-related project. Released in 1998, In My Life album saw the producer invite 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, Giles 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 in order to “make it more interesting”? A long pause ensues. “Yes, well. God bless him. 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 Giles, and for a moment you wonder if he isn’t too old for a clip around the ear.
“Behave yourself!” says his father.
“You didn’t know her before you made the record!” continues Giles. “You fancied her!”
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 bring into the world? Sir George Martin has the air of a man happy to manage without the extra fuss 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 Paul. At a 40th anniversary party held by Sir George 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 John Lennon might have once done, “we got him to do the washing up.”