Sir George Martin
It was — and still is — a veddy, veddy English cah. Even a modern Morgan looks like it just burbled out from under wraps, garaged since 1936: hence the long hood with engine-flanking louvers, swooping external fenders, ragtop open cockpit for two, an actual grille, and bug-eye headlights. With its peculiar chassis made of ash wood, you might imagine the ride to be, well, a bit stiff upper lip.
George Martin drove a Morgan. His passenger one dreary January day, in 1967, traveling not far from Liverpool through Blackburn, Lancashire, was John Lennon. They were on their way to Abbey Road Studios in London where they’d already begun recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with the other three “lads” — as the greatest record producer who ever lived called John, Paul, George, and Ringo. They were his protégés. When he spoke about them, to me, it was with the casual pride of a father talking about his children. We were standing outside of an office building on the Sunset Strip, in LA, chatting and shooting candid color pictures. I was the director, wielding a camera. But I was also the enchanted acolyte, happy to hear firsthand stories about the Fab Four. (Imagine, I was getting paid for this!)
George recollected that he and John were navigating elbow to elbow in his roadster, bumping along a byway toward the M6 trunk road south. Over engine noise and chill wind, John said he’d read a newspaper story about a local satrap who’d actually counted the number of potholes on this and other nearby stretches. And, bemused because they were bottoming out on just about every goddam one of them, himself nearly catapulted — no seatbelts — like an arrow from an ash wood crossbow, John yelled out loud that it wouldn’t take this many holes to fill the Royal Albert Hall, a concert venue that the Beatles last played in 1963. Just an exasperated bon mot during a road trip, John implied that the volume of asphalt it would take to fill so many potholes would be equal to the interior vastness of a grand public space, up to the rafters. This was George’s parsing, feeling compelled to debunk a dark rumor floated after the release of Sgt. Pepper that John had been shooting holes in his arm, filling them up to nurse a heroin habit. It was, of course, preposterous. And, of course, said George, John Lennon’s outspoken way with words brought some of that shit down on his own head. I was reminded that he ended “A Day in the Life”, the ultimate track on the album, with a cheeky I’d love to turn you on. George clarified by telling me it was routine for John to thumb his nose at the authorities who were forever on his case for one reason or another. “A Day in the Life” did ultimately get banned from play on the BBC. But, again according to George, the banning was aimed as much at a McCartney lyric sung earlier in the song:
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream
The men in tweed, neckties, and trilbies thought it referred to marijuana. Most likely true. I think Paul said so, in an interview years later. John’s “turned-on” reference, though, was about LSD. More to the point, he scribbled his remark about the Albert Hall on a slip of paper during his journey to London with George Martin, soon to be memorialized whimsically and unforgettably on tape, in song, when they got to Abbey Road:
I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
The souvenir found its way, over the years, into the hands of Mal Evans, the Beatles’ roadie, who socked it away. Prescient man! It sold at auction, in 2010, for $1.2M. Evans died in 1976, but his family got the loot.
We don’t often know or remember the names of record producers, the artists whose work parallels an orchestra conductor or a film director; alchemists who deal exclusively with the transmutation of recorded sound into gold and platinum. There was Phil Spector, famous for his “Wall of Sound,” who died dishonored and in prison. There was Sam Phillips who first recorded Elvis Presley. Berry Gordy created the Motown sound. Quincy Jones did . . . everything. T-bone Burnett, Bones Howe, Jimmy Iovine, and Rick Rubin continue to revolutionize popular music in the 21st century. There are others, but George Martin tops the list. The rest of them will tell you so themselves.
He wasn’t yet Sir George Martin when I photographed him for Rolling Stone in 1976, but, at the age of 50, he had the dashing good looks and gallant demeanor one would expect from a knight of the British Empire. It was ten years since he’d begun work with the lads on Sgt. Pepper. He was coping, at the time, with fallout from the release of a compendium of rock ’n’ roll covers recorded much earlier by the Beatles; a problematical album called Rock ’n’ Roll Music. He described the album as “troubled.” He was troubled. “Appalled,” he said because EMI, the record label, released these early and primitive two-track monaural recordings “as is” but for artificially channelling them to stereo: instruments coming out one speaker, vocals out the other. Dreadful. George Martin would have none of that. He tried to instigate a change. He got his hands on the masters, then filtered and remixed every song. On older tracks like “Twist And Shout”, “I Saw Her Standing There”, and “Roll Over Beethoven”, he plied his magnetic tape magic, adding echo and various instrumental fades to emphasize the vocals. But when he took the remixed tapes back to EMI they refused to release them, citing the Beatles’ contractual instructions that re-issues had to be exactly as originally recorded. George’s remixes were for naught. That’s what the Rolling Stone article was about, mainly. But those contractual terms themselves were problematical. If the Beatles had not split up, the matter might have easily been resolved. I think they would have been quick to defer to George Martin’s genius when it came to the integrity of recorded sound. I was also aware — George might have told me — that Lennon hated the album cover, saying it looked like an outtake from a Monkees photoshoot; rightly so.
I also photographed George at work in the Record Plant recording studio in LA where he was producing an album for the band America. And I remember how close I came, even at that early stage in my career, to hanging up my cameras after watching him do his thing. If the reader will recall, I was a music major in college. I did a tiny bit of session work in recording studios, backing up friends with my clarinet but spending much more time in that milieu with my camera, photographing other musicians. I absolutely loved being in the studio. I came within the thickness of a frame of film from telling George Martin that, if he’d take me on as a go-fer, to work for free, I’d follow him anywhere. He’d know I wasn’t some weirdo off the street — I mean, here I was photographing him for Rolling Stone but ready and willing to give that up to be the sorcerer’s apprentice. Well, needless to say, many more photoshoots later, I never produced a record album. I never got up the nerve to ask him for his tutelage. He did ask me, though, if he could shoot my portrait. What!? After I photographed him, posing in an antique (even then) telephone booth, by the swimming pool no less at the house he rented in the Hollywood Hills, he got me to pose the same way. From behind the viewfinder of my own camera on a tripod he gave me some brief direction and . . . click! There you go.