christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: The Beatles

10 reasons why George Martin deserves to be called the fifth Beatle

As well as being a man of taste, kindness and immense musical talent, George Martin also had an impeccable sense of humour. This was essential if he was going to get anything done with the Fab Four. But most importantly, in the words of Alan Parsons, ‘he had great ears.’ He listened to the band, nurtured their ideas and collaborated rather than competed with them. It’s impossible to know what The Beatles would have achieved without George Martin, but thankfully, we’ll never have to contemplate that particular fate.

George Martin

His contributions always served the song and not himself. While we mourn the passing of the gentleman whose accent was that of an Air Vice-Marshal and whose hair resembled the floppy mop of a wizard from Middle Earth (at least later on), it’s worth reminding ourselves of ten stunning contributions he made to The Beatles’ music.

1) His rock and roll piano

Before Paul and John could play proficiently themselves (Paul was still having lessons in 1965) George Martin provided the rock and roll piano on early tracks like Rock and Roll Music, Misery, Money, Slow Down, Long Tall Sally and A Hard Day’s Night. In plenty of other bands, these contributions alone would be enough to make him a fully paid up member.

2) His rule breaking

Often portrayed as the disapproving headmaster to The Beatles errant schoolboys, George Martin showed he was as anarchic as the rest them, allowing such studio tomfoolery as the sound distortions on She’s a Woman, the super-compressed drum and bass on Ticket to Ride (said to be the invention of heavy metal!) and famously, the feedback that begins I Feel Fine. Most other producers at the time would have called a halt when the needle slipped into the red.

3) The production on Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite

Responding to John’s request to make a record that ‘sounded like a fairground’ Martin pulled out all the stops for this song from Sergeant Pepper. The kaleidoscopic production is full of whizzes and whistles, steam organs, sound effects, crescendos and tumbling scales. You can taste the toffee apples.

4) The electric piano solo in In My Life

Out of nowhere, this astonishing, feather light and giddily melodic solo appears in the middle of John’s otherwise elegiac song, somehow capturing the nostalgia, colour and energy of the Beatle’s childhood. He had to sneak in and overdub it on, fearful the Beatles would disapprove of his suggestion.

5) The string quartet on Yesterday

Paul was initially skeptical about adding strings to his song; afraid it would become mawkish or treacly. To overcome this, George Martin astutely invited him to work with him on the arrangement. By playing the chords on the piano and with McCartney singing phrases that came to him, they collaborated to produce a beautifully restrained setting for an already sublime song.

6) The whole of Tomorrow Never Knows

To move from She Loves You to Tomorrow Never Knows in three years is the pop equivalent of inventing the wheel to designing the Apollo XI moon rocket in a similar space of time. Responding to another Lennon request to ‘sound like the Dalai Lama and a thousand Tibetan Monks chanting on a mountain top’ George Martin supervised a recording like no other. It is the sound of east and west colliding like the buckling of tectonic plates.

7) Achieving the impossible in Strawberry Fields Forever

Again it was John who was responsible for another extraordinary challenge for George Martin. He asked for two different versions of his song, each in a different key and tempo to be spliced together. Pushing the studio (and engineer Geoff Emerick to the limit) you can hardly see the join.

8) The brass on Martha My Dear

This has always been one of my favourite Beatles songs, although actually it is the work of just McCartney and George Martin, who provides the sympathetic brass orchestration. It is the perfect accompaniment to a perfectly formed song.

9) The orchestra crescendo at the end of A Day in the Life

Persuading classical musicians to abandon their charts and climb up the scale to provide the totemic finale to this extraordinary song (before ending on that thunderous E Major piano chord) George pulled out every stop, and presumably every ounce of his considerable charm. This surely ranks as one of the most memorable sounds of the 20th century.

10) Side two of Abbey Road

When The Beatles came back to George Martin cap in hand after the Let it Be fiasco, he agreed to produce their next album – but only if they allowed him to do it properly. The final medley was a showcase for everything The Beatles could do: the lush harmonies, the unorthodox chord progressions stitched together by gossamer melodies, sweeping orchestration and witty interplay of voices and instruments. It was also a showcase of everything they had learnt from George Martin. Think of the pedestrian plod of Love Me Do next to euphoric conclusion to The End. It’s the sound of a band that went to the moon.

With acknowledgements to Ian McDonald’s superb book on The Beatles’ music ‘Revolution in the Head.’

 

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The toppermost of the poppermost: ‘New’ by Paul McCartney

It’s not cool, I know, but I couldn’t wait to finish work yesterday to get home and download ‘New.’ I stuck it on the iPod then went for a jog in the moonlight – a great way to get to know Paul’s new album. From irresistible crunchy power pop (Save Us, Queenie Eye, New, Turned Out, I Can Bet) to affecting acoustic ballads in the manner of Johnny Cash’s later albums (Early Days) and more experimental avant-garde groove-based pieces (Road, Looking at Her, Appreciate) it’s pure Macca magic.

Being Paul it’s stuffed full of hooks, often three or four in the same song, and there’s a real honesty and generosity of spirit throughout. The chorus of Looking at Her is wonderfully heartfelt – full of pride and admiration for his new wife, and has a sweet melody to match.

Early Days is a meditation on John and Paul’s early days together: ‘dressed in back from head to toe, two guitars across our backs.’ It’s full of images of the two of them posing on the streets of Liverpool and Hamburg, ‘hair slicked back with Vaseline.’ There’s amazing moment when Paul’s voice is double tracked, singing about memories of friends from the past when we hear the blessing/mantra: ‘Your inspiration, long may it last, may it come to you time and time again.’ It’s hard to resist the idea that’s this is John, egging his old mate on from beyond the grave. Paul responds to the challenge by following up with New – his best single since Coming Up and up there with his greatest Beatles and Wings work.

There are some misfires; I’m not as keen as some on the platitudinous Everybody Out There, but it’s undeniably tuneful and spirited and I’ve yet to fall for Hosanna’s charms. But there’s plenty of time to get to know these songs. Paul’s voice is not the rasping wonder it was during the 70’s when he had that powerful, pure upper chest range (Download Wings Over America if you want some of that) but it has other qualities now – a wonderful deep tone offset by a still bird like falsetto (a la Here There and Everywhere.) Elsewhere, Get Me Out of Here is a bluesy, throw away response, in part to the show of the same name and maybe a remote kissing cousin of Why Don’t We Do it in the Road. But perhaps it should have been left off.

These quibbles aside, New is full of inspiration, originality and invention. It’s more buoyant than Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which although full of good things, was overshadowed by an un-Paul like introspection. This contains the same thoughtful maturity, but with an optimism that album was missing. In that respect, it has more in common with Memory Almost Full and Electric Arguments (Light From Your Lighthouse from the Fireman side project is my current all time favourite Paul song!)

Here Paul’s new songs are aided and abetted by a great fuzzy electric guitar sound – either in full blow riff-mode (Save Us) or as clever tone and texture (see Alligator). You’ll remember that Taxman solo was by Paul after all. The songs also feature unexpected and delightfully varied arrangements.

On the ELO tribute (and very likable) Turned Out, he proves he would have been a more than capable Roy replacement for Travelling Wilbury (don’t forget to seek out Paul’s fab and Wilbury-like cover of Buddy Holly’s Maybe Baby on YouTube as an added treat).

But to hear him on Queenie Eye is to celebrate the return of a true pop master. From the teasing, Lucy in the Sky-like organ intro, nursery rhyme playfulness (a lyrical nod to John’s Cry Baby Cry perhaps) pop-bounce and soaring double chorus, here we have a reminder why Paul was in the best band there ever was. It is to experience the joy and delirium of pure pop as it was meant to be heard, on sunny mornings in 1966, by the man who invented it.

Supercharged Doowop

Brian Eno once said that ‘all the world’s major problems can be solved with either oyster sauce or backing vocals.’

When it comes to The Beatles, there was not really a problem to solve and backing vocals were rarely used to fix sub standard material. However like Harrison’s distinctive and melodic guitar parts, they somehow became integral to the composition. More so than almost any other group, it is sometimes hard to determine which elements are intrinsic to the song, and which aren’t. For example, it is impossible to imagine a version of Twist and Shout without its layers of ever more excitable vocals; Here, There and Everywhere is still a pretty song without the backing vocals, but it’s an infinitely finer, sweeter, complex and melancholic one with them. Listen to almost any Beatles song and there are some very strange things going on with the harmonies; try Fixing a Hole for size and the harmony as they zoom into the bridge on I Feel Fine is almost the definitive Beatles moment.   

 

Even when they were strictly a four piece band: two guitars, bass and drums, their best instrument was still their voices. They expertly aped what they heard on the discs coming in from America and instinctively found sympathetic harmonies for their own songs. Their songs harnessed the natural musicality of their Liverpool accents. You only need to think of that final vocal chord in She Loves You to be reminded of their genius. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.

McCartney/Harrison – the forgotten partnership

One of the indelible images of the ‘Sixties is of Paul McCartney and George Harrison sharing a mike, their guitars akimbo, shaking their mop-tops while nailing their trademark falsetto.

While Paul’s left handed bass playing saved The Beatles the expense of a third microphone (and by 1963 they could probably afford it) very little has been said of the musical collaboration between the two youngest Beatles. Overshadowed by the all conquering Lennon/McCartney partnership, it seems a McCartney and Harrison teaming was given very little consideration.

In fact they were responsible for the very first Beatles’ original committed to disc. ‘In Spite of All the Danger’ was a slow, moody blues in the style of Gene Vincent recorded by Percy Phillips in his Liverpool living room. It was amateurish for sure, but an entirely competent pastiche; it would still have been the finest song Elvis never wrote.  Paul later took full credit for the song, claiming George simply played the guitar solo – at the time he said, they did not realise that this did not constitute part of the song itself. For such ancient history, this does seem a littl bit like nit picking. It did not bode well for future collaborations; they only again shared credit on such innocuous instrumental fare as ‘Flying’ from the Magical Mystery Tour Soundtrack, ‘Dig it’ and the back-from-the-dead track ‘Free as a Bird.’

Lennon and McCartney were, at least to begin with, in awe of each other’s talents; Lennon envious of McCartney’s seemingly endless supply of melodies while Paul admired John’s compellingly direct lyrical style. They were excited about their song writing, quickly realising they would benefit from each other. Their remarkable pact to credit everything they did to ‘Lennon/McCartney’ was made when they were sixteen and honoured (just about) to this day. In the glow of this attraction, it seems Harrison found himself the musical gooseberry. Their underestimation of Harrison’s gift was later a cause of regret (John thought that ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ were the only decent things on Abbey Road) and this early closing of ranks was a resentment Harrison carried with him beyond The Beatles’ demise.

Despite their lack of joint publishing credits however, their work together was still remarkable. Think of McCartney’s sizzling guitar solo in Taxman (perhaps returning the favour for In Spite of All the Danger) which was reversed to double the length. It became a source of irritation to George when fans declared it his best piece of work. George was equally careful with Paul’s songs; it was only in the last year or so that Paul confessed that the memorable four note signature in ‘And I Love Her’ was George’s work. It would have meant a co-writing credit in most other bands.

Both exciting players, they let rip together on such rockers as Birthday (1968) – their doubled bass and guitar lines powering this Cream-esque pot boiler. They traded similarly distorted guitar licks on Abbey Road’s ‘The End’ like members of The Eagles. 

Perhaps their finest collaboration was in George’s stellar ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (also 1968) with Paul’s fine high harmony and powerful juddering bass making it the closest they came to a duet. They repeated the trick on ‘Something,’ by which time Paul realised that it was he that was playing catch up in the song-writing stakes.

While their personalities clashed (the dour, acerbic Harrison irritated by the cheerful, driving McCartney) their bond was deep and enduring. Too much was made of their rift immediately after the Beatles break up when George wrote the mean-spirited ‘Wah Wah’ about Paul’s musical lecturing and played snide slide guitar on John poisonous character assassination ‘How Do You Sleep?’  When George Harrison died in 2002 Paul said ‘he was like a little brother to him.’  

Hearing their two voices together, pure and full of conviction, makes you realise that ‘McCartney/Harrison’ was a partnership of equally intriguing possibilities and lasting value.

Were Decca right to turn down The Beatles?

It’s a preposterous question, of course. But let’s look at the evidence. Without the benefit of foresight – the Ed Sullivan Show, the Technicolor glory of Sergeant Pepper and John Lennon in a fur coat on a London rooftop – all they had to go on were the tracks The Beatles recorded for them on New Year’s Day 1962: a slightly bizarre selection of novelty tunes and standards chosen by Brian Epstein to showcase his boisterous charges.

After fishing an old copy of Anthology 1 out of the British Heart Foundation charity shop last weekend, I listened again to five of the tracks recorded that day. And the choices and performances seem odd indeed.   

Seasoned from long residencies in Hamburg and Liverpool, The Beatles were without question a magnificently tight unit. The drum fills and guitar flourishes are drilled to precision and the band could stop on a dime (or sixpence) when required; they loved to come to a dramatic halt mid -song often followed by a sotto voice pronouncement  (think of Paul’s slightly wobbly solo line in Love Me Do or in Like Dreamer’s Do).

Three Cool Cats is a savvy piece of Brill Building song writing but listening now, it sounds hilariously un-PC. George, not yet an entirely confident vocalist, takes the lead and while the performance is spirited, it feels a little flat in places. Paul and John, the other cats, each make a comedy contribution in the form of a silly voice (‘Looky there!’) –  John in a rather dodgy Arabic accent. Considering the stakes, The Beatles certainly seem relaxed, larking around as if playing to a half empty room of drunken sailors.

Searchin’ (another Leiber/Stoller composition – the ubiquitous songwriting duo soon to by usurped by Lennon/McCartney) finds The Beatles’ bursting with confidence.  They expertly deliver a supercharged of The Coaster’s 1957 hit. But Paul’s vocal is highly Americanised – almost a pastiche of the soul shouting they so admired. And there is some curious high pitched gurgling half way through.

The Sheik of Araby meanwhile is firmly back in novelty territory. Another comedy effort, although delivered entirely straight by George, it could have been part a Morecambe and Wise sketch, complete with Fez hats. Beginning with a comedy instrumental that wouldn’t be out of place in a pantomime of Aladdin, the song even features some Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman ‘Not Arfs!’ When their whole future was riding on the session, not least the 17 shillings a piece for the night in the posh hotel that Epstein stumped up, it all seems rather baffling. It’s telling that none of these tracks ultimately made it onto a Beatles’ album. Another effort on the day was Besame Mucho, a Mexican bossa nova written by a fifteen year old. It’s hardly Twist and Shout.  

It’s all quite revealing as to how the Beatles saw themselves in 1962 – not just as graduates of rock and roll but also part of a wider culture of light entertainment. In an effort to be true to themselves, they perhaps portrayed themselves as more eclectic than might have been prudent when the label was simply looking for some straightforward rockers. But the Goon Show and Morecambe and Wise were as much part of The Beatles’ upbringing as Elvis and it was an essential part of the mix. Their wild success at the Royal Variety Show the following year proved their instincts right. The band’s quirky tastes and comic sensibilities would gain full rein in such tunes as Rocky Raccoon, You Know my Name (Look up the Number) and Honey Pie.

So we know what happened next. Decca banked on The Tremeloes instead (who auditioned the same day), while palming the Fabs off with the made their famous prophesy: ‘guitar groups are on the way out .’ and the even more damning: ‘the Beatles have no future in show business.’ Decca’s loss was EMI’s gain, who went on to build forty years of prosperity on the band before disappearing down a venture capitalist’s plughole. Still if they had been taken on, The Beatles would never have met George Martin and the 20th century might have sounded different entirely. On that London rooftop seven year’s later, as part of their last public performance, John Lennon quipped for posterity and perhaps to those suits at Decca still in the back of his mind: ‘I hope we’ve passed the audition.’   

But it’s an interesting question to pose fifty year’s on. If only they had sung I Saw Her Standing There, the world might have been a different place.