An Excerpt from TUNE IN: Remembering the Fifth Beatle, Sir George Martin
Ten years in the making, Tune In takes the Beatles from before their childhoods through the final hour of 1962—when, with breakthrough success just days away, they stand on the cusp of a whole new kind of fame and celebrity.
George Martin’s second visit to America, his first after joining EMI, had a pronounced impact. He and Ron Goodwin had come up with “Skiffling Strings,” a brisk tune combining skiffle with a light orchestra; it did little at home but Capitol picked it up, renamed it “Swinging Sweethearts” (skiffle being only a British fad), and invited Goodwin over for pro¬motion. George and the publisher Sydney Bron went too. It was October 1957.
The party worked its way across the States, starting in New York, stopping in Philadelphia for the TV show American Bandstand, and ending in Hollywood, where George met Capitol Records’ director of international repertoire, the producer Dave Dexter, Jr. It was Dexter who received all the records mailed across from England and decided which ones Capitol would release. EMI expected pretty much all of them to be issued, and actively promoted, but from the hundreds of discs sent Dexter’s way in 1957, he picked just eighteen and supported two at most. (Eight of the eighteen were George Martin productions—he was more “successful” in this regard than his colleagues.) So pathetically small was the figure, bad blood was already coursing between the parent company in London and its recalcitrant Hol¬lywood teenager. EMI hoped George’s visit to the Capitol Tower might put family relations on a better footing, but actually they worsened: from five hundred British masters diligently offered in 1958, only sixteen were selected . . . and still some of Dexter’s colleagues thought this too many. As he’d note in his autobiography, “Capitol’s sales chief complained that I was releasing ‘too many damned British dogs.’”
Though hopping mad, EMI was fearful of forcing the issue because of anti-trust, the American law that regulates competitive business. Capitol laid it on thick, saying that if EMI was seen to be bossing them about, the English company could incur heavy fines and even be made to surrender its stockholding. Paul Marshall—probably the most respected US record business lawyer of his time, representing many companies—says this was quite false: “There was no provision in the United States for anti-trust laws which would have prevented EMI from instructing Capitol what to do, but Capitol’s lawyer scared the people in London into thinking there might be a problem.”31 With much embarrassment, EMI began offering its Capitol rejects to other labels—a policy announced by the NME on July 4, 1958. It was Independence Day for Capitol, and a bad one for EMI, since it was known throughout the US business that any tapes being hawked around the little league had already been rejected by a major.
The day George Martin and Ron Goodwin were at Capitol, Frank Sinatra was in there to finish recording his album Come Fly with Me. Feeling like “the country cousins from England,” they watched as “The Voice,” with Billy May and Nelson Riddle, completed a masterpiece, and stood quietly while the star kicked up a stink over the album artwork. 32 Days after returning to England, George set about finding himself a Voice—and quickly landed Jeremy Lubbock, a young London nightclub pianist/singer who sounded more like Sinatra than the real thing. George replicated the arrangements and production he’d heard in Hollywood and had no success at all.
He also returned home looking for zing, and thought he’d got it with Manchester rock singer Paul Beattie, who played the Cavern and other clubs with his own backing group, the Beats. His first Parlophone single, “I’m Comin’ Home,” was a big brassy number with a honking sax break and heavy echo on Beattie’s deep baritone Elvis-like voice. Though derivative (and actually quite strange), it was arguably the best British rock and roll record made to date. This was virgin territory for George—a genuine rock singer, from the north, with a name that didn’t need changing, and he’d managed to produce something unusual. He had high hopes for a breakthrough, of having anticipated “the next big thing,” but it didn’t come, and it also didn’t come with the follow-up, “Me, Please Me,” or with Beattie’s two final Parlophone releases up to 1960.
George hadn’t yet made number 1 (he came closest in December 1957 when Jim Dale was at 2 with “Be My Girl”), but he did still have impressive firsts. With the obvious exceptions of Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele, he produced the first skiffle LP, the Vipers’ Coffee Bar Session, and, in Jim Dale’s Jim!, the first British rock and roll LP. It was ten inches of vinyl, ten songs, twenty-four minutes of music taped in under a day, everything pseudo-American and poor. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starkey and thousands of other teenagers awed by the genuine American sound were unmoved—British rock records seldom had authenticity or guts, just weak songs sung in a rigid formulaic style and played by session musicians, jazzers, for whom it was one for the money.
Skiffle was soon gone, at least as far as record sales were concerned. The last releases by the Vipers Skiffle Group were credited simply to the Vipers. In true British style, the genre’s final hit was a satire, George Martin’s production of Peter Sellers’ “Any Old Iron.” More and more, comedy was becoming George’s one solo hand. “I knew I had to make a mark in some way,” he says, “and my only plan was to find a way of making records that other people weren’t making. Ones that would sell. And the way I chose was to go into comedy, because no one was doing it. People were doing it in the States—Stan Freberg, Bob Newhart—but there was nothing in England to speak of. And it seemed to work.”
George made two particular LPs in this period. One was a live recording of the revue At the Drop of a Hat—Michael Flanders and Donald Swann’s literate and witty encapsulations of human foibles and modern life. The show became a big success in London and then on Broadway, but its mass popularity came through the Parlophone LP.
The other, with Peter Sellers, was the most artistically satisfying project George had in 1958, and the most enduring. Over the course of just three three-hour sessions at Abbey Road, he produced The Best of Sellers, the first British comedy LP created in a recording studio. George’s role was fourfold: to find the right material, to bring the best out of a brilliant but troubled artist, to enrich the recording with the correct texture and color by his own imagination and invention, and to fashion a comedy record worth listening to even when the joke was known. George would always refer to these productions as “sound pictures,” and The Best of Sellers is a fine early masterpiece, a five-star ten-inch record that spent forty-seven weeks in Melody Maker’s Top Ten—Britain’s first LP chart, launched in November 1958.
With ample finance and studio time to try things, even the failures could be glorious. One of George’s personal favorites was “Sparkie the Fiddle,” the record he made with a talking budgerigar. The bird was brought into EMI Number 2 studio and George gave it the full works: he hired a writer to script a hokey American film satire about a jailbird, he had Ron Goodwin compose and conduct an arrangement, and the budgie’s spoken words entailed a vast amount of editing, hundreds of pieces of tape cut up and kept carefully in order. The result was a Parlophone single that sold about 42 copies.
TUNE IN © 2013 by Mark Lewisohn. Published by Crown Archetype, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC