It’s easy to take The Beatles’ catalogue for granted, to allow it to linger in the background. After all, it’s one of this country’s few entirely ubiquitous artefacts of pop culture, something that almost everyone feels they have some possession over.
That it hasn’t, however – and the enormous hype around Ron Howard’s tantalising new documentary Eight Days A Week underlines this – demonstrates the sheer love, the unbridled fascination this country has for what four young lads from Liverpool achieved in a period that lasted a little under a decade.
There are probably two reasons for this. Sir Paul McCartney – always the biggest fan of The Beatles – has never shied from discussing, promoting and caring for their legacy; and the team at Abbey Road have ensured that some of the greatest music ever recorded is consumed in the finest way possible.
Currently, that team is headed up by Giles Martin, son of George Martin the legendary producer and perhaps the rightful candidate for the role of Fifth Beatle. Born in the hotbed of Beatlemania, it’s strange to note that, for the Martin family, The Beatles were in many ways just another band.
“I remember my sister and I had a record player,” he recalls, “and we had a bunch of albums… and a lot of the albums were stuff my Dad worked on, because he got them for free. We had ‘Abbey Road’. I suppose it would have been the most recent one he did.”
“Retrospect is an interesting thing,” he argues. “My Dad at that stage didn’t think The Beatles were going to be the pinnacle of his career. In the same way that The Beatles didn’t think The Beatles were going to be the pinnacle of their careers. At that stage they were all incredibly successful solo musicians. So The Beatles weren’t really this thing when I was growing up. It’s hard to imagine now, but that was just the case. For me, I wasn’t interested, anyway. I didn’t really get involved.”
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A boy in the 70s and a teenager in the 80s, Giles Martin came of age when The Beatles were largely shunned by a pop world engaged in frenetic futurism. Punk detonated all that came before, and – so they assumed – cast the Fab Four into the dustbin of history.
“It was never a thing growing up. It really wasn’t,” he explains. “Which people might think is surprising. When I was growing up – certainly in the 80s – they weren’t a point of reference for anyone. And my Dad couldn’t get any work. He was the guy that did The Beatles, therefore you shouldn’t work with him. Bizarrely, it was really until bands like Oasis who said The Beatles are the best thing ever that suddenly a whole generation switched onto them. I think sometimes, culturally, you need that space. And I think they’re more popular now than they certainly were when I was growing up.”
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I think they’re more popular now than they certainly were when I was growing up.
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This notion of The Beatles as an unimpeachable pop force was spurred on by the enormous success of the Anthology project, and this is actually where Giles Martin gains his entrance into the modern iteration of Beatlemania. “I remember the first time I came (to Abbey Road studios) as a point of work was when The Beatles’ ‘Red and ‘Blue’ albums came out on CD… and my Dad’s hearing was failing at the time, as is known now,” he recalls. “And he asked me to go in because even with his failing hearing he thought they sounded a bit digital and crappy. So he sent me into Abbey Road to go and argue with the guy who was mastering it. And we compared it to the vinyl and asked him if he could change it… I don’t think they did, but that was my first visit to Abbey Road!”
It’s since become a home from home. Giles Martin is based in Abbey Road, and the sheer glee in his voice tells you that this is a dream job. The studios themselves are far from dusty relics of the past – rather, they’re forward-thinking hubs for aural exploration, a place where hot young things sidle past true legends in those sharply defined corridors.
“It’s not a museum at all,” he says. “The funny thing is that all of this stuff that’s here is used all the time. We’ve got the biggest collection of microphones in the world. A lot of the stuff we do, we couldn’t do anywhere else. It’s an amazing place to come to work. I’m very lucky.”
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Currently, Giles Martin is engaged in a three-pronged period of Beatles activity – Ron Howard’s Eight Days A Week, the concert album ‘Live At The Hollywood Bowl’ and the ongoing rejuvenation of the vastly popular Cirque du Soleil enhanced project LOVE.
“It’s the 10th anniversary,” he says of the latter. “It took three years to make. And it was really my first big exposure to Beatles stuff, I was driving that. And while it was being produced by my Dad I was playing him stuff that I had created -and playing The Beatles stuff I created – and together we made the show.”
“Deciding to go back to it was kind of challenge because it was such a complicated beast. It really is. The show is still one of the most ambitious shows to exist, it cost £160 million to make. We have more automation in the first three minutes of the show than most shows have for their entire run, and so to tinker with it is a challenge.”
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It was such a complicated beast…
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“In terms of the actual sound, we have about 7000 speakers in the room. So, to go back to it, you have to re-learn everything. It’s a bit like having a specialist subject, a bit like doing a quiz – my specialist subject was ‘LOVE’ and I had to go and re-learn it again. We actually think this show is the show that we wanted to make, as opposed to the show we made 10 years ago. It’s much more vibrant… the technology now has caught up with us, if you like. It sounds great, and it looks great now – it really is like a new show.”
All the time this mammoth undertaking was under way Giles was also assisting on Ron Howard’s new film, while filtering through tapes for the expanded re-issue of ‘The Beatles – Live At The Hollywood Bowl’, tasked with encapsulating perhaps their most iconic American shows. “A lot of fans get in touch – old fans, who saw them in Ottawa in 1963, or whatever – and they make the pilgrimage to Abbey Road, and it’s sad because quite a lot of them you hear it and after the first ten seconds you know that it’s going to be worthless. Because ‘worthless’ means if it’s not enjoyable to listen to, then I’m not interested.”
“The ‘Hollywood Bowl’ tapes were from Capitol. The takes used on the previous album (released in 1977) were a transfer, and they found the original three track tapes for us to work from, and so immediately they phone up and say ‘let’s transfer them and see what they sound like, let’s compare them’. And so we had a much better starting point for ‘Hollywood Bowl’.”
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If it’s not enjoyable to listen to, then I’m not interested.
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“Despite all of the enhancements and technology and enthusiasm for the technology, part of my job with Beatles is actually to get people as close to the tapes as they can get. So, with ‘Hollywood Bowl’ for instance, our goal really is: what would it be like to be standing there watching The Beatles? Try and get as close to that. So the technology gets us there, but the aim is always to try and bring the music closer to people.”
The manner in which fans listen to The Beatles is also continually changing. Initially recorded with a vinyl release in mind, the catalogue has now been released on cassette, compact disc, and more, with current projects aimed at the rejuvenated vinyl market, and streaming. So, do the Abbey Road team prepare solutions for each individual format?
“It’s a really good question, a really good question. And it’s something that I’m passionate about, but the thing to do is just check! So you don’t really have to worry about it. We’re doing a vinyl of ‘Hollywood Bowl’ and that’s been cut, and the test pressing will be made, and that will be sent here and we’ll listen to it. And if it doesn’t sound very good we’ll have it cut again. I did the George Harrison demos album, and I think we did five pressings of that vinyl to get it right. The pressing does make a big difference to the sound.”
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The aim is always to try and bring the music closer to people…
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“Going to CD – CDs have improved markedly in their quality since those days of ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’. CDs didn’t sound very good to begin with but the conversation technology has really improved, so analogue to digital is way better. And then there’s the streaming services, and in essence there’s a lot of fluff about this… about what’s good and what’s bad, and what you should and shouldn’t listen to. The fact of the matter is that streaming services in general try to do the best job that they can with everything. And I think that studio people should help them a bit more, and not stand off and criticise, and we should probably engage more. And just do a test. Give something to Spotify, listen to it being streamed, and if you don’t like the sound of it… change it!”
It’s a strange dichotomy, to find this thirst for something new in the hands of someone who’s professional is spent working with material that is now five decades old. But the complexity of The Beatles work – continually at the forefront of one of pop’s most innovative eras – means that even after thousands upon thousands of listening hours Giles Martin keeps finding new facets in that gilded catalogue.
“The Beatles’ music is so complex, and there are so many different layers on top of them,” he explains. “I was working on something just the other day, and there’s a brass band bit in ‘Yellow Submarine’, which I never realised is a sample – it’s something from a tape. It happens just for a chorus, and they’ve basically thrown in a recording of a brass band from somewhere else. It’s the really early days of sampling, it’s basically just pressing ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time.”
“There’s always things. And part of my ethos in my approach to The Beatles in any stuff – especially something that’s familiar – is you kind of want to make it sound how you remember it sounding. If that makes sense. Because quite often music doesn’t! If you actually really think about it, and listen to your favourite track, it doesn’t quite sound how you remember it sounding. Because you fill in the gaps. There’s always elements, and you have to be excited and passionate, otherwise you might as well just drive a bus.”
Bus driving’s loss, it seems, is music’s gain.
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'The Beatles: Live At The Hollywood Bowl' and The Beatles: Eight Days A Week are both out now.