Beatles Magazine asked Bob Wilson to speak with author Kenneth Womack regarding his new book, Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Later Years: 1966-2016). George Martin was an essential part of the recording process of almost the entire Beatles studio catalog. Womack’s work provides fresh insight and a deeper understanding on the man who may have the most justifiable claim to the title, ‘The 5th Beatle’.
Beatles Magazine: What is Martin’s strongest legacy today?
Kenneth Womack: I am endlessly intrigued by the ways in which the Beatles progressed so far in such a relatively short time—seven years, from start to finish, working with George Martin as their producer. It’s a remarkable run, by any measure. It is difficult to find a similar trajectory in any other arena in the arts. There is also the larger issue of the ways in which Martin and the Beatles disrupted an entire industry. It’s amazing to be able to trace the ways in which, bit by bit, they rewrote pop music and how it was marketed and sold. Sir George’s legacy will always be the breadth and quality of the Beatles’ recordings, which he slaved over in terms of ensuring that they would stand the test of time.
As we have seen in recent years, his youngest son Giles is continuing his legacy through his careful attention to preserving the Beatles’ recordings and presenting them in the finest possible form.
BM: Where did the book title–Sound Pictures– evolve from?
KW: For George, the recording studio was a magical workshop where its practitioners could use technology to create impressionistic pictures in the listener’s mind. For him, these recordings were evocative sound pictures that would arouse the senses. To George, the great challenge of the recording studio was to make those images as vivid as possible.
BM: What was it about Martin and his work that made you decide to write his biography?
KW: I wanted to write about George Martin because he held one of the most privileged places in the Beatles’ story. He was often the inaugural audience for the amazing Lennon and McCartney songs as they first came into the world. So I wanted to write about how he conducted himself from this remarkable vantage point. I was surprised that another full-length study had not been previously attempted. He has authored three autobiographical works, but by definition, those are rarely exhaustive studies. With literally thousands of books in print about the Beatles, it is difficult to imagine how he has been overlooked, given his central place in their achievement.
Perhaps most importantly, Martin was essential to the making and development of the Beatles as artists. Without him, they simply don’t happen in the same way—and likely not at all.
BM: What was Martin’s relationship like with Lennon, and how did this change over the years?
KW: Martin’s relationship with Lennon was easily the most complex. He was the most challenging member of the band, daring Martin, time after time, to imagine new and better ways of production in order to accede to Lennon’s imagination. During the 1970s, as Lennon struggled to find his post-Beatles identity, he pushed back on Martin’s role in the creation of their work. Lennon later apologized for his remarks, which he attributed to drug and alcohol abuse during that period. But even in their last meeting in December 1979, Lennon confounded Martin by openly dreaming of re-recording their great works with the Beatles, which he felt were still inferior to his original vision for his compositions.
Martin’s relationship with Harrison was nearly as interesting. Throughout their Beatles career together, Martin saw Harrison, like Lennon and McCartney did, as the junior member of their creative unit. Harrison’s budding songwriting during the latter Beatles years surprised Martin, particularly during the production of Abbey Road. In the post-Beatles years, Martin made a point of making peace with Harrison for having marginalized him in favor of Lennon and McCartney.
BM: How did George’s venture of opening AIR Studios come to be?
KW: Martin began trying his hand at studio ownership at a propitious time in the history of the recording industry: a moment when studio time was increasingly difficult to book. AIR Oxford Street developed in this fashion, and to a great extent, AIR Montserrat was the purest distillation of his vision for an all-purpose getaway for artists attempting to immerse themselves in their craft.
BM: Martin was the consummate professional and gentleman. What stands out to you as a moment in his career with ‘the boys’ that demonstrates this?
KW: Martin was a superb tactician who knew how to assert himself or, conversely, to retreat based upon the given circumstances of a particular moment. During the early to mid-period Beatles, he often took the lead, assisting them in growing their talent by pushing them to greater and greater heights. In later years, as circumstances shifted, he would occasionally withdraw so as to afford them with the necessary space to grow and change as recording artists.
BM: The book focuses on the final years of the Beatles as a cohesive unit before they split up. Was Martin still as much of the ‘fifth Beatle’ during this time?
KW: There were clearly times when Martin’s role with the Beatles ebbed and flowed during their later years. While they were clearly less reliant upon him during this period, he nevertheless made himself conspicuously available to meet their needs. The fact that they explicitly asked him to return to the producer’s chair for the Abbey Road LP is great testimony to his significance in their political calculus.
BM: When did George first notice the tell-tale signs of cracks beginning to show in the band?
KW: Martin had long been cognizant of the interpersonal challenges in the group, especially as the stakes of authorship and stardom created even greater pressures and tensions among the band-mates. But Martin was also well aware that their hold upon the world could very quickly wane if they failed to deliver new and greater music, so he persisted in pushing them ever forward in spite of the mounting internal and external challenges to their longevity.
BM: What made George take a step back for the White Album recording sessions?
KW: The band-mates had been on high alert since the autumn of 1967, a period in which Time Magazine had heralded Martin as the genius behind their accomplishments. For this reason, George was especially careful not to upset the delicate chemistry of the group. For much of 1968, he afforded them with a wide berth, a strategic calculation that was difficult in the short run, especially when they froze him out of some aspects of their work during this period. But in the long run, this worked to his advantage when they asked for him to return for Abbey Road.
BM: What was the trademark of a George Martin production?
KW: The hallmark of a George Martin production finds its origins in his invisibility. You can’t generally hear “George Martin” in a Beatles track. While some producers—take Phil Spector of Jeff Lynne, for example—leave a clear and recognizable imprint on their work, Martin rarely if ever did. Rather than looking for ways to create his own signature as producer, he would take the latest composition as far as it would go as a musical fusion. In short, it was the musical artifact that truly mattered—the artist’s vision, not the producer’s—and Martin was determined to get the most out of each and every track that he produced.
Womack is also the author of three award-winning novels, including John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel (2010), The Restaurant at the End of the World (2012), and Playing the Angel (2013). He is Dean of the Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University, where he also serves as Professor of English.
Look for Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin @
Words by Bob Wilson