The producer is also putting his ears and technology to use on Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’ docu-series.
Giles Martin just couldn’t let “Let It Be” be — even though, as he has with each of the deluxe Beatles packages he’s worked on, he challenged himself to make sure a fresh mix and expanded boxed set had a raison d’etre. In this case, giving a more unified sound to a 1970 album that was all over the map in its original incarnation was reason enough to submit it to a remix. But above and beyond that, what Beatles fan hasn’t yearned to get high-quality versions of the famous outtakes — whether it was an hour-and-a-half’s worth or 52 hours’ worth?
The just-released “Let It Be” special edition is not a 52-disc set. But Martin believes the two CDs of vintage outtakes that are included in the new box are an essential distillation of what fans will want to hear from those 1969 sessions. And he sets the bar high, wanting even these bonus collections to be something that would make a great listen for somebody who’d never heard the Beatles before.
Martin — the son of original Beatles producer George Martin, and now a sought after producer, arranger and audio expert in his own right — sat down to talk with Variety on a recent visit to Los Angeles. The Englishman was between visits to spots around the U.S. that included meeting with his Sonos team in San Francisco and taking a look at the relaunch of the Beatles show “Love” in Las Vegas. He’s also working on arranging music for a Broadway adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada” with friend Elton John (Martin worked on the “Rocketman” film). More urgently, though, at the time, Martin was still working on the mix for Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” docu-series, which covers much of the same territory as the “Let It Be” boxed set, even though he wrapped up work on the latter about a year and a half ago.
-How much did your work on the film and on the boxed set overlap, or did you think of them as completely separate processes?
MARTIN: You do approach things differently, because when you think about what you’re going to add as extras to a boxed set, if something is on the film and looks really good but may not sound that good, you keep it to the film. But if it’s something that should be on a record, it should be on a record. When you’re considering how much to include from outtakes, there was, like, 52 hours of material. I was probably more aggressively editing stuff down [for the boxed set] because we have six hours of film coming out. But I was collaborating with Peter (Jackson) on what audio bits I was selecting, and sending stuff over to him. It was a constant sort of back and forth as what they were finding interesting. And we’re mixing the films, so we knew what they were working on as well. … The boxed set is almost trying to tell the story of the (entire) record, including the Phil Spector stuff. And obviously the film is just purely tied to that period of time in Twickenham (Film Studios) and (at Apple Corps headquarters) in Savile Row. It ends with the rooftop — the natural end of that story.
-Did you face special challenges with the stuff that was recorded on film at Twickenham Film Studios, and making that material sound as good as the multi-track recordings that were done at Apple a bit later?
Well, that’s a good question, actually. “Let It Be” was only (recorded over) a relatively short period time – it was three weeks. All of (the material from Twickenham) is on Nagra, which is the old format of recording film. It’s a mono, single, narrow tape format. When they move out of Twickenham — because that’s when they’re getting pissed off at everything, and it’s cold, and they start at 10 in the morning, and George walks out and all that sort of stuff — they go to Savile Row, where Billy Preston is, and that’s where they have the (multi-track) recording. And then the rooftop (concert) obviously is 8-track. It is what it is, and yeah, we throw as much technology at these things as you can, but you have to be careful when you’re doing restoration work. And that’s why it’s been good collaborating with Peter and his team, because they’re really, really good at this stuff. I thought I was good at this stuff, and they’re way better than I am. The audio stuff as well — it’s really remarkable what they can do. It’s a collaboration process.
But you have to be careful with cleaning stuff up, that you don’t make things too shiny and too digital. You don’t want to want to change the sound, because (remixes) actually can date very quickly, as we’ve experienced on legacy stuff in the past. … You’re always walking a fine line with releasing stuff that wasn’t intended to be released. You feel like you’re going through a dirty underpant drawer.
(Selectivity about outtakes) also quite often has to do with the quality of the performance, more than sound quality. There are Beatle fans that want absolutely everything. They want all 52 hours of footage. But to be fair, the way that bootlegging goes, most of those people actually have the material anyway — you can find it on the Internet. So my job was to present it in the best possible way.
-I’m a huge fan, but in the days of bootleg CDs, when I would go into a shop in the Village and see a bootleg boxed set of “Let It Be” material with what looked like about 30 discs of outtakes, I would think, there is a limit to just how deep a rabbit hole I want to go down with this stuff.
It does get boring very quickly. You know, I talked to Paul about this. I thought we were going to release the record last year. I think my deadline was May (of 2020), over a year ago. I was phoning them (the Beatles and their survivors) up and sending them music from my house, because I was working at home. And I remember Paul goes, “Well, how many versions of ‘Get Back’ do people actually want?” I just laughed and went, “Well, there’s people who want every single version of ‘Get Back.’ But I don’t know that that’s the right thing to do.” So you have to walk that fine line. My belief is always: If someone had never heard the Beatles before, then they should be interested in what they’re hearing. There’s no point in having a record just so you have it. You’re meant to listen to it. Do you know what I mean? There’s people that just want to own stuff. And that’s not why we’re doing what we’re doing.
-I have the Bob Dylan boxed set that has every note that was played in the studio over the course of 1965, but I can’t say I’ve gone back and played the whole thing through a second time.
Well, that’s the thing. When I think of the things that we did with the White Album — the Esher demos and that sort of stuff — those stand up in their own right. They’re interesting records; they’re valid. But the other thing we’re trying to do is, you are trying to sort of break down and tell a story of how a song evolved. Because that’s quite interesting, to me, as opposed to just another version.
-For the people who expect a dump of everything, it can be hard to accept that there’s a curatorial process, even though most people are happy to have you sifting through everything for the gold. Who makes those final selections? Is it you along with Paul and…
Yeah, it’s me, and then I get the approval from them. They don’t sift through everything. I mean, that’s the last thing they really want to do, and I’m not surprised. It’ll be me that makes the final decision — well, it will be me that suggests the final (track rundown), and then they make the final decision.
-You feel really comfortable with having the two discs of outtakes in this set.
Yeah, I do, actually. It was funny because I kind of forgot what was on them, because it’d been a year in this strange world we’re living in — and I went back during this process of having to talk about it, and I was like, “Well, this is kind of interesting!” Things like George playing “Something,” or the gestations of songs, and you hear the vibe of what it’s like. That’s the other thing to represent in that short space of time that I get given on a record — the atmosphere and the vibe, to a certain extent. So I quite enjoyed listening to it, and that’s always a good sign.
Do you have favorite moments from the outtakes or rehearsals? Even just dialogue-ise, there are some laugh-out-loud things they say, or the moment where suddenly John is talking about getting his divorce in the middle of…
… of (“She Came In Through”) “The Bathroom Window,” yeah. Well, there’s lots of things. In the perception of “Let It Be,” it feels like there’s a continuing theme that we’re glossing over the pain and destruction of the Beatles. But “Let It Be” really wasn’t that bad. My (early) perception of “Let It Be” was like, it’s the breakup of the Beatles. But of course it’s as the breakup of the Beatles because it’s the last album that came out, but it wasn’t the last album they recorded. They were going back and started recording what was going to be “Abbey Road” after “Let It Be.” It was only when I was doing (the boxed set for) “Abbey Road” that I realized that they were back in Trident Studios, of all places, doing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” about two or three weeks after the rooftop concert. So it’s hardly the breakup of the Beatles.
And the conversations… What I like about “Let It Be” is that, even though it’s a different Beatles, it shows you the way they collaborated. Like John playing “Gimme Some Truth” with Paul. And even though it obviously (eventually) appears on John’s album, “Imagine,” I like the fact that he’s just purely open to Paul’s suggestions… They’re a songwriting partnership. That’s why George got isolated. In the film they say to each other, “We need more songs.” And John would go, “Well, I’ve got Sunday off. I’ll try and write a rock ‘n’ roller.” And Paul would go, “Well, I’ll try and do that as well. So we’ll see what you got.” And then Paul starts playing “Let It Be,” and John goes, “Well, you just need some words for it.” There’s still that collaboration that happens between the two — a respect for each other that you hear that’s surprising.
From exposing myself to this, I think that with “Let It Be,” they’re aware of the failings in their marriage, and the fact that a lot of them are moving on. However, they’re trying to stay together, and that’s why they’re going back to try and play live and be the Beatles and do the Cavern Club and do “One After 909” and all that kind of stuff — they want to go back to that vibe. And of course you can’t, because you’re a different person. It doesn’t work. But that’s what “Let It Be” is, to a certain degree.
George starts singing “Something,” and it becomes apparent from listening to it that John and Paul would have helped each other, but they wouldn’t necessarily help George, because he’s not Lennon-and-McCartney. George is even referred to by John as “Harrisongs.” He’s also writing very good songs at this point, obviously, and “All Things Must Pass” (heard on the set in its most formative stages) is a good case in point. But then when he’s doing “Something” and he goes, “’attracts me like a pomegranate’ — I can’t think of what that word’s going to be,” I think that’s really funny. John is trying to teach him how to just write. He says, “Well, just do it over and over again with words… or don’t.” [Laughs.] This is the advice from Lennon: “Do this… or don’t do it!” And I like that.
I like that comradery that comes through, which is strange for “Let It Be.” Because people’s perception of “Let It Be” is there’s this hugely dysfunctional chaos that happened. I think what it was is: it was just a bad idea. That’s what “Let It Be” was. I mean, think of any band these days — especially the biggest band in the world — going, “You know what we’re going to do? We haven’t written any songs, but we’re going to do a concert in three weeks’ time with a bunch of new songs.” And I think they probably would have achieved that in 1965 or ‘66 or ‘64, but that’s because they were all in the same room together all the time, where John and Paul were bashing out (songs). Brian Epstein would say, “You’ve got two weeks to do an album,” and they go and do “Revolver” or “Rubber Soul.” In this case (by 1969), they had their big houses, and they went home and watched TV. But in those earlier days they’d be in a van and they’d be stuck and they would be finishing songs. So when you hear ”Gimme Some Truth,” you think, if you would just spend those two hours, they could probably get it done. But they don’t.
-I’ve talked with Ringo about some of this before, and he, like Paul, is very open about not liking the original “Let It Be” film…[Laughs.] He hates the original film.
-But now some people are worried: Will none of that tension be represented in the Peter Jackson film, and will it be like everyone was happy-go-lucky and it was the most wonderful time in the world?
I don’t think so. I mean, let’s face it, it’s six hours — three two–hour (episodes). I’ve got to say, Peter loves a trilogy! … You know, I’ve seen all the footage. And the original film was just boring. I mean, that’s the problem.
And there were limits to technology. What Peter Jackson has done is amazing. They’ve synched all of the audio footage and video footage together, which is not easy. Because the cameras, for instance, were battery-operated cameras, and they’d slow down as they went on. So it’s tricky to do.
No, I think it’s honest. I do. I think people will see that when they watch it. The Twickenham stuff is taxing to get through, because you’re watching people who are geniuses in their craft looking for ideas, and that’s hard to watch. But then at Apple (Corps headquarters, where the bulk of the finished recordings were done), they seem much happier. That’s what the journey is. And the rooftop… I didn’t really know that the rooftop performance made up four tracks on the album. I should know this stuff; people find it surprising that I’m on the same journey as the people I’m doing the records for. … But they obviously played really well, and they knew they played really well. … I think when you look at like the famous flare-up between George and Paul, where George says, “I’ll play what you want, or I won’t play at all — whatever pleases you”… I mean, I was in a band — we had much worse flare-ups than that. In all honesty, it’s not that bad.
Not the harshest thing anyone in a band ever said to another member.
Yeah. I mean, they do talk about their impending divorce, but in a kind of jovial way. They’re very much aware of what the Beatles are. They still are, Paul and Ringo. –Like all those hugely successful artists, they’re very aware of their own position in the psyche. And I think Paul says, “Once daddy left” — talking about Brian Epstein — “we’re not the same.” And it’s true, they weren’t the same.
-There’s that extended part of the “Let It Be” story that, as you say, isn’t covered in the new film, but is part of the boxed set, which is the involvement of Phil Spector as the album gets finished. In your liner notes essay for the new set, you make a good point, which is basically that there were, like, four producers on the album. There’s your dad. There’s Phil Spector, later on. There’s Glyn Johns in the early stages, sort of acting in that role, even though, as engineer, producer is not his title. And then, you say, there’s a sense with the “Let It Be” project in which the Beatles were ultimately producing themselves.
Certainly when it comes to the three producers, as it were, they have very, very different approaches to production. I mean, they’re all brilliant. My dad was a blueprint man. The biggest argument I ever had with my dad was… Do you know what Pimm’s is? It’s an English drink where you mix lemonade with this thing called Pimm’s. Anyway, I didn’t measure out properly how to put it together. I thought it was too strong and needed more lemonade. Well, he just lost it. And that was my dad. He liked things to be organized. Which is a funny thing, because the White Album and “Let It Be” were not, but “Abbey Road” is.
And Glyn Johns is an engineer-producer, but very, very good. Ethan Johns, who is his son, as you may know, told me that the advice his dad gave to him was, “When the hair stands up on the back of your arm, you’ve got a good take.” It’s like an instinctive thing, opposed to my dad being much more organized.
And Phil Spector was Phil Spector. He wanted to mold an artist into his own vision. That was Phil Spector.
And so when mixing “Let It Be,” you have to bear that in mind. You’re trying to get some unification to it, to have a cohesive album. I had to say to Paul, “We’re going to mix the album, and we’re going to mix it with all the stuff you didn’t like on it.” And he goes, “That’s fair enough. It’s on it.” You know, they did “Let It Be… Naked” (a stripped-down version of the album, released in 2003, instigated by McCartney to correct Spector’s perceived excesses). … We mix these things, and people don’t really care. Fans don’t really care when things were done or how they were done. They just want to listen to some music, to try to unify everything together.
-What do you think your brief was, in doing a remix on “Let It Be”? Because going back to the first full-album remix you did with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” it was said to be partly to clear up the mono/stereo differences. When you’re getting at this point in the game…
Well, no one actually gives me a brief. I had to give myself a brief. My brief was almost, as I say, to unify the tone of the album. You have the rooftop; you have the Apple (headquarters) recordings; you have overdubs. You have “Across the Universe,” which was recorded separately before everything else (in 1968), and you have “I Me Mine,” which was recorded separately after everything else. (After “Abbey Road” was released, three of the Beatles reconvened — without Lennon — in the first days of 1970 just to get a proper studio version of “I Me Mine,” which turned out to be their final recording.) And my job was to just approach it like it’s all done at the same time, it’s all the same record, and it should sound all part of the same record.
It shouldn’t sound like it’s fragmented. So that was my brief, to a certain extent, to try and make the Phil Spector overdubs feel like that they were done at the same time as the rest of the band. Which I think on the original they don’t, really; they sound like they’ve been added on, to a certain degree. So it’s more harmonious — more homogeneous, I suppose, if that’s the right word.I was wondering if you might have toned down what some people would consider Phil Spector’s over-production on “Let It Be” or “The Long and Winding Road.” It seemed like you might’ve, just a little bit, but everything is still there.
-I was wondering if you might have toned down what some people would consider Phil Spector’s over-production on “Let It Be” or “The Long and Winding Road.” It seemed like you might’ve, just a little bit, but everything is still there.
Yeah, not really. [Long pause.] I think maybe it’s less intrusive in its sound, the Phil Spector stuff… The intent is just to treat it like an album, as opposed to the way it was constructed, under a cloud, by Allen Klein getting Phil Spector in and Paul McCartney not knowing and all this sort of stuff. To forget about all of that … It’s funny. People sort of perceive “Let It Be” as not the best Beatles record. Which it probably isn’t. But you think about it: It has “Let It Be” on it, which is one of the most listened-to Beatles songs of all time. It has “Get Back,” it has “Across the Universe,” it has “The Long and Winding Road.” And I like songs like “Dig a Pony,” actually. And then people talk about it being the breakup of the Beatles. Well, why would they write “Two of Us” if it was the breakup of the Beatles — the breakup of John and Paul?
-Was there any thought of using the pre-Spector, more stripped-down versions of the songs as a starting point for the new remix, rather than sticking faithfully to the familiar 1970 version as the basis of it?
Well, yeah, that’s what I talked to Paul about at Abbey Road. … I wasn’t involved in “Let It Be… Naked.” It was around the time I was doing “Love,” at the same time, or it might’ve been just before, I don’t know. But I wasn’t involved in “Let It Be… Naked,” which I think (included) alternate takes as well. No, it wouldn’t have made sense.
Because we’ve been on this journey — almost by accident, without any planning, in a classic Beatles way. “Sgt. Pepper’s” came up (as a prospect for a remix and boxed set). I didn’t really want to do it. I thought, well, why are we doing this? And then I said to the Beatles, “Let’s do three or four mixes and see what it sounds like.” it sounded good and valid, and so we ended up doing it. And then the White Album came along and there were the Esher demos we found and all that kind of stuff, and you go, okay, let’s do that. And then “Abbey Road”… And so it wouldn’t have made sense to try to rewrite history.
You know, the “Let It Be” album is the “Let It Be” album. It was released, and lots of people like it. I like it. I don’t have a problem with the Phil Spector stuff, personally. … Yeah, it does change. And it’s interesting hearing “Across the Universe” without the ADT-ing on John’s voice, without the Phil Spector stuff — it just sounds like a folk song! It sounds completely different. But I don’t have any gripes about (the album as first released). It wouldn’t have made any sense for us to do that. That was not what we’re trying to do.
-This boxed set marks the first authorized release of the early version of the album that Glyn Johns put together, when it was still going to be called “Get Back” and be a back-to-basics album. What do you think of the Glyn Johns vision of the album?
Well, I think Glyn provided the Beatles with what they wanted — and then when they got it, they didn’t really want it. The Glyn Johns album is a representation of what they did at that time. I think what they did at that time wasn’t at the level they hoped it would be. …. I think Glyn made a fine album with what he had, because they were going, “We don’t want any overdubs. We want it to be live, and this is what it should be.” I’m pleased it’s on there, because it’s one of those things that a lot of people know about and a lot of people have… It has been bootlegged, but I think in a bad version. … And also, that helps tell the story, because that’s what triggered Allen Klein to go, “Listen, let’s go and get Phil Spector and he can finish it.”
-It’s really enjoyable as an alternate-universe version of the album. But if had come out in that form in 1969, there would have been a big sense of disappointment, even though it’s fun.
Yeah, I really enjoy it. It sounds cool. It’s very Glyn Johns. What Glyn is brilliant at is capturing the spirit of live performance on a record. That’s why the Who is so good. (Johns went on to engineer, produce or co-produce all the Who’s ‘70s and early ‘80s albums.) He’s very good with vibe. I mean, he looks like Austin Powers through half of the film.
-There are people who insist a transformative remix couldn’t be done on the pre-4-track Beatles albums because of so many elements being blended into the two basic tracks. But of course, Beatles fans do speculate pretty much across the board: Is there an opportunity to do something with “Revolver” and “Rubber Soul,” now that you’ve gone through the Beatles’ timeline from “Sgt. Pepper” forward?
I think there is. I think we have to do it, and I’ve said this before… If you take something like “Taxman” from “Revolver” [a track often cited for its bizarre stereo separation], “Taxman” is guitar, bass and drums on one track, and vocals and a sort of shaking and guitar solo (on the right). And it sounds good; they’re amazing recordings, and amazing mixes. You know, we have to look into what technology we can do to make things de-mixed and all this kind of stuff, which I’m looking into. So I’m looking for the technology to do it with, to do something really innovative with “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver,” as opposed to just a remastering job, because it’s been remastered already. So I think we will. I think we also will look at outtakes as well.
There’s such an overwhelming desire to do something with them, by fans. And at the same time, there’s the thing in the back of your mind: There’s no point in just doing this to make money or as a sales thing, or because we’d done the others. It’s more important that we do it for the right reason. So there’s your answer: yes. If, the same as “Sgt. Pepper,” I can find a reason to do it, then yes. An actual experience reason to do it, as opposed to just because we’ve done it.
-But you do think it’ll be possible to do something, sooner or later, even with the difficulty of untangling those limited tracks?
Yeah, I think we’re getting there with technology. I think we are. I’m not doing it at the moment, though, I can tell you that much. But hopefully. So, yeah — watch this space.