Giles Martin insists he didn’t want to be guardian of The Beatles’ music, but – as son of producer/fifth Beatle George Martin – it’s a role he’s better qualified than most to accept. When Martin remixes a Beatles album, as he did with last year’s 50th anniversary of ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, he takes it right back to the original master tapes and aims to create a listening experience that takes a fan directly to the essence of the song.
Hit latest, a new mix of 1968’s ‘The Beatles’, better known as ‘The White Album’, brings fresh light to the most far-reaching, expansive and out-there album The Beatles ever did. It also allows fans legit access to the much bootlegged ‘Esher Demos’, a collection of home recordings named after George Harrison’s period home which is, as Giles puts it, “essentially The Beatles Unplugged”. We met Giles in his own studio inside Abbey Road, the complex where the original album was largely recorded, to talk all things Beatles.
Where does a project like this start? I imagine you surrounded by piles and piles of tapes – is that the case?
Giles Martin: “Yeah, with a pile of tapes. When I first started recording Beatles stuff, I realised that none of the tapes had been backed up in a proper way – they’d been backed up on a format called Mitsubushi 32 track, which sounds really bad. So we started this process a few years ago of transferring everything that The Beatles ever recorded into a very good format. ‘The White Album’, we’d already backed up.”
Where are the tapes kept?
“At Abbey Road, in a special vault.”
You have so much raw material at the beginning of a project, the listening hours alone must be insane. How do you make the first inroads?
“I work with two Beatles experts who make a whole load of notes on the transfers. Then I look at the notes and listen to everything again and make my own. Then we argue. They say, ‘This is a valid outtake because the ending is different on the mix,’ and I go, ‘No it’s not, its just a slightly different mix’. My job is to be a bit of a bastard.”
So you’re wary of putting stuff out just for the sake of it?
“Oh yes. George Harrison would go, ‘We’re not just scraping the bottom of the barrel; we’re giving them the barrel itself.’ And I’m my father’s son – you’ve got to keep the quality up. If I’m working for The Beatles, I need to make sure the tracks are worth listening to. It’s not about collecting stuff – I select these things based around whether I want to listen to them.”
I get the impression The Beatles and your father were quite efficient in the studio, no?
“On ‘The White Album’, they weren’t. But my father was always very efficient and the process was disgraceful to him – there was no efficiency. He’d sit there at three in the morning thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’”
Can you hear that from listening to him on the tapes?“
No, because he was an incredibly nice and compassionate man. He didn’t really have an axe to grind. He just didn’t really enjoy it. He thought they were being too loose about things. I think, funnily enough, with the band not playing live [after 1966], [the studio] was the only time they were playing together. If you’re in a band, you enjoy playing with each other – that’s the whole point of being in a band.”
You’re privy to all the studio banter on the tapes. Are there bits that make you laugh out loud?
“They all seem charming. John is genuinely funny. My dad said he was the kind of person that would make you laugh and you could be friends with, but you wouldn’t want to be enemies with.”
The experimental audio collage ‘Revolution 9’ can be kind of a tough listen. How many times did you go through it?
“The stereo mix we couldn’t do much with, because the bulk of the song was mixed as they went along. But we went completely mad making the 5.1 surround, and it’s one of the best 5.1 mixes I’ve ever done – it’s really scary. My assistant and I did it in shifts, 40 seconds each. You have to find ways in which to do things that are creative. It’s not a cold process. There are no spectrum analysers coming out.”
Bearing in mind John had brilliant songs like ‘Child Of Nature’ (later reworked as ‘Jealous Guy’ for his solo album ‘Imagine’) that didn’t make the final cut, why do you think ‘Revolution 9’ did?
“I can only speculate. I presume that John wasn’t happy with [‘Child Of Nature’] and wanted to do more work on it. I don’t get the sense with ‘The White Album’ that my father had a big say in what went on the album, but he always said he quite liked ‘Revolution 9’.”
There’s so much material on ‘The White Album’. Are there any tracks you just can’t stand?
“You go through weird processes; you have to be professional and remind yourself of the soul of the song. ‘Wild Honey Pie’ wouldn’t be my favourite Beatles song but you realise while mixing it that the tape wobbles the whole time, so we had to run a reel-to-reel tape machine and wobble it with our little fingers, so then that makes the song fun.”
Remixing The Beatles is a bit like touching up the Mona Lisa. Do you worry about the pressure from fans to get it right?
“Yeah, but they seem to be on board. I think the family connection helps – it must do. When I first started remixing Beatles stuff, which was ‘Love’ [the collaboration with Cirque Du Soleil], I thoroughly believed I would get fired. I thought it was a stupid idea that you’d let the son of George Martin chop Beatles tapes.”
Did you feel you had to prove yourself to people?
“Yeah, and prove myself to my dad at that stage. That was the big thing. I didn’t even think I could prove myself to The Beatles – I thought there was no chance of that – but I’ve had their support. Paul or Ringo say to me, ‘It’s your job to push things. It’s not a safe thing. You work for The Beatles now!’”
Do Ringo and Paul get very involved?
“They are really enthusiastic about it. Both of them have this thing, whether together or apart, where they hear a song and can go straight back to the day they recorded it. That’s what I try and do with the mixes, I try and peel back the layers and get you closer to that day that they recorded them on, so you feel like you’re being hit in the face a bit more. If they feel that and they’re happy – job done.”
The studio engineer Geoff Emerick died recently. Did you speak to him about this project?“
No. Geoff walked off the album during the original sessions in 1968. I’ve got huge respect for Geoff – he’s one of the greatest engineers to have ever lived. I grew up with him, and I knew him very well. He married my dad’s secretary, she died and he changed as person. He was very angry about the ‘Sergeant Pepper’ remix, for instance – he didn’t like it. I believe strongly that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, [but] I think that with these remixes, I’m not deleting anything… Geoff never actually heard a mix that I’d done.”
Did you have a personal relationship with The Beatles as a kid?
“Yeah, dad did two albums with Paul ,and he’s always been incredibly kind to me. My dad didn’t want me to do music as a living but I remember being in a car with Paul, who’d heard I was writing songs and said I should keep it up. He goes, ‘It’s really hard. I’m Paul McCartney, I’ve written loads of songs – and I still find it hard’.”
Can the same be said for production?
“Rightfully, if I screw up I should be fired – that’s the way it should go. Live by the sword, die by the sword. I haven’t become any better or worse at anything, and I’m not better than anyone else. I watched my dad go through it in the ‘80s, when no one wanted to work with him. It upsets [people] when I tell them Oasis helped The Beatles to be cool again in the ‘90s. It’s almost like blasphemy, but that’s what happened.”
‘The White Album’ endures though – do you think it’s the coolest Beatles album?
“It’s the cool Beatles album thats influenced more bands. There’s a nature where it’s more accessible to play than any other Beatles album. You feel like you can strum ‘Cry Baby Cry’ or ‘Sexy Sadie’, or play ‘Blackbird’ on the guitar.”
There are a few Beatles albums left in the chronology. Are you gonna mix ‘Abbey Road’ next?
“I don’t know – it depends what raw material is available. If we do ‘Abbey Road’, I have to work out if I can actually make a difference to it before saying yes to it.”
And ‘Let It Be’? That’d be interesting given your dad was replaced by Phil Spector.
“Well, they did ‘Let It Be… Naked’, which I didn’t do, which I think was pre-me, but I think it’s a different thing as it’s a film project. I’d love to be in a situation where you can watch Let It Be and feel like you’re in the room with them.”
The Beatles were quite prolific. Do you have the time to keep up?
“Right now I’m doing this crazy Elton John film Rocket Man with Taron Egerton and Dexter Fletcher, so I’m writing and doing music for the film and it’s really fun doing arrangements. We’ve got 10 and a half weeks of post-production, so I’m tied up with that. So if I do ‘Abbey Road’, I’ll have to go and examine it, but I’ll not be examining it for a while.”
Does a deep-dive project like mixing ‘The White Album’ bump it to the top of your list of favourite Beatles records, or do you find you never want to listen to it again?
“The thing with The Beatles is it’s a bit like being a surgeon and falling in love with your patient. You open it up and find it’s more interesting than you thought. With Beatles albums you find there’s depth to them. I’ve been thinking about ‘The White Album’ a lot lately, so whether it’s Stockholm Syndrome or not, I’ve certainly fallen in love with it.”
And finally, what are the gems in the new versions for fans to seek out, in your opinion?
“I think the mix of ‘Long Long Long’ is very good because it’s very visceral and it’s changed the song slightly. And ‘Back In The USSR’ off the Esher Demos is interesting because you’d never think it’s an acoustic song. Mix-wise, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ is the song I fell in love with the most. My assistant would say I’d pushed the fuzz guitar up too loud; I’d say it can’t ever be too loud.”
The new mix of The White Album is available now in a variety of formats (and some gorgeous vinyl packages).