Ken, you have written several books about The Beatles. Was a biography about their producer, Sir George Martin, a natural next step? Was it always something which you had planned to do?
Writing about Sir George was indeed a natural step in my progress towards understanding the Beatles’ art. After all, he was the privileged audience—often the very first audience—who enjoyed the opportunity to experience their great compositions in their infancy. Understanding the Beatles’ art means going back to the originary moment—and George is the logical place to begin.
How did you conduct such extensive research; were you able to meet with George Martin before he passed away, or indeed with any members of the surviving Beatles?
Sadly, I was never able to meet Sir George. But having said that, one of the great truisms of biographical study is to avoid, if possible, falling into the trap of simply repeating the subject’s own version or versions of themselves. I have interviewed many people who knew him from several different walks of life. This has assisted me in providing a more rounded portrait of him.
‘Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer, George Martin’ is the first volume which spans forty years, and covers Martin’s childhood up to the completion of the ‘Rubber Soul’ album with the second volume due in autumn. Why did you decide to write the biography in two volumes?
In many ways, this issue found its roots in the fact that he lived for 90 years. Telling the story of his work with the Beatles, in particular, necessitated a considerable amount of pagination, given the sheer volume of available material about their time together. These formative moments in his experience would impinge upon the remaining 40-plus years of his life in lasting and powerful ways.
Can you please share with readers why you chose the title, ‘Maximum Volume’?
The concept of “maximum volume” was Sir George’s, and it refers to two different aspects of his approach to the Beatles’ early recordings. On the one hand, he wanted to create “maximum volume” in terms of the large number of recordings that they undertook together: together with Brian Epstein, George and the Beatles were dead set on releasing as much material as possible—and making as much money as they could—while the Beatles’ star was shining so brightly. If you think about it, back in 1964 they had no guarantee that they wouldn’t be that dreaded “flash in the pan,” and so they acted accordingly to maximize their profits for as long as they would last. But “maximum volume” also connotes the loudness that Sir George wanted to achieve with their records. The Beatles were enamoured with the “big” American sounds created in legendary places like Memphis’s Stax Studios, and George was determined to bring that home for them.
There’s a moment in the book where George Martin comments on The Beatles: “It wasn’t their music, it was their charisma, the fact that when I was with them, they gave me a sense of well-being, of being happy.” Do you think it was this natural ‘charisma’ which helped persuade Martin and Parlophone Records to take a chance on the group back in 1962 when all other record companies had previously turned down their manager, Brian Epstein?
As far as Epstein goes, I think EMI had come to the conclusion that giving the Beatles a Parlophone “penny-per-record” contract was a decidedly small investment to keep the manager of the most successful record store in the North happy. Persuading Sir George was a very different matter altogether. For him, they likely seemed repulsive, given his own efforts at social climbing. But for him, it was their humour that saved them in his eyes. They were naturally funny—as Paul McCartney likes to say, “everybody from Liverpool is a comedian”—and George knew how to work with funny people.
Are there any burning questions about George Martin’s life and career which still remain unanswered for you after embarking on this journey, and writing the biography?
I believe that George’s life was highly compartmentalised: he lived in several different spheres with different people with varying needs and expectations. I wish I knew more about how he negotiated his workaday life between all of those disparate interpersonal environs—and how he felt about living in such a compartmentalised fashion. But those answers likely died with him.
Many of the Beatles’ most loved orchestral arrangements and instrumentation were written or performed by Martin, do you know if he had a personal favourite or was most proud of one particular single or album?
It was very likely his score for “Yesterday,” which was a great harbinger for opening up the Beatles to a new world of musicality. And Sir George’s score made that possible. But I’m equally certain that his work for “A Day in the Life” made for a close second. As Giles Martin remarked to me, “It was my father’s finest hour.” And indeed, the sheer power of “A Day in the Life” has stood the test of time very admirably. His orchestral and production work was the making of that song.
During such a varied career as a record producer, arranger, composer, conductor, audio engineer, and musician, that spanned more than six decades and covered not only music but film, TV and live performance, do you think he was happy to be described as the ‘fifth Beatle’ and to be so well known for his association with The Beatles, despite all of his other independent achievements?
Such monikers seemed to rankle him during his lifetime. But having said that, they were the best thing that could have ever happened to them. As with Brian and the Beatles themselves, he was a kind of outsider trying to make his name in a business that preferred the rank and file. He also performed a key role in defining their legacy after the breakup as artists for all time. Indeed, he spent the last four decades of his life elevating their stature as the greatest musical fusion of the twentieth century. So was he the fifth Beatle? You bet.
The young George Martin had “fantasies about being the next Rachmaninov” and was also a fan of Ravel and Cole Porter as a young man. Which musicians remained a constant source of inspiration for him thoughout his life?
Without question, Debussy and Ravel were his lifelong inspirations. He was inspired by the romance and artistic caprice inherent in their work. And when it comes to the Beatles, you can glimpse the manner in which he added those flourishes to their sound. But as the number and type of musicians with whom he worked demonstrates, he adored nearly every musical genre. He was ineluctably moved by the power of music to transfix our hearts and minds.
You are such an authority on The Beatles, having written so many books, and also your fantastic ‘Everything Fab Four’ column. What do The Beatles represent for you personally, and why do you think their music, artistry and cultural relevance have survived for more than 50 years?
I am still on a journey towards understanding the power and range of their achievement. With Sir George at the helm, they embark upon a seven-year journey that takes them from the first primitive sounds of “Love Me Do” to their artistic heights of Abbey Road. To my ears and mind, that is a remarkable and unmatched cultural progress that bears considerable attention and study. I also believe that the secret to their longevity originates in that facet of their work—the brute power of their ambition to be great artists above all else.
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