Monday, 14 March 2016

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE: RIP, SIR GEORGE

SIR GEORGE MARTIN CBE  3rd January 1926 – 9th March 2016

He was the world's most celebrated producer and I was an office dogsbody when I met 'the fifth Beatle' in 1980.

He stopped me in the lobby of Chrysalis Records, off Oxford Street, where I worked in the art department. George ran AIR Studios from there. The recording business he'd co-founded owned a huge facility overlooking Oxford Circus, and had been acquired by Chrysalis for a mint.

My leather mini, tee shirt and battered boots were no match for his dapper get-up. George, into his fifties and still an upright 6' 2”, sported a striped shirt and navy tie. Grey hair fringed his collar, and his crinkled blue eyes shone.

'Come into my office and see someone you know,' he grinned.

John Burgess, Managing Director of AIR and former producer of Freddie & the Dreamers and Manfred Mann, played alongside my father, ex-pro footballer Ken Jones, in charity soccer outfit Showbiz X1. The team comprised former athletes, entertainers, agents and managers. Sean Connery, Jimmy Tarbuck, Des O'Connor and David Frost turned out for them during the Sixties,  when the crowds topped 30,000. George and John had been colleagues for years, having met at Abbey Road Studios as employees of EMI. I hadn't set eyes on John, who died last year, since I was small.

They took me to lunch. Typical George, treating management and minions as equals. He was as I'd imagined him: quietly funny, endearingly shy. John was the crowd-pleaser, and they were quite the double act. It emerged during the meal that George and I had something in common. We had attended the same school, Bromley Grammar in Kent. Rockers Peter Frampton and Billy Idol went there too. George recalled our school motto, Dum Cresco Spero: I Hope When I Grow.

That December, John Lennon was murdered in Manhattan. George had weathered with dignity endless vitriol from the former Beatle during the Seventies. John belittled  their producer's 'influence' and input, while Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr 'were always sweet.' Implacably loyal, George was of course distressed by the news. There was not even a  funeral at which to pay his final respects. George went to Montserrat, where he had opened his dream residential recording studio the previous year. He sat staring at the ocean and listening to Lennon in his head, he later said. The studio complex, the whole island, would be flattened by Hurricane Hugo within the decade.

I left Chrysalis for Fleet Street, and submitted several interview requests over the years. George never refused.

I hadn't seen him for ages when we convened at the BRIT School in Croydon, South London in September 2011. George was a founding governor of the school that produced Amy Winehouse,  Adele and Jessie J.  The opening of a state-of-the-art studio in his name was to mark the BRIT's 20th anniversary. Then the fire alarm sounded. Everybody out. George and I caught up in the car park. This is the only photo I ever had taken with him.

The last time I saw him was at the Savoy Hotel, for the Gold Badge Awards in October 2012. Doddering, deaf, an old 86, George was honoured by the British Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors. For the man world-famous not only for the Beatles but for film scores, Bond themes, orchestral arrangements, best-selling books, 30 Number Ones – his final chart-topper was Elton John's reworked Candle in the Wind in 1997, his tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales - innumerable albums and almost half a century in the studio with more household names than any other producer in history, it seemed an understatement.

'I've had a great innings,' he said. 'I know I look decrepit and past-it. But the brilliant thing about growing old is that while you fall apart on the outside, you don't feel any different on the inside. Is it the Irish who say we all have an age at which we 'stop'? I have been 30 years old all my life. I'm with George Bernard Shaw: “we don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”.'

He was born George Henry Martin in Holloway, north London on 3rd January 1926, to 'skint, non-musical' parents Henry and Bertha. His carpenter father was often jobless, selling newspapers on the street to feed his family. When the Martins got an old piano, his elder sister had lessons. George copied her, bagged a few lessons of his own, and taught himself. By the age of 15, he was running a dance band. He attended several schools, including St Joseph's Elementary, Highgate, and St. Ignatius College, Stamford Hill, before his family moved to the suburbs, and George reached Bromley Grammar.

He worked as a quantity surveyor and as a clerk in the War Office before joining the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy in 1943. He trained as a pilot, but never saw active service. He demobbed in 1947 and resumed his education at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where he studied piano and oboe.

'I couldn't read or write music,' he confessed, 'but they still let me in. I crammed composition for 3 full years.'

His oboe teacher was Margaret Eliot, whose actress daughter Jane Asher would become Paul McCartney's girlfriend. In 1948, on his 22nd birthday, George married Jean 'Sheena' Chisholm, whom he had met in the bride's native Scotland while George was stationed there. His 53 year-old mother was beside herself with grief over it. She died of a brain haemorrhage 3 weeks after the wedding, for which George never forgave himself. Sheena and George had 2 children, Alexis and Gregory.

Employed briefly by the BBC's classical music department, he joined EMI in 1950 as an assistant to  the head of minor label Parlophone. George inherited Oscar Preuss's job 5 years later. He forged a reputation as a producer of comedy and novelty recordings, working with Flanders and Swann, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Rolf Harris. In 1962, Brian Epstein brought him the Beatles. It was a last-ditch endeavour on the part of the tenacious manager, who had been shown the door by every other record company. The match was obvious. George always declined credit for having 'created' the group,  dismissing the notion that he was ever their 'Svengali'.

'A lot of nonsense was written and said,' he once remarked.

'It was a myth that they were uneducated guttersnipes and that I was this toff who knocked them into shape. In fact, the Beatles and I came from very similar backgrounds. I went to the same sort of schools. Musically, we were all essentially self-taught. As for our accents, mine was as working-class as theirs before I became an officer in the Royal Navy. You can't hang around with such folk without absorbing a bit of posh. I had also belonged to a dramatic society, which helped.  As for the music, I muddled through. I experimented and learned on the job.'

His chemistry with the Beatles arose from the fact that they were enthusiastic Goons fans, he revealed.

'They worshipped Peter Sellers, and knew that I'd recorded him. They weren't exceptional when we began. The magic wasn't instant, it had to emerge. But when they hit the jackpot, it was chaos.'

The Beatles phenomenon was the start of the British Invasion of America, when countless UK acts broke through. Lennon and McCartney were acknowledged as the most important songwriting partnership of the era. It was only the start.

With a backlogged schedule and barely time to go home and sleep - George was also recording Cilla Black, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Bernard Cribbins and Matt Monro  - something had to give. Now that he was embroiled in an affair with Parlophone secretary Judy Lockhart-Smith, his marriage was inevitably the casualty. He divorced Sheena, and married Judy in 1966. They produced a son and daughter, Giles and Lucy

The same year, the Beatles quit touring, and retreated into the studio. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, widely acclaimed as the most brilliant LP ever made, was released in 1967.  Brian Epstein died soon afterwards. The Beatles needed George Martin more than ever. But they rebuffed him for the Let it Be album, returning sheepishly for swansong Abbey Road.

George, who had challenged EMI over the injustice of producers not receiving royalties, produced the Beatles' later recordings as a freelance. With John Burgess and two other producers, he launched Associated Independent Recordings: AIR. Post-Beatles, George worked with everyone from Jeff Beck and Neil Sedaka to UFO. He likened the experience to 'having been married for decades and suddenly finding myself free to have  affairs.' He and McCartney resumed their relationship in 1982, when George produced his album Tug of War.

When the lease ran out at Oxford Circus, George established alternative world-class facilities, Lyndhurst, in a deconsecrated church in Belsize Park. Just as he was enjoying work as never before, life dealt the cruellest hand. George was suffering from progressive hearing loss, a condition from which he would never recover.

'The damage was done in the Sixties,' he said, 'when I was working with the Beatles. For 12 to 14 hours at a stretch, I'd be listening to loud sound levels. Nobody told me I was damaging my ears. I later told all my engineers, don't do it! Put plugs in! I didn't really notice until well into the Nineties. By then, of course, it was too late.'

The title of his 1979 autobiography, 'All You Need Is Ears', was rendered a horrible irony.

It hastened his retirement from the studio. He stopped recording, but didn't stop, son Giles stepping in to act as 'his ears'. He conducted orchestral concerts of Beatles music around the world, annotated classical recordings, and gave lectures on the making of Sergeant Pepper. Knighted in 1996, he helped organise the live concert to mark the Queen's 2002 Jubilee, and escorted Her Majesty onto the stage.

In 1998, they released In My Life, a compilation of Beatles songs performed by favourite stars including Goldie Hawn, Robin Williams and Sean Connery.

In 2006, father and son scored a show with Cirque du Soleil which became the celebration album Love, 'a mash-up of the Beatles musical lifespan.'

'I've been so lucky, I really have,' he said. 

'I've worked with and enjoyed relationships with great people, and not only pop stars. And I've never worked for any length of time with anyone I didn't like. Life really is too short.'



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