50 Years Later, Producer Remixes 'Sgt. Pepper' To 'Bring It Into The Modern World'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The groundbreaking Beatles album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was released in England 50 years ago today. Tomorrow's the anniversary of its release in the U.S.
To mark this anniversary, there's a new four-CD box set collecting archival recordings from the "Sgt. Pepper" session, including several of the basic vocal tracks before the addition of the orchestra, sound effects and processing. The box also includes the original mono version of the album. That's the version that was originally released in England. A hastily remixed stereo version is what was originally released in the U.S.
A new stereo remix is included in the anniversary box, too. My guest, Giles Martin, produced that remix and oversaw this entire anniversary project. He's the son of George Martin, who produced the original "Sgt. Pepper" album. George Martin gave the Beatles their first record contract, produced their first single and worked with them on all their albums through "Abbey Road." From the time Giles was a teenager, he worked with his father in the studio.
Giles has worked on several other recent Beatles projects, including the Beatles soundscape for the Cirque du Soleil production "Love," the audio restoration of Beatles concerts for Ron Howard's documentary "Eight Days A Week," and the Beatles "Rock Band" video game. Giles was the executive producer of Paul McCartney's 2013 album "New." Giles Martin spoke to me from the Abbey Road Studios. Let's start with his new stereo remix of the title track of "Sgt. Pepper" from the new anniversary collection.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) It was 20 years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. They've been going in and out of style, but they're guaranteed to raise a smile. So may I introduce to you the act you've known for all these years, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
We're Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. We hope you will enjoy the show. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, sit back and let the evening go. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's wonderful to be here.
GROSS: Giles Martin, welcome to FRESH AIR. So why did you decide to do this project with the rehearsal takes and the outtakes and the stereo remix and the mono version?
GILES MARTIN: Well, first up, I mean, it's not me that decides. I'm kind of part of the process. But it's really the Beatles that - Ringo and Paul and Yoko and Olivia Harrison that kind of - they run the Beatles, and I work for them. But I'm asked, you know, what can we do here, and what can we do with the 50th anniversary release?
And with the outtakes, we wanted to really show how human the making of the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was. And I really open up, you know, open up the engine and see what's inside. And with the remix, we wanted to, you know, really explore what the band's vision was when they mixed it originally and sort of bring it into today's world, I suppose.
GROSS: It was originally mixed in mono with the Beatles helping to oversee the mix, but it was released in stereo. And apparently the stereo - the original stereo remix was done very quickly, whereas the original mono mix was incredibly time consuming and meticulous. What happened?
MARTIN: Well, I mean, you're absolutely right that the band did mix the mono. I mean, the mono - see, in the U.K., especially at that time, mono was the thing. I mean, stereo was kind of a novelty. And the way music - was listened to through one speaker. In fact, I'd even go as far as to say as the record was made to be played out of one speaker.
So when it came to the mix and, you know, in today's standards the album didn't take very long but then it took an eternity. It took three months to do. The band actually were hands-on with the mix, the mix and performance. And they had their hands on the desk there with my father, George Martin, and Geoff Emerick. And they mixed the album physically.
And then when it came to the stereo, the band didn't even turn up. And it was done very quickly. They didn't really put the same effects on. It was more a question of crazy panning. And in that - and for that reason, what we did going back to this mix is we kind of listened to what the boys did in the studios with the mono. It was almost like the spirits were with us. And we sort of created a stereo mix out of that.
GROSS: So when you were remixing "Sgt. Pepper's" - the title track - did you go back to the original recordings of the crowd sounds and the tuning up sounds or did you just have - remix the layers of tracks that were used? Like, what was your approach?
MARTIN: No, we have to be. Well, we have to be. It's a bit like "Jurassic Park" in a way, you know, you have to find the - you have to find the mosquito inside the amber to make the dinosaur. And we went back - that - the audience sound at the beginning of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" the song was taken from a recording my father did of a comedy troupe called Beyond the Fringe, who were a comedy troupe consisting of Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller who were up at Cambridge University. And he went up there and recorded them. And that was the audience.
So we found that tape, and we actually led it. It was in stereo, so we could now have stereo audience. Of course, you know, the Beatles would have bounced that down to mono, so it sounds different.
And really, the way you should think about this mix is we're going from the freshest possible material. The thing about recording is that recording - the performance never gets old. It's the - you know, we get old. And recording as if sort of things are frozen in time. And so everything we took was the earliest generation. And that's lots to do with why the album sounds like it does now.
GROSS: So I want to play back to back the stereo mix that was released in the U.S. back in '67 and your new stereo remix. And I thought we'd hear "Mr. Kite" - "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" because I think you can hear how much more, like, vivid the new remix is. I guess part of that is the technology too, like you can just make things clearer.
MARTIN: Yeah, in a strange way - it's - in a strange way it's technology but it's also we'd actually make things clearer. If you think about the way my father had to record the Beatles, he had - they had a four-track tape machine, a 1-inch four-track tape machine. So you could have four things on one tape. But, of course, when it came to "Sgt. Pepper" the album, they wanted to have loads of different elements, loads of different soundscapes. And so what they would do, they'd do a copy of a copy so - or another copy.
So if you imagine the days of cassettes where we used to make cassette copies, that cassette copy would sound a little bit duller, a little bit less dynamic. There's no real button that says, you know, make things sound more live or more real. In essence, what we're doing is we're taking away technology by having the first generations of tapes being played, which they couldn't do when they mixed. They couldn't sync up tape machines in the same way we can now.
And so a lot of the reason why people say that they - with this new version of the album they can hear things is just because that's what's on tape. And so I think, you know, my dream is to make people feel as though they're close to the band in the studios and they feel, you know, they can - as my dad said with John Lennon - said to him, you know, I want to smell the sawdust. And on this particular track, we wanted to get them closer to smelling the sawdust.
GROSS: Is there anything you'd like to say specifically about the stereo version of the song that was originally released in the U.S. and your remix?
MARTIN: Well, what you'll hear is - the way it's recorded actually - it's recorded live with Ringo playing drums. My dad is playing a harmonium which is kind of a wheezy organ that you pump with your feet. Paul's playing live bass, and John's singing. That's the first four-track. And then that's sort of - in the version that came out in '67, that's then bounced down and bounced down again so it's three copies of it.
Well, we're working from that source material, so you'll hear them a lot clearer. And then all of the whirly organ sounds which is the chopped up tapes, the chopped up calliopes, we have that tape. And so we led that across. And we can swirl that around your head a lot more. So if it's in stereo, you can hear it go left to right. And on the original, it just has to stay in one place. They didn't have the technology. So it's much more immersive. And it's - as you say, it's clearer, and you feel closer to John.
GROSS: So let's hear two versions of "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" - the first version from the original stereo that was released in the States in 1967. The second version is the new 50th anniversary stereo remix. We're going to hear the second part of the song, the latter part of the song so we get to hear the calliope stuff going on at the end.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES' "BEING FOR THE BENEFIT OF MR. KITE!" MONTAGE)
THE BEATLES: (Singing) The celebrated Mr. K performs his feat on Saturday at Bishops Gate. The Hendersons will dance and sing as Mr. Kite flies through the ring. Don't be late. Messrs K and H assure the public their production will be second to none. And of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz. The band begins at 10 to 6...
GROSS: That was the original 1967 stereo version of "For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" and the new stereo remix on the new 50th anniversary edition of "Sgt. Pepper's," produced by my guest, Giles Martin, who's the son of the original producer of "Sgt. Pepper's," George Martin. So before we heard that, you alluded to the chopped up tape of calliopes. So explain the chopping up because we heard that part.
MARTIN: Well, what happened was is that in the sort of bridge sections, you hear sort of swirling and a lot on the chromatic runs - so all the notes played on an octave - slowed down on Hammond organs, the guitar part as well. And then the tape's sped up, so it's double time. But they still couldn't get the sound of a circus or a fair to match the vision that John Lennon had of the poster. He - this song stems from a poster that John Lennon found in a store, which has basically all the lyrics on it of a Victorian circus. And what my father realized they had to do is they had to skip that fairground sound. But a calliope is basically a steam organ that - an old steam organ that you see in fairgrounds.
Now, they don't play what you really want them to play. You can't get them to play a part. They sort of put in a punch card and the organ will play back what's on that punch card. So all they could do was record a number of these organs and then chop them together to create this collage of sound. So there's a swirling collage of calliope organs that creates a sort of sound bed. They always wanted - my father and The Beatles always wanted people to hear sounds they'd never heard before. And "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" is an excellent example of that.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Giles Martin, and he's the producer of the new 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles' groundbreaking album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." And this edition includes the original mono version, the new stereo remix that Giles Martin oversaw and then lots of, like, outtakes and rehearsal sessions and stuff. So we're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "STRAWBERRY FIELDS FORVER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Giles Martin, and he is the producer of the new 50th anniversary box set of The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
MARTIN: And I just have to say that I'm definitely not the producer of The Beatles. The producer was definitely - it was definitely my father. All I've done is...
GROSS: Right. Your father produced - your father, George Martin, produced the original version.
MARTIN: Yeah, all I've done is - we've remixed - we've remixed the album. And I always feel nervous about, you know, talking about it because you think I wasn't even born when this came out. And all I'm trying to do is serve them, in a way, if that makes sense.
GROSS: So I'm - one of the things that made this album such a kind of cultural turning point musically is that it was a psychedelic album. I mean, there were things going on in the album that seemed almost designed for people to listen to while smoking marijuana or taking LSD. There's, like, weird effects that people thought of as, like, really trippy. Do you want to talk at all about the - I know you weren't (laughter) this was 1967.
MARTIN: I wasn't around.
GROSS: You weren't around yet.
MARTIN: Yeah. But, you know, what? We took loads of that when we mixed it. No, we didn't.
MARTIN: Yeah. We relived, you know...
GROSS: Get in the spirit.
MARTIN: We got in the suits and we took LSD, and we - you know, it was - you know what? I think that there's a lot written about that. I think it just blew people's minds. I think it blew some sober as well as, you know - I don't think the album was designed for drugs, and it wasn't really designed on drugs either, you know. I don't - I just don't think it was. They were certainly - they're certainly fairly lucid in the studio when they're recording it. So I think they were experimenting with everything. And music was one of those experimentations.
And I think that it's - I think with the album, funny enough, I think that you take the songs in isolation, and they're not that weird. And they really aren't that weird. It's just the fact they're next to each other, and I think that's what makes it a great album is the fact that you go from "Within You Without You" to "When I'm Sixty-Four" to "Lovely Rita." I mean, they're three incredibly different songs, almost by different bands. It's almost a schizophrenic record.
GROSS: So we've been talking about how, you know, people who in 1967 were listening to "Sgt. Pepper" are often thought of it as, like, really trippy because of all of the unusual processing and sound effects and overdubbing that was done on it and distortions. And so you could look at it as like, wow, a psychedelic or you could see it as really borrowing heavily from the experimental music of the era.
So I wanted to talk with you about the end of "A Day In The Life" where all of this is like very evident. So it ends with a kind of dissonant piano chord that very slowly dissolves which we'll talk about a little later. But before that, there's this kind of weird mix of sound. And so before we hear it, I want you to explain what's happening before that piano chord.
MARTIN: "A Day In The Life" is an extraordinary song. You know, it's almost, you know - it's psychedelic in its thought process, and it goes that sort of, you know, almost - its two mindsets as John and Paul where by, you know, John had this beautiful haunting melody and then they had nothing to put in the middle. And Paul said I've got a, you know, I've got this other song, they just, you know, stuck in the middle. And they had to join the two together.
And when they recorded it, they left a big hole. They just left a hole where they - where nothing happened at all. And it was Paul that came up to my father and said, you know - he was - you know, being influenced by all - you know, John Cage and all sorts of people and just said, you know, we should do an orchestral orgasm.
MARTIN: And my father said I'm sorry? He said we should do an orchestral orgasm, you know, this big sort of, you know, orchestral thing. It just, you know, blows your mind and explodes other speakers. And so they got a symphony orchestra. They said they were going to get a symphony orchestra. My dad - it's amazing, I think, of the time. He actually said I think, you know - we don't want to go over budget here, chaps. And so they got a 60-piece.
And so Ringo said, well, why don't we record them twice? And in fact what they did is they recorded them four times. So we have a four-track tape which fought with four orchestras on it which we can then combine for this new mix. And it's just extraordinary. I mean, it's - I can't think of another album that just has a symphony orchestra on as an effect, you know? It's like, you know, what's a good sound here? Oh, the sound of a symphony orchestra would be a good idea.
And so what you hear at the end of the song is this crescendo from a low E which is the sustained notes at the end of the verse into a high E which is the final climax. And then they had to think, OK, how do we finish this?
GROSS: Wait, wait. So they're - so everybody in the orchestra is sliding up an octave?
MARTIN: Everyone in the orchestra - my father that's telling from the orchestra to - not to unlearn everything they'd learn - the way orchestras work is they have to work as one body. You know, the - they are sort of - there's a brain, which you could argue is the first volas of the conductor and then all of the limbs the orchestra will have to work in complete knots of harmony, and, you know, teach to use the correct word.
And my father told me if you're playing the same note as the person next to you, you're playing the wrong note. But there's markers I need you to reach this E at this stage, you know. And so they - it's a long list, as we call it. And that's what the orchestra played. And because it was a Beatles session and because of the first time we had the, you know, a symphony orchestra, and they - actually the Beatles came in and they invited I think Marion Faith and Mick Jagger and a whole lot of people were there. And it was really, you know, wreathed of marijuana smoke.
And the Beatles made the orchestra wear sort of clown costumes and animal heads and just - there's the video of it. And this is what they did. It was like a - it was like a happening. You know, that's what they had in those days. It was a happening in studio one. And it's kind of an extraordinary sound. It's a sound that - I don't - it's a sound that's never really been repeated. It's like - it's incredibly intense. And then they had to - once they'd come with this climax, they had to finish something. And they had - didn't actually record the piano chord for quite a while later. They knew they needed to resolve, but they couldn't decide what to do.
GROSS: So I'm going to play the new stereo remix that you've done of the end of "A Day In The Life."
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "A DAY IN THE LIFE")
GROSS: My guest is Giles Martin who produced the new 50th anniversary box set of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." We'll hear outtakes from the ending of "A Day In The Life" and hear more of the story behind it after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Giles Martin who produced the new 50th anniversary box set of the groundbreaking Beatles album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" which includes the original mono mix and Giles Martin's new stereo remix. The box also includes many outtakes from the session.
Giles is the son of George Martin who produced the original "Sgt. Pepper" album. When we left off, we were listening to the new stereo remix of the track "A Day In The Life." The end was intended to sound like an orchestral orgasm and finishes with a crashing sustained piano chord that very slowly decays.
Now the new 50th anniversary box set also has rehearsal sessions of what went on to create that chord at the end. So would you describe the piano chord that ends the track? And how many pianos are there?
MARTIN: Well, they needed a big ending, and the piano chord was the way to go forward. And what they did is Paul and John and Mal Evans, their roadie, played three pianos. They played three pianos I think three times. So it's a four-track tape. And then they played pianos and a sort of very distorted low end sort of Wurlitzer, an electric organ, on the fourth track to create this massive sort of sustain.
And it's very tricky. You have to - because what - because they wanted the longest piano chord ever, what they would do is every time they recorded it, they would turn up the mic pre as it were - the input gain - so the piano chord as it died away, they'd make it louder in the studios. And that's what it is. It's - they wanted the biggest chord ever, and they kind of got it.
GROSS: OK. So what's really great is on the 50th anniversary album of "Sgt. Pepper," you have like a rehearsal track - I assume it's a rehearsal track - that's like an outtake of this. And we hear them putting together the piano - the piano chord. So...
MARTIN: Yeah. No, this isn't the rehearsal track actually.
GROSS: This is what they actually used?
MARTIN: This is them using it. Yeah. This is how they - they're just trying to go for it. You know, you can hear them talking to each other. And this is - once they decided to do it, this is the process of them recording it.
GROSS: OK. So here's that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One, two, three.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO CHORD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't think...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Take six.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO CHORDS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right, don't - sort of - just play it like quiet. And, you know, you'll know where the four comes in. One, two, three.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO CHORD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Once again. Still not quite together.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Seven.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right. One, two, three.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO CHORD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Take eight.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO CHORD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Try that again. Just let it ring.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Take nine.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's it. Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Off and on.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One, two, three.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO CHORD)
GROSS: So that's like the raw material of the end - of "A Day In The Life." Now, there's another track that is an outtake of this, and it's kind of the Beatles doing a vocal harmony version of an ending chord that isn't nearly as dramatic. So explain what's going on with this and then we'll hear it.
MARTIN: Well, the reassuring thing about the Beatles is even they had bad ideas. And even the making of this album, they had bad - I think, that, you know, anyone aspiring to be an artist out there, never be scared of a bad idea, just be scared of sticking with it I think is the answer. And so their original idea - not - this is before the piano - their original idea was to create a sort of om, a sort of choir hum at the end.
And I think - I don't know who's in the studios with them. You can hear other people chatting and they're giving directions. But this is their original plan for the end of "A Day In The Life" and the end of the most famous album of all time.
GROSS: So let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Ready?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Stop freaking out, missus.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: One, two, three, four.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: Om.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: That's all right.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Take 10.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: One, two, three, four.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: Om.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Off you go. One, two, three, four.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: Om.
GROSS: OK. So that's an outtake that's on the new 50th anniversary edition of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." So why did they reject this?
MARTIN: I just think it doesn't - you know, I think your listeners can tell it doesn't have much impact. You know, they needed a big ending and that wasn't it. And, in fact, you can hear at the end of - at the very end of that I put the the four-track - they recorded on four-tracks.
They did it properly. I mean, the thing about the Beatles, they'd stick to their guns, and they wouldn't give up on an idea. And they finished it, and then they realized that it just didn't work.
GROSS: Interesting. It's great to be let into the process (laughter).
MARTIN: Well, I think it is. I think what - I think the beauty of listening to the process is that you realize that - and there's a lot of talk about this album being, you know, the sort of album's, you know, delivered by unicorns and sent from the gods and plucked from the skies and, you know, delivered by a drug haze. But really it - the beauty of it is it's just four human beings making noise in the studios. They just happened to make a very good noise with very good songs.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Giles Martin. And he is the producer of the new 50th anniversary box set of the Beatles' 1967 groundbreaking album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." He's also the son of George Martin, who is the producer of the original album and produced several of the Beatles recordings. So we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG "LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS - TAKE 1")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Giles Martin, and he's the producer of the new 50th anniversary box set of The Beatles 1967 album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." And it includes the original mono version, the original stereo version, a new stereo remix and lots of outtakes and, like, original tracks from before they were layered from the recording.
So I want to talk to you about one of my favorite things on this box set. And there's so many tracks on it, it's hard to choose, but there is just like a - what can I call it? - an acoustic take of "Strawberry Fields." And the final version of it has a lot of like - there's processing on John Lennon's voice. There's, you know, a lot of, you know, added instruments on it.
And this is just like very stripped down. There's no processing on his voice. And whereas the actual release version sounds kind of like psychedelic, trippy, the original version sounds very - just kind of wistful and alienated (laughter).
MARTIN: Well, it's kind of - yeah, it's kind of sweet, the original version. And I think that's lots to do with the process of, you know, John - my father always used to say, well, you know, John never liked the sound of his own voice. That's the thing is, you know - and to demand them to make changes. You know, he was just a natural, beautiful singer. He had a...
GROSS: Yeah. And you can so hear that on this.
MARTIN: The other thing about the original "Strawberry Fields" is, of course, they had to slow it down. And that gives you a more sort of a demonic edge, you know, your slowed down voice. And so what you hear is John slowed down. In fact, on this album, there's very few occurrences of a natural voice.
They played around with tempos, you know, on "When I'm Sixty-Four," Paul's voice is sped up, you know, and same with "Lovely Rita," you know, they - "Penny Lane" his voice is sped up. And on "Strawberry Fields," John's is slowed down.
It's - they're all over the shop just trying to change things. But you're right, on the demo or on the first take of "Strawberry Fields," you hear the song for what it is which is an incredibly complex but beautiful personal sort of diary to his time in Liverpool.
GROSS: What was Strawberry Fields? I mean, it was a actual place, right?
MARTIN: Yeah. Strawberry Fields are still there. It's a park in Liverpool near John's home. And he would, you know, I think that the funny thing about them is that very few bands are as identified by their place as much as the Beatles are. You know? I don't know whether it's because they are not as successful, but I think it's more the fact that the Beatles never really - they took Liverpool with them wherever they went. They were very proud of where they're from, and they still are. And this was despite the turmoil of going around the world, and, you know, picking up influences from everywhere, you know, the way that they were going to root themselves in this new sort of psychedelic, as you say, album was to start with the homeplace which is Strawberry Fields and then Paul counter with "Penny Lane."
And you can kind of hear in this very early take. You can hear that it's - you know, my dad always said he always remembers the day that John came in. And he sat - my dad sat on a stool and John sat in a stool and played them the song on the studio floor. And that was always one of his favorite memories.
GROSS: OK. So let's hear the original track of "Strawberry Fields" without any processing or speeding up or slowing down, without extra instruments. Here's John Lennon singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see. It's getting hard to be someone, but it all works out. It doesn't matter much to me. No one I think is in my tree. I mean, it must be high or low. That is you know you can't tune it. But it's all right. That is I think it's not too bad. Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields. Nothing is real. And nothing to get hung about. Strawberry Fields forever. Always know sometimes...
GROSS: So that's a track from the new 50th anniversary box set of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." And that's a version of "Strawberry Fields" without processing, without extra instruments. And my guess is Giles Martin who oversaw the production of this new box set. And his father was the producer on the original album "Sgt. Pepper's."
So, you know, I hear that, and I wonder like what exactly was it that John Lennon didn't like about his voice? His voice is just so sweet and so - I don't know kind of captivating. Do you know why he didn't like his own voice?
MARTIN: Well, I don't think it was just his voice. He didn't like, you know, my father always told me that the sounds that John had in his head were never the sounds that got on record. And, you know, after the Beatles split up, you know, they all - it was like smashing some of the toffee hammer. They all clustered in different sections of the corners of the world. And John did a few interviews, and he sort of criticized my father when it came to, you know, "Let It Be." He said, you know, I don't want any of your production - a rude word - on this album. You know, I don't want you ruining it with our production.
And my dad was sort of deeply offended because he was actually very close to John to begin with, and there was, you know - everyone changed. And he went back, and he hadn't spoke to John in a long time, and he went back. John phoned him up, and he went to go and see him at the Dakota Building in New York, which John lived in 1980 just a month before he died, I think. And my dad said listen, John, you said some terrible things about me. And he goes, hey, George, I was high. And my father said it was like - my father didn't really accept that as an excuse. But then he said, you know, do you know what I'd like to do George? He goes I'd like to go and record everything again. My dad went really? He goes what about "Strawberry Fields?" He goes especially "Strawberry Fields."
And he never really was content with, you know, not the sound of his voice, but never really thought, you know, what was in his head. And I think this what, you know - this is why they pushed so hard for, you know, sonic perfection or interesting sounds is because their goals were so high. And so with his voice, he had, you know - he was one of the best singers in the world, but it was never good enough. And so he always wanted something else. He wanted some sort of change done to his voice.
GROSS: I want to play one of the - I don't know what to call if this is an outtake or just like the track that was layered over, but this is "Good Morning." And you really got to hear them as a band without other instruments on this because it's a kind of naked track. And Ringo's drumming is really so good on this. And it - you can - it really showcases his drumming.
MARTIN: Ringo's a great drummer. I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago, and we talked about this. And he just said, you know, I love this because you can hear, you know - people can hear my drums. And he said that it's not that I turned the drums up. It's just that we'd have to be so careful nowadays of the needle jumping out of the groove or breaking someone's speakers 50 years ago.
We can be more courageous with dynamics. But, yeah, he was an amazing - he was, you know - every amazing band has to have a great drummer, and this particular track's interesting because it's actually Ringo and Paul playing drums together. You know, the hit sort of kick-drummer you can hear, the sort of flappy kick-drum sound is Paul hitting a kick-drum.
GROSS: Oh, I didn't realize that.
MARTIN: And that's what you can hear on this. Yeah. So that's the - that's what the take is. This is actually the take that was used, and it's just them playing, you know, playing live and recording it before they did - you know, they overdubbed the brass, the saxes and bass I think, so - and backing vocals. Then the animal sounds at the end - I mean, the funny thing about the animal sounds on "Good Morning" is John demanded that each animal could eat the next animal in line. That was his...
MARTIN: That was his request. Yeah, so this is - and I think this is true for the whole album. This just shows you that it's kind of - it's - you have to start off with raw emotion, you know, as a starting point for something that touches you. And then you can embellish it with other artful and interesting colors. But it's the raw impact that is always - you always go back to as a listener.
GROSS: So let's hear that kind of naked version of "Good Morning" before all the other things were layered on top of it. This is from the 50th anniversary box set edition of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING GOOD MORNING")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Somebody needs to know the time, glad that I'm here. Watching the skirts, you start to flirt. Now you're in gear. Go to a show, you hope she goes. I've got nothing to say but it's OK.
GROSS: So that's from the 50th anniversary edition of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." And my guest is the producer who oversaw this project, Giles Martin. And he's the son of George Martin, who produced the original album back in 1967. So we're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Giles Martin, who produced the new 50th anniversary box set of The Beatles album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." His father, George Martin, produced the original 1967 album. The new box includes outtakes and Giles' new stereo remix of the album.
So how closely did you work with Paul and Ringo on this 50th anniversary project?
MARTIN: Well, you know, once we decided we were going to do - and in fact it was a strange time because when we initiated it, we were all speaking anyway because actually my father was very sick. And he sadly passed away last year in March, and I knew I was going to do this project. And I came back in the studios, and the first voice I heard was his. You know, Yoko actually said to me when we were doing "Love" that John, you know - she goes, it's funny, John's just a voice now. And that kind of touched me a little bit with my - hearing my father in the studio. And so we talked about what we were going to do. You know, they're - you know, I answer to them. Obviously, it's their record. It's their music, and they - it's very humbling that they have so much confidence in me, you know, with what I've done and they like what I do.
So really in the studio is - what happens is I go off and I have a great engineer called Sam Okell, and we work together. We - I talk about it. I think about it for a while, our approach, and then we do it, and then I'll go and sit with Paul or Ringo and play it to them. It's as simple as that. And it really is. It's just a sort of very, very small unit, and we try and do the best we can. And, you know, if they're not happy, then no one gets to hear it. I have this sort of eiderdown, this blanket, around me, which is them where they encourage me to push boundaries and go crazy because they can always say no. And that's kind of reassuring in a funny way.
GROSS: You know, you have distance on the album in the sense that people who grew up with that album tended to play it, like, over and over and over and to be listening to you - what's the secret message in this track? What are they doing with the calliope? Like, how did they make that chord? And you get so used to hearing it as it was originally done that the thought of hearing it differently is, you know, originally very off-putting in some ways to a lot of people because, like, no, this is how it's supposed to be, the way I heard it. And you have distance on that. Like, you didn't grow up hearing it over and over again. You didn't grow up with it, so you can just hear it as music and, you know, make decisions about how to improve the mix or, like, you know, historically, what's most interesting.
MARTIN: With something like this, I had the advantage of not - you know, I could - and this again, upsetting people, I couldn't have probably named you the running order of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" before I started working on it because I almost distanced myself deliberately so I can approach it in a new way. And then I also listen to other people as well. I listen to, you know, the real fans, and there's some - you know, there's some experts I know. And I invited them into the studios and see whether they're going to fire bomb my house after they listen to it, you know.
MARTIN: And the most amazing thing is - I mean, and also there's professionals. Like, Bob Clearmountain, who's a very famous mix engineer. He's a good friend of mine. And a while back, I went to his studios. I was in LA, and I played him some of the mixes and he goes, you know, I feel like I've taken weed and listened to the album for the first time. And he was crying. And I suddenly realized, OK, well, you know, this is - well, I'm going in the right direction. Here's someone who's mixed, you know, David Bowie and Roxy Music and Bruce Springsteen. And he's impressed. So you have to be careful at the same time. My job with them and what they want me to do is try and push boundaries in the same way that they did. And that's my responsibility. And you sort of have to - you have to take that and run with it.
GROSS: So a question about your father - my understanding is you started working in the recording studio when your father started losing his hearing, and he wanted you to help him. How much hearing loss did he have? And what was it like for him - as somebody who worked in sound all of his life, what was it like for him when he started losing his hearing?
MARTIN: Well, his sound loss was gradual but consistent. So, you know, he was pretty profoundly deaf when he died. And for him, I think it was more the loss of conversation, the loss of not being able to hear his grandchildren more than music. He'd heard enough music in his life. He used to say, if you turn me upside down, notes will fall out.
MARTIN: But he - you know, I think, in a funny way - you know, he never - I was good at music - I know I sound so arrogant. I was like kind of OK at music as a kid. I was kind of a little bit better than my friends at school maybe. Not Mozart but I wasn't bad. And he would say, you know, I - you could tell. I started busking on the streets of London when I was 15. He could tell I had music in me and I had the bug. And he was like, you know, you are not going to do music. There's no way you're going to do music.
And then he started losing his hearing. He thought, oh (laughter), you know - what do I have? I've got this precocious son that could be my ears. And that's the way we worked together. I mean, from quite a young age, I was in studios with him listening. And we had a sort of strange, you know - he thought we were telepathic. Before he died, he thought we are telepathic, which I'm not sure we were. But we did have a complete understanding of each other, and I knew what he wanted to hear.
It was tough, my dad, because he was so good - you know, certainly better than I was. And yet his one thing he had that was great, he started losing. But what he lost more than anything else - because my father was incredibly intelligent - you know; you spoke to him. He was very witty. He was charming. And people thought, if you go deaf, people think you're dumb, you know. People think you're...
MARTIN: ...Not engaging, you know. And that's - and I think that, more than anything else - he'd made great music. It was just he missed out on conversation.
GROSS: Did your father teach you how to listen or what to listen for?
MARTIN: Yeah. I think - he didn't sit down and say - now listen, Giles, this is what you be listening for. But he would explain frequencies to me the same way he did for The Beatles. He was fascinated by the colors of sounds. You know, we do listen to it - sound in colors. I mean, I can - I think people are surprised. People I work with actually, engineers, are surprised that I can go, you know, we need to remove, like, 2 dB at 450 Hz. Or, you know - see, you can hear frequencies. I suppose that's a specialty that he would teach me.
But I think that - I learned how to listen because I knew what frequencies he couldn't hear. And I'd have to fill in. And then it became more and more. And so it was like a gradual imbibing process. Listen, I don't know. And you know - and I think the other is is you have to question what you do all the time, you know. You know, I do this. And, you know, I have to make the final decision, but I could always be wrong. And you just hope to God you're right because you're not quite sure, you know. This has been, like - it's been like choosing colors really. You think - you hope you've chosen the right color and you'll see it the same way the rest of the world sees it.
GROSS: Giles Martin, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much, and congratulations on the anniversary box set.
MARTIN: Terry, thank you so much for having me. I'm honored to be on the show. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Giles Martin produced the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" 50th anniversary box set. He spoke to us from the Abbey Road Studios in London. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our Beatles celebration and go into our archive to listen back to interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. I hope you'll join us.
Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner honor. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) What would you think if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me? Lend me your ears, and I'll sing you a song. And I'll try not to sing out of key. Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends. I get high with a little help from my friends, going to try with a little help from my friends. What do I do when my love is away? Does it worry it you to be alone? How do I feel by the end of the day? Are you sad because you're on your own? No, I get by with a little help from my friends, get high with a little help from my friends, going to try with a little help from my friends...
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