I grew up listening to the music of The Beatles, a taste my mother was careful to instill in me from my early teens. She plotted the course of my listening experience – “Revolver” first, “Pepper” second, then “Mystery Tour,” “Rubber Soul,” and “Please, Please Me” (“a dance record,” I recall her telling me, coolly.) I found time for the rest, eventually.
Martin’s contribution to the music of The Beatles is, in my estimation, as essential to the production of a Beatles sound – as a cultural dominant – as Keynes was to the production of a transatlantic economy in the wake of the zeroing of World War Two.
I haven’t read much about Martin or the multifaceted relationship he enjoyed with his studio charges – I’m not interested in biography or hagiography, really, I’m interested in one sound in one song that Martin produced which set me off on a certain tack with music. I’ll relate:
Sometime in 2004, I was an undergraduate enrolled at University of South Florida as an English Lit major with a minor in Electronic Music. My intro to electronic music course was maybe twenty students, gathered in a starkly modern auditorium space that resembled more a vacuum cleaner accessory than an acoustic body – hard, sudden fluting; a boxy taper with extreme airflow issues. In this cast-in-situ cave we listened to the giants of electroacoustic composition: Schaeffer, Stockhausen, Boulez-on-Varese, all of which hit play in various ways for me over a couple of decades. All shadow play, all rehearsed images of dances done aeons before on the other side of the fire.
Quite a few scratches on those Silver Apples Of The Moon LPs.
…But the sound that hit record for me came from an unexpected source one cool October night in the phosphor aura of a USF parking lot. I wanted to listen to “Revolver” over and over and over again – the instructor was really fond of it, and I had a pretty established dialogue with the album, so I wanted to compare notes with Dr. Reller, in a sense, note for note. Backmask for doubletrack, even.
I came to “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Listen very carefully, at the very break of motion against the hush between the fade-out on “Got To Get You Into My Life” and 0:01 of TNK:
The sound of the tape heads winding up – it’s there, a hair before 0:01. The sound of one forming from zero. Roll tape. Stop film, start discussion.
It was as fundamental a realization as when a city kid meets the wild spray of the galaxy on in the clear night sky over the Adirondacks: this was the art of production in an atom, for me.
There was so much more to listen to – one could hear Stockhausen in Bing Crosby; the storied relation of Bowie and Eno went polyvocal. I could play with music but I was no longer pressing play – the tape was always receiving new input.
Martin and his engineers deployed the entire structure of Abbey Road studios to make that recording happen. Looking back, I am reminded of the liner notes of Frank Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage” – and I laugh to myself:
“All governments perpetuate themselves through the daily commission of act which a rational person might find to be stupid or dangerous (or both). Naturally, our government is no exception … for instance, if the President (any one of them) went on TV and sat there with the flag in the background (or maybe a rustic scene on a little backdrop, plus the flag) and stared sincerely into the camera and told everybody that all energy problems and all inflationary problems had been traced to and could be solved by the abolition of MUSIC, chances are that most people would believe him and think that the illegalization of this obnoxious form of noise pollution would be a small price to pay for the chance to buy gas like the good ol’ days. No way? Never happen? Records are made out of oil. All those big rock shows go from town to town in fuel-gobbling 45 foot trucks … and when they get there, they use up enormous amounts of electrical energy with their lights, their amplifiers, their PA systems … their smoke machines. And all those synthesizers…look at all the plastic they got in ’em … and the guitar picks … you name it …”
With all the forces George Martin mustered in 1966 – sixteen tape loops and army of BBC whitecoats holding pencils to tape loops to tauten spools of magnetic tape – in 2004 I was able to quite literally pencil a tape drop into a ProTools or Cubase score using the trackpad on my laptop. (Still plastic, still smoke machines. Albeit slightly more efficient.) The finished sound was remarkably similar – same envelope, same formants – but amounted to absolutely nothing…but a start.
…a chance to listen again.