“Back in the USSR” is back in the top 10. Or the album that contains it is, anyway. Newly released 50thanniversary editions of “The Beatles,” popularly known as the White Album, are selling in strong enough amounts that the group’s 1968 landmark is expected to easily reenter the top 10 of the sales chart for the first time in close to five decades when first-week figures are revealed. That’s a testament to the love fans have for the glorious sprawl of the original double-LP — but also for the remixes, demos and studio outtakes that make the 3-CD and especially 6-CD versions of the new release indispensible.
Giles Martin, son of the late George Martin, who produced nearly all of the Beatles’ original work, has once again taken to the task of being both remixer and archivist, as he did on last year’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” deluxe editions. Variety sat with the erudite Englishman on a recent visit to Capitol Studios to ask about the rationales for retouching a masterpiece, which bits of conventional wisdom about the album are wrong, and — drum roll, please — whether he’ll stay the 50th anniversary course on future projects. Excerpts from our conversation follow.
VARIETY: The White Album deluxe version is such a different experience than your “Sgt. Pepper” box. With “Sgt. Pepper,” the remix was the most exciting part, and the outtakes were slightly disappointing, just because the tracks were put together kind of piecemeal so you didn’t hear much of the band all playing together at once. Here, in the bonus discs, you’ve got the Beatles jamming, more or less.
MARTIN: Yeah, ironically enough, because the White Album is meant to be [regarded as] this dysfunctional, everyone-is-separate, in-different-rooms record. That’s what I had thought, before. But it just isn’t. It’s them together. And yeah, there’s a much deeper vein of extras for this, because there was less preparation and organization than there was for “Sgt. Pepper,” so it was much more of a free-for-all… It’s like “Sgt. Pepper” was kind of created in the control room, and the White Album was created on the live floor, to a certain degree. It’s a very real record.
There is a sort of meme that goes back decades, promulgated by a lot of us critics at various points, that the White Album is a great combination of four solo albums.
But, I mean, “Fixing a Hole” is a Paul song. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a John song. And that’s “Sgt. Pepper” for you. You know, I don’t think there’s a huge amount of difference. I mean, they’re different types of recording and different types of songs, but… I think there’s a thing with the Beatles where there’s momentum that garners from people saying something one time, and that becomes something people then write books on. Today someone phrased a question a way that was like my dad “maintained” that it should have been a single album. I think he said it once, as a flippant comment. That’s the thing. Like, John said it was the sound of the band breaking up. He said a lot of things in the ‘70s. You know, he said (derogatory) things about my dad, and my dad went to go see him in 1980. He phoned him up and he went to see him a month before he died, and he said “Why did you say all these things, John?” And he went, “I was just high.” So all I have to go on is what’s on tape. The sessions are the sessions, and the sessions are a band recording.
When you were going through outtakes, what were the ones that startled you the most by being something so different from the finished versions? There are non-orchestral versions of “Good Night” that come to mind.
The biggest surprise is finding all of those songs like, you know, during (the) “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (session), when Paul starts playing “Let It Be.” And “Across the Universe” is in there and “Lady Madonna’s” in there and a first take of “Hey Jude” is in there. And you just think, well, you know, when did you bloody stop? And then, yeah, there are alternate takes. it’s interesting to hear “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” which is such a complicated song to play, and the way they try and get it right. With “Good Night,” there’s a version of “Good Night” with my dad just playing the piano, and it reminds me of him. I loved him dearly. And I can imagine… He had very long fingers. He played the piano a certain way, and he played the piano to the template — and you can hear the Beatles producing him playing the piano, which kind of shifted (the dynamic). And that version of “Good Night” is very poignant for me because of him… I think it’s at the beginning of the outtake of “Sexy Sadie” where George says “How fast do you want it?” because he starts it on guitar. And John goes, “Whatever you want, George; you can just feel it.” That’s the process they were going through: you can decide what tempo; no, I’m gonna start singing the song; you just feel it and then we’ll work on it together.
It’s interesting to hear a remix of something like “Savoy Truffle.” That was one of the most rocking songs on the album, but the mix was strange, somehow.
it’s funny because the drums on that are quite delayed. There’s this big slap on the snare drum that stops it from rocking, slightly. That’s the one song my dad walked into the studios and said, “It sounds a bit bright,” and George Harrison went, “Yeah. I know, and I like it.” It’s like, f— off. But yeah… In all honesty, I thought the White Album would be easy to mix because of those frailties in the mix, but you learn as you do this that there’s no such thing as a perfect mix. Some of the best-sounding records are not very well-mixed records — like Sly and the Family Stone’s “Fresh,” But it sounds great because it’s all over the place and it captures your ear. Where we live in the world now of perfect mixes, where you can do everything. And that was the biggest challenge of the White Album. The first time we did (a remix), it just sounded a bit cold to me. It didn’t sound like the White Album. I learned this actually from doing “Love.” I mixed “I Am the Walrus” and different people I was working with said, “Well, this sounds great!” And I listened to the original, and the original sounds so claustrophobic and screwed with… and I realized that that’s better. So it’s not a question of making the Beatles into Steely Dan. You need to make sure that you preserve the feel of the songs. And it’s that thing I get back to; it sounds very arrogant, but I mix the songs how I remember them sounding, and then find out that I’m wrong.
Here’s a question that could be asked of your remixes for both this album and “Sgt. Pepper”: Is the ideal for this to have people listen to it and go “Wow, this sounds completely different than I remember,” or to have people think, “It sounds like it’s always sounded to me”?
It’s not for those people, funnily enough. And it’s not for people that are going to buy it and listen to it over and over and have theories and write books. It’s for a generation that’s never heard a Beatles song. You know, there’s a guy who was the assistant engineer on “Sgt. Pepper” and he’d never heard “Strawberry Fields Forever.” We started mixing it and he goes, “Oh, what song is this?” But there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have done it. He’s 23 years old, and that song is 50 years old. So it’s really for the generation… [Pauses.] I don’t believe that music becomes old. I think we get old and the music stays the same. There’s a reason it’s a record; it’s a timestamp. On “Sgt. Pepper” they’ll always be around 26. They’ll be 27 (forever) on the White Album. You know, they’ll always be that age. And so it’s really mixing it for a generation that’s never heard it, and they go, “Wow, is this a new record?” That’s more interesting to me than people that A/B – and I A/B all time. I sit there going. “Am I wrong?” Of course there’s no wrong or right. But I don’t want to mix Beatles records — nor do the Beatles want me to do this — (just) for a collector’s boxed set. That’s not the motivation. It’s not about buying stuff. It’s about inspiring generations, and that sounds really pretentious, but I’m more into that… So when they put on Ed Sheeran and “Blackbird” next to each other, they think “What’s this song? I love this song.”
With “Sgt. Pepper” there were kind of two reasons to justify a remix: one was that the kind of nerdy reason, which is reconciling the stereo and the mono and getting the best of both, and then the other reason, which you just stated, was that this needed to be sonically relevant to fresh ears. This time it’s really just more about the latter. So what needs to be tweaked, if it’s not too much of an inside baseball thing to describe?
No, it’s a really good question. The White Album, which scared you as a kid, scared you as a kid on 50-year-old speakers. And it’s slightly un-dynamic as an album. So the loud bits can be loud and the quiet bits can be quieter (in the new mix). It was quite a compressed record. It’s compressed for a number of reasons, starting with it being so dynamic in itself that you don’t want the needle to jump out of the groove. And I love the idea that with today’s technology that you can have more of a journey. Opening it out a little bit more, you can hear it a bit more, because it’s less limited. But you have to be careful. The problem is that that limiting and compression gives you aggression. So I needed to make sure I still have the aggression in there, so it hits you across the face again… With technology as it is now, our worst listening experience is much better than what they had in 1968. So, being in the studios at Abbey Road pressing play and hearing stuff, it’s like, Jesus, I’d love people to be able to hear this. So it’s getting us closer to that, especially by peeling off layers of technology, if you like.
The pressure to have something come out to commemorate the anniversary seems like it would naturally be a big motivating factor. So it’s nice when things happen for other reasons, too.
It’s not the only factor. The way “Sgt. Pepper” worked is that we talked about it — and I went to the studios just after my dad died, funnily enough — and then it wasn’t until about five songs in that I phoned up and said, “You know what, actually this is worth doing,” and they went, “Okay.” That’s the way it works. (Apple) is such a small… like, you know, there’s not conference calls or marketing teams. The same with the White Album. We started listening to things, and it wasn’t until I had done a bunch of mixes with Sam and we’d done some extras and we said, “Actually, you know, we could do something here” — as opposed to “This is going to be the project and this is the box we have to fill.” There’s not a requirement to do it. No one gives me a deadline: “You have to finish because we’re doing an anniversary.” It probably drives Universal up the wall, because they have to deal with these bunch of idiots in England (speaking of himself and Apple) that go, “Is it a right thing to do?” And that’s the way it works; it’s not the label. But I think this was the right thing to do.
An inevitable question: Are you going keep doing this? Fans want to know if a 50thanniversary set of “Abbey Road” is on the way next year. I heard you being asked this question today, and your answer was: Let’s just allow ourselves to enjoy this and not be worrying about what’s ahead.
Yeah. I mean, right now I’m working on this Elton John biopic (“Rocket Man”) that’s kind of a rock fantasy, like “Tommy” meets “Moulin Rouge,” and I’m doing all these Elton songs, re-recording them and doing crazy stuff. I’ll be doing that for a while. So, yeah, the answer to that is: I think we have to find a reason. Like with the White Album, as you’ve noticed and picked up, the pure breadth of outtakes and the story that tells is kind of a good reason. With “Sgt. Pepper” we had another thing. So we always have to look for the motivation — not for a marketing angle, but just for myself, to keep my sanity going. So I haven’t even thought about “Abbey Road” yet. In chronology, anyway, “Let It Be” would be next, to answer the question. I mean, they started that in January (1969). So, yeah, I don’t know yet.
Paul, who was always thought to be resistant to putting out the “Let It Be” movie, has recently said he’d be interested in putting out the footage that shows them actually being happy while they were recording that album, as opposed to the tension in the studio that ended up in the movie. So maybe he’s motivated, somehow.
Yeah, exactly right. I mean, I see Paul a lot. I was at Grand Central Station with him in New York, and we talk about things. But yeah, I think we should get over this first. I actually do need to approach each project anew, and you can’t go from one to the other. You can’t do ‘em back to back. You’d go mad. I’d turn into a Beatle. I’d start having arguments with myself in the room.