Thursday 29 September 2016

Dermot Bolger: How 'Fifth Beatle' created a soundtrack of our lives

Dermot Bolger

Published 12/03/2016 | 02:30

The late George Martin with Ringo Starr accepting an award in 2008. Photo: AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
The late George Martin with Ringo Starr accepting an award in 2008. Photo: AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
The Beatles in 1967. Photo: PA Wire

Even in 1962, the Irish singer Brendan Bowyer was an experienced musician, with an eye for new talent and an awareness that talent needed nurturing.

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That is why, when he was lead singer with the Royal Showband, who had just topped the bill at the Liverpool Empire Theatre, he paused in the car park afterwards to give words of encouragement to four young local musicians sitting on a wall who had played as a support act to open the show.

They definitely had something, he assured them, and should stick with it. Bowyer was right. They had something and they stuck with for another eight years. But what an eight years it was. It transformed 20th Century music, with recordings that remain as vibrant now as when their journey together ended in acrimony in 1970.

Those four young men were The Beatles. While they undoubtedly appreciated Bowyer's advice in 1962, it was their meeting with another man, George Martin, in that same year which forever changed their lives and the face of music. It is a sign of the enduring legacy of The Beatles that, 46 years after they broke up, the death this week of their innovative record producer made global headlines. It marked the loss of another link to those eight years of mayhem and experimentation, when The Beatles lost and yet somehow miraculously regained their innocence.

George Martin - who was 90 when he died last Tuesday - may not have been on stage when girls shrieked so loudly at The Beatles that eventually they ceased to play live. He may have been uncomfortable with the moniker of 'The Fifth Beatle' that he was saddled with. But this one-time student of piano and oboe made an indelible impact on their journey from 'Love Me Do' (released shortly after their encounter with Brendan Bowyer) to the final release of 'Let It Be' in 1970.

The playwright Noel Coward remarked that the process of growing up and living our lives is like being asked to give a violin recital in public while still only learning to play the violin. This scrutiny, as we stumble towards self-awareness, is intensified a million-fold if you suddenly find yourself in the most famous pop band on earth, at the age of just 22 (like John Lennon) or 19 (like George Harrison), when your lives are utterly transformed.

But if life forces you to give that imaginary violin recital in public, while still only learning, then what an extraordinary fortuitous thing it must have been to have a man like Martin - grounded in classical music but utterly open to innovation - in your corner, or at the controls in your recording studio.

The Beatles were still prisoners of the three-minute pop song when they arrived in Dublin in November 1963. Here they caused frenzied crescendos of collective rapture among females in the packed Adelphi cinema, which previously could only have been conceivable in Ireland if Count John McCormack had slowly stripped naked while singing 'Panis Angelicus' during the Eucharistic Congress.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience - or would have been if Harry Lush, the Adelphi's legendary manager, hadn't tried to replicate the 7pm performance with a second 9pm performance. This caused a riot in Middle Abbey Street as the irresistible force of 2,000 overwrought teenage girls leaving from the early show met the immovable object of 2,000 overwrought teenage girls trying to force their way into the Adelphi for the later show.

While young garda recruits, fresh from Templemore, found themselves at the epicentre of what looked like a bacchanalian rampage directed by Cecil B DeMille, a young journalist observed it from the doorway of The Oval Bar before strolling to the 'Irish Press' offices to write a brilliant report about it. He was Donal McCann and soon afterwards, journalism's loss became the Irish theatre's gain, when he focused on acting instead.

Meanwhile, amid the chaos inside the Adelphi, the young Beatles did what young men can easily do twice in one night and before the audience's screams of rapture had died away, they were whisked to safety, out the back door and into an 'Evening Herald' delivery van.

I don't know what John, Ringo and Paul did for the night, but George set off with his mother, who - being from a strong Liverpool-Irish family - had come over to meet numerous Irish cousins. Indeed, being from Liverpool, all four Beatles had sufficient Irish connections to have played for Ireland, if Jack Charlton had been our football manager a half century earlier. Even the quintessentially English Ringo had Mayo roots.

Family estrangements meant that John Lennon knew little of his Irish roots when growing up - though he became increasingly interested in them - but his main connection was that the IRA's Sean Russell, who preferred goose-stepping to jiving, tried to murder Lennon's mother Julia, during his 1939 bombing campaign against British civilians when a gas bomb exploded in the cinema where she worked as an usherette.

Liverpool has built a tourist industry around them and nobody can seriously claim them as Irish, except in the sense that their music belongs to us, like it belongs to all mankind. If you stand at his monument in Central Park, John Lennon feels like the quintessential New Yorker. But in some ways, all four were the quintessential young men with inquisitive minds, mischievous and serious, sufficiently curious to want to have their talent stretched to its absolute limit in search of 'newness'.

The engine of curiosity that drove them, and which eventually drove them apart, was nurtured by the great producer who died this week. Phil Spector didn't create a 'Wall of Sound', but a mishmash where sounds got lost. George Martin took the increasingly strange requests for new sounds from the four Beatles and created prisms of sound where, amid the juxtapositions of myriad noises, every note remained clear and fresh.

Ezra Pound declared poetry to be news that stays news. The Beatles records which Martin produced still remain fresh for Irish listeners and global listeners because nobody had ever attempted such sounds before. Therefore, nothing that came after could have that same sense of originality and discovery. Martin textured what has become the soundtrack of our lives. It will live on long after the last of those four young men, who were once bundled into an 'Evening Herald' van, have passed away.

Dermot Bolger's new novel, 'Tanglewood', and his selected poems, 'That Which is Suddenly Precious', have both just been published by New Island.

Irish Independent

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