When I'm 85! Still grooving, the man who 'invented The Beatles'
George Martin reveals all about life with -- and after -- The Beatles, including his favourite song, to Daniel Finkelstein
'I found it rather absurd that I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." Mmm.
Now let's see. I am talking to George Martin, the man who gave The Beatles their first recording contract when no one else would have them; the man whose production genius lifted their music; who produced (in Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) what is still regarded by many as the finest pop album ever; who changed the way people recorded and even listened to rock music.
No, on balance I'd have to disagree. It wasn't absurd to induct him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But as I sit with the 85-year-old in the lounge of his London apartment and talk about his career, which is the subject of a new BBC Arena documentary tonight, I slowly begin to grasp why he said it.
It wasn't false modesty, because there is nothing false about him. It was an insight into how he sees himself.
When, in the early 1960s, The Beatles were turned down by label after label, they became increasingly desperate. They weren't to know that it was tremendous good fortune.
Because repeated rejection made them turn to their last hope, a tiny label called Parlophone, headed by a young executive called George Martin. And here they found not just someone to take them on but someone who understood them as they, at the time, didn't understand themselves.
And the reason for this was partly that he wasn't a rock'n'roll man. Classically trained (at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama) and a producer of classical records, when Martin listens to music these days it is to the great composers. "Bach, Debussy, Ravel, Fauré. Even Tchaikovsky. Mainly the syrupy stuff," he laughs.
He also hasn't exactly lived a rock'n'roll life. When I arrive at his flat I am greeted by his wife Judy, whom he met at Parlophone in 1950 and married 45 years ago.
He even suggests that he could have ended up in a different career altogether. His family were not musical (his father was a carpenter) and entirely lacked the connections to aid his professional life.
But he was overheard playing on the piano at the end of an army concert by a music professor who helped him get a musical education and then put him up for a job with EMI.
But what first produced the bond between him and the four lads from Liverpool?
"I wasn't music at all. It was comedy." Martin wasn't sure The Beatles were all that good. But they made him laugh. And they were in awe of his work as a comedy producer.
But Martin was looking for something else. Parlophone needed something more reliable to produce an income.
Nowadays the arrival of The Beatles is thought of as a social watershed, a leap across a generational divide. But it didn't seem like that to Martin at the time. "I recognise now, looking back, there was quite a dividing line -- perhaps more a comma -- marking the difference between the 1950s and 1960s.
"But there was no distinction for me. My work was continuous. I was still recording comedy people when I was recording The Beatles. I was still recording the orchestral stuff and Shirley Bassey."
He takes this view at least partly, I think, because of his resolute refusal to take himself too seriously.
When asked about the worship The Beatles still attract, the endless examination and discussion, he says: "You see, I can't be rational about this, because The Beatles aren't The Beatles to me as they are to someone on the street.
"You ask them what they think of The Beatles and they say: 'Oh, they are fantastic.' The Beatles are four people I knew very well, and two of them are still living. So it's not this big icon that everybody talks about.
"I still find it difficult to believe that they are probably the finest rock band we've ever had, or the most famous, or whatever. But I can't look at them like that."
I wonder how he feels about his own iconic status. "Yeah, but I'm not an icon like they are. They are the biggest thing ever. No. I don't want to be any more famous than I am. Would you like to be Paul McCartney? I wouldn't. That's the last thing I would like."
But his ability to remain grounded doesn't lead him to underestimate their achievement altogether. He may regard it as just work, but he knows The Beatles' work was very good.
"I think we recorded well over 200 titles and of those probably 60% were great songs. I mean not just a pass-by thing, but really great. And I would have given my teeth to have written even one of them."
I am unable to resist asking the most clichéd of all Beatles questions. "Do you have a favourite song?" He grimaces slightly: "Not really, no. People ask me this all the time."
But when I promise to tell him mine if he tells me his, the characteristic Martin humour and courtesy triumphs and he relents. I say 'Here, There and Everywhere' and he replies: "Well now, if I ever give an answer, I take it into Paul and John's territory. If it's Paul, I say 'Here, There and Everywhere' and if it's John, 'Strawberry Fields Forever'."
His pride comes out when he tells me about John Lennon's comment that he would like to have rerecorded everything that The Beatles ever did.
"I said to him: 'I can't believe that. Think of all we've done and you want to rerecord everything?' 'Yeah, everything.' And I said: 'What about 'Strawberry Fields'?' And he looked at me and said: 'Especially 'Strawberry Fields'.' Which I was very disappointed with. If he felt that way about it, he should have recorded the bloody thing himself."
Towards the end of The Beatles' recording career, Lennon and George Harrison took the tapes of Let It Be and asked the 'wall of sound' producer Phil Spector to work on them. When Martin heard that, despite working on the originals, he was to be left off the album credit, he suggested the cover read: "Produced by George Martin, overproduced by Phil Spector."
His analysis of Spector -- recently jailed for murder -- turned out to be shrewd. "He's an idiot, really. I thought he was a genius when I first heard 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' and all the other stuff he did with The Ronettes, and so on. But he's crazy. John worked with him and he came to me, complaining: 'That guy's crazy.'
"Spector would come into the studio like a Mexican bandit, bands of cartridges crisscrossed over his chest, guns in each holster and he would fire guns in the studio."
Even a little of such behaviour is unacceptable to Martin. Perhaps because he is the real deal, he finds ill-mannered high jinks contemptible.
And when I ask about The X Factor, he replies: "I think it's awful. There's so much sort of envious competition, there's so much looking for freaks, and I hate the put-downs by the critics, the people on the panel. Particularly Simon Cowell. So unnecessarily rude to people. I do like manners."
Martin's schedule is still busy. We talk about his visit to Las Vegas for the fifth anniversary of The Beatles' Love show.
He'd spent three years working on the show, remixing The Beatles' music into a single stunning 90-minute piece of music. I suspect a large part of why Martin liked it himself had to do with working on it with his son Giles, which had been a very happy experience.
"We have a similar sense of humour, and we love each other, it's as simple as that. And love is terribly important. Love and laughter are the keys to life."
Arena: Produced by George Martin is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm