Martin recalled, “The engineer, Jim Foy, liked the sound and he rang me up on the fifth floor. I saw Brian and heard the tapes. Quite frankly, they weren’t very impressive, but there was something peculiar about the way they sounded that I thought should be looked into. I asked Brian to bring them down from Liverpool so that I could have a look at them. I was immediately impressed by them as people, not particularly as musicians, but I did think that they sang in a very unusual and engaging style. I put them under contract knowing that I couldn’t lose very much.”
At that audition, Martin did not care for Pete Best’s drumming and planned to replace him with a session musician.
Ringo Starr joined The Beatles and Martin released “Love Me Do” as a single with a lacklustre version of Mitch Murray’s song “How Do You Do It?”, being discarded. The Beatles thought “How Do You Do It?” was formulaic and Martin challenged them to come up with something better. They submitted “Please Please Me” and after the recording, Martin told them, “Gentlemen, you have just made your first No 1.”
The Beatles took a free day from their tour with Helen Shapiro to make their debut album, Please Please Me. Much has been made of this, but four songs had previously been recorded – and it was standard practice to record four songs in a three-hour session.
Brian Epstein recommended Gerry and the Pacemakers for “How Do You Do It?”, and together with “I Like It” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, they became the first act to hit the top of the charts with their first three records.
When Epstein returned from a trip to America, he gave Martin a copy of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” by Dionne Warwick. Martin thanked him and said that the song would be ideal for Shirley Bassey, whose 1963 hit “I (Who Have Nothing)” Martin had produced. Epstein insisted that he record it with his latest protégé, Cilla Black. Her version went to No 1 – and it led to the song’s composers, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, writing “Alfie” for her. Bacharach played piano and wrote the arrangement, and Martin produced. The film of the event shows Bacharach insisting on take after take. “I think we got it that time,” says Bacharach finally. “I think we got it on Take 2, Burt,” replies Martin, laconically.
Another of Epstein’s charges, Billy J Kramer with the Dakotas, had a string of hits, often with Lennon and McCartney songs. In one extraordinary year from April 1963 to April 1964, Martin’s productions were at No 1 for 40 weeks.
He soon realised that The Beatles were something extraordinary. “The ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ in ‘She Loves You’ was a curious singing chord. It was a major sixth with George Harrison doing the sixth and the other two the third and the fifth. It was the way Glenn Miller wrote for the saxophone.” He chose the best musicians to supplement their sound, notably recruiting David Mason from the New Philharmonia Orchestra to play piccolo trumpet on “Penny Lane”. Martin himself played an electric piano (which was speeded up) on “In My Life”.
To begin with, Martin, his engineer (Norman “Hurricane” Smith, who became a hitmaker in his own right) and his tape operator (Geoff Emerick) tried to accurately reproduce how The Beatles would perform a song in a club, but that soon changed.
The Beatles had feedback on the start of “I Feel Fine”, a sitar was brought in for “Norwegian Wood” and Paul was backed by a string quartet on “Yesterday”. Simplistically, Martin realised Lennon’s ideas and orchestrated McCartney’s compositions.
Martin’s role became more complex as more tracks became available, although even as late as 1968, he used only four-tracks for most of The White Album. He would experiment with different speeds, repeated loops and backward tapes.
In November 1966, “Strawberry Fields Forever” provided evidence of Martin’s experimental intuition. They recorded the song in two different arrangements, in different keys and tempos. Lennon was not satisfied with either, and asked Martin to merge them. By changing the speed on the recorders, Martin combined the versions, culminating in what we hear today.
Martin had nearly left EMI at the start of 1962 as he believed he should be getting a cut of the royalties of successful records he produced. Even in 1965, he was only earning £3,000 a year – a decent salary, but minuscule compared to the millions of pounds his records were generating. Unable to persuade EMI, he established a team of independent producers, AIR (Associated Independent Recordings) with himself, John Burgess, Ron Richards and Peter Sullivan.
It was a gamble and EMI could have decided, out of spite, not to use them again. However, they still wanted Martin to produce The Beatles, but this time they would have to pay. Even so, the royalty rate that Martin negotiated was only one-fifth of one per cent.