Maximum Volume offers a glimpse into the mind, the music, and the man behind the sound of the Beatles. George Martin’s working-class childhood and musical influences profoundly shaped his early career in the BBC’s Classical Music department and as head of the EMI Group’s Parlophone Records. Out of them flowed the genius behind his seven years producing the Beatles’ incredible body of work, including such albums as Rubber Soul, Revolver,Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Abbey Road. The first book of two, Maximum Volume traces Martin’s early years as a scratch pianist, his life in the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War, and his groundbreaking work as the head of Parlophone Records when Martin saved the company from ruin after making his name as a producer of comedy recordings. In its most dramatic moments, Maximum Volume narrates the story of Martin’s unlikely discovery of the Beatles and his painstaking efforts to prepare their newfangled sound for the British music marketplace. As the story unfolds, Martin and the band craft numerous number-one hits, progressing toward the landmark album Rubber Soul—all of which bear Martin’s unmistakable musical signature.
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About the Author
Kenneth Womack’s books include Sound Pictures, Long and Winding Roads, The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, The Beatles Encyclopedia, and New Critical Perspectives on the Beatles. He delivers some fifty invited Beatles talks a year to audiences across the nation, while sharing his insights with media of all stripes, including National Public Radio, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Voice of America.
Read an Excerpt
MADE IN GREAT BRITAIN
Long before he emerged as the most acclaimed producer of his generation, George Martin revealed himself to be a childhood prodigy. In contrast with the scruffy lads from Liverpool who strode into the stately halls of Abbey Road Studios on that fateful evening in June 1962, Martin had enjoyed many years of genuine musical promise, but like the Beatles, he, too, had seen his share of working-class toil and anguish. His earliest memory of music was at age "three or four," when he "gravitated" toward the family's upright piano and began playing "funny Chopsticks things." At the tender age of eight, he wrote his first composition, "The Spider's Dance," after half a dozen lessons on the old upright. A quick-spirited ragtime number, "The Spider's Dance" seemed to herald great things to come in young George's life.
But in truth, no one in his family had an aptitude for music. "My parents weren't at all musical," he later recalled. "I guess I was a one-off." The piano had found its way into the Martins' life because of an uncle's job in a piano factory. Nothing more, nothing less. And while the person who greeted the London record business some twenty-four years later would sport a pleasingly posh accent, his upbringing was decidedly blue collar. He was working class all the way. The man history now knows as "Sir George" was born George Henry Martin, the youngest child of Henry and Bertha (née Simpson) Martin, on January 3, 1926, at the Royal Northern Hospital in Holloway Road, North London. At the time of his birth, the Martin family lived in a tiny converted garage in Highbury Mews, just off Holloway Road. For Henry and Bertha, infant George and his older sister, Irene, aged three and a half, were more than just the product of a growing family — they were two mouths to feed in truly burdensome times. As the Great Depression mounted across the 1930s, Henry, who went by Harry, found work as a craftsman carpenter to be in increasingly short supply. In the meantime, he moved his young family from the converted garage to nearby Drayton Park. Young George's earliest memories find their roots in his first real home, the second apartment on the top floor of a semidetached house. In later years, he recalled the nearby Sunlight Laundry and, just around the corner, a church hall run by Donald Soper — "a young man with patent leather hair," in Martin's recollection, who found fame as a BBC television personality and religious activist.
The Martins' new home was a two-room apartment with an attic and a large sitting room with windows overlooking the road. In the rear was his parents' bedroom, while George and Irene shared a foldaway bed in the sitting room. But that is where any luxury that might be found in the Martins' new accommodations ended. As it happened, their apartment had no electricity. Instead, they were forced to rely on coal fires and gas lighting. The sitting room itself was lit by two wall-mounted gas brackets that bookended the fireplace. George remembered having to be very careful in handling the delicate gas mantels so as not to damage them. Any misstep might leave the family without light and warmth, not to mention an invoice that, as the depressed 1930s wore on, would be extremely difficult to pay.
Perhaps even worse, the Martins' apartment lacked both a kitchen and a lavatory. Indeed, there wasn't a bathroom in the entire building. A sink with cold running water was available on a half landing down a flight of stairs, while the lavatory itself awaited three floors down in the back of the house, where the Martin children took their baths in a tin tub. Without a proper kitchen to prepare the family's meals, Bertha had to make do with a communal gas stove on the landing. But for all of the apartment's shortcomings, it featured one redeeming aspect: the tiny attic rooms where Harry created a makeshift workshop to carry out his trade.
In George's memory, his father was "the most honest person I have ever known." As one considers the breadth of the extraordinary career that awaited young George — and the unflinching manner in which he would invariably conduct his life and business — it is not difficult to ferret out his father's indelible influence. In George's early years, Harry made his living as a highly skilled wood machinist and a gifted carpenter. In those days, he worked for a firm that fitted out public houses and bars, particularly the finely crafted mahogany trimmings associated with the most stately and glamorous pubs of that era. For Harry, the real attraction was the wood itself. As George recalled, his father not only adored his work but also had a "love affair" with wood. "He used to bring home a piece of wood and encourage us to feel it," George wrote. "He was absolutely besotted with the stuff, but because of that he was always very poor, finding it very difficult to get work."
And by the time that the Depression was in full swing, finding work had become all but impossible for Harry. For two long years, he was out of a job, and the family had little money to call their own. Things came to a head during George's fifth year, when he contracted scarlet fever. Under British law, his parents were required to report the disease. Yet Bertha, nicknamed "Cissie" by her relatives, took the law into her own hands, preferring to care for her young son at home rather than subjecting him to the trauma of going to a hospital. As a nurse during the First World War, she had learned to hate hospitals and refused to subject her son to their misery. In one of young George's earliest memories, he recalled seeing a vendor passing by on the street below their apartment on a Wall's tricycle, complete with a wooden chest balanced on the front wheels and brimming with ice-cream treats. Still recovering from his bout with scarlet fever, George begged his mother for an ice cream. To his great confusion, Bertha broke into tears, saying, "Darling, I haven't got any money." As he bluntly recalled, the young family was "that broke." George would long remember his father's desperate efforts to comfort his son against the raging elements during one particularly frigid winter of his youth. "I have a vivid memory of a very cold winter," he said. "My feet were freezing, and he knew this, and we didn't have a hot water bottle. So he got an old can, which used to hold petrol or oil, cleaned it out, filled it with hot water, wrapped it in towels, and put it by my feet." As George's eldest son would remark years later, things became so desperate at this point in their lives that the young Martin family's most abiding ambition "was simply to be warm," given their impoverished environs at the time.
The Martins' rescue finally came in the form of Harry's job hawking newspapers on Cheapside, just opposite St. Paul's Cathedral. As George remembered, "I think he may have got that job through my mother's side of the family, which we always regarded as somehow the grander side. The men, my uncles and my grandfather, used to run the Evening Standard vans 'round London, and they earned quite good money for those days. I always regarded them as my rich relations." Earning Harry all of thirty shillings per week, the job "saved our bacon," George later wrote: "I recall going with my mother to take him some sandwiches one icy winter's day, and seeing him standing on that freezing corner with the wind howling around him, trying to keep warm. I felt sorry for him." Finally, after the worst years of the Great Depression had abated, Harry found work again in the wood machinery business in London's East End. Having suddenly returned to his element, Harry was happy again. In addition to his work as a wood machinist, he took private commissions to build custom furniture. As George remembered, Harry "was a marvelous craftsman," and "he made us tables, and sideboards, and cabinets, and beds, and toys for Irene and me. But never chairs. For some reason, he never made chairs." In yet another early memory, George recalled accompanying his father on a delivery in which Harry borrowed a fruit vendor's wheelbarrow to transport a custom-made wooden cabinet to a far-flung customer. For young George, the long walk made for "quite an adventure." Afterward, his father pushed the wheelbarrow back across London with little George as its only passenger, having fallen asleep atop some loose sacking.
In addition to building the Martins' own furniture, Harry designed several pieces for sale, including one extraordinary item — "a standard lamp that looked rather like Nelson's Column, with a fluted column and a square base with claw feet." George recalled, "It was beautifully done, all bas-relief in mahogany, and my mother loved that lamp." As for Bertha, she was independent minded and, like her husband, determined to make it in spite of the social and economic despair of 1930s England. Along with Harry, she was resolute in providing the best of everything for her young family. She worked as a seamstress and a maid to make extra money. In spite of their lack of disposable income, Bertha and Harry worked tirelessly on behalf of George and Irene while always ensuring that they were properly clothed and fed. "Although we had no money," George later recalled, "I never thought we were poverty-stricken, and we never went without." Indeed, in spite of everything, "we lived comfortably enough. It was a pretty normal childhood."
In 1931 circumstances forced the family to move yet again — this time less than a mile away to a three-room apartment above a working dairy on nearby Aubert Park, just to the east of the Arsenal football club's behemoth stadium. The accommodations were about the same as the family's previous apartment, only this time they had four gas mantels suspended in the middle of the sitting room, providing much more light than the two around the fireplace back on Drayton Park. Aubert Park also marked the first time that young George enjoyed the benefits of having electricity. Better still, life in the new family digs was also marked by the presence of that piano. According to his sister, Irene, the family originally purchased the instrument from a beloved uncle's piano company back when they lived at Highbury Mews. As George recalled, "A piano then was what the television set has become now, not simply a piece of furniture but a focus for family gatherings, and we managed to acquire one through the good offices of Uncle Cyril, who was in the piano trade. He was the one who always played the piano at parties." When the piano arrived, George was instantly smitten: "I fell in love with it straight away, and went and made noises on it." While Irene began taking lessons from a relative, George had to make do at first with being self-taught, as the family had only enough money to cover one set of lessons. But no matter, George later recalled, "I just made my own music. And I made it rather well! I found I was able to listen to tunes and then pick them out on the piano. Music felt completely natural, and I didn't think there was anything special about it."
When George finally earned his opportunity to enjoy a few piano lessons of his own, he quickly penned "The Spider's Dance," along with a pair of high-minded classical pieces that he whimsically titled "Opus 1" and "Opus 2." Having become a composer at the ripe old age of eight, "I supposed I used to think that I was a genius," he remembered. "You always do when you are a child. Such fanciful ideas." As he later surmised, "I wasn't taught music to begin with. I just grew up feeling music and naturally making music. I can't remember a time where I wasn't making music on the piano." But the lessons, alas, didn't last. "I didn't learn anything from them at all," he later admitted, "and then my mother had a row with the piano teacher, and I never went back."
When he turned five, young George was enrolled in Our Lady of Sion, the school on Holloway Road that Irene attended. George's early education clearly reflected his mother's staunch Roman Catholic beliefs. Three years later, he was enrolled in St. Joseph's, a Catholic boys' elementary school in Highgate Hill. But for young George, the world changed irrevocably when at age eleven he earned a scholarship to attend St. Ignatius College in Stamford Hill. A Jesuit college where the schoolmasters were Jesuit priests, St. Ignatius challenged George in a variety of ways, ranging from the intellectual and the artistic to the social and the physical. The Martin family had recently moved yet again — this time to Muswell Hill. They lived on Hillside Gardens atop a steep road only a few miles away from St. Ignatius, where George found himself in a "whole new world." "I enjoyed football, and played some cricket too," he recalled. "I loved art and maths, and was fascinated by aerodynamics and aircraft design. I quite enjoyed languages, learning French, Latin, and Ancient Greek." He remembered his St. Ignatius teachers with a special fondness, particularly Father Gillespie, a "fearsome" presence who instilled a love of language in his young charges. Not surprisingly, George was especially taken with choir — so much so, in fact, that he sang every day during Easter week, staying at the college rather than going home for the night.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, George was thirteen and Irene, now seventeen, had taken a job with Sun Life of Canada's London insurance office. With England's and France's declarations of war against Nazi Germany, the "Phoney War" ensued. During the eight-month period that comprised the Phoney War, there was nothing in the way of military land operations until May 1940, when German forces attacked France and the Low Countries. In spite of the relative quietude in London before the Blitz, Bertha was certain that Alexandra Palace, which was less than half a mile from the Martins' home, would be bombed. After St. Ignatius was evacuated to Welwyn Garden City, about twenty miles north of London, George and his mother temporarily relocated to Cambridge, while Harry and Irene stayed behind in London. When Sun Life of Canada shifted their offices to Bromley, on the outskirts of the southern English countryside, Bertha decided to move the entire family to Kent, where George enrolled in the Bromley County School.
In spite of the dislocation associated with his family's wartime evacuation, George continued to pursue his various passions without interruption. As he later observed, "I had carried on with the piano on my own; once you are interested in something like that, you can find out about it without even going to the library and looking things up. A piano is a great tool for finding out about music, about the relationships between one note and another. I remember getting very excited when I discovered a new chord, and especially so when one day I realized that there was a natural cycle of chords." Years later, George would discover that he possessed that rare gift of perfect pitch. Also known as absolute pitch, perfect pitch refers to a person's natural ability to identify or play a particular musical note without benefit of a reference tone. As George later wrote, "I was also able to work out, for example, that there were only three diminished chords in the whole range, and that they had different inversions." This ability to distinguish between various sounds and intuitively understand their musical interrelationships would emerge as an asset throughout his formative years and beyond.
For their part, the Martin family could hardly begin to account for young George's innate musical talent. "I started playing things like 'Liebestraum,' and various Chopin pieces, by ear. Where that gift came from, I don't know. There were certainly no professional musicians anywhere in the family. They just assumed 'George is the musical one ... let him get on with it.'" Life at the Bromley County School proved to be a great boon for George's development as a budding musician. The city of Bromley benefitted from a large local musical society, and his school occasionally played host to the likes of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In fact, he experienced an epiphany in 1941, when the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Sir Adrian Boult, performed Claude Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune at fifteen-year-old George's school. "I thought it was absolutely heavenly," he recalled. "I couldn't believe human beings made that sound." But even in the early moments, George found himself enrapt with the making of music as much as with its aesthetic beauty. It was his first brush with the "tingle factor" — that uncanny instant when the human spirit is awakened by the aesthetic power of music. "I could see these men in their monkey-jackets, scraping away at pieces of gut with horsehair and blowing into funny instruments with bits of cane on their ends. But the mechanical things I saw simply didn't relate to the dream-like sound I heard. It was sheer magic, and I was completely enthralled."
Excerpted from "Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin"
Copyright © 2017 Kenneth Womack.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: "Good God, What've We Got 'Ere?",
1 Made in Great Britain,
2 The Big Smoke,
3 A House in St. John's Wood,
4 "Frustration Has Many Fathers",
5 An Instant Friendship,
6 "I Don't Like Your Tie",
7 "Liverpool? You're Joking!",
8 585 Minutes,
9 Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!,
10 El Dorado,
11 A Really Big Shew,
12 The Four Mop-Tops,
13 Martin's Revenge,
14 Off the Beatle Track,
15 "Can We Have That on the Record?",
16 Yesterday and Today,
17 Something in the AIR,
18 Plastic Soul,
Epilogue: Life Begins at Forty,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great recounting of the heady early days of Sir George with Parlophone through the mid-Beatles era. Wonderful details almost put you in the room. Can’t wait for Part 2!