Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin, The Early Years, 1926-1966

  • By Kenneth Womack
  • Chicago Review Press
  • 368 pp.

The first in a two-volume series about the genius behind the geniuses.

The shamelessly self-promoting New York disc jockey Murray the K loudly claimed the moniker “Fifth Beatle” with more volume than validity. Manager Brian Epstein was too refined and polite to overtly nominate himself. Friends and assistants Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall too humble, and realistic, to overstate their impact.

If there were a fifth Beatle, it’s a slam-dunk to say it was producer George Martin. From making a change to the tempo in “Please Please Me,” turning a solid Roy Orbison knockoff into a big hit, to fusing versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” into the miraculous song we recognize today, Martin was the translator who helped John Lennon and Paul McCartney articulate their visions.

He cajoled when needed, applauded at the right times, and frequently provided historical musical touchpoints that informed the unique Beatles sound. The man knew how to produce. Surprisingly, while the Beatles canon rivals that of Abraham Lincoln in the nonfiction publishing space, a relatively scant amount of attention has been bestowed upon Martin.

In Maximum Volume, the first of a planned two-part work, author and historian Kenneth Womack wants to right that wrong. Readers might be tempted to speed-read through Martin’s pre-Beatles years. Don’t. Some of the most interesting portions of the book, certainly the most revelatory, dispel several myths about the producer and his early days.

I’m a big Beatles nerd, but I had no idea Martin grew up in such poverty. As a child, he lived in what would only generously be called an apartment. It lacked a kitchen, toilet, and electricity. Martin took baths in a tin tub in the building’s shared facilities three floors down.

He was a rung or two below the working-class Beatles economically. Ironically, it was the original “Working Class Hero” himself, Lennon, who was the most solidly middle class. Martin worked hard to play the part of an upper-crust aristocrat. It worked. He impressed the Beatles with his urbanity and cool presence. His bearing and demeanor earned their respect. His droll humor helped cement it.

Womack busts another commonplace myth: The Beatles did not “save” Martin’s career. Too often, books and articles about the Fabs dismiss Martin as a backwater producer floundering away in the bowels of the building.

On the contrary, he moved steadily up the corporate ladder and, by the time he met the Beatles, was the head of Parlophone Records. True, he specialized in comedy albums with the likes of Peter Sellers, but his work saved the company from financial ruin.

Musically rough with relatively uninspired self-penned songs, the Beatles were rejected by record labels all over London in 1962. Finally, Martin’s label signed them to a very noncommittal contract to record a few songs as an audition. This is where Martin and the Beatles transformed each other.

Unlike other producers, Martin was astute enough to sense the band might have something special, even in that sloppy audition. He later reflected, “I did think they had enormous talent, but it wasn’t their music, it was their charisma, the fact that when I was with them they gave me a sense of well-being, of being happy.”

Martin and the Beatles inspired each other and fueled a staggering upward trajectory in just a few short years. From the plodding, simple “Love Me Do,” to the sophistication of “Michelle” and “Norwegian Wood” on “Rubber Soul,” it’s a transformation we take for granted today. It was by no means inevitable, of course. Without Martin, the Beatles in all likelihood wouldn’t be the band we continue to revere nearly half a century after they broke up.

Maximum Volume tantalizes readers by ending in early 1966, just as Martin and the band are about to embark on what many consider their finest hour — or 38 minutes, to be precise. The landmark “Revolver” album, featuring genre-busting songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” arguably changed the landscape of pop music.

Without giving too much away in the sequel, manager Brian Epstein becomes less of a force as the years go by. Good old Mal Evans, still carrying suitcases and serving tea in the studio, and Neil Aspinall, a trusted lieutenant mostly on the financial side, remain important, if limited, parts of the Beatles’ circle.

It’s Martin who steadfastly remains the Fifth Beatle, especially during the recording of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His role will change as the Beatles mature in the studio, but his presence is felt straight through Abbey Road.

Luckily, Womack promises to take us down that fascinating long and winding road, too.

[Editor’s note: Is there a finer song than “Hey Jude”? There is not.]

Michael Causey is co-host of Get Up! Monday mornings on 94.3 FM and takomaradio.org.

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