Over 10 years ago, famed record producer George Martin, who is often referred to as “the 5th Beatle,” used his considerable influence to start the ball rolling on a series of interviews with famous record producers and musicians.
Martin’s influence led to an 8-series PBS piece that will air in mid-November, entitled: “Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music.” It premiered at South by Southwest and documentary producer Julia Marchesi was with the film to explain its genesis. Marchesi told the audience at the Alamo Drafthouse (Slaughter Lane) on St. Patrick’s Day that some of the interviews were done as long ago as 2006. This is clear when we see the legendary Johnny Cash, B.B. King, and Martin, himself, all now gone.
Among the record producers who discuss their role in making music are Brian Eno, Jimmy Iovine (U2), Quincy Jones, Don Was, Jimmy Jam (Janet Jackson), Paul Epworth (Tom Petty), Rick Rubin (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash), Darryl McDaniels (Run DMC), Tricky Steward (Rihanna, Beyonce), Martin himself, and a host of others, plus some of the artists associated with these world class producers.
“When it comes to making a hit record, one of the biggest mysteries is the role of the producer,” the movie tells us, and 150 famous folk dive into that mystery, giving us a peek at producers of yesteryear like Mitch Miller (Tony Bennett) and Sam Phillips, the legendary owner/producer of Sun Records in Memphis.
Phillips is heard to say of his work with Elvis Presley, “The next thing I knew, Elvis cut loose on ‘That’s All Right, Mama.’ If I couldn’t make it with this, I could never make it on anything!” The legendary B. B. King is seen commenting on the raw black sound that Phillips was intent on recording for the world. “The essence of Sun Records was to get these artists to display their God-given talent…For Sam (Phillips), it was about pulling whatever they had inside out.”
Tom Petty relates how producer Paul Epworth helped shape “Free Falling,” even contributing the title of the song and says, “That’s the whole point of having someone sitting in the booth.”
George Martin relates how, when he first met the Beatles, they had been turned down by every other recording studio. He was older than the Fab Four and thought they had charisma. Says Martin, “When I first met them, they knew nothing about the studio. George had not even played rock and roll.” All agree that Martin added himself into the picture, inserting instrumentation suggestions and other improvements because he was “older and wiser.” Martin relates how Paul McCartney brought him the melody for “Yesterday,” which he said he had heard in his head. McCartney’s question was whether he had unconsciously picked it up from another artist, but Martin assured him it was a new song. Martin also suggested they needed to put strings on “Yesterday.” This initially frightened McCartney, who associated strings with classical music, which he was frightened of, feeling he was out of his depth. When Paul brought Martin “Eleanor Rigby” and Martin suggested the lush instrumentation that was the first time the band had not played on their records. Early in their recording career, it took them only 12 hours to cut their first albums, which were comprised, essentially, of the songs they played onstage. Says Questlove: “It was just so smart. George Martin obviously knew his stuff. He knew how to put it on a Beatles record. It’s a very different art than performing live. His influence was so mighty.”
The film moved on to the influence of Phil Spector and his “wall of sound.” We hear “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers and see him working with Tina Turner on “River Deep, Mountain High.” In order to get the lush sound, Phil would hire 2 or 3 times the musicians. Says Roger Waters of “Pink Floyd,” “One violin sounds like shit. Even 8 is crappy. Double the musicians.” Although Spector would frequently require 29 or 30 takes on a song, he often would return to the third or fourth take to use on the record. “He abused the technology, the musicians, to get the sound.”
DIY musicians like Joni Mitchell (she had it put in her contract that she would not have to use a producer), Sly of “Sly and the Family Stone”, and Tom Scholz of “Boston” were discussed. Said Questlove, “You couldn’t think of anyone telling Sly what to do in the studio. On his 5th album, ‘It’s A Family Affair,’ he played all the instruments and sang all the parts. He was a huge musical innovator back in 1971, setting the gold standard for funky music.” Scholz actually made the record and then formed the band, getting Brad Delp to sing the lead vocals.
The influence of “Pet Sounds” and “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is discussed, and the rappers like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg are included.
The big conclusion in the second installment of the 8-part series is that, although Les Paul invented it, the multi-tracking possible with computers has forged music that can be made in one’s basement with a computer. Gradually, with multi-tracking, songs came to be made that were no longer just a simplistic recording of the group singing. “Magnetic tape just changed music completely.”
Martin reappeared later in the narrative to say that when the Beatles quit touring, they were better able to focus on recording in the studio. The music they made early on was pretty basic, but it evolved when they had more time in the studio and they were “over that basic phase by 1966 making music that could not exist outside a record. The Beatles revolutionized the way records were made. The rule book was out the window.” He reveals that the Beatles always looked for other sounds on their records, sounds discovered by making loops and speeding them up or slowing them down. For the recording of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” John Lennon wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama, chanting from a mountain top. The revolving speaker was created for this purpose and it kicks in on the record about one and one-half minutes in. Martin called it, “A prophecy of pop music in one song—sampling, scratching. We were creating a new kind of music, fantasy stuff.” When the Beatles recorded “A Day in the Life” they created an album that was like a theatrical construction. It opened a Pandora’s Box for everyone. You have to throw your musical imagination into it.”
Among the other artist we hear from are Annie Lennox (“the Eurythmics”), Elton John, who says there was “an explosion of creativity in the 60s to mid 70s that I don’t think will ever be matched again,” Patrick Carney of “The Black Keys,” Beck, Bon Iver (who created his music on a Mac 0S9 with ProTools, and St. Vincent. My daughter’s favorite band, “Radiohead” are also featured.
Said Producer Julia Marchesi, “Because of George Martin’s influence we were able to get 116 interviews that cover voice and recording vocals; electrification; sampling; evolution of musical formats and, as George Martin termed it, “Painting with sound.”
Marchesi described the 8-part series as “a huge undertaking” and said the initial meetings were very contentious, with each producer fighting for the inclusion of a different artist.
It promises to be a musical feast for viewers in mid-November on PBS.