We talk to Giles Martin about his remixing work on the new anniversary reissue of Let It Be...
As any avid Beatles fan will no doubt be aware, the last few years have seen a string of their albums not only being remastered, but also being thoroughly remixed from the ground up by producer Giles Martin - the son, of course, of the Beatles' producer of choice, George Martin.
So far Giles has worked his magic to produce new stereo mixes of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abbey Road, and their self-titled 1968 album known to most simply as The White Album, but more recently he's turned his attention to their final album to be released before their eventual split: Let It Be.
Originally conceived as project in which the Beatles would, in the space of just a few weeks, write and record a new album's worth of material and then perform their first live concert, in an as-yet unspecified location, in more than three years, documenting the whole process for a fly-on-the-wall style documentary.
The ill-fated recording sessions would become some of their last and while the album is perhaps one of their more overlooked releases, this week - some 50 yeras after its original release - Let It Be returns to stores with a newly-remixed version of the original album, as well as various deluxe packages that include outtakes, rarities, and even a previously unreleased mix of the first album presided over by recording engineer and producer Glynn Johns.
With Let It Be arriving in stores on Friday (October 15) and with Peter Jackson's new series documenting those recrding sessions arriving next month, we spoke to Giles Martin about working on the record, discovering surprises he didn't know existed, and why there are no immedate plans to answer the call from fans to apply his skills to other Beatles albums like Revolver and Rubber Soul...
You’ve worked on several Beatles albums now, but Let It Be was recorded a little differently to the others, did that change the way you had to approach working on this project?
“I suppose the difference with this is that there were very few overdubs. Well, except for the Phil Spector stuff, where there were lots of overdubs. So there wasn’t all the bouncing from 4-tracks like we did with Sgt. Pepper. And the feel of the album is very different, because it’s one of the albums where they were never quite sure whether they were doing a take or doing a rehearsal.
“The recording itself is also slightly compromised, because the rooftop performances like ‘Dig a Pony’ and ‘One after 909’, they all sound really good, but they’re on a rooftop in Savile Row. There was no real proper studio recording, because Savile Row wasn’t really proper studio either, it was room a full of EMI equipment because of Magic Alex not being able to build a studio. So it was a different approach, because this album is much more of a hodge-podge than the others.”
Did the fact that it was recorded in various places present more of a challenge in collating it all?
“Yes, because you’re trying to create a unified sound, I suppose, because you want it to be ‘an album’. The funny thing about Let It Be is - and I feel like I’m getting Stockholm syndrome here and I’m chained to a radiator or something - but I actually really like the album. It’s actually a really good album, and it feels like it’s sort of forgotten about because it’s tucked away behind all the rest, but it’s got ‘Across the Universe’, ‘Let it Be’, ‘Long and Winding Road’, ‘Get Back’. I love ‘Dig a Pony’. It’s got some really good tracks on it, but it’s always felt like a compilation, which of course is sort of what it was.
“So one of the things I’ve tried to do is get some sort of unified sound, so that the Phil Spector stuff, which Paul was never happy with, feels less like it’s tacked on and more like it’s part of the song. We re-amped the strings through Abbey Road and made them sound more ‘Beatlesy’ in a way. Phil Spector was amazing, but it somehow sounds really big coming out of a small speaker and really small coming out of a big one. So that was the intent, to get a more unified sound.”
Just for some context, to what extent had the recording technology advanced by the time the Beatles recorded the final two albums?
“Sgt. Pepper was a four-track, and some of the White Album is four-track, but then they quickly moved on to eight-track. Let it Be and Abbey Road are both eight-track, but the difference with Abbey Road compared to the White Album and Let it Be is the recording desk. They moved to a transformer desk rather than a valve desk, so it’s got a different sound to it. It’s almost like a 70s-sounding record, more like a Fleetwood Mac record to a certain degree. It’s got deeper bass, it’s cleaner. On Let it Be they were still using the old desk.
“Glynn Johns is a brilliant recording engineer and a brilliant producer, but he was compromised in the way that he was recording stuff. The rooftop tracks are some of the best-sounding stuff on the record, and they were recorded outside, in January. But he never really had a proper recording setup to work with at any point."
The original, unreleased mix that Glynn did is on the Super Deluxe version of the album too, with different takes and different sequencing, has that been remixed too?
“The Glynn Johns mix is very different, it’s a very live feel and different takes, different tracks, but we’ve put that on the package as well. He looked after that side of things, they asked me and I just said ‘listen, get Glynn to do his stuff, he’s brilliant’. I’m sure he doesn’t want me messing with his stuff anyway! I know him and I get on very well with him, but no, better to let Glynn handle it himself. So it's the mix that he chose."
It’s great timing with the Peter Jackson doc coming out next month too, which documents that same period – how involved have you been with that?
“I’m working on it right now, in fact, here in my studio. Yeah, the Peter Jackson film is great, it’s very comprehensive. I think between the album, the outtakes and the documentary, what they reveal to me is that the Beatles history, as told by the Beatles, is actually wrong. Because Let It Be came out at a time when you had the Evening Standard reporting, daily, on the court case that was going on with Apple, with the Beatles all suing each other. So the backdrop to Let it Be was all this acrimony, but the album itself wasn’t that acrimonious
“For me it’s like a marriage that’s failing, and the Beatles were trying to go back to their date nights. That’s what it feels like to me. They even mentioned it in the sessions, and in the film, they were quite honest about it. I think at that stage, pre-Allen Klein, who gets involved during the Let It Be sessions, George starts talking about how he wants to make a solo record, and John says that’s a good idea. But they think that by doing that it’ll give them freedom to be Beatles again. But then obviously it all went south.”
Has it made you look at that whole period in a different light?
“That’s the main thing for me about his project, it’s been kind of revealing. If it was that acrimonious it wouldn’t make any sense that they would go and record ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ at Trident 10 days later. And you see them leaving Savile Row at the end of the film and it all seems fine."
There’s a lot of other material on the deluxe version too, alternate takes etc. Did you find any surprises while collating all the recordings?
“I knew that there were bits and bobs, because I think they used some of them on the Anthology, so I was aware of them. But I wasn’t aware of things like ‘Gimme Some Truth’ with John and Paul. I found that surprising just because from everything I’d read, and with John singing ‘How Do You Sleep’ not long after Let It Be was released, which of course was a long time after they made the record. And there’s a point where John says to Paul ‘Hey, shall we work on the hypocrite song?’ He doesn’t say ‘my’ song, there’s none of that.
“What’s also revealed is that George is writing a lot of material and has suddenly found his mojo as far as writing is concerned - as we know, because All Things Must Pass came out soon after the Beatles split up. And I suppose the biggest revelation for me on this whole project is just how ostracised George was from the other two, as far as writers go. If you think about it, there are no Lennon-Harrison songs, or McCartney-Harrison songs in the Beatles. Which is kind of weird if you think about it.”
That’s a very good point…
“But you see why when you watch the film and hear some of the outtakes. John refers to George as ‘Harrisongs’, and they’re going through the whole thing with Dick James [who sold Northern Songs without offering them an opportunity to buy their own rights] and realising that they’re being ripped off by their publishing. I think there’s a rivalry that was there between all of them anyway.
“I think with this album, because so much of it is documented and they filmed everything, I suppose we get an insight into how they were more than we think we would. We have a view of the Beatles being such a happy bunch of guys, but I’m sure they had arguments during Revolver, I’m sure it wasn’t all a bed of roses on Rubber Soul, but we just get to see it and hear it with Let it Be.”
Were they also putting extra pressure on themselves in a way, with the live concert and all that stuff they wanted to do?
“Yeah, I mean one other thing I’ve learned from working on Let it Be was that the concept itself, what it was supposed to be, was an extraordinarily bad idea, and one they probably wouldn’t have tried if they’d had a proper manager. They had incredible belief in themselves, they thought they could do anything, and generally they could. But the idea of any band, even if you’re the Beatles, going: ‘OK we’re going to do a live concert in two and a half weeks, having not played live in three years, and we’re going to play just new songs. That was their plan. It’s no wonder they got frustrated. And that’s the truth of Let it Be, it’s actually a great album, but one built on a flawed idea.”
There are a couple of albums – namely Rubber Soul and Revolver - that haven’t been remixed yet, is that because the way they were recorded makes them more of a challenge to unpack?
“Yeah, it does, because they’re all four-track and the band at that stage were recording for mono, if that makes sense. So my first project would be to see if I could work on a way of de-mixing the tracks. ‘Taxman’ on Revolver, for example, has guitar bass and drums all on one side, and that’s one track on a four-track tape machine. De-mix technology is sort of the holy grail of audio archiving, and I’ve used it a bit before on the Ron Howard film to get the screams off the Hollywood Bowl recordings.
“But then you have to ask yourself: ‘OK, if I took ‘Taxman’ and put the bass and the drums in the middle and the guitar on one side, would it actually make it any better?’. If we’re going to do anything with that, I’d have to wait for the technology to improve, and then make sure there’s a reason for doing it, that it actually sounds good.”
Is that something you’re actually interested in doing?
“I think it’d be a really interesting project to tackle, and there’s a lot of interesting extras from that time period. I mean, on one side there’s a huge number of fans going ‘do Rubber Soul and Revolver’, and on the other there's a huge number of fans going ‘stop destroying the records’.
"I actually kind of embrace it, because with the ’stop destroying the records’ people, it’s not as if I’m actually deleting they haven’t had for 50 years, but I actually kind of admire that people are that passionate about the music. We live in a world where we hear music but don’t listen to it. So I’m all for people slagging me off!”
Is the technology to do that anywhere close yet?
“I think we’re getting closer, but as I say, if I can turn 'Taxman' into an eight track recording so I can mix it, could I make it any better?"
So it’s a case of ‘just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should’?
“Yeah, exactly, and the thing about the Beatles is that they had extraordinary efficiency about what they did. ‘A Day in the Life’ is a great example, where it’s a four-track record, and there’s not all that much on it, really, it’s not complicated, but it’s still one of the most ambitious records of all time. They used surprisingly few ingredients, especially compared to nowadays, to make a big impact.“
Let It Be: Special Edition is available in hmv stores from Friday October 15 - you can also find it here in our online store.