Over the last two nights I’ve been watching parts one and two of Soundbreaking, a mini-series co-produced by former Beatles’ record producer Sir George Martin (who died on March 8, 2016 — just one of the many luminaries of the music business we lost this year, including David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey and most recently Leonard Cohen), as well as a 2011 episode of the British TV series Arena called “Produced by George Martin” that fortunately told his whole life story and didn’t just focus on his eight years working with the Beatles. The basic thesis of Soundbreaking — at least of its first two episodes — seems to be that the real creator in recorded music today isn’t the artist but the record producer — though often the lines are blurred in that many of the most important artists of the last 40 years, including Joni Mitchell, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Dr. Dre, were also their own producers. What’s more, the advent of computer technology and how it’s miniaturized recording equipment to the extent that you can literally make a record in your living room and it will sound as good as anything from a professional studio has further blurred the line between artist and producer — as has the computer-driven ability to “sample” sounds from virtually the entire universe of recorded music and essentially make new music from snippets of old. The first episode of Soundbreaking was called “The Recording Artist,” but it focused much more on the record producer and the interchange between the two. Like most documentaries on music today it relegates virtually the entire history of pop music before rock ’n’ roll to some vaguely remembered legend, and therefore truly pioneering producers like Fred Gaisberg (who worked at His Master’s Voice in the first 30 years of the 20th century and essentially defined what the job of a record producer would be much the way Sylvester “Pat” Weaver at NBC in the 1950’s would define what the job of a TV network programming executive would be) and John Hammond (except for a fleeting mention) are ignored.
Needless to say, the two top producers profiled in the first half of the show are George Martin and Phil Spector (in that order, intriguingly), and Martin is discussed almost exclusively in terms of his work with the Beatles. That is what he will go down in history for — those incredible eight years in which the Beatles almost totally redefined what pop music would and could be and Martin was their helpmate, putting his studio expertise and his own musical talents (particularly as an arranger for strings — he mentions that he got the idea for the slashing, almost percussive string parts on the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho) at their disposal. What the show doesn’t mention is that Martin had had a rather checkered career — he had been through the Guildhall School of Music after he got out of the service following World War II, he had briefly played oboe in the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra (they performed operas in English translation and were later known as the English National Operas), and then got a staff job with EMI Records. He was ultimately put in charge of EMI’s least profitable and least prestigious label, Parlophone, and basically told, “Get us some hits, or we’re closing the label and you’ll be out of a job.” Martin saved his career by discovering a band featuring a performer who would become an international superstar … no, not the Beatles: the BBC “Goon Squad,” a comedy company featuring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. The records made by the Goons, individually and collectively, became huge hits and required Martin to use a lot of creative editing, overdubbing (recording different parts of a piece at different times and then blending them together in a subsequent mix — it had been routine in movies since the early 1930’s but wasn’t done on records much until the advent of tape recording after World War II made it technologically easy) and sound effects work that stood him in good stead when the Beatles retired from the road and started making elaborate albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that required similar effects work. The Arena show mentioned some interesting facts about Martin, including that he was actually born a Cockney — the impeccable upper-class accent with which he spoke on the job and in all the interviews he gave was something he carefully taught himself by listening to the announcers on the BBC — and it also mentions some of his post-Beatles work.
One album they didn’t mention was the Capitol release by a now-forgotten band called Seatrain, which attracted attention at the time only because it was the first record Martin produced after the Beatles broke up; it does bring up his recordings with the American pop-rock band America and the Apocalypse album that combined John McLaughlin’s electronic jazz-fusion group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with a full symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, and for which McLaughlin wanted Martin (almost inevitably) because of his success combining classical and rock instruments on the Beatles’ records. Oddly, the show flushes Martin’s first wife, Sheena Chisholm, down the proverbial “memory hole,” though his second wife, Judy Lockhart-Smith, is shown — indeed, the two of them are seen in an English country garden that looks like so perfect a set one expects the clowns from Monty Python (a troupe that would have been inconceivable without the work of pre-Beatles Martin artists like the Goon Squad, Flanders and Swann, and Beyond the Fringe) to show up any moment and start ridiculing the high-tea-and-crumpets atmosphere. It also mentions that after George Martin-produced records had topped the British charts 37 of the 52 weeks of 1963 — a record no one has even come close to breaking since — his only reward from EMI was a notification that because he was considered a manager and made 2,000 pounds per year (incredibly small change for the music industry even then!), he would not be eligible for a Christmas bonus. Martin’s 1979 autobiography All You Need Is Ears told the story of his long and laborious negotiations with EMI to get out from under the pittances he was making as a direct employee and become an independent contractor; with several similarly exploited EMI contract producers he formed Associated Independent Recording (AIR) and eventually built his own studios, first in London and then on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where his state-of-the-art facilities were used by other producers besides Martin (including Hugh Padgham, who recorded The Police there) until Hurricane Hugo destroyed the studio in 1989 — the structure still exists but is uninhabitable and the hurricane and the ensuing rains destroyed all the delicate equipment. Later a volcanic eruption on Montserrat eliminated any hope of reviving the studio or any other facility that could make Montserrat an international recording center again, though Martin was a major contributor to building a small cultural center on the island used for community theatre, musical performances and weddings.
Later Martin returned to the U.K. and built a third studio, where he and his son Giles worked on remixing the Beatles’ recordings for a Cirque do Soleil production called Love before he passed and essentially turned the keys of the Beatles’ recorded legacy over to his son. (The recent CD Eight Days a Week: The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl was based on recordings staff producers for Capitol Records had made of the Beatles’ Bowl concerts in 1964 and 1965; George Martin had done the mix for an LP version in 1977 but the album lay fallow in the vaults until this year, when in connection with a documentary on the Beatles’ touring years it was reissued with a considerably uglier cover and Giles Martin filling in for his dad in rehabilitating the recordings as much as possible — including getting the Beatles audible over the ferocious audience screaming.) The Soundbreaking episode focuses first on Martin and then on Phil Spector and the fabled “Wall of Sound” (oddly the show, narrated by Dermot Mulroney, seems uncertain as to who coined the phrase “Wall of Sound” — it was Spector himself and he meant that he was trying to duplicate the sound of Wagner in a pop idiom) and the L.A. studio musicians who created it for him. One producer they should have mentioned but didn’t was Berry Gordy, founder of Motown and developer (along with his assistant, Henry Cosby) of one of the most unique musical sounds of all time, one which took soul music from its gospel roots and made it pop-safe for white audiences. Spector and Gordy were both at the heights of their careers as producers and record label owners in the mid-1960’s, but whereas Spector regarded his artists as interchangeable parts (if the “official” members of the Ronettes or the Crystals weren’t available on a night he wanted them, he’d just hire others from his lists of available backing singers — one of whom was a tall, skinny, raven-haired Armenian girl named Cherilyn Sarkesian, who started dating Salvatore Bono, assistant to Jack Nitzsche, Spector’s musical director and chief arranger — eventually Salvatore and Cherilyn married, left the Spector organization and became international superstars as Sonny and Cher), Gordy carefully built each of his artists as individuals, which is why even someone so fabulously talented as Darlene Love didn’t become a star in her own right while Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves and other Motown alumni had long and successful careers on their own.
As the first episode of Soundbreaking continued, however, the focus became less on stand-alone record producers and more on artists who controlled their own record production, including Cat Stevens, who’s shown in a pair of interesting before-and-after performances, first from a British TV show in the mid-1960’s belting out his hit “Matthew and Son” in front of a huge orchestra (he was then under contract to British Decca, and so was David Bowie, and the company had them working with similar producers and arrangers, with the result that they sounded surprisingly alike in their earlier years even though the mature records of Cat Stevens and David Bowie don’t sound at all like each other) and then singing one of his 1970’s singer-songwriter pieces in his modern, post-Islam conversion guise of “Yusuf.” (He was actually of Greek ancestry and his original name was Steven Georgiou.) The show covers the L.A. singer-songwriter movement and in particular the Asylum Records crew, including Joni Mitchell (who’d had to deal with so much sexism from male musicians who didn’t want to play what she wanted them to that she had it written into her record contracts that she would never have to take orders from a male producer), Jackson Browne, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt (not a songwriter herself but one who often boosted the careers of her Asylum labelmates by recording their songs), as well as people working similar styles for other labels, including James Taylor and Carole King. Many of these records were produced by Peter Asher, who might be considered a protégé of George Martin since he’d got his start in the business as one-half of Peter and Gordon — and Asher’s sister Jane was Paul McCartney’s girlfriend through much of the 1960’s. Peter’s connection with the Beatles got him a producer job at Apple (where he signed Taylor and made one album with him), and when Paul and Jane broke up Peter came to L.A. and continued to work with Taylor, ultimately hitting the brass ring when Ronstadt broke up with her boyfriend, producer John Boylan, and gave Peter Asher the job of producing her last album for Capitol Records, Heart Like a Wheel. This leaped her from minor star to superstar and made a lot of money not only for Capitol but also for Asylum, which signed her after her Capitol contract expired — and she continued to use Asher as her producer for virtually all her subsequent recordings. Asher is interviewed in Soundbreaking and talks about how the artists he was working with in the 1970’s wanted and needed far less production than the 1960’s groups like the Beatles — the idea was to keep the sound simple and showcase the song itself rather than an elaborate arrangement or a lot of studio effects.
The show also mentions Black artists who were their own producers (though they don’t mention pioneers like Duke Ellington — who was effectively acting as his own producer since the 1930’s — and Sun Ra, the visionary jazz arranger, composer and bandleader, who not only produced his own records but manufactured them himself and sold them at his concert: every band that has a merch table selling self-produced CD’s owes a big one to Sun Ra, the first DIY recording artist) including Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder (both of whom learned how to produce from Berry Gordy and Henry Cosby!) as well as Sly Stone, who under his original name, Sylvester Stewart, actually was a record producer before he was a recording artist himself. In 1964, as a staff producer for the San Francisco-based label Autumn Records, he had produced the Beau Brummels, a white five-piece band that were one of many attempting to be the “American Beatles.” The second episode of Soundbreaking was actually called “Painting with Sound,” and its thesis was that the increased sophistication of recording machinery in the 1950’s and 1960’s not only increased the options available to recording artists but made the record, as opposed to the song or the live performance, the true art form of pop music. The show begins with Les Paul and Mary Ford and their still-stunning recordings from the 1950’s, in which every guitar you heard was his and every voice was hers, repeatedly overdubbed on two-track tape. Actually, the first record made with the same musician playing multiple parts was “The Sheik of Araby,” made in 1941 by Sidney Bechet on clarinet, soprano sax, tenor sax, piano, bass and drums — but in the era before recording tape the only way Bechet could do it was record each instrument, play back the resulting record and put on the next part. That meant each part was one generation removed in sound from the original recording, so Bechet recorded the deepest parts — the drums and bass — first because they would suffer least from the loss in sound quality. But this show takes a “print the legend” attitude towards the history of overdubbing and editing, leaving out not only Bechet but also classical conductors Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini (who both had their recordings edited and certain parts reinforced with re-recording in the early 1940’s) and names Les Paul and Mary Ford as the real pioneers of overdubbing and multiple recording. Guitarist Jeff Beck remembers his mom telling him as a kid that he shouldn’t buy the Les Paul and Mary Ford records because they were “fakes” — they were records of “performances” that hadn’t actually happened — but Beck liked the idea that you could create a record out of whole cloth.
One pioneering producer from the 1950’s who should have been mentioned as an originator of effects recording was Mitch Miller, who was famous for adding sound effects to his records, looking for non-musical “hooks” that would make the records more memorable and hence more salable — he conceived of the idea that Frankie Laine’s “Mule Train” should contain the sound of a bullwhip, and according to some accounts he cracked the bullwhip in the studio himself. He also pioneered the art of recording the backing tracks first and adding the vocal later with the 1950 Columbia LP Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra — and he had to do Sinatra’s overdubbed vocals in secret because the American Federation of Musicians was opposed to the practice, realizing that musicians stood to lose a lot of money if singers could fiddle with a song all day because they were just singing to a tape recorder, not a live band making union scale for every hour they were in the studio. The “Painting with Sound” episode starts with the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and the rivalry between them in the mid-1960’s — Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys and also their principal songwriter and record producer, heard the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul and was determined to top it. When he released the latest Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds, Paul McCartney went into jealous hyperdrive and was determined that the Beatles’ next album had to top Pet Sounds — the next Beatles’ album was Revolver, which even though the Beatles were still doing concert tours had quite a few surprising effects. One fascinating story about Revolver concerns the album’s last song, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” for which John Lennon wanted to record his lead vocal in a way that would fade in and out. He told George Martin’s engineer, Geoff Emerick, that he wanted to be suspended from the studio ceiling with an array of microphones around the room, and he would sing while being whirled around and his voice would fade in and out depending on his proximity to a mike. Emerick thought he was nuts but worked out a simpler and considerably safer way to achieve the effect: he plugged Lennon’s vocal mike into a Leslie speaker, the kind usually used in conjunction with the Hammond B-3 electric organ to create a vibrato (the sound was created by jazz organist Jimmy Smith in the 1950’s and quickly became the standard electric organ sound in pop music), and Lennon’s voice faded in and out depending on the proximity of the Leslie’s whirling sound horns to the recording mike.
The show ran through the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd (Roger Waters recalls when he first heard the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the radio he was overwhelmed — even though Pink Floyd had been in the adjoining studio at Abbey Road recording their first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, at the same time Sgt. Pepper was being made and the two bands had of course been checking each other out!) and Fleetwood Mac (with Lindsey Buckingham explaining how he achieved the effects on their controversial song “Tusk,” which put off 1980 record buyers because it didn’t sound anything on the Mac’s immediately previous album, the mega-hit Rumours). It also mentioned the late-1970’s band Boston, which wasn’t really a band — it was musician Tom Scholz (who had previously been a sound engineer and invented a way to tune a guitar without having to listen to it by plugging it into an oscilloscope and trusting the oscilloscope to tell him when each string was tuned to the right frequency — it considerably speeded up multi-band rock concerts because it meant each band could tune while their predecessor was still playing) playing all the parts in a basement studio in his home) playing all the parts in a home studio he’d set up in his basement, then hiring a friend of his just to sing the vocals. Once again, as with the first episode, this one describes a trend towards simpler productions in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s (neither show mentions the punk phenomenon but obviously punk, with its back-to-basics aesthetic and exaltation of simplicity and directness, helped make elaborately produced albums like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon seem obsolete) and how the creation of smaller recording equipment and use of computers to alter sound as well as record it in the first place allowed Eurythmics to create elaborate soundscapes with just two people, and Beck to do it with just one. A lot of the most popular “groups” today, including ones profiled on this show like Bon Iver and St. Vincent, are really just one person — and one woman performer is shown doing a sort of one-person band on stage, operating recording and sampling machines with her feet and thereby being able to do studio-style overdubs in live performance. We’re really in a “brave new world” of recorded sound that has largely made the traditional recording industry obsolete: instead of having to rent expensive time in a professionally equipped studio you can record on a laptop in your living room, and instead of having to trust major companies to distribute your music you can sell it yourself online.