Saturday, March 19, 2016

A George Martin Production: A Day In The Life

I couldn’t end out my tribute to George Martin without featuring one of his most famous and involved recordings: The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” This final cut on the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album took a total of 34 hours to record and the sessions comprised four days in January and February 1967.

While it is generally considered an album cut, it was released as the flipside of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”/”With a Little Help from my Friends” single in 1978. The “A” side only peaked in the US at #71. This single was timed with the release of the musical “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” that featured The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper, Steve Martin, and others. George Martin arranged and produced the movie’s soundtrack.

As for the original album, “A Day in the Life” had several constituent parts, which are as follows:
  • Verses one and two written and sung by John Lennon;
  • An orchestral crescendo as a link;
  • A bridge written and sung by Paul McCartney;
  • A second bridge comprising vocal effects and written by Lennon;
  • Verse three written and sung by Lennon; and
  • The song’s finale featuring an orchestral crescendo and the eternal chord.

The link and end were the final aspects of the song to be recorded. George Martin composed the score for a 40 piece orchestra by writing out the lowest note of each instrument culminating in their highest note that would comprise an “E” major chord. The instrumentalists were ascending chromatically to their final destination. As one can notice, they were not all in time with each other and not on the same notes. In addition, some of Paul McCartney’s piano chords in the link are discordant – but it all works surprisingly well.

The crescendo was redone for the song’s finale and four takes were overdubbed as one giant orchestral swell. For the song’s ending, the four members of the band originally tried humming an “E” chord, but couldn’t create the impact they desired for this track – it needed to be dramatic. Three pianos were brought into the studio and Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Mal Evans, the band’s road manager and assistant, all played an “E” chord. George Martin also played a harmonium to add to the chord’s texture.

All five struck the “E” chord simultaneously and as it naturally decayed the microphone volumes were increased incrementally to add to the effect. It is probably the most famous chord in recording history. In 1978, The Rutles, a Beatles parody act, recreated a similar, but less involved, crescendo. Their Lennonesque “Cheese and Onions” ended with a humorous staccato chord.

“A Day in the Life” was probably the most creative production that George Martin had been involved. Rest in Peace George and thanks for your many years of musical talent and abilities as an arranger and producer.

Friday, March 18, 2016

A George Martin Production: Let Me Down Easy

Formed in 1976, American Flyer was considered to be the newest folk-rock super group; however, it was difficult, despite their quasi-famous lineup, to live up to the reputation. The band consisted of Craig Fuller of the Pure Prairie League; Eric Kaz ex the Blues Magoos; Steve Katz formerly of Blood, Sweat, & Tears; and Doug Yule previously with the Velvet Underground. Oh, by the way, the first of their two albums was produced by George Martin.

Named for the A.C. Gilbert Company’s model train, their brand was familiar enough to the public by association; however, American Flyer, the band, never quite caught on despite the reputation of their members. Their debut LP produced one charting single: “Let Me Down Easy.” Unfortunately, it only peaked at #80. American Flyer disbanded in 1978.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A George Martin Production: Sister Golden Hair

While George Martin had produced numerous #1 hits with The Beatles and others, he had a drought between 1970 and 1975. His final top charting song with The Beatles was his production on the “Let it Be” single. Although the band would have one more number one with “The Long and Winding Road,” it was Phil Spector’s term at the helm that time.

George Martin’s next number one hit was America’s “Sister Golden Hair” that was released as a single from their album “Hearts.” Gerry Beckley, who wrote and sang the tune, was looking for a song that was a marriage between the styles of Jackson Browne and George Harrison. I think he succeeded.

While the song has the flavor of a Jackson Browne message, the slide guitar was quite reminiscent of the nascent sound of the former Beatle – leading some to speculate that Harrison played these parts. Alas, it was one of the members of America. It is unclear from the liner notes who actually played slide guitar parts, but only the members of the band are credited as guitarists on the album.

Beckley admitted that the song was originally written for the previous LP, “Holiday.” For some unknown reason it was shelved. Since Martin produced “Holiday,” it is likely that it would have been recorded in the same vein as it was in 1975. Besides “Holiday” and “Hearts,” Martin would also produce the following albums by America: “History: America’s Greatest Hits,” “Hideaway,” “Harbor,” “America Live,” and “Silent Letter.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A George Martin Production: Cause We've Ended as Lovers

Day four of our look at the production work of George Martin with a cut from guitarist Jeff Beck’s instrumental album “Blow by Blow.” This LP was a departure for Beck and moved him into more of a jazz vein. “Blow by Blow” was the second album that credited him as a solo act – the first being 1968’s “Truth.”

Recorded in 1974 at the end of the run of Beck, Bogart, & Appice, “Blow by Blow” was produced by George Martin – one of two of Jeff Beck’s LPs where he shaped the sound – the second was “Blow by Blow’s” follow-up: “Wired.”

This 1975 release is truly a great album. I happen to have a half-speed master of the vinyl edition that a friend at Epic Records gave to me in the 80s. At #4, it was Jeff Beck’s highest charting LP of his career. Our featured selection, “Cause We've Ended as Lovers,” was written by Stevie Wonder and is one of two of his compositions appearing on the album. Beck’s guitar emotes passion, grief, angst, and excitement all in a single song.

“Cause We've Ended as Lovers” features the keyboard work of Max Middleton – a former member of the Jeff Beck Group. Middleton uses a Fender Rhodes electric piano with a Super Satellite Speaker System that gives the characteristic Rhodes vibrato that sounds so good in stereo. The Super Satellite System contained two twin-12 cabinets each with its own 100 watt amp. One acted as the master unit and the other as the slave.

In addition to Beck and Middleton, the album also featured Phil Chen on bass and Richard Bailey on drums and percussion. Although not credited, Stevie Wonder adds clavinet to his other composition: “Thelonius.” Great stuff and wonderful production by the master – George Martin.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A George Martin Production: 13 Questions

It seems that the state of album rock radio has gone the way of Top 40 – I swear you hear the same songs over and over. Just last week I was inundated with The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” (four times) and Steve Miller’s “The Joker” (3 times). Now, I love both songs, but come on – give me a little variety now and then.

With that said, in the last year I discovered WRLF in Fairmont, WV – an automated AOR station in North Central West Virginia. Personally, I would like to shake the hand of the programmer, as not only do you hear the classics, but they have a good bit of variety. Sometime within the last several months, I was driving back from Pittsburgh and was listening to the station and heard Seatrain’s “13 Questions” – a song that I probably hadn’t heard since 1971.

Formerly known as Sea Train, the band altered their name to Seatrain with their second LP, which happened to be produced by George Martin. While some say this album was the first Martin produced since his work with The Beatles, it was not, as he had a couple other clients prior to recording the Seatrain LP.

Richard Greene’s electrified fiddle and Lloyd Baskin’s clavinet make this cut. While Seatrain never became a household name, they made some great music. Unfortunately, “13 Questions” only made it to #49. Even more important than a chart position was the greatness of the music that was framed by their famed producer: Sir George Martin.

Monday, March 14, 2016

A George Martin Production: Don't Let the Sun Catch Your Crying

What band from Liverpool band was produced by George Martin, managed by Brian Epstein, and had their first three singles on an EMI label hit #1 on the UK charts? If you answered The Beatles, then you were wrong. While The Beatles were from Liverpool, produced by Martin, and were managed by Epstein, their first three EMI releases charted at #17, #2, and #1 in the UK. The band in question was Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Their first three singles, “How Do You Do It?,” “I Like It,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” all were number one releases in the UK. In the US, the trio of hits placed respectfully at #9, #17, and #48. The band’s biggest hit in the US, also produced by George Martin, was “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”; it charted at #4 in 1964.

Written by the band’s leader Gerry Marsden, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” is notable for its use of major 7th chords, lush strings, and the tasteful accent of a single oboe. Since George Martin studied oboe, I’m wondering if this influenced his decision to use the instrument on this recording. Martin’s talent as a producer is evident on this ballad

Although Gerry and the Pacemakers recorded for Columbia (UK), an EMI subsidiary that separated from the American label of the same name in the 1930s, EMI’s American arm (Capitol Records) passed on Gerry and The Pacemakers. They had initially passed on The Beatles, but later became their American label. Gerry and Pacemakers were signed to the independent Laurie Records in the US. Laurie remained their American label during the band’s three-year run from 1963-1966.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

A George Martin Production: Ultravox's Hymn

This last Tuesday, May 8, 2016, renowned record producer George Martin passed away at the age of 90. As most news outlets reported, Martin was best known in his role as the producer of all of The Beatles hit albums save one – “Let it Be.” Although Martin had produced most of the album’s singles and was the original producer on the fledgling album under the working title of “Get Back,” the band replaced him with Phil Spector for the final album release.

During the next week, I’ll be highlighting Martin’s production work. Yes, we’ll be featuring a Beatles’ song or two, but I want to concentrate on some of the other artists he produced. While his work with The Beatles stretched his creativity beyond comprehension, he is one of the best known producers of the 20th century.

One of the groups that he worked with was Ultravox in 1982. This new wave synth band of the 70s and 80s was barely known in the US. Charting at #61, their best selling US LP, “Quartet,” was the only album produced by George Martin. As the band was preparing to record “Quartet,” they sought a new producer and Martin’s daughter Lucy, an Ultravox fan, encouraged her dad to take the gig.

One of the single releases from “Quartet” was their tune “Hymn.” Loosely drawing from biblical language, the band produced what would be best termed as a psalm or song rather than a hymn despite the record’s title. The artwork for the picture disc and the single’s sleeve used Masonic emblems go figure.  While “Hymn” was the band’s fourth most popular release in the UK and charted at #11, it failed to make a dent in the US charts. Ultravox’s only single to chart on the Hot 100 was “Quartet’s” previous single “Reap the Wild Wind,” which only made it to #71.

Enjoy this week of George Martin production and remember this man behind the music.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

RIP Keith Emerson: Take A Pebble

The musical world is reeling over yesterday’s untimely death of Keith Emerson from an apparent suicide. This great talent is now only with us through his recordings. My connection to Emerson came from my first hearing “Lucky Man” in 1970 on the radio and the band’s first two albums at my brother’s house in Lexington, Kentucky during the summer of 1971. Being a high school student on a limited budget, I settled for the “Lucky Man” single. The next year, I received as a gift “Five Bridges” by Emerson’s previous band – The Nice and purchased ELP’s single “From the Beginning.”

I had the opportunity to see ELP in concert during their “Works” tour on May 28, 1977 at the old Charleston, WV Civic Center. It was originally to be one of two consecutive shows in Cincinnati, but the first show was cancelled and Charleston became the venue for the 28th. Since it was a smaller hall than most of their shows that tour, there was no orchestra – just Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

The Charleston show was festival seating and I sat down front and was quickly amazed at the pyrotechnics of Keith Emerson’s playing. Not only was he a fantastic musician, he was quite the showman. He attacked his keyboards with vigor – especially his Hammond organ – which he pulled down on himself several times during the night – never missing a note. He also used daggers to hold the keys down to create a drone sound.

A friend of mine who worked in a record store in Huntington, WV saw the Charleston show as well as the Cincinnati show on May 29 with the orchestra. She admitted the Charleston show was much more interesting. I know I enjoyed myself immensely.

To remember this great musician, I selected a song that features Keith Emerson on piano. Not only does it show his classical and jazz chops, he strums the grand piano in a prepared fashion twice during the tune. “Take a Pebble” is the second and longest cut on their debut album. This is one of my favorite album cuts by ELP.

Long live the music of the master of the keyboards: Keith Emerson.