Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sir George Martin (1926-2016), Brian Wilson, and "God Only Knows".

I wanted to do a TBT about Sir George Martin, who died last week, but responsibilities to work, family, and the Brooklyn Heights Blog got in the way. My natural first impulse was to use something he'd done with the Beatles, since his career was so intertwined with theirs. In the Rolling Stone piece linked above, Sir George is quoted as saying he had initial doubts about the four Liverpudlian lads, but that one of the things that impressed him was that "there was more than one person singing." There were harmony vocals in doo-wop and girl group pop at the time, but straight ahead rock, with the exception of the Everly Brothers, was dominated by solo singers.

I was delighted to discover the clip below, which documents a meeting of Sir George and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Sir George credits the Beach Boys as an influence on the Beatles; surely there was a complementary one in the opposite direction. The Beach Boys' early work was built on Chuck Berry riffs and vocal harmonies from quartets like The Four Freshmen, whose music today would be classified as "easy listening". The Beatles were influenced by Berry (they covered "Roll Over Beethoven") and other American rock and rockabilly stars, but also by skiffle--the Beatles grew out of a skiffle group led by John Lennon called the Quarrymen--and by something that didn't come to the fore until Sgt. Pepper, the British music hall tradition.
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In the video, Brian begins the conversation by talking about songwriting; about how songs seem to burst from his chest. Then they repair from the piano to the mixing board, where Sir George plays with the knobs, first reducing the song "God Only Knows" to its bare essential: Brian's vocal. Sir George then plays with the knobs some more, adding bits back in and changing the balance, until he creates a mix that Brian credits as better than the one that was used on the Beach Boys' most critically acclaimed album, Pet Sounds.

Oh, and I do love Sir George's early 1960s red Caddy convertible.

Photo: By Adamsharp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons