By Ken Sharp
Producer George Martin was thrust head first into the eye of the hurricane when The Beatles performed a series of now historic concerts held at The Hollywood Bowl in 1964 and 1965. Surrounded by thousands of unruly screaming Beatlemaniacs, Martin witnessed the mania firsthand, with excitement and fever pitch generated by the Fab Four. It was an unforgettable experience he described in the liner notes to “The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl” album issued in 1977 on Capitol Records: “The chaos, I might almost say panic, that reigned at these concerts was unbelievable unless you were there. Only three track recording was possible; The Beatles had no ‘fold back’ speakers, so they could not hear what they were singing, and the eternal shriek from 17,000 healthy, young lungs made even a jet plane inaudible.”
Fast forward almost 40 years since the initial release of “The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl” album … In connection with the forthcoming Ron Howard-directed film “The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years,” the late George Martin’s son, Giles, a talented producer in his own right, has been passed the mantle and brought the Hollywood Bowl tapes back to life with a double dose of sonic steroids thanks to dramatic advances in technology. The result, “The Beatles: Live At The Hollywood Bowl,” serves as a splendid document of The Beatles live onstage; knocking it out of the park with powerful renditions of future classics, “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand, “Ticket to Ride,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “All My Loving,” “You Can’t Do That,” “Help!” and countless others.
GOLDMINE: Listening to these historic recordings, what impressed you the most about them on a visceral level?
GILES MARTIN: I think you have to put into context the fact that the band is playing without any monitors and without really much of a P.A. so that’s an incredibly raw recording of a band. The Beatles, even in their softer songs, never gave less than 110%. I sound like a football manager all of a sudden. (laughs) But the visceral nature and vitality is there. The fascinating thing about recording is it captures people at a certain age and with the Hollywood Bowl recordings, you’ve captured these 22, 23-year-old men right on the zenith or the brink of Beatlemania, being recorded live in concert. It’s before “Sgt. Pepper’s,” it’s before the consideration happened and they just launch into every song like it’s the last time they’re gonna play it.
GM: Explain the demix technology employed to improve “The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl” recordings.
Martin: A few years ago Capitol Studios called saying they’d discovered some Hollywood Bowl three-track tapes in their archive. We transferred them and noticed an improvement over the tapes we’ve kept in the London archive. Alongside this I’d been working for some time with a team (headed by technical engineer James Clarke) on demix technology, the ability to remove and separate sounds from a single track. With Sam Okell (Senior Recording Engineer at Abbey Road Studios), I started work on remixing the Hollywood Bowl tapes. Technology has moved on since my father worked on the material all those years ago. Now there’s improved clarity, and so the immediacy and visceral excitement can be heard like never before. My father’s words still ring true, but what we hear now is the raw energy of four lads playing together to a crowd that loved them. This is the closest you can get to being at the Hollywood Bowl at the height of Beatlemania.
GM: What were the greatest challenges you faced working with this material?
Martin: The greatest challenge is the tapes themselves. My father originally worked on the original album in 1977 and it wasn’t a labor of love for him. When we addressed the tapes this time around — this might be hard to explain — but if you recorded your answer machine message for your voicemail you never do it on a busy street. Now imagine, however many thousands of girls screaming into a microphone. As John (Lennon) said, “We have microphones but everyone is screaming louder than we are and they’re winning.” So it’s that. It’s actually getting signal levels from the tapes where you can hear the band. The band are performing great but that’s the biggest challenge, actually producing an album that’s worth listening to and I don’t mean worth listening to in a historical context. I mean, listening to it as a piece of music than can stand on its own.
GM: Listening to the new Beatles Hollywood Bowl collection, it sounds like the band finally won and can be heard above the cacophony of screaming. Was there anything done to tame the sound of the audience going bonkers this go round?
Martin: Yeah, you know what. It’s funny. There’s a guy at Abbey Road called James Clarke who was playing around with demix technology, which means taking a track and trying to remove artifacts off the track. He was trying various things and he’d been approaching me and I’m always interested in anyone trying to break through with new technology. What demix technology does is it recognizes a sound and tries to remove it. So I said, “Let’s try it on Hollywood Bowl.” So we did it and we removed some screams from Hollywood Bowl, which meant we could then dig into the drums a bit more. The Hollywood Bowl shows are on three-track so we’re limited in our resources. We have bass and drums on one track. But if I wanted to put more low end onto the drums and to create more kick drum or more snare drum around 2 kilohertz, that’s just gonna decrease the level of screams. So we found new technology in order to get the band to come out more. And, actually, one thing that’s noticeable on this new version is how much more dynamic it is and how much more you can hear Ringo and the band actually playing.
GM: And Paul’s bass.
Martin: Oh yeah, the bass, yeah absolutely! See, before with my Dad, what he’d do is if he added more bass he’d get more rumble. You can add more bass in the room and we managed to clean that up a bit.
GM: Can this demix technology be employed on early Beatles studio recording to improve the sound?
Martin: I played around with it for The Beatles 1 mixes we did. You have to be careful with it. See, the key thing is if anything affects the sound. People play me stuff all the time that is new technology and is the answer to everything. If you feel something is being affected then don’t use it. If it’s doing more than it should be, then don’t use it. It’s a bit like digital effects in the cinema. You get to a certain stage where you know that someone is not flying through a building and it becomes like a cartoon. It’s the same with sound; it has to be organic. And as soon as it gets overwhelming with an effect we tend to steer away. As The Beatles and my father were, I’m not against using any new technology. I think it’s all about the listener though. It’s all about what the fan wants. Here’s the thing: immersion in audio isn’t just stereo and isn’t just surround sound. A mono record can sound very immersive. The original version of “Strawberry Fields” in mono is an incredibly psychedelic and immersive recording. So I, like my father before me, would always be up for any new technology that would improve the sound quality for the listener.
GM: Were there any tracks that proved particularly problematic?
Martin: Well, first off, there’s a lot of fans saying, “Why can’t we have all the performances from the Hollywood Bowl shows?” One of the reasons is for one of the concerts Paul’s microphone wasn’t working properly so that’s challenging. You can’t do anything about that. Before we had the new technology we did a test on the material and saw what it was like. Without thinking about the original version of the Hollywood Bowl, I chose the best tracks that I thought would work best and I ended up using the same tracks my Dad chose in 1977. (laughs) I guess I learned something off him as I was growing up. (laughs) So the ones that were more difficult we tended to avoid because if there’s a big glitch in the recording, or the microphone’s not working or there’s a glaring error in a performance, we just didn’t use it.
GM: That ties in my next question. The band performed other wonderful songs during these shows like “If I Fell,” “I Feel Fine” and “I’m Down” and they did not make the cut. Why?
Martin: For “If I Fell,” the vocals were kind of strange on that one to begin with. I was gonna use “I’m Down.” If you’ve ever been in a band and you can’t hear each other, it’s the weirdest thing. Ringo said he used to play drums by watching the band’s bums move; watching John, Paul and George’s bums move and that’s how he knew where they were in the song. (laughs) I nearly put “I’m Down” on there but in one of the middle sections the whole band goes out by a beat and then come back in again and that’s because they couldn’t hear each other. The funny thing is someone said to me, “Were the Beatles a good live band?” And you go, “Listen to their first four albums, they’re basically live recordings of the band playing.” “Paperback Writer” was done in one and a half takes and that’s just the band playing. They overdubbed the bass but the drums, guitars and vocals are live. They were a great live band and one of my jobs is to make sure they’re remembered as that. So the fact is there are not any artists around today that would record a three-track recording of a concert and just release it. Every single live concert that gets released now has been fluffed around with in the studio at some point.
GM: Is there a song on this collection that embodies the excitement of a Beatles live show best for you?
Martin: I mean, there are a number of them: “She Loves You” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” are great performances. But in a funny way, there is one song that epitomizes the good and bad about Hollywood Bowl. This may be a bizarre choice but I’d choose “Things We Said Today.” George introduces it. He’s saying, “You may know this song or you may not know this song.” “Things We Said Today” has a strange beginning. The audience are waiting for the shift from minor to major in the chorus and it’s almost like the crowd are creating this wave that the band surf on in the choruses. There’s nothing we could do about the screams; the screams are so loud when they go to the chorus of that song. So in a funny way that song epitomizes Beatlemania at that stage, the visceral excitement and the power. It was all new. They were the first stadium band. Now, the Hollywood Bowl isn’t a stadium but it’s the first recording of its kind.
GM: Have you heard a reaction from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to the new and improved record?
Martin: If they weren’t happy with it we wouldn’t release it. It’s as simple as that. It’s a very simple world, The Beatles world. Yoko and Olivia (Harrison) are the same. Everyone has to be happy. It’s actually less complicated than most other record companies. Paul had a CD and put it on in his kitchen and he told me he danced around the kitchen; he said it was just great to hear the band play. And here’s the thing, it is a snapshot of that time. You’re talking about a 45 minute slot in someone’s life. We did a lot of work on this. It certainly took a lot longer than 45 minutes to mix. I think you have enthusiasm. You have to have enthusiasm in work and they still have enthusiasm for everything.
GM: Listening to the show, Ringo really drives the band live.
Martin: Yeah, that’s why I’m so pleased about this new version of Hollywood Bowl, you can really hear Ringo hit the drums. You watch the Washington D.C. concert in the new film and he’s really whacking the kit. (laughs) The Beatles were polite in interviews and they are incredibly gracious, however, put them in front of an audience and they really dig in. I’ve worked with Paul a lot and worked with Ringo in a live situation and I worked on the George Harrison film, the Martin Scorcese film, (“Living In The Material World”) so I knew George very well. I can’t imagine any of them would ever hold back. It wasn’t a question of warming up or anything; they gave everything for their audience and especially at that time. And with the Hollywood Bowl recordings you can hear that celebration of joy and that celebration of music and that’s what it’s all about. There’s no consideration of image when they’re playing; it’s just about music.
GM: Many speculated upon the release of The Beatles “Eight Days a Week” film, a corollary DVD/CD set with live music sourced from various shows circa ’63-’66 would be forthcoming, are there any plans?
Martin: No, we thought about this. Here’s the funny thing: as soon as you’re watching something the quality moves up a notch, as soon as you have visuals. We all toyed around with this for a long time, whether we should do a soundtrack of the film. The film works really well and I’m very proud of it and I think it takes you on a journey, but you need the visuals on some of the live recordings to justify the quality level. What I mean by that, I say to people, “Imagine taking an iPhone to a concert wherever you live and recording that, that’s way better than the quality we have of Beatles live film stuff.” The Hollywood Bowl was recorded on three-track and that’s the only Beatles performance that there is a multi-track recording of. And I think it’s really important not to release things for the sake of it. Hollywood Bowl is a great document and a really good live album and it captures The Beatles at their zenith. The film is a really fun film to watch. The goal was to make people feel like what it would have been like to be there with them and I think the film does that. But from our point of view it’s really important that we don’t just sell stuff for the sake of releasing it.
GM: Do you have a wish list Holy Grail Beatles project you’d still like to tackle?
MARTIN: You know what, I’ve got loads but I can’t tell you about them. (laughs) But here’s the thing I’m so proud of and that’s to be part of new generations discovering The Beatles every day, and in general that makes them feel better. There are very few things in life left that make you feel better and don’t harm you and The Beatles are definitely one of those things. So to be part of that is great but I’m always thinking up new ideas so one day they’ll unleash me again.