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Book review: Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years 1926-1966) by Kenneth Womack

Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years 1926-1966) by Kenneth Womack
Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years 1926-1966) by Kenneth Womack

Can you still remember that first record you bought?

An early fan, mine was Love Me Do by The Beatles in early January 1963, courtesy of a music token –a present at Christmas.

I actually bought TWO singles with that token, the other being (whisper it!) a comedy disc, Gossip Calypso, by Bernard Cribbins. Yes, my credibility probably went down a notch or two at the time, but then again, in my defence, I was only nine and a half!

Now, 55 years later, and after reading Maximum Volume, I can admit to feeling a slight sense of redemption. I remember that the discs by the Fab Four and national treasure Bernard were both released on Parlophone.

But thanks to Kenneth Womack’s informative book, I’ve found they had much more in common than just sharing a distinctive red label spinning at 45rpm on the turntable of the family radiogram.

Studio maestro George Martin was the production brains behind both hits and, according to the book, Bernard Cribbins admitted some years later that the Parlophone boss was ‘the chap they sent all the weirdos to.’

Whether they were weird or just wired for sound, Martin must have praised the day that he eventually saw potential in those still-raw Merseyside moptops, on whom the rest of the industry had already turned its back, including himself just a few months earlier on the strength of a rough demo recording of Love Me Do he had been badgered to listen to.

But all that changed when he actually worked with The Beatles in the EMI studios in London’s Abbey Road.

The focus in Womack’s first volume (the second is expected in late summer) is on Martin’s early years, from his birth in 1926 – his impoverished family living in what was basically a tiny converted garage – through to the triumph of The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album which was yet another chart topper as the legendary producer turned 40 in early 1966.

On first meeting, The Beatles had Martin down as ‘posh’ yet, as the book reveals, his origins were very much working class and he had finally made a concerted effort to purge his Cockney accent while serving in the Fleet Air Arm having ‘recoiled’ at the unpolished sound on first hearing his recorded voice at the impressionable age of 15.

Womack, who is Dean of the Wayne D McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University, New Jersey, is regarded as a world expert on The Beatles and, judging by the meticulous research shown here, he must eat, sleep and breathe his subject.

Among the most interesting chapters are those devoted to the studios, not only because they track the musical blossoming of The Beatles but also because they give such an insight into record industry politics more than half a century ago.

When Martin joined the mighty and competitive EMI group, the Parlophone label was very much the poor relation to the more successful Columbia and HMV imprints, both of which were enjoying constant chart success, much of it with relatively lightweight offerings.

But he saved Parlophone from ruin thanks to producing a cavalcade of boundary-pushing comedy records, with the likes of Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Charlie Drake and, yes, even Bernard Cribbins, fully exploiting the so-called ‘satire boom.’

Yet, as Womack stresses, Martin was still hoping to ‘discover’ his own pop band with whom to experiment in studio technique, at a time when his contemporaries were content to churn out re-treads of 50s-style fodder.

He found that sense of purpose in The Beatles, once confiding that his role was to make sure that they made ‘a concise, commercial statement’ with each release.

One thing’s for sure… the groundbreaking efforts of those four musicians and this ‘Fifth Beatle’ brought huge profits for the multinational EMI yet little of this money found its way into Martin’s own coffers and, after 15 years with the conglomerate, he felt he deserved more.

The book ends as Martin takes the plunge by leaving to set up Associated Independent Recording – or AIR for short – negotiating a producer’s royalty when it came to working with existing EMI artistes and offering the entertainment giant the right to first refusal on any of AIR’s productions.

As we well know, in the case of the Fab Four, at least, the best was yet to come.

(Orphans Publishing, hardback, £20)