A CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR KENNETH WOMACK
Talking to Kenneth Womack about The Beatles and George Martin cannot be time limited. This man loves this subject and the music they created. Womack, the Dean of the Wayne D McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University, is also a professor of English and has written three novels. If that does not keep him busy, his numerous books on the Beatles (including the brilliant The Cambridge Companion To The Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four). This is one busy man. But not too busy to write a new book, the first of its kind, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin, The Early Years 1962 – 1966.
With this book, Womack turns his attention to George Martin. The question is why George Martin?
“Why hasn’t one been written yet,” he is quick to reply during our recent conversation. “George Martin has written three autobiographies, which buys into certain mythologies. He is also very compartmentalized. He does not touch all areas of his life in his books. So I carried out my research. I wanted to see the story of this man, how he came into being and I wanted to see the story as a point of view of being the first audience to see him experiencing their work.”
Reading this book and listening to Womack, a different picture of Martin arises. Yes, he was genius, and perhaps the most influential producer in rock history, but there was much more to this man.
“There were surprises,” agrees Womack. “What an arduous journey this man had, he never made it easy on himself. What is interesting is the way he cleaves to his model of what a hip beat band should look like and initially he does not deviate. But for me, the big discovery is how much Martin was like The Beatles. They succeed where they shouldn’t.”
Womack is able to give examples of The Beatles where in the hands of others, the result would not have been as successful. Womack points out that everything you hear on the record is there intentionally. Martin was a perfectionist and nothing left without him being satisified with the results of the session.
“Even more interesting is that neither Martin or The Beatles understand the paradigm shift they created. They were the outsiders and they disrupted the industry. Ony Brian Epstein saw it coming. Martin and The Beatles continually worry that The Beatles will be a flash in the pan and want to maintain their career as long as possible.”
Fans will remember the famous question asked at every press press conference, ‘When do you think the bubble will burst?’. That question is asked from 1963 to 1966, by the time Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in 1967 that question is remarkably out of date and not asked again. But it is clear from reading Maximum Volume is the competitive nature of Martin.
“He was not initially passionate about the art aspect, he wanted success. He wanted what Norrie Paramor had. Paramor produced for the EMI label Columbia and had massive success with Cliff Richard. Martin wanted that and was very envious of Paramor and his string of hits. However artistic choice eventually took commercial commerce.
“And he was envious of the money Paramor made compared to what he was being paid by EMI. Now he was making a good wage, but he was also supporting two households. So although he was making three thousand pounds a year, a good wage for the time, he was concerned about money and he wanted the lifestyle Paramor had.”
Other revelations throughout the book include Martin inadvertently contributing to The Beatles firing Pete Best and bringing in Ringo. The Beatles overhear Martin talking to the engineer that a studio player will need to be brought in for drumming. Martin was not happy with the Beatles’ drummer.
“He figured Best could drum for The Beatles on stage, but they would need a better drummer for the studio. This was common place at the time. He does not encourage The Beatles to fire Best but this certainly added to their growing dissatisfaction with Best as a drummer.”
And we all know how this worked out for Pete Best. After the initial session, Best was replaced with Ringo Starr. The missing piece of the puzzle. Womack is able to explain the events leading up to Best leaving and the indicators that were there during the time period prior to his firing.
Womack has written a fascinating book about a rather complex person. Martin was a professional and presented himself as such, and at the same time, this is a person who clearly felt he deserved more fame and money than what he earned. He did sign a contract with Parlophone in the U.K and United Artists to record his own albums, which ended up helping The Beatles more than it did for him.
“He was doing easy listening versions of Beatle songs from about 1964. But this this did a big service for The Beatles. It opened up and expanded their demographics. For an older person, buying a George Martin album was a ‘gateway drug’ into The Beatles. His records did ok, but by 1969 or 1970 United Artist canceled his contract. And he was disappointed.”
This is the first volume in a series of books about Martin by Womack, and he is currently finishing up the second volume (Womack says that “I have hundreds of pages on The Beatles (The White Album) alone”) and one can only hope this is the first of at least three volumes. There is no way he can finish the story in only one more volume. I think three volumes may even be pushing it. But the fact remains, Womack has uncovered some fascinating information and presents it in a very readable way.
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