SIR GEORGE MARTIN Interview Transcript
Music Director on "Yellow Submarine"
November 12, 1995
Bob Hieronimus: Well, it is with great pleasure that we are welcoming George Martin to our program tonight, to offer his insight into the making of the Yellow Submarine. Thank you George for joining us on our quest to understand an animation landmark.

George Martin: Hi Bob, it's nice to be with you.

BH: Thank you. I'd love to spend a little time on your enjoyable publication "A Little Help From My Friends," the clock permitting, but first we have some wonderful Yellow Submarine mysteries to unravel. The June 1, 1966 session, according to Lewisohn was most unusual. The Yellow Submarine production needed sound effects, and it was the trap room in studio 2, that when emptied gave the Yellow Submarine it's unique sea-going flavor. Could you give us a little history of the contents of the trap room and what items were used to enliven Ringo's singing?

GM: Well, yea. It sounds all very sort of technical, but in fact it was very much a kind of bootlace affair. I mean, in the Abbey Road in those days was a fairly primitive place by today's standards. And well, long before the Beatles came along, I'd been working a lot on spoken word records and comedy records, in particular Peter Sellers and Spike Mulligan and beyond the fringe people like Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke and so on. And so I was quite used to using sound effects. And in those days, there was no such things as samplers or digital effects or even tape cassettes.

You'd use recorded effects and then they'd have to come off discs. So we tried to make our own, and we used to have all sorts of things. We used to have roller skates for making train noises over rails and I remember once trying to effect the noise of someone's head being chopped off. I used a cabbage for that, it was very effective.

Well, now the trap room at studio 2 was under the stairs that went down into the studio. And it was full of general sort of percussion instruments really. Like you get in the kitchen of a symphony. I mean there were tambourines, and a gong and that kind of thing. And all sorts of weird things, whistles and even a little cupboard with a door that opened and shut so you could get the noise of a door opening if you wanted to have someone coming in and out of a room. And it was really a junkyard more than anything else. It was like an old-fashioned antique shop with lots of little pieces and bits and pieces. You didn't know what they did. And, I think, what we used to do, really, was to make up our effects as we went along. And we thought well, what kind of noise do we want here?

In Yellow Submarine, we used chains that were there and all sorts of bowls and things. And of course, we used bowls of water too. And bottles with straws, blowing them into the water, to get the effect of submarines surfacing, that kind of thing. It was nice to do because it, we were all being very inventive. And it was fun, it was like a party almost. So it was good fun.

BH: I understand that the June 1, 1966 Yellow Submarine session, there were numerous other friends and musicians who contributed to the production, which ran about twelve hours that day. Could you mention a few names of the people that joined in that production?

GM: Would you know, I honestly can't remember. I mean Mark lists those, in his book. But it's a long while ago, and I do remember a lot of people did come in, you probably know better than I do.

BH: Probably some the Rolling Stones, I think Brian Jones.

GM: Yea, I remember the Stones came in.

BH: And even your wife, I think your wife Judy was in there.

GM: My wife came along, absolutely.

BH: Well, your contributions to the Yellow Submarine L.P., where an entire side of music which you composed using a 41-piece orchestra, now it is this series of pieces that I am most interested in, but first we should focus on the movie itself. What kind of outline were you provided with, and how did you synchronize your pieces to what was transpiring in the film?

GM: Well, again it's a bit different from what it is today. Because when the film was first mooted, the Beatles didn't like the idea at all. In fact they wouldn't have any part in it. And when Brian had committed them, it was part of a deal he did with United Artists, I think. But when Brian committed them to the picture and he said that they would provide new songs, they said, "Well, we're not going to write any decent songs, we'll give them all the rejects we didn't really want."

I was asked to do score by the Director, who was a charming Canadian, a really nice guy, George Dunning was his name. He's dead now, unfortunately.

The Producer of the film, John Coates was quite inexperienced in the world of producing animated films. He wasn't executive producer, Al Brodax did the overall... the thing was actually started by the American company. But the people on the ground, who actually did the production in England were headed up by John Coates. And curiously enough, I'm speaking here now from their studios in London, and in our Number One studio downstairs, we have John Coates working. Doing the tracts for an animated film of The Wind and the Willows, with Allen Bennett and Michael Palin and one or two other stars here. So what a curious coincidence, all these years later.

And George Dunning brought me in and said, "Look, we're going to need as much help we can from you, because we have no time at all. We've got a year in which to complete this film." Which is [nothing] for time for a full-length animation. He said, "I'm going to give you our sketches, our story boards, I'm going to give you, as soon as we come anywhere near finishing a reel, I'll give you what we have and I'll let you decide what you want to write for the background score."

So I said, "Well, don't you want to give me any directions?" He said, "No, be as imaginative as you can and if you want to do a sort of Mickey Mouse music to sort of bring out what's on the actual screen, do that as well, but do whatever you want." He gave me complete carte blanche. He said, "If you don't mind doing it this way, when it comes to the dub, we'll see what happens to the effects, and we'll see who wins. And some of your stuff might be taken out, but if you accept that, it'll be ok." And that's the way we did it. And we did it that way because there was so little time. We couldn't afford the luxury of finishing the film and then me adding the score to it.

So, I had a moviola installed in my office, my studio. And I made my own measurements. They gave me the reels as they came along. They were all higgeldy piggeldy, all over the place. I'd have reel 4 one week, and reel 7 the next, and then reel 6 and so on. And I would look at each reel, I knew which reels were which, and I had my script, and I knew what we were doing. And I just wrote what came into my head, really that's what it amounted to. And we collected all the scores together and at the end of it we just recorded it and hoped for the best. And it seemed to work out ok.

BH: It certainly didn't turn out to be Mickey Mouse music, George! Now about the original music you composed for Yellow Submarine, the first selection is Pepperland. It conveys a kind of up-lifting and a longing feeling. How was this achieved?

GM: Well, again working strictly to the film, where you had this lovely, lovely land of brightness and color. And everybody is smiling and happy and butterflies flitting around and it was that kind of image that, it was like a dream world, really. And it was slightly old-fashioned, all the people were wearing dresses that didn't seem too contemporary, but that fitted in with the dream, too. And so I thought it needed a classical approach, I didn't think it needed contemporary music. And I approached my score from that point of view, and I thought well I must convey a theme here, that is lilting, that is light, but classically orchestral and something that gives a happy feeling at the end of it. And so, well, I guess that's all I tried to do, and the result was Pepperland. I don't know if it does it or not, but that was what I tried.

BH: Well, I think that it really instilled within me, as I noted earlier, this longing feeling of wanting to be there. And I just don't know how, I'm not a musician, I just don't know how that was created, but it was right there. You know, and then there was the Sea of Holes and the Sea of Time, that's the longest of all the pieces. And starts with east Indian music, perhaps.

GM: Yes, that was really George Harrison putting his little aura in on it. Because, well, George and I get on very well and certainly he was the reason why Indian music was ever treated in the Beatles and the character in the Yellow Submarine that was George, sort of made a point of this. Whenever you saw George, he was, you would hear Indian music. So, I used a tamboradrone as the background. And I wrote my strings with bendy notes that sound like the Indian delrubas. I just tried to convey the effect of Indian music in a lot of that.

BH: Well, you had done some earlier work, I understand with East Indian musicians, is that right?

GM: That's right, yes. And even before I met George, I had been doing some Indian work, because again, going back to Peter Sellers' time, one of tracts I did with Peter Sellers, years and years ago, was a spoof thing, with him singing Wouldn't It Be Lovely from My Fair Lady as an Indian. As an Indian doctor. And he did the Indian accent very well. It was quite funny. He was saying, "My goodness, wouldn't it be loverly..." you know, in his style of speech and singing. And to do that, I used an Indian group of musicians, tambora, sitar, tabla and added classical westerners for the rest of them. I got used to using Indian people before George came along, so it was like going back in time a little bit.

BH: Do I detect any snips of backward playing tapes in that piece?

GM: Well, I think, I certainly used backward music in Sea of Monsters. I can't remember in the Sea of Time. I would tend to do that all the time, you know? I tended to do all sorts of weird things. Just to get effects. In the Sea of Monsters, the backward noise was very useful, because there was a thing, a vacuum cleaner monster that went around sucking up everything on the sea floor.

: Yea, how did you make that noise?

GM: Well, it ends up, incidentally if you remember, with the monster himself sucking up the corner of the screen. And sucking himself up in fact. Well, I thought it needed sucking up noises, well, I've always thought a backwards sounds were kind of funny and sucking up kind of noises. And you know, you could have a drum, a drum cymbal for example, the noise of a cymbal, it becomes a kind of shwupp!! It sounds like someone inhaling or sucking something up. So I thought I could do that with a whole orchestra. And I wrote a whole section which lasted about three minutes, I think of backwards music.

And of course to record it, you've got to turn your film round, back to front and record the music back to front and then turn it round the other way. Well, I didn't think about this, but what happened was that when we actually recorded it with a large orchestra in a studio, and I saw the film, in order to turn it back to front, it also turned out to be upside down. And that never occurred to me before I asked them to do it. So I was watching an upside-down film at the same time. And we recorded the music, and then of course, played it back and it seemed to work all right, it was the right effect.

But there was, the guy I used on the session, the engineer, obviously had a great sense of humor, because at the end of the take, he didn't switch the red light off immediately, and I saw him saying something into the microphone. And when we went to play it back, what he'd been saying into the microphone was something like, [imitates backwards speech] And I thought, "What the Hell is going on?" And sure enough, he'd taken the time to work out at what it'd said, so that when he'd played the thing back in real time, it said, "Yellow Submarine, take three," or whatever it was.

BH: Extraordinary! Oh that's some involvement. I'll tell you...

GM: It was full of crazy people.

BH: Yea, well, there was a classical segment ending in a drum and a kind of a laughing sound. Could you identify that short, it must have been three or four...

GM: Oh yes, that was more of a gag for England than for America. Because we used to have a very, very popular television advert here which advertised Hamlet cigars. Which used the Bach piece. Famous Bach section, which religiously copied and because the monster in particular was smoking a cigar which explodes. And so I used this Bach piece of music. And at the appropriate moment, where he explodes, there's a huge drum noise and laughing sound, it's just, you know, a gag really.

BH: That is really interesting. That really is. The March of the Meanies conveys an unusual malefic military force. How did you achieve that kind of magic?

GM: Well, I guess it's just ordinary forces really. I mean I was using all the brass instruments in the orchestra. Tubas and trombones and I gave a very macatto feel to the strings, a very sort of choppy beat to it. Not unlike what the Hitchcock Bernard Herman used to do, and when he used to score for strings. And not unlike what I did in Eleanor Rigby, to a certain extent. I applied a very macatto effect on the strings. With a brass... I gave a kind of sinister sound to it all.

BH: It sure did.

GM: And actually, I also used, you know again, we had no such things as samples or good sound effects so, there are written into the score, notes for the keyboard player on the Bosendorffer Grand to put on his standing pedal and drop a metal bar onto the strings of the piano at very appropriate points. Which made pretty nasty noises too.

: Well, Pepperland laid waste is kind of low sounding, sometimes quivering, with staccato jabs, slightly reminiscent of Fifties or Sixties sci-fi music, you mentioned Alfred Hitchcock, that was very, very effective. What were your thoughts, that lead you to describing that scene?

GM: What I was trying to convey there was the kind of waste land that was left after the war. It was a bit like one always thinks of war, you know, stark scenery and no birds, no trees, no leaves, nothing living. And just emptiness. And I thought, scoring it, I was trying to give that empty and rather devastating effect, you know, the feeling that there's, of hopelessness, really. What it amounted to. I guess it was just an interpretation.

I always feel that music for me, is like painting a picture. If you're putting sounds onto tape, you are effectively using a palette of colors, of which your orchestra gives you, to paint that picture.

BH: Well, Yellow Submarine and Pepperland is a return of hope to a despondent, but once luxuriant paradise. It's a bit nostalgic going from strings to reeds and finally a full orchestra repeating the refrain, "We all live in a Yellow Submarine." Now, in your book, "With a Little Help From My Friends" you relate the story that one day Paul McCartney came to you and said, "I've been listening to Beethoven and I just sussed it out, you know the beginning of the Fifth Symphony? It's only unison, there are no chords. Everybody's playing the same notes, that's fantastic! It's a great sound!" "Of course, it is," you rejoined, "the whole orchestra speaks with one voice. That's genius." Ba Ba Ba Boom! Were you actually making your full orchestra speak with one voice in the final piece Yellow Submarine in Pepperland?

GM: Well, I guess so. I mean it was a triumph in the end and everyone was happy and Yellow Submarine was a good tune to blare out. In fact, they weren't all playing the same notes, 'cause there are chords in it, but it was to have a tremendous amount of different notes with a large orchestra. If you get them all playing the same notes, it's pretty effective. And certainly, I mean that's all a part of orchestration, it gives more weight, and more solidity to the thing.

BH: I was surprised at his surprise, frankly. The way it was pulled together. To your mind, was the Yellow Submarine movie no more than an adventure of four lads restoring hope, love and beauty to a fouled, overrun Utopia? Does it still have meaning for the young today from your perspective?

GM: I think it does. I think that one of the nice things about the Yellow Submarine movie is that it seems to be perennial. People enjoy watching from each generation. And it was like the Beatles themselves. You know the Beatles seem to find new audience each time another generation comes along. And I think Yellow Submarine fits into that category, it's kind of timeless. Because it is good and evil and I'm great believer in good, and I'm a great believer in hope for all people, that goodness will prevail. And I think that's a story that Yellow Submarine conveys to young people.

BH: Another unusual thing about it was that no one dies within the movie, and that the victory...

GM: Not even the Blue Meanies.

: That's right!

GM: But, it's pretty exciting, I mean there are some pretty nasty things going around with the Flying Glove and everything else.

BH: But still again, the darker forces then change. They evolve, that's very hopeful and it's a far cry from the kind of cartoons we see today, in which a guy comes in with a big gun, and he's the guy that wins everything. Now, if we have time, and this is one of our last questions, I'd love to talk with you about your book, "A Little Help From My Friends." I learned much from it. You've been so generous with your time. Would you expound on a point you made in your book when you noted that the Sgt. Pepper album spoke for the sixties. Please review a few of those ideas with our audience.

: Well, I think it did. I think that's one of the successes of Sgt. Pepper. That it was enormously timely. And the young people in the 1960's identified with it immediately, because, I guess the young people had been having years of repression really. They felt that the, you know, after the war everything was very austere, particularly in Europe. And regulations and rules were there. And for the first time in the '60's, they were tending, young people were tending to say "Hey, wait a minute, we want to live a bit. We want to have color in our lives, we want to not dress the way our fathers did, we wouldn't mind putting on some frilly waistcoats and some color and we don't have to do this. We can look for ourselves and make our own lives."

And I think Sgt. Pepper gave them an opening there, along with all the other things of the '60's. The Mary Quant period and the Carnaby Street era. People were realizing that they had their lives in their own hands. They didn't have to rely upon other people. And they could make it what they wanted, good or bad. And I think Sgt. Pepper showed that way, that you didn't need to be conforming all the time, you could be adventurous and be successful. And it didn't necessarily convey the message which a lot of people misinterpreted, I think, that the way to do this is through drugs. A lot of people said that Pepper was a drug album. It wasn't for me, I can tell you that. And I think that if it had been for me, I don't think Pepper would have been made the way it was.

BH: Well, certainly, I think too much has been made of that point.

GM: Absolutely.

BH: Oh, we're really looking forward to that, and George I want to thank you for joining us and your extremely busy schedule. I understand you were just with Jeff Beck. And we greatly value your contributions in helping to evolve planetary consciousness. And rekindling the hopes and dreams of generations of souls who long to live in Pepperland.

GM: Well, thank you very much Bob.

BH: Well, you've been very kind. And one other thing, would you please say hello to John Coates for us who had joined us a couple of years ago.

GM: I certainly will, absolutely.

BH: And of the things that we wanted to be able to, we didn't know if you knew about the J.R., do you have any interest in J.R.R.Tolkien?

GM: Yes, of course.

: Have you heard the BBC production of J.R.R.Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and Hobbits?

GM: Yes, indeed.

BH: Do you have copies of it?

GM: I don't have copies, no.

BH: Well, we'll be happy to send them along to you. And if you have any other interest in alternative health or unexplained phenomena, UFOs and ESP, miracles, that's areas that we put a great deal of our probing in, dealing with consciousness and the expansion and the awareness of the fact that we all are one people on one, as corny as it sounds George, that is really, in my opinion, the most important thing about music, and about creation or about human beings.

GM: You're absolutely right! Absolutely right.

: Thank you again George. God bless you.

GM: Thank you, bye now.

BH: Bye bye sir.