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Giles Martin on remixing The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’: “They knew they were coming to the end of the road”

As Peter Jackson's highly anticipated 'Get Back' series arrives, Giles Martin - Producer, Head of Sound for Universal Music, and son of ‘fifth’ Beatle George Martin - talks to RSUK about breathing new life into the band's final album

By Matt Charlton

The Beatles perform their Get Back video
The Beatles (Picture: Press).

So this is the first time you’ve worked on something Beatles related which your dad wasn’t directly involved in…

“To be honest, whether my dad was involved or not makes no difference to the work process. I hadn’t been born when he was working on the original thing, so – with all due respect to him and The Beatles – my job is to remix these albums and look at these things as a retrospective. The only difference with ‘Let It Be’ is, it’s the only album to have come out when all The Beatles didn’t agree on it. But my Dad was involved in it – when you watch the film you’ll see the role he takes – but this project was then scrapped and given by Allen Klein (the Beatles’ short-lived business manager), and George and John, to Phil Spector against Paul’s wishes. That was more of a challenge – we’re doing a celebration of a record which Paul McCartney wasn’t happy with to begin with.”

I was going to say – and maybe you’ve just answered this in part – despite all the big-hitters it contains, ‘Let It Be’ still feels like one of the least loveable Beatles albums…

“I think it’s against the backdrop of the album’s release, the fact that it was post-Beatles break-up. Apparently, at the time the album came out, the Evening Standard was running front pages of them suing each other – and I suppose, unlike any other Beatles album, you didn’t have them around talking about what they were doing. This album has a black sleeve… The Beatles ending was such a cataclysmic thing in pop culture, ‘Let It Be’ suited that, and ‘Abbey Road’ [the final album they actually recorded] doesn’t.  ‘Let It Be’ fits the mantle much better because of its nature, of being mildly dysfunctional, sounding-wise…”

A sort of requiem for the ‘60s…

“It was, yeah. But if you listen to it, it does actually sound earlier than ‘Abbey Road’, which is far slicker. It’s much more of a progression if you go ‘White Album’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘Abbey Road’.”

Does a part of you wish that they had been released in that order?

“I was having this conversation with Paul before we did it, funnily enough. It’s not as if The Beatles didn’t do enough albums, but you wonder what kind of record it would have been had it not been put together by Phil Spector and done in that way. You wonder whether, with a bit more care and attention, would ‘All Things Must Pass’ be in there, or ‘Don’t Let Me Down’… and would ‘Maggie May’ or ‘Dig It’ [have made the cut]?  It’s funny, I don’t know much about these albums until I start doing them. People think I’m some sort of Beatles expert, that I spent years with my dad talking about The Beatles – but my stupidity is an advantage! No matter how good the producers or engineers are in the studio, quite often it’s good to have someone walk in and say ‘that’s a bit shit’. It’s good to come into a project without any bias.”

Everyone – including the remaining Beatles and John and George before they passed – had bought into this idea of the ‘Get Back’ sessions being completely and utterly miserable. What was it like to have this new light shed upon it?

“Well, the Beatles were very self-conscious as a band, a bit like every successful musician – very aware of where they sat in the zeitgeist. They knew they were coming to the end of the road – the surprising thing is not why they broke up, but how they stayed together for as long as they did… not because they didn’t like each other, but because they were so relentlessly progressive. There’s that desperate need to change shape… and I think that put a strain on them, and you see [in Get Back] they talk about their ‘impending divorce’, but at the same time, it’s fairly amicable. The only bone of contention is in Twickenham (the film studios where they started the ‘Get Back’ sessions) where George is getting pissed off because he has all these songs, and they’re not doing them, because John and Paul are trying to work on the fact that they haven’t written enough numbers… but there isn’t really a lot more of that. [Get Back] is essentially a fly-on-the-wall documentary… I mean it’s not ‘Love Island’ – they don’t have any shagging – but I wonder, with some of the other albums, ‘Rubber Soul’ or ‘Sgt Pepper’, if they were filmed in the reality of how it was, would people think they were more miserable than they were?

“That whole idea of ‘we don’t want to do a standard album; we don’t want [George Martin] to be involved; we’re going to do a live album; we haven’t got any songs yet; we haven’t got a place to play it in yet, but we’re going to film it, and we’re going to do it in three weeks’… I mean, no wonder it created a rift, it’s a ridiculous concept… and the reason they only performed that number of songs on the rooftop is because they couldn’t get the piano up there! The frame that they wanted to put the picture in was the wrong fame.”

They were talking about playing a concert in Libya or doing a cruise…

“And George was saying ‘I don’t want to be stuck on a boat with our fans’. And there’s quite a sweet thing in the film where my dad’s there. They have the rooftop concert the next day and my dad says ‘George, do you want to go on the roof?’, and George says ‘I don’t want to go on the bloody roof’, and, because Ringo and George were best mates, Ringo says ‘I’ll go’, so George responds ‘Okay if you’ll do it, I’ll do it…”

Going on the rooftop though is much more Beatles than playing a very sophisticated show in a magical location…

“It’s good, isn’t it – one of the great legendary cop-outs: ‘Where are we going to play our big concert? In front of no one on a rooftop’! But it’s an amazing performance – I didn’t realise that those tracks on the album are rooftop performances. I thought they were overdubbed or had something done to them, but that’s just them playing live on the rooftop.”

Was that the moment which struck you most throughout the whole process?

“There were a couple of things actually. There is the rooftop performance – you realise how good they were as a band, how technically good – these are not basic parts that they’re playing, and they’re singing and playing at the same time. Then there’s also a scene in the film where you see Paul writing ‘Get Back’ in front of you, the song forming as he’s playing the bass and singing.”

Was there ever a temptation for you – or anyone involved in the project – to include ‘Let It Be… Naked’ (an alternative mix of ‘Let It Be’, released in 2003) in the box?

“Not really – we thought about whether the whole thing should be ‘Let It Be… Naked’ because of Paul’s nuances on the whole project, but we always try and put out new stuff, and ‘Let It Be Naked’ is available, and it’s money for old rope. It’s the kind of mentality my dad had when it came to Beatles’ singles I guess, and I kind of agree – I don’t think we should be buying albums twice…”

So when you were remixing, did you find a middle way between Paul’s wishes and Phil Spector’s production?

“You don’t really think like that, because then you get lost trying to second guess what other people think. It was more about trying to get some homogony to the whole project, because everything seemed to be done in bits and pieces. With Phil Spector’s stuff, it sounded like it was tacked onto The Beatles – there were three very different producers involved in the project: Glyn Johns was the sort of visceral band producer with The Who and Led Zeppelin; my dad, who was the archetypal blueprint producer – like a satellite dish who takes everyone’s ideas; and Phil Spector, who was like a modern day producer – such as Mark Ronson or Marshmello – who wanted to make it ‘Phil Spector brings you The Beatles’. I suppose I tried to tone all that down, so it beds in a bit better and sounds like a record, as opposed to a compilation album made at different times.”

And now ‘Get Back’ has gone from what was intended as a two hour movie to over six hours’ worth of documentary…

“I think what Peter’s done is very clever. It’s almost like a ‘Big Brother’ type-thing where it goes through each day like a diary, and it really makes sense as a trilogy – I know Peter Jackson loves long trilogies! The first half is Twickenham, the second half is Savile Row, and the third half is the rooftop concert… hold on, ‘the third half’? That’s a very John thing to say – ‘it’s a game of three halves’.

We’re only going to do this once, obviously – I hope – so I think it’s going to satisfy a lot of appetites. There’s a beauty in four lads just talking about Marmite sandwiches and then playing a classic song, and I think that’s a cool thing.”

‘The Beatles – Get Back’ is available on consecutive nights from the 25th November on Disney+

The ‘Let It Be’ remixes are available on streaming, vinyl, and CD now.