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‘Fifth Beatle’ Makes ‘The Who’s Tommy’ Sing

September 15, 1993

LONDON (AP) _ For years, he was the ″fifth Beatle,″ the man responsible for making the Beatles sing.

These days, the Beatles are merely a photograph above George Martin’s desk, and he is touting a new tune as producer of the hottest Broadway cast recording of the year, ″The Who’s Tommy.″

Twenty-five years ago, Pete Townshend’s sustained howl about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy turned pinball wizard seemed to address the frustrations, and the fiery passions, of an age.

Now, as a Broadway’s rock ‘n’ roll smash hit, it nightly is bringing audiences to their feet with its emotionally tempered, visually extravagant tale of the self-exiled Tommy learning at last to embrace his family.

To borrow a song title from the show, it’s been an ″amazing journey,″ indeed: Who would have thought an angry artifact from the ’60s could make sense in the kinder, gentler ’90s?

″It would have been beyond anyone’s comprehension,″ said Martin, 67, a polite, even patrician silver-haired figure more suggestive of an English country aristocrat than a rock legend. ″Mostly, you didn’t have any higher flown ideas in those days.

″You mostly thought, ’Well, it’s great for now; it’ll be great this year,‴ Martin said. ″I never thought I’d be talking about it 25 years later; that would have been too pretentious for words.″

When ″Tommy″ came out, Martin was at the peak of his eight-year association with the Beatles, having produced ″Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band″ a year earlier.

After the Beatles disbanded in 1970, Martin kept busy, working with Paul McCartney on two solo albums as well as with Neil Sedaka, Jimmy Webb, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and America, among many others.

In a long career embracing comedy albums, composition and his own past as a professional oboist, Martin never tried Broadway - and admitted that it took some arm-twisting to take on ″Tommy.″

″Pete (Townshend) rang me up in January and said, ’We’ve got this show coming up on Broadway and would you like to record it,‴ Martin recalled.

″I was so astonished and said, ’Thank you, but why ask me? Why not do it yourself?‴

According to Martin, Townshend wanted some distance from the material - a professional outside eye, as it were.

The challenge during the May 9-11 session at the Hit Factory recording studios in Manhattan was a fresh one.

″With a group like the Beatles, you’re starting from scratch,″ Martin said. ″You’re forming the talent and actually arranging it or shaping it.

″You can’t do that with Broadway shows; the shape is already there. All you can do is do it as quickly, efficiently, and painlessly as possible - and hopefully give it some extra dimension.″

When ″Tommy″ was first made, there was no digital recording, no multi- tracking, no sound ″sampling.″

″Stereo hardly existed,″ Martin said with a laugh, but he sounded skeptical about advances in the field.

″Technical advances haven’t done anything to change music,″ he said. ″If anything, they’ve made it worse because it’s now too easy for people to do things.

″We made ‘Pepper’ on four-track, one-inch tape; we didn’t think about 16, 24, or 48-track digital because we didn’t have it.

″If we did ‘Pepper’ now with 48 tracks, it wouldn’t be as good because you had to commit yourself early to decide what you were going to do and how to get those performances; it was a bit like a live show.″

Now, ″you can spend an infinite amount of time honing a thing to perfection until you see your face in it. But if you do that, you tend to lose something.″

Martin gave the interview following a tour of his Air Studios complex, opened in January in a renovated Victorian church in northwest London’s leafy Hampstead district. An additional site on the Caribbean island of Montserrat was destroyed in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo and has yet to reopen.

With concert engagements on tap for the fall in Malmo, Sweden, and Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, Martin is continuing a sideline career as a conductor.

Might he like to try the theater himself? Martin demurred, mindful of his experience on a 1965 curiosity, ″Twang″ by Lionel Bart, who had a hit with ″Oliver 3/8″ Martin recalls ″Twang″ as ″a terrible bomb that went down with all lives lost.″

But the producer said the stage success of ″The Who’s Tommy″ should encourage other such hybrids of rock ‘n’ roll and the stage.

″I could see Paul Simon writing the most fantastic musical, and Elton John. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have on Broadway a show of Lennon and McCartney sounds,″ he said.

″There’s a gold mine there of musical resources. But it’s got to be done well.″

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