Giles Martin: 'Remixing Sgt Pepper's means my dad, John and George's memories live on'
Giles Martin was handed the near impossible task of remastering an album considered not only to be the Beatles' best, but one of the greatest of all time. By Joe Nerssessian
A quite remarkable feat was achieved on the first day of this month, 50 years after the release of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album - in all its innovative glory - was once again at the top of the charts, breaking the record for the longest span between an album first reaching number one and then returning to the summit.
This was largely down to one man who decided to take on the near-impossible task of remixing one of the greatest records of all time by one of the world's most loved bands. And to add a little more pressure, it was originally produced by this man's late father.
He is, of course, Giles Martin, son of the late 'fifth Beatle' Sir George Martin.
The original album, created in response to The Beatles' growing bitterness towards their arduous touring schedule, spent 27 weeks at the top of the UK album charts upon its release.
"It's been a privilege," Martin says down the phone from Abbey Road Studios. "A quite beautiful challenge and demanding, but humbling, challenge."
The new release, signed off by Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, contains remastered and remixed material - as well as unreleased session tapes from one of pop's greatest masterpieces.
While he notes the timing of this release, Martin is quite adamant that returning to the record had to be worthwhile.
"There has got to be a reason for us to do this, we don't just do things that are marketing-led," he says.
"In the studio it's myself and Sam Okell the engineer, and then of course there's the two Beatles and the two wives and that's it. It's not like there's some sort of committee."
With the mix, Martin didn't want to add technology, but actually strip it away. Working with Okell and a team of engineers and audio restoration specialists at Abbey Road, he peeled away at the album to give it more immediacy.
"You're hearing the four tracks without any effects, any equalisation on it. What I wanted to do is let people hear what I hear, as opposed to what I think you should hear, and that was a tough thing. At times I had to straitjacket my hands and arms not to change it, but there's a beauty in the rawness of certain things."
Casting his attention wider, Martin contrasts the rawness of the remix to today's "perfect world where everything is tuned and pitched and photographs are edited and breasts are enlarged".
"You can hear that Ringo is hitting the drums," he adds. "It's not just any drummer, you can hear the sound of each voice, the pick on the guitar."
This stripped back release is, ultimately, what Martin wanted to achieve. To allow people to listen to the record and understand it as just the band playing in a room.
"Sgt Pepper is what people think of the ultimate in a produced album and it was probably my father's crowning achievement," he says. "But if you listen to it, which this new one makes you do, you realise on Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! for example, it's Paul playing bass live, Ringo playing drums live, my dad playing harmonium live and John singing. And that's it.
"In the circus of the song, everything is live and it is how it is because the four guys could play so well and you realise the magic of the album is actually just these humans."
During the process, in March 2016, Martin - who is head of sound for electronics company Sonos - was in Boston for a meeting about voice-activated speakers when he learned his father had died aged 90.
Immediately returning to London as the news made headlines across the world, he took some time away from Abbey Road. When he returned to the studio, the first voice he heard on the session tapes was his dad's.
"I loved him dearly and we were very close. Sgt Pepper is pretty big but him being my dad was a lot bigger," he says.
"But the fact that I got the chance to celebrate him by remixing Sgt Pepper is a good thing - it means his, and John and George's memory, lives on.
"Working on the record didn't make it any harder, but it didn't help. What helped with his passing was he was 90 years old, he was ready to go and he'd lived an amazing life."
The 47-year-old did manage to see his father before he died and pass on something he had never managed to say before.
"I did have the chance to say to him: 'It's amazing what you did in life'.
"And he said: 'What do you mean?' and I go: 'Well above all else, you did sign The Beatles and that's a bit of a big decision that affected millions of people in your life'.
"He just closed his eyes and went: 'Well I did the best I could'."
Sir George was renowned as a humble man and his son is very similar.
"This mix is not a revision, it's a celebration of what he and Geoff Emerick and The Beatles did," he says, before adding with a laugh, "as opposed to me saying how wrong he got it."
Finding the humour is very much Martin's approach, a dark sense of comedy he also shared with his father. He jokes that more than a year later "life has become a wake" as devoted Beatles fans continue to offer condolences.
Cackling at one such encounter with a journalist, Martin adds the only regret the family have in the aftermath of Sir George's death was not pretending he had died three days before he did.
"It goes on for ages - I'm at a party or something it goes on and on, and I obviously have to be nice. But I look up and think, 'dad, you'd be laughing at this'."
The 50th anniversary celebration of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is out now