The Last Word: George Martin

At 80, producer Sir George Martin--a.k.a. the "fifth Beatle"--couldn't care less what anybody thinks. In a career that has spanned almost half a century, Martin has produced more than 700 records and worked with artists such as Sting, Cher, Elton John and Stan Getz. As the head of EMI's Parlophone Records, he signed the Beatles in 1962, after every other label in town had rejected them; he produced all of their records, from the first single ("Love Me Do") to the last album ("Abbey Road"). This month, the five-time Grammy-award winner was inducted into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame, an honor that he jokingly likens to being "embalmed." Martin's latest album--produced with more than a little help from his 37-year-old son Giles--is a radical remix of Beatles' hits that has left critics divided. "Love," offers new takes on songs, including "Lady Madonna" and "Strawberry Fields Forever," which builds from Lennon's acoustic demo into a kaleidoscope of beats, strings, trumpets and song samples. NEWSWEEK's Jessica Au spoke to Martin in London's Abbey Road studios. Excerpts:

MARTIN: The Beatles were four characters with great charisma and personalities, which is why I signed them in the first place. I didn't sign them for their music. In the early days I pushed them to write more material and they never just brought me a dolled up version of what went before. Now you have a legacy of somewhere between two to three hundred great songs, which are going to live forever.

I never thought I would get deeply into the Beatles again until I was asked to put together one and half hours of continuous Beatles for a Cirque du Soleil show. Giles and I have been working on this album for two years and we've been walking a tight rope the whole time. But if the fans don't like it, they will still have the old records. It was wonderful to be able to get the support of Yoko, Paul, Olivia and Ringo because it gave us the confidence to develop what we were doing. If John and George were alive today they would have liked what we have done. I'm sure of that.

When I started, records weren't that important. But the industry has become almost like Hollywood over the years. It's a major part of our export business in this country. But the fun has gone out of it a bit. It has become so corporate. When I ran Parlophone Records back in the '50s and '60s, I was my own boss. If I signed a group and made a record I didn't have to go to a committee of 15 A&R men and ask, Should we do this? I just did it. Nobody questioned that. That kind of responsibility is lacking today.

I wouldn't! The big machine has taken over the promoting part. We've done an awful lot of promotion for EMI at this point. And what EMI is doing to promote this album is absolutely right because journalists are interested to meet with the people doing the actual creating. Promotion is very necessary today because there are so many aspects of media now that have to be covered. Television, above all, sells more records than people just listening to it. I would be useless at marketing.

We couldn't have done a project like this 40 years ago. I used to work with bits of tape, a razor blade--flying by the seat of my pants. Nowadays, you can take music like a bit of dough and squeeze it into different shapes. The manipulation of sound in digital form is fascinating. It makes things easier because you can press a switch and get the sound effects you want. But technology takes away human elements and it doesn't help the creation of new music. Laying down a bass line and adding bits on top is not the same. I've done it myself but I don't think it's the way to go. In the old days, you had to be disciplined--each track was the band performing as a unit, like on a radio show. It gave you much more heart and soul.

The Gallaghers are very talented. But they model themselves too much on the Beatles for their own good. They're a very good group but not as good as the Beatles.

My first impression was that he's not my idea of James Bond. But I'm interested to see the film because I know David Arnold, the guy who did the score. And I gather from the critics he [Craig] is a really tough egg who brings something new to the part.