There sits the late George Martin, behind the wheel of a vintage Cadillac convertible, cruising through Los Angeles and talking about the city’s import as a studio town. In the clip, taken from the 1997 BBC documentary “The Rhythm of Life,” Martin’s got a destination in mind as he rolls down Sunset Boulevard and up into the Hollywood Hills: Brian Wilson’s house.
As he drives, Martin, whose work producing the Beatles changed the course of popular music, discusses the city.
“Los Angeles then, as well as now, was the center of the entertainment business,” he says. “Not just the film business, but music too. And everybody gravitated here. If you wanted to make records, generally speaking, Los Angeles was the place to come to.”
Then he gets to his point: “To mind my mind, no one ever made better records here than the local Southern California group the Beach Boys.”
For students of pop songwriting, the next four minutes are a lesson on artistic inspiration and technical agility. Martin quizzes Wilson on those essential Beach Boys melodies while the songwriter dots out the notes on a piano. Soon Wilson is pouring forth the chords to “God Only Knows.”
The scene cuts to the two in their natural habitat, a recording studio. They sit in front of a mixing board, the “God Only Knows” unmixed master playing in the background, and discuss the ways in which Wilson worked his magic.
Martin offers narrated insight: “What Brian had done was to write a beautiful song full of unusual changes, and then devise a tapestry of sounds to enhance it. To me it was fascinating, being a musical detective looking at the song structure back in the sort of studio in which I’d spent most of my working life.”
As the song plays, Wilson looks up at the ceiling, lost inside his brilliant creation while Martin plays with the mix, exploring the arrangements, techniques and tricks of Wilson’s trade. Martin adds a compliment -- “It’s a lovely song and a beautiful record” -- while making his own mix of “God Only Knows.” He slides vocal tracks up and down, mixes in percussion, explores the odd rhythmic accents.
As Wilson looks on, listening to what Martin has just done to his song, the Beach Boy comes to a startled conclusion: “You know what? That’s a better mix than I had on the master. You’re making a better mix of this than I did on the master!"
“Never,” says Martin with typical humility.
Wilson, his face filled with joyful wonder, concludes the scene by heaping praise Martin’s casual accomplishment. “George, I can’t believe this is happening."
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