Memoirs by Beatles engineers – the men who helped Producer George Martin shape and record the band’s music in the studio – have generated a fair amount of controversy among fans and Beatles authorities. Geoff Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere came in for substantial criticism for its errors, as well as its negative depiction of George Harrison. Ken Scott’s rebuttal, From Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust, countered Emerick’s version, particularly in its description of Harrison’s personality and musicality. Engineer Norman Smith’s John Lennon Called Me Normal stays largely out of the Emerick-Scott debate, in part by devoting very little attention to Harrison; instead, Smith’s focus is the seemingly unassailable figure of George Martin.
Technically John Lennon Called me Normal is a memoir; a retrospective account of his experiences as the Beatles engineer from 1962 up through 1965’s Rubber Soul. Its scarcity in worth noting; only three libraries (one of which was kind enough to lend me one) worldwide had a copy, which currently cost about 200 dollars. Given its relative rarity, I decided to kick off the newer historiographical analysis of Beatles books (for previous analysis, please see The Beatles and the Historians) by exploring and analyzing a relatively unknown work.
Muddying those technical “Memoir” waters is the reality that, due to its late publication date of 2008, Smith’s memoirs are infused with accounts, facts, and speculation from other primary and secondary sources, such as Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon, or Paul McCartney’s Many Years from Now. The distinction between Smith’s own memories, and the information he read from these outside sources and then reiterated in his own work, and in his own words, is not clear. Neither is the identity of the book’s co-researcher, a figure only referred to as “Research,” whose conversations with Smith concerning the way Beatles historiography has been and is being shaped make up a good chunk of the book. “For some reason there’s been a re-writing of history here and there. Beatles history, that is. Rock myths. Not any big conspiracy theories … People are re-writing their own Beatles history.”
Smith’s inclusion of dreams and verbatim transcripts of admittedly half-imagined, half-remembered conversations into the narrative further complicates his account, making his testimony hard to categorize or assess. Even those recollections which seem to wholly originate from Smith have certain credibility issues: In previous interviews and John Lennon Called Me Normal, the author describes the Rubber Soul sessions as very tense; a sole assessment, contradicted by Martin and by taped recordings of some session dialogue, which convey an impression of group camaraderie and musical fission.
Assessments of the Beatles’ personalities and music are sparse; fly on the wall accounts of the recording of various Beatles songs is almost non-existent. Ringo and George receive few mentions, and there is no new insight on the “warm” but “definitely very competitive” Lennon/McCartney partnership, or any of the inter-band dynamics. The work does, however, reinforce Beatles historiography’s ubiquitous tendency to endlessly compare and contrast every aspect of John’s and Paul’s lives, as Smith finds the John and Yoko marriage and parenting style inferior to Paul and Linda’s.
The retrospective quality of Smith’s account also allows him to judge, and harshly, various Beatles business and publishing deals, particularly their initial “stinker” of a contract with EMI, and the establishment of Northern Songs. “(John and Paul) were sandbagged with a pen and a ‘Quick! Sign here, chitty,’ at Epstein’s Liverpool love nest in 1963.” While figures such as Dick James have been subject to wildly varying portrayals in Beatles historiography, with Smith decidedly in the camp labeling James in the “villain” category, by far the most interesting aspect of the book is Smith’s portrayal of and his relationship with the eminent Beatles producer, the recently deceased George Martin.
Martin’s overall portrayal in Beatles historiography is, as I noted in The Beatles and the Historians, almost universally complimentary. Even biographers such as Ray Coleman and Philip Norman, who requested interviews with Martin in the 70s and 80s only to ignore any statements he made which failed to support their pre-conceived conclusions, never questioned his credibility or depicted him negatively. Explicitly critical sources of Martin are few: John’s infamous “Lennon Remembers” interview; parts of Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere, and a single line in Scott’s memoirs, where Scott recalls a resentful Martin privately commenting on a crowd’s adulation of Brian Epstein: “That should have been me.”
Throughout John Lennon Called me Normal, Smith cycles back to a meeting with Martin in the garden of Abbey Road, in the mid-2000’s, after Smith had secured a book contract, where Martin seemingly sought to ensure that Smith’s book would not diverge from the approved version of Beatles history. “Considering that I got one single mention in George’s own memoirs … he still seemed anxious to know what was going in this book before I’d really even started it.” Smith repeatedly reiterates both his resentment at Martin’s previous failures to acknowledge Smith’s importance to Beatles history – “All I know is I wasn’t in George Martin’s book” — and his perception that Beatles historiography as a whole has been manipulated, resulting in figures such as himself being marginalized: “People are shoring up their own place in history.”
Smith implies that Martin chose the shy, reticent and non-musically trained Emerick as Smith’s replacement for Beatles engineer in order to ensure that his new engineer could not serve as a threat to Martin’s pre-eminent authority as producer or musical contributor. (Emerick’s own speculation on why he was chosen to replace Smith theorizes that Martin and McCartney privately agreed on him, then presented him to the rest of the band as a sort of fait accompli). He blames Martin for allowing the Beatles to sign their first, less-than-generous contract with EMI, as well as for directing Lennon and McCartney to Dick James publishing – “Until the day (Dick) keeled over … he never stopped thanking George Martin whenever he saw him” – and argues that Martin requested publishers remove certain “Sir George offending pages” from the U.K. version of Tony Bramwell’s memoir, Magical Mystery Tours.
The portrait of Martin paints a picture of man quietly determined to use his undoubted prestige to influence both his role in and the overall shape of Beatles historiography. (In a recent interview, Lewisohn implied that Martin was upset at the evidence in “Tune In” which argued that Martin was assigned The Beatles as punishment for his affair with his then secretary, Judy). Smith’s book adds another layer to the issue of how various figures, including but not limited to Martin, have attempted to ensure their place in Beatles history, and attempted to write or re-write their history accordingly.