Hillary Atkin

PBS’s ‘Soundbreaking’ Series: The Late George Martin’s Swan Song to the Music Industry

Nov 21, 2016

It’s a music lover’s dream: an eight-part exploration of innovations and insights across all musical genres over the past century, featuring unreleased footage and interviews with more than 150 artists.

The series, “Soundbreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music,” was produced by the late Sir George Martin in what can now be considered his swan song to the music industry.

Martin, who produced much of the Beatles catalog and continued to work with them on some of their solo projects while also producing artists such as Jeff Beck and Celine Dion, died in March at the age of 90. During his storied career, he produced more than 50 No. 1 records, won six Grammy Awards and received the Recording Academy’s Trustees Award.

“Soundbreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music,” which bowed on PBS last week and continues airing episodes this Monday through Wednesday, originally premiered at SXSW in March of this year and was also previewed during the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

Among the artists, producers and innovators featured are Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Roger Waters, Roger Daltrey, Linda Perry, Barry Gibb, Elton John, Debbie Harry, Quincy Jones, B.B. King, Annie Lennox, Dave Stewart, Mark Knopfler, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Lindsey Buckingham, Rosanne Cash, Don Was, Steven Van Zandt, Sheila E, Questlove, Ben Harper, Billy Idol, Beck, Imogen Heap, Darryl McDaniels, RZA, Bon Iver, Nile Rodgers, Nigel Godrich, Q-tip, Brian Eno, Mark Ronson, Rick Rubin, Hank Shocklee, Peter Asher and Tony Visconti.

“’Soundbreaking’ afforded me the opportunity to tell the story of the creative process of so many of the artists I have worked with throughout my life,” Martin said about the project earlier this year. “Music is the only common thread and universal language that binds us together regardless of race, nationality, age or income. And recorded music is how we experience it and what makes it accessible.”

Director and producer Jeff Dupre, whose credits include 2012’s “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present,” discussed Martin’s legacy and how the project explores the impact of music in the modern world during a recent interview. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

How did you work with Sir George Martin on producing this series? Please describe the process, and how it fits into his musical heritage.

Making records was his life’s work, and I think he wanted to share with the world just how exciting it was to be in the studio with the Beatles, dreaming up ideas for new sounds, and then inventing techniques to make them a reality. This constant experimentation with sound is George’s legacy, and has been a driving force in the history of rock and roll, as each new generation of artists has sought to push the boundaries forward.

George provided so many great insights and suggestions as we developed the treatments for the series and the shows started to take shape. He was excited to see how much ground we were able to cover, dipping back in time to the early innovators such as Les Paul and then bringing it up to the present day. His main suggestion was that the series not focus too much on him. He was modest, gracious and kind.

I’m assuming that you yourself interviewed many of the performers and producers featured. What are some of the most surprising things that came to light from them as you worked on the series?

Some of the early interviews with George Martin were conducted by Max Langstaff, Alan Benson and others, before my company, Show of Force was brought on to make the film. Of the 150 or so artists that you see in the 8-hour series, most were conducted by my fellow producers Joshua Bennett, Warren Zanes, Julia Marchesi and myself.

It was very moving to see how much these artists love and revere each other’s work and are so eager to talk about who influenced them. Annie Lennox talking about how Motown changed her life, Tom Petty’s encyclopedic knowledge of how the Beatles made their records, Sheila E on James Brown, and so on.

What are some of the most impactful and long-lasting inventions, ideas and concepts that have come out of music recording over the past decades?

Certainly the invention of magnetic tape and multi-track recording enabled artists such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys to transform the sound of popular music, by layering sounds on top of one another. The art of sampling, which really came into full force with the rise of hip hop, also transformed the sound of music — and changed everything. These innovations continue to reverberate.

Please describe some of the most exciting rare, archival footage that you discovered and is seen in “Soundbreaking.”

One moment I love is at the beginning of Episode 3, where Adele’s producer, Paul Epworth, plays the original demo tracks of the song “Rolling in the Deep” and explains how they built the song. The recording really takes you to the moment of creation, and it feels really intimate. You can hear Adele laughing as she stomps her feet to create the rhythm track.

Throughout the series, we use rare recordings of “studio talkback” — the dialogue between the artist and the producer as a recording is being made. Check out our main title sequence, which features studio talkback from Paul McCartney, George Martin, Aretha Franklin, Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, David Bowie and the Pixies.

What do you hope viewers take away from this series?

The songs featured in this series are well-known and beloved by generations of fans. I think viewers will come away with a much deeper appreciation for how recording works, and that will enable them to have an even closer relationship to the music they love.

(“Soundbreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music” continues on PBS Nov. 21, 22 and 23 at 10 p.m. Check local listings. More information including song playlists for each episode is at http://soundbreaking.com/episodes. The series will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on Nov. 29.)

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