The crowd on 43rd street is humming with an improbable blend of music-geek curiosity, boomer nostalgia, and, decades late, raw Beatlemania. George Martin -- producer of nearly every Fab Four album and the most legitimate of the many candidates for the title of "fifth Beatle" -- is delivering a talk at Town Hall on "The Making of Sgt. Pepper's." A near-sellout audience of 1,150 -- almost all male -- has turned out.
"I heard he reversed the polarity on some headphones and used them as mikes," says Stephen Wright, a 26-year-old guitarist whose shaggy turquoise hairdo makes him look as though he's taken a wrong turn en route to a Johnny Rotten lecture. "That's the stuff you want to hear about straight from the horse's mouth."
Inside, 48-year-old Brian Moran takes his orchestra seat and pulls a copy of Martin's book With a Little Help From My Friends from a plastic shopping bag. "I don't know if he's sticking around to sign autographs," he says. "I hope I can thank him for having the ears to recognize John Lennon's talent."
A few rows back sits Sid Bernstein, the concert promoter who brought the Beatles from London for their 1964 Carnegie Hall gig, and for their 1965 concert at Shea Stadium. Bernstein confesses that he's come with an agenda. "I'm organizing a millennium festival in Liverpool," he says. "I'm here to ask George if he'll consider conducting the Liverpool Symphony Orchestra for it."
When he finally appears on stage, Martin, with his thinning silver hair and gray flannel suit, looks more politician than pop icon. His address -- read from two TelePrompTers -- is peppered with self-deprecating asides about his comparative squareness in swinging-sixties London.
In the end, those who came looking for information on microphone placement and other arcane technical details are disappointed, though the audience does cheer when Martin -- in a video segment prerecorded at Abbey Road Studios -- drops all the instruments from "Strawberry Fields Forever," revealing John Lennon's double-tracked voice.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime event," concludes 40-year-old Stew Bershader, heading home to Long Island with his 12-year-old son, Chris. "But I didn't learn anything they didn't cover on the Disney Channel documentary."