When I was a child I listened to the Beatles a lot. My parents had an extensive LP collection with everything from The Dubliners to Abba and Bob Dylan to The Rolling Stones. I mostly preferred the Beatles. They were, and still are, my favourite band of all time. They’re the most important and influential band in the history of popular music. It would be some years later, when I really got into how their records were made, that I learned all about George Martin and the profound and essential relationship he had with the Beatles.
He was truly a pioneer. He developed novel production techniques and innovative studio ideas, many of which are now taken for granted. He was bold, adventurous, musically gifted, and possessed of an inquisitive mind. Perhaps equally important, he was a tremendously nice fellow. You simply could not imagine anyone not enjoying working with George Martin. He is to music what David Attenborough is to natural history filmmaking.
Produced by George Martin is the title of a 2012 BBC Arena documentary. It is essential viewing. I had no idea that Martin spent much of his very early career working with the likes of Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Peter Ustinov. He produced spoken word comedy records and comedy musical numbers. He was responsible for Goodness Gracious Me, a song by Sellers and Sophia Loren. (Incidentally, this featured on All Aboard, a children’s LP my parents got for us; yet another example of me appreciating George Martin without knowing it.) He would bring the skills he honed and developed during this period when it came to working on the sound of the Beatles.
The documentary also shows what a likeable character he was. During an era when producers and engineers wore suits or lab coats, buttoned up shirts with ties, and their only vice was perhaps a cigarette, George Martin brought his love of music and keen sense of talent-spotting to a wily bunch of talented Scousers. While the Beatles experimented with acid and smoked copious amounts of dope, George Martin pottered about, with his necktie rarely undone, harnessing the creative genius of Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting.
Nile Rodgers speaks about how a great producer is ‘part psychologist’ because he or she has to deal with such crazy egos in the fragile dynamic of a band. George Martin was just so bloody decent, and backed up his ideas with exceptional results, that he got on with the Beatles on almost everything they recorded.
However, it’s the creative arc when listening to the Beatles discography which really intrigues and impresses me. Rubber Soul, released at the end of 1965, showed the first glimpses of the move away from Love Me Do boyband to something a bit more left of field. The introduction of the sitar in Norwegian Woodwould be a sign of things to come. Revolver, released around seven months later, was even more adventurous. Whether it’s the brass arrangements on Got To Get You Into My Life or the pure jangly guitar sound of She Said She Said, this was a new kind of Beatles. Most outstanding of all was the closing track Tomorrow Never Knows, with its innovative use of reverse tape loops and unconventional drumbeat.
In 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band changed everything. This was George Martin at his peak. You could write a whole book about the studio innovation in Sgt. Pepper’s, from the orchestration in A Day In The Life (essentially two songs spliced together by Martin) to the mystic Eastern ambience of Within You Without You.
The next album, Magical Mystery Tour, contains perhaps George Martin’s greatest single achievement, the production of Strawberry Fields Forever. Here was a song which Lennon and McCartney didn’t really know what to do with, until Martin had the idea of using some reverse beats on a loop. This was just the starting point, however, and you should have a read of the Wikipedia page about Strawberry Fields Forever for the full remarkable story of its creation.
The White Album and Yellow Submarine continued the creative relationship between band and producer, with unique results. The second half of Abbey Road – the medley – was the final album which featured George Martin on production detail, and it is a fitting tribute to his greatness.
When asked about his role and his relationship with the band, he said: “Put simply, my job was to make sure recordings were artistically exceptional and commercially appealing, maximizing the qualities of artists and songs."
He certainly achieved that; without him the Beatles would not have been the phenomenon they became.
George Martin, 1926 – 2016.