Remembering Sir George Martin (1926-2016)
I’m fascinated by the creative process. Watching unfiltered talent in the raw and witnessing art evolve can be far more intriguing than sampling the perfectly-polished end product. Sometimes, it’s just as interesting to watch the baker at work than to taste the cake.
Sir George Martin baked up and frosted as many rock n’ roll masterpieces as anyone else during the 1960’s, and that’s quite a statement given what a creative period that was in popular music. As the longtime producer for The Beatles, Martin consistently infused the group with new sounds and unprecedented methods of instrumentation which had never been used before by pop musicians. Some of the techniques would have been unthinkable were it not for The Beatles’ own curiosities matched with Martin as the perfect tutor of influence. The lanky and straight-laced Martin looked more like a barrister than the megaphone for the counterculture. Martin consistently pushed the Fab Four to new creative heights, obliterating old precedent with each new album release, which sometimes mystified the groups fans and risked proven commercial formulas.
Many years ago, Martin was interviewed for a BBC film documentary. He was asked to recall his first experience meeting The Beatles in person, the group that would come to change his life and make Abbey Road Studios one of the focal points of musical and cultural revolution. Martin seemed the least-likely person to produce the four lads from Liverpool. He had no interest whatsoever in pop music, which he not only disregarded but wasn’t taken seriously at the time, particularly by the big London moguls. Up to that point, Martin had only produced a few semi-successful comedy albums and various soundtrack orchestrations for movies and television. His background in classical music seemed so far ahead of and removed from anything that was going on in the British rock scene at the time, which was non-existent commercially speaking, aside from various gigs in nightclubs filled with screaming teenagers.
Martin recalled there were no great songs from that first recording session. It was still the Spring of 1962, on the eve of what would become the worldwide explosion known as “Beatlemania,” which would lead to unforeseen opportunities for many other British rockers, but then just as quickly bury the amazing talents of many top R&B artists and girl groups who were obliterated from the charts and destined for obscurity. Why then, Martin was asked, did he agree to sign the group and record their songs given there were so many differences and no one could have possibly foreseen the potential?
Martin’s instincts were uncanny. He recognized that with emerging advances in sound technology and recording processes at the time, combined with The Beatles’ natural appeal as master showmen, he was sitting on a musical goldmine. Martin summoned The Beatles into the recording studio again (without drummer Ringo Starr on that first record, by the way) and within a few weeks, their first hit song “Love Me Do” had charted.
Over the next seven years, Martin brought in wind instruments, brass, harps, strings, and entire orchestras. Each album became better than the last, combining to create one of the most varied and extensive catalogs of original recordings ever done within such a short time frame. Martin’s input to the groups’s output had become essential, and not merely as a recording engineer. So too was his eye and ear for the finest detail, combined with his willingness, eagerness even, to spend the long hours aiming for unique new sounds that would tickle minds and extend the imaginations of listeners. He helped to write the soundtrack to millions of lives.
The Beatles almost always recorded during night time, usually between the hours of 8 pm and about 3 am (sometimes later if the session was going well). That’s when they felt the most energetic. Boosted perhaps by earlier habits that had formed when the group was performing three and sometimes four shows a night in Hamburg’s infamous Reeperbhan District as virtual unknowns during the early 60’s, the band maintained that recording schedule consistently until their breakup in 1970. So too, Martin became a night owl on the most popular graveyard shift in the world.
One evening in 1966, Paul McCartney came into the studio and told Martin about concert of a classical musical he’d watched on television earlier in the day. McCartney was particularly fascinated by the sound of a high-pitched horn, called a piccolo trumpet. Trained as a musician himself and able to play several instruments on his own, Martin had prior knowledge of the horn from his experience conducting orchestras. So, he brought in a specialist to play the piccolo trumpet on the song which later became titled as “Penny Lane.” For the first time, rock n’ rollers around the world heard and whistled to a new sound, one of many they’d come to enjoy thanks to Martin’s influence. Many of those niche sounds made their way later on onto the collection of recordings many still consider to this day to be the most monumental rock album of all time, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” released during the “Summer of Love,” in 1967. [See Footnote]
He did lots of little things like that with the trumpet over the years. Martin performed piano riffs and created other sound effects that were new to rock. He experimented with electronic sounds and was essential in the emergence of psychodelia. Martin worked closely beside John Lennon, releasing the first recording with backwards taping, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” on the 1966 release appropriately titled, “Revolver.” These unusual sounds only added to The Beatles mystique, as fans began listening to song seeking out hidden messages.
Martin not only made music, he made the music that was created by others sound better. When Martin departed temporarily as the group’s producer in early 1969, inexplicably leaving the dormant “Let It Be” session tapes to gather dust, he was convinced the group’s days were over and that a breakup was inevitable. Those fears indeed proved correct. However, in the meantime, without Martin as the band’s caregiver, the “Let It Be” sessions eventually found their way over to “Wall of Sound” master guru, Phil Spector, who would outrage Paul McCartney by adding syrupy string arrangements to many songs without consent, thus reminding members of the group how essential Martin was to the making of a great album.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney begged Martin to return to the studio with them for one last time, making what just about everyone knew would be the group’s swan song goodbye, and final album. “Abbey Road,” recorded later that year in 1969 turned out to be a masterpiece, a stellar work of engineering and sound craft that was essentially conducted on the bough of a sinking ship. Early in 1970 with “Abbey Road,” atop the charts, The Beatles announced their split, and all five (including Martin) were destined to spend late nights doing something else.
Over the next several decades, Martin produced many other artists. He remained very much in high demand all the way up until his death that he could have worked with just about anyone. But Martin never seemed to be in the music business for the fame, nor the money. He loved the music, loved working with musicians, and relished in the opportunity to create and produce sounds that moved us from one emotion to the next.
Fittingly, George Martin was knighted Sir by his queen some years later, certainly a noble gesture as well as a poignant recognition that genius isn’t just within the confines of a tiny circle under the bright spotlight or a pretty face plastered across an album cover. Sometimes, just as often, genius stems from the lesser known craftsman working mostly in anonymity fiddling with knobs and buttons in a darkened control room. Fortunately, his innumerable hours spent on master recordings will be something we shall be able to enjoy not just for decades, but for centuries.
Sir George Martin, thank you for making so many fans and listeners part of your magical mystery tour.
Footnote: An interesting read is what some of the sessions musicians were paid for a short afternoon of work while playing various instruments on Beatles’ recordings. Most were paid something between 100-200 pounds, on what would become some of the most memorable songs in music history.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated “Please Please Me” was the first single released by The Beatles oin collaboration with George Martin as producer. That was incorrect. The first single was “Love Me Do.”