Wednesday, March 16, 2016

George Martin, 1926-2016

George Martin, 1926-2016. Martin was such a handsome fellow.

George Martin, still looking sharp.

The Beatles gather around Martin during the Sgt. Pepper sessions.
When George Martin passed away at the age of 90 last week, the world lost one of music’s most famous record producers. Martin was the man who produced all of the Beatles’ recorded work, with the exception of Let It Be. Perhaps Martin’s absence is the reason that Let It Be has always felt like less than the sum of its parts to me. While Martin’s brilliance in his production of the Beatles can be seen on many records like “Yesterday,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” part of his brilliance in producing the Beatles is what he didn’t do with them. Martin didn’t make them record shoddy material that they didn’t want to do. Yes, the Beatles attempted a version of “How Do You Do It?” at Martin’s suggestion as their possible first single, but the group’s insistence that their first single should be an original song convinced Martin to release “Love Me Do” as their first A-side. Martin was correct that “How Do You Do It?” would be a hit, as it became the first single for another Liverpool group, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and it went to number 1 in the UK. (Martin produced the Gerry and the Pacemakers version as well.) Martin also didn’t push either John or Paul to be the only frontman in the group, even though it was pretty unusual in rock and roll to have two lead vocalists. Martin helped the Beatles develop their talent, but he also let their talent develop naturally. 

From everything I’ve ever read about George Martin, he sounds like a really nice guy. Martin was smart, very funny, and he had a calm and patient attitude. Martin had matinee-idol looks, with high cheekbones, piercing blue eyes, and a thick head of hair always immaculately swept back from his forehead. Martin’s pre-Beatles producing career had been marked by a great variety of titles, as he had produced classical recordings, jazz, and the comedy records of Peter Sellers. Martin’s backgrounds in all three of these disparate areas would be of great help to him in recording the Beatles. His knowledge of classical music allowed him to create compelling orchestrations for their later songs. (Martin was a classically trained oboist, as well as being an excellent piano player.) Martin’s background in jazz and comedy made him flexible and able to improvise, which helped him when John Lennon came in and said that he wanted his vocal on “Tomorrow Never Knows” to sound like it was coming from a Buddhist monk chanting on a hillside. To Martin’s eternal credit, he didn’t just brush off John and tell him that was impossible. Martin said, “I put his voice through a loudspeaker and rotated it. It actually did come out as that strangled sort of cry from the hillside.” (Beatlesongs, by William J. Dowlding, p.145) 

Simply put, George Martin was a perfect fit for the Beatles. He knew all the rules of music that they were ignorant of, but he was also thrilled to help them push the boundaries of music. He never told them something was impossible. Even when John Lennon wanted two different takes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” to be spliced together, even though they were in different tempos and in different keys, Martin found a way to do it. And when Lennon wanted a circus feel on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” Martin had engineer Geoff Emerick cut up a tape of a calliope, throw the tape on the floor, and put it back together at random, creating a feverish collage that matched the feeling of Lennon’s song.

Martin’s orchestral arrangements for the group’s songs added a different flavor to the Beatles’ music. Martin convinced Paul McCartney that a string quartet would provide the perfect backing for his ballad “Yesterday.” McCartney was initially skeptical about adding strings, as the Beatles were a rock band and didn’t want to be seen as middle of the road pop stars. Martin told Paul if he didn’t like the arrangement, they could always leave it off. Of course it worked beautifully, and led to another great collaboration between the two on “Eleanor Rigby,” which was recorded with a double string quartet. 

While Martin’s skills as an oboist were never heard on a Beatles record, his considerable talents at the piano can be heard on many Beatles songs. Of the 209 songs that the Beatles recorded and released during their career, George Martin played on 37. Martin’s talents on the keyboards meant that it wasn’t until “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” was recorded in February 1965 that outside musicians played on a Beatles song. Martin was versatile on piano, as he sounded equally at home playing the rock and roll of “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Long Tall Sally,” and “Slow Down,” and the boogie woogie of “Lovely Rita,” and “Rocky Raccoon.” 

One of George Martin’s finest moments on piano came during the recording of the beautiful song “In My Life,” from the Rubber Soul album. The group had recorded the song and left a space in the middle for an instrumental solo. They were undecided on what instrument, as it didn’t seem to be the right song for a guitar solo. A few days later Martin got the idea for a baroque-sounding piano solo to fill the gap. Martin wasn’t able to play the solo as fast as the tempo of the song required, so he played it at half the speed, and then sped the tape up so his solo would fit in the song. To my ears, Martin’s solo compliments the song perfectly.

George Martin was an integral part of the Beatles’ story, and he did a fantastic job making their music sound great. He was a producer who wasn’t just twiddling knobs in the booth, he was really a partner in the greatest band ever, and he truly deserves the title “the Fifth Beatle.”

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