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George Martin: doyen of musical producers

Sunday, March 27th, 2016 by Martin Hester

Sir George Martin, known as “the fifth Beatle” died on 8th March 2016 at age 90. Some of us may remember his visit to Rio in October 1993, when he was invited by the Projeto Aquarius to conduct the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira (OSB), a rock band and two choirs (from Petropolis) in a program of Beatles music. On the night, there was a tropical downpour which prevented the symphony orchestra from playing, but everyone who went to the Quinto de Boa Vista left soaked to the skin but thoroughly happy from singing along to 17 Beatles numbers, many specially arranged by Martin for the occasion.

 

Early career

George Henry Martin was born in North London in 1926 into a working-class family – his father a carpenter, his mother a cleaner, and although there was a piano in the house, he was not encouraged to music as a profession. During the War, he was an officer in the Fleet Air Arm, and then used his veteran’s grant to study piano and oboe at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama from 1947 to 1950. He joined EMI, as assistant to Oscar Preuss of Parlophone records, where he recorded classical and theatre music, before taking over the division in 1955 at age 29. He also produced numerous comedy and novelty records, working with Peter Sellers, the Goon Show, Flanders and Swann, achieving a big success with the Beyond the Fringe cast album (Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller). Those were all my favourite comedy shows at that time!

 

Signing the Beatles

In 1962, the Beatles were a big hit at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, had done their stints in Hamburg, and had Brian Epstein as a manager. However, their test recordings were rejected by the record companies, until George Martin gave them a hearing at EMI. He didn’t particularly like what he heard, but when he asked the band “Is there anything you’re not happy about?” he heard from George Harrison “Well… there’s your tie for a start” and he recognised a spark of likability that was natural and rebellious, and appealed to his sense of humour. So began a partnership in which the Beatles’ tremendous creativity, wit and energy were channelled into recordings of a high standard of musicianship and production quality. According the journalist Tom Ingham – “What matters, what’s always mattered, isn’t whether artists are capable of ‘winning’ – but whether we actually want them to”, and the British youth certainly did want them to – the Beatles fan base grew explosively to become the excesses of Beatlemania, and spread round the world.

 

A learning experience

During the first years with the Beatles, Martin played a rather schoolmasterly role – friendly and encouraging, but always in command. But as success brought greater freedom, and John and Paul’s ideas and musical interests expanded, he was able to introduce links to classical music (the string quartet on Yesterday, for instance). When the Beatles wanted a particular instrumental sound or effect, Martin would find a way to get it, often bringing in first-class musicians to collaborate on the backing. There is a lovely story about the orchestra which plays in “A Day in the Life” which is on the Sergeant Pepper album. They came in DJs and were given funny noses, spectacles and a score with a few chords. Then Paul’s instructions were “to fill in 24 empty bars, starting at the ninth, and play from your instrument’s lowest note to the highest, but the speed at which you do it is your own choice”. Apparently the players were nonplussed, and so Paul and Martin had to go round and talk to each one… the strings wanted to do it all together, but the trumpet players got the idea right away! In the end there were 5 takes each one different, and the effect absolutely dramatic… Check out the scene on YouTube, A Day in the Life – TheBeatlesVEVO posting.

 

Innovation in the studio

After they stopped touring in 1966, the Beatles could give full range to their imagination in the studio, and started experimenting with tape speeds, playing tapes backwards, looping (the same bit played over and over) and multi-tracking to create different effects. In all these Martin would go along, putting into effect the ideas, encouraging and selecting. He was quite happy with radio clips and tape collages from his work with The Goons, as well as working with symphony orchestras, and by this time EMI had given them complete artistic freedom. After six months of work, the Sgt. Pepper album was released and both the music and the sleeve made it an immediate cultural icon. According to Paul “The main point was that George Martin was the grown-up, not on drugs, and up behind the glass window, and we were the kids, on drugs, in the studio”.

 

The last Beatles albums

Sgt. Pepper was a tremendous success, especially among musicians, and after that came the Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles (the White Album), Let It Be, and Abbey Road. George Martin had started his own production company called AIR in 1965 and became much in demand by other artists – and he was not the producer of Let It Be, although he contributed. The Beatles’ last album Abbey Road had elements of a return to origins about it, when the four, knowing that the group was coming to an end, put up their best effort – and wanted the pleasure and camaraderie of working with Martin again.

 

Sixty years of production

But this by no means was the end of Martin’s success as a producer – he had number one singles in four successive decades (60s through 90s) with different artists, authored some outstanding arrangements, composed the score for the film Live and Let Die (among others) hosted a TV series, published a memoir “All you need is Ears” which describes his work experiences and discusses the art and science of sound recording… in his six decades of work he produced more than 700 records.

 When Martin talks about the skills of a producer, the people things come to the fore: match the talent to the songs, keep a touch of comedy, suggest and leave the artist with freedom to go ahead – you have to get the best out of the person. He had a good way with artists “Let’s try it again…”, feeding in complementary ideas. Together with his multiple skills as a pianist, arranger, composer, conductor, and audio engineer, he had a strong sense of what would be a success, and indeed ended up with more No.1s to his name than any other producer.

In the litany of tributes to Sir George paid after his death, one by Gary Barlow is especially apt: “Let’s face it – we’re all still copying his work”.