Yet another legend of popular music passes on. It was Ringo Starr who first broke the news of the death at 90 of George Martin via a tweet. Later, Paul McCartney added his own tribute to the Beatles’ producer, saying:
He was a true gentleman and like a second father to me. He guided the career of The Beatles with such skill and good humour that he became a true friend to me and my family. If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George.
In 1962, Brian Epstein introduced Martin to four Liverpudlians, and the world was never the same again. Martin who signed the Beatles to Parlophone records after Decca and other record labels had turned them down. He went on to produce all but one of their albums, helping to shape their songs in many different ways.
Adam Sweeting’s Guardian obituary makes a point about Martin’s background of which I only became aware when reading Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Tune In:
It has long been a part of Beatle mythology that Martin was the debonair toff who transformed the fortunes of four leather-clad scruffs from Liverpool, but the truth was not so cut and dried. “It’s a load of poppycock really, because our backgrounds were very similar,” Martin argued. ‘Paul and John went to quite good schools. I went to elementary school, and I went to Jesuit college. We didn’t pay to go to school, my parents were very poor. I wasn’t taught music and they weren’t, we taught ourselves’.
Rolling Stone today describes him as ‘expert and conspirator, taskmaster and mad scientist, friend and father figure’. The magazine also comes up with 10 Great Beatles Moments We Owe to George Martin which I reproduce here.
1. Please Please Me (1963)
When John Lennon and Paul McCartney first played “Please Please Me” for George Martin during their second EMI recording session on September 4th, 1962, the song was miles away from the uptempo tune that would become their first Number One. “At that stage ‘Please Please Me’ was a very dreary song,” Martin recalled to historian Mark Lewisohn. “It was like a Roy Orbison number, very slow, bluesy vocals. It was obvious to me that it badly needed pepping up.” He suggested they speed it up double-time, and suddenly they had a hit on their hands. “We were a bit embarrassed that he had found a better tempo than we had,” admitted McCartney in The Beatles Anthology.
2. Yesterday (1965)
When Paul McCartney first completed the song he literally dreamed up, the rest of the band were at a loss for what to play on it. The somber tone and mournful lyrics didn’t really lend themselves to an effective drum pattern, jangly guitars or even vocal harmonies. Martin convinced McCartney to grab an acoustic guitar and just sing the song by himself, a first in Beatles history. He also suggested another Beatle first: a string quartet. At first the notion conjured up thoughts of syrupy Mantovani schmaltz, and the young man resisted, but Martin assured him that it could be done tastefully. The part was the first of many elegant arrangements the producer would create for their songs.
3. In My Life (1965)
Lennon knew he had something special when he completed this introspective lyric, born out of a poem about his Liverpool childhood. Space had been left for a solo, but an electric guitar felt out of place on such a delicate track. He knew he wanted “something baroque sounding,” but the actual instrument eluded him. Martin took it upon himself to deliver the desired result. “While they were having their tea break, I put down a baroque piano solo which John didn’t hear until he came back. What I wanted was too intricate for me to do live, so I did it with a half-speed piano, then sped it up, and he liked it.”
4. For No One (1966)
George Martin took a very collaborative approach when working out arrangements with his young charges. There are many instances of Martin transcribing musical notation on the spot, wrestled from the Beatles’ impromptu whistles and hums. But perhaps the most memorable occurred during the recording of this Revolver track. When singing the solo that he wanted from a French horn, McCartney unknowingly hummed a note that was off the scale of the instrument and technically impossible to play. Martin informed him of this, yet the Beatle was undeterred. “George saw the joke and joined the conspiracy,” McCartney said later. But session man Alan Civil was such a pro that he proved able to hit the high note, giving the song its emotional climax.
5. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! (1967)
McCartney meticulously discussed arrangements for his songs with Martin, but Lennon was much more impressionistic in his approach. After pulling the lyrics for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” from an antique circus poster, he told Martin that he wanted to give the song a carnival atmosphere, allowing him “to smell the sawdust on the floor.” It was up to Martin to actually figure out the specifics. To achieve this effect, he took recordings of various fairground organs, chopped them into small pieces, and reassembled the tape fragments. The result was tremendously effective — a disorienting swirl evoking a demonic carousel.
6. Within You Without You (1967)
The Beatles had recorded the bitter George Harrison composition “Only a Northern Song” during sessions for Sgt. Pepper, but Martin’s intense dislike of the song (he later called it “the song I hated most of all” from Harrison) caused him to block its inclusion on the album. Instead, Harrison submitted the regal “Within You Without You” to his musical comrades about a month later. Martin oversaw a gorgeous East-meets-West arrangement that blended Indian instrumentation with a swooping string section. Its inclusion on Sgt. Pepper cemented Indian music’s place in the soundtrack of the sixties.
7. Lovely Rita (1967)
Though all of the Beatles’ piano skills vastly improved during their recording career, none tickled the ivories like Martin. When McCartney’s “Lovely Rita” required some slick honky-tonk piano, the producer’s hands were enlisted to provide the tricky parts. He also did similar duties on the bar-room ballad, “Rocky Raccoon.”
8. Strawberry Fields Forever (1967)
The Beatles had lavished more studio time on Lennon’s hallucinatory new song than nearly any track to date, recording take after take and eating up 55 hours worth of tape. Ultimately, the decision came down to two distinct versions — a faster one backed by George Martin’s bombastic orchestral arrangements, and a gentle, dreamier run-through. Lennon was torn — he liked the quiet beginning of the latter and the raucous end of the former.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you join the beginning of the first one to the end of the second one?'” Martin explained. “‘There are two things against it,’ I replied. ‘They are in different keys and different tempos.'” While easy to fix today, this was a serious problem in the analog age. But the technologically illiterate Lennon wasn’t fazed. “‘Well,’ he said, ‘you can fix it!'”
Armed with little more than two tape machines and a pair of scissors, Martin and his star engineer Geoff Emerick performed a minor mechanical miracle by adjusting the speed on both takes and literally cutting the two tapes together at the 60-second mark. It’s become one of the most famous edits in rock history.
9. All You Need Is Love (1967)
The Beatles recorded this Summer of Love anthem live on a worldwide television special broadcast by satellite. For the fade out, Martin composed what could be considered an orchestral proto-mashup, with fragments of “Greensleeves,” Bach’s Invention No. 8 in F Major and the big-band swing classic “In the Mood” all weaving in and out. But it was the last title that nearly got Martin in trouble for copyright infringement.
“EMI came to me and said, ‘You put this in the arrangement, so now you’ve got to indemnify us against any action that might be taken.’ I said, ‘You must be joking. I got 15 pounds for doing that arrangement!’ They saw the joke.” The label thankfully didn’t make Martin pay and compensated the “In the Mood” publishers.