Sir George Martin was the greatest record producer in history. Everyone else can take a seat. I don’t care if you’re Mark Ronson or Max Martin, will I. am or Mike WiLL Made-It.
Without Sir George, you wouldn’t have a job.
Martin’s influence on the Beatles – and therefore, on the history of recorded sound, to say nothing of rock ’n’ roll and pop – cannot be overstated.
Martin’s classicism and refined musical taste blended with the Fab Four’s irreverent inventiveness to birth the greatest catalog of songs to emerge from the 20th century. When Martin died on Tuesday, at the age of 90, he left behind an impeccable body of work that transcends the passage of time and trend and will remain a blueprint for musicians and record-makers for the foreseeable future.
He was known as “the Fifth Beatle,” and this term of endearment was no gilding of the lily. The songwriting genius of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, and the spot-on musical instincts of all four Beatles, would have emerged onto the world’s stage without Martin’s input. But nothing would have been the same. It was the push and pull between Martin’s affable conservatism and his boys’ unflappable desire to push the envelope that made the Beatles so much more than a band of lovable Liverpudlians enthralled with American R&B and rock ’n’ roll and eager to toss their hat into the ring. Martin helped the Beatles create rock music that demanded to be accepted as art, not mere entertainment. Everything that came after them bore the mark of their influence in some fashion.
When Martin met the Beatles, he was pushing 40, an established record producer who had specialized in the recording of classical music and British comedy, most notably “Goon Show” progenitors Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. While enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Martin studied oboe and piano, and dissected the music of Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Cole Porter, all of which would end up influencing the Beatles’ music. He wasn’t necessarily looking for a rock ’n’ roll band to produce when he encountered the scruffy, fresh-from-the-Hamburg-strip-clubs Beatles in 1962, but he heard something in their tight-but-primitive interplay, and he took the leap of faith that would result in a sound that eventually radicalized the 1960s and created a rallying point for a worldwide youth culture.
No one involved saw it coming. But within a few years of their meeting, Martin and the Beatles would be creating works of enduring brilliance. “Beatlemania” was strictly a youth phenomenon that had as much to do with the fact that the Beatles were cute as it did with that awesome shift from G major to B minor that defined the middle-eight section of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” This was the beginning of sexual liberation, the death of the ’50s, and a visceral representation of the generation gap, but it was not all that the Beatles were about. Martin knew that the ability to defiantly shift key when it suited them, to map their vocal harmonies in previously uncharted territories, and to try pretty much anything at all, with naïve determination and a giddy air of “Why not?” – these would be the characteristics that would allow the group to go from “She Loves You” to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Eight Days a Week” to “Penny Lane,” and “Every Little Thing” to “Helter Skelter” in the span of less than a decade.
Drugs played a role in this development too, it can’t be denied. By the time they were crafting “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Beatles had been experimenting with LSD, and their music was reflecting the Technicolor possibilities suggested by the ever-opening Lotus flower of the psychedelic imagination. Martin reigned them in a bit, and rightly so. His desire for rational harmonic order meshed with McCartney’s similar tendencies, and tethered Lennon’s penchant for raw experimentalism, which is why songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are masterworks, and the Rolling Stones’ contemporaneous “Their Satanic Majesties Request” sounds like the work of a bunch of acid-heads run amok in the recording studio.
Martin was all ears, in music-geek parlance. He worked with primitive equipment – a four-track recorder for most of the Beatles’ work – but was able to bend that equipment to his will and turn those limitations into opportunities for experimentation. If this meant slicing and splicing tape to achieve desired sonic colors (“I Am the Walrus”), running Lennon’s vocal through a rotating Leslie organ speaker to create an otherworldly Doppler effect (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), composing a Bach-like piano figure in half-time and then speeding up the tape in order to craft a harpsichord-like tone (“In My Life”), or penning an arrangement for string quartet as indelible as the McCartney melody it underscores (“Yesterday”) – Martin was game.
These were far from mere parlor tricks. Check out the drum sound Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick conjured during “I Am the Walrus,” and attempt to convince yourself that there has ever been a better drum set recording in rock history. This is the sound of science meeting the artistic impulse and dancing around the maypole. It has never been topped. Sampled, yes. But bettered? No.
When the Beatles finally imploded, Martin did not retire. He went on to work with pop-folk outfit America, and produced fantastic, enduring albums by the likes of Cheap Trick (“All Shook Up”), the Mahavishnu Orchestra, (“Apocalypse”), Jeff Beck (“Blow by Blow,” “Wired”), Ultravox (“Quartet”) and UFO (“No Place to Run”), among many others. He also worked with McCartney, helping the most prolific solo-Beatle to craft the dramatic “Live and Let Die” single and the late-period powerhouse albums “Tug of War” and “Flaming Pie.”
But it’s as the Fifth Beatle that Martin will be remembered, by all whose lives have been enriched through his indelible contributions to the greatest pop music of all time.
Perhaps the person whose life was most deeply touched by Martin, the man, the musician, and the mentor, recalled him with heart-rending fondness via PaulMacartney.com on Wednesday morning.
“From the day that he gave The Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.”