George Martin died last month at the ripe old age of 90 after a life well lived. In many a tribute he was hailed as one of the many “fifth Beatles” that have passed on before him, from manager Brian Epstein, to stalwart roadie and go-for Mal Evans, to Apple office manager and one-time driver Neil Aspinall, to Beatle-championing US disk jockey Murray The K. But, I think even that honourable distinction of Fifth Beatle limits George Martin.
His revolutionary ideas about what a producer is supposed to be in relation to artists, and what the studio was supposed to be in relation to making albums changed music forever, and for the better. To me, this counts for a lot more than attaching the label of fifth anything to him. His role in the progression of pop music history cannot be underestimated, all Beatles (fifth or otherwise) aside.
What are the ins and outs of this, though? What made George Martin a great producer, enabling him to usher such great music into the world in the manner that he did? Well, that’s what I think we should explore in detail right now, Good People! Here are 10 elements, characteristics, attributes that I feel George Martin possessed that helped him to do what seemed like the work of a saint; turn pop music from a throwaway curiosity and make it into art.
1. George Martin worked with comedians
It’s well-known by now that George Martin had little or no experience in working with rock or pop groups by the time he met The Beatles to record their first album in 1962. As far as his production experience went, he was more comfortable in the jazz or classical realm. But, he was also famous for comedy records in which Parlophone, the sub-label of EMI that Martin headed up, specialized.
Despite his inexperience with the rock milleu, I think his experience with Peter Sellers and the rest of the Goons helped Martin immensely to understand the important elements that allow for innovation. Comedy is the hardest possible art form to be good at and get right in the moment, and with a lot of lessons learned in it that informs good pop music, too. In comedy, timing is everything. You have to go for ideas that you feel will make people laugh. But, you can’t just repeat the same gags. You’ve got to be original every time, all the while still meeting the expectations (and undercutting them when you have to) of what an audience finds funny. And when it’s not funny, there is no covering it up. Getting that balance right requires a framework of open-mindedness that allows for bucking conventions while still remaining cohesive. In that environment, Martin had to learn all of this and learn how to create that kind of framework to support the kind of innovation of which artists like Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Harry Secombe were capable. When he met with the Beatles later on, particularly Lennon and Harrison who knew and loved the Goons, he could transfer his credentials into the pop world much more easily than any other producer working in Britain at the time because of this. And those lessons of originality, timing, and bucking conventions served him very well indeed on Beatles releases.
Further listening: “So Little Time” by Peter Sellers.
2. George Martin understood and exercised trust
In the days or yore, the record producer in the studio was like a stern parent, with the artists cowtowing to that parent’s direction without question like disciplined children. There was some give on this, depending on the personalities involved. But, that was the relationship. George Martin held to this to a certain degree, and made some decisions that ultimately didn’t quite work on the day when The Beatles came to cut their first record (more on that later on, kids). But to another degree, Martin departed from that model, and did so for the benefit of many, starting with those same Beatles. He was able to do this because he understood that any healthy relationship needs to be based on one common foundation; mutual trust.
When The Beatles insisted on doing their own material on their own record, and even when they insisted on sticking to their club repertoire instead of having Martin choose the songs in the way that was the standard division of labour at the time, Martin could have put his foot down. As is the case today, the label and the producer held an unbalanced share of the power. The artists who dream of one day cutting their own record were often at their mercy in terms of which songs to play, and even who got to play on them, or not. But for a few bumps at first, Martin trusted the Beatles. I think he was able to do so because he himself was confident in what would and wouldn’t make a good record. That’s why “Love Me Do” was a top twenty hit. And that’s why “Please Please Me” was number one. They were an untested band. But, Martin trusted their musical instincts, and they trusted him when he offered suggestions to arrangements and tempos to make those songs better. Trust was the essential aspect of his relationship with the Beatles, and without it, perhaps we never would have heard about them at all.
Further listening: “Please Please Me”, by The Beatles.
3. George Martin was a musician himself
After serving in the RAF, George Martin studied the oboe and the piano. He also had a solid background in musical theory and arrangements. His formal musical background allowed him access to sonic vocabularies that producers without his background couldn’t match, especially those who, at the time, were merely hired to simply hit the “record” button while musical acts played their instruments around one mic in a studio. Further, despite his formal training, Martin also had something that many formally trained musicians don’t have, and that is an ear. This meant that whatever music he heard, he could understand the core of what made it work, and also the reason that another piece of music did not. This was invaluable to all his charges, including the Beatles.
It was this very ability that allowed him to turn “Please Please Me” from a sort of dirge and into a hit just by changing the tempo. It inspired his idea to write and arrange strings on “Yesterday” and not have it sound like elevator music. It allowed him to lay down the Bach-inspired piano solo on “In My Life”, and make it sound both old world and ultra modern all at once. It allowed him to bridge the musical gap between east and west on George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You”, where western musical notation and instruments met the raga structure and instrumentation of Indian classical music and did so seamlessly. He had a broad command of the structural possibilities in anything that he heard to match his technical skills as a musician, arranger, and composer. During a time when The Beatles were testing the boundaries, and without a lot of that base musical knowledge themselves, George Martin’s background and skills as a musician was invaluable.
Further listening: “Within You, Without You” by The Beatles.
4. George Martin had a willingness to teach, and was willing to learn
As mentioned, Martin really didn’t know much about recording rock groups before the Beatles came along. And The Beatles, apart from some time recording “My Bonny” in Germany, weren’t too acquainted with the recording process. They had a lot to teach and learn from each other. Martin for his part was very willing from the early sessions and into their pschedelic period and beyond, even though he was supposed to be “in charge”. He certainly was. But, he changed the definition of what “in charge” is supposed to look like. Instead of laying down the law, he was more inclined to listen and judge the points of view of his charges and make the right decision accordingly, all to serve the sound of the record and the presentation of the songs.
I think it was this that helped to make Martin and The Beatles into such a great team when it came to making records. All of the Beatles were curious about the possibilities of what a song could be, and had imaginations that demanded to be fed. Early on, they just didn’t have the musical knowledge to get them to where they wanted to go. Martin taught them a new vocabularly when it came to the instruments of the orchestra, and how songs could be arranged beyond the guitar-bass-drums of their club days. But it was this balance that Martin had of imparting wisdom about what he knew and equally taking wisdom in about what he was less familiar with from his clients that made his work with the Beatles so revolutionary. In this, they learned together what the Beatles sound was and what it could become as a team.
Further listening: “The Word” by The Beatles (featuring George Martin on Harmonium).
5. George Martin had a keen sense of intuition
The fact was, The Beatles demo tape was not that great. It was derivative, and the song selection on it was very of its time. A lot of people scoff at all of the record companies that rejected them. But the only reason they got a recording contract at EMI/Parlophone was because George Martin heard something beyond the surface presented by that tape. He heard their personalities somehow. This is what sold them. Later when they met and began to work together, George Martin seemed to be able to match those personalities with the records they eventually made. I’m no producer. But, it seems to me that not just anyone can do that.
That’s one of the great things about The Beatles’records. You can hear them, the people they were, woven right into the music somehow. I think this is down to great writing and playing, of course. But it’s also down to a producer who really understood on an intuitive level how to bring that out in the music. He knew what they would like and probably what they wouldn’t. When their music changed radically in the late sixties, the records still sound like The Beatles. That’s down to Martin’s keen intuition about the people he was working with, and his ability to use that intuitive instinct to craft a sound around personalities, not just instruments and studio innovations.
Further listening: “Take Good Care Of My Baby” (Decca Audition tape), by The Beatles.
6. George Martin was a problem solver
When John Lennon scraped out the droning C chord of “Tomorrow Never Knows” on an acoustic guitar, it presented a distinct problem to George Martin in terms of making it into a usuable, and eventually ground-breaking track. This was especially emphasized when Lennon asked that his voice sound like thousands of monks chanting on the top of a mountain. In the days before Garage Band and Pro-Tools, and still in the days of four tracks and analogue tape, Martin’s ability to solve problems and to collaborate with engineers to make things happen became one of his defining characteristics.
A lot of the credit for this had to go to the engineers, particularly Geoff Emerick who had a talent for mic placement that threw conventions out of the window. But, it was Martin’s job to oversee all that, translate the sometimes very vague directions (particularly from Lennon!), set the framework for the engineers to work their magic, and make those effects work for the music that matched as closely to what was playing in the heads of the composers as was possible. The history of the Beatles recorded career is littered with examples of very unconventional sounds and effects that were completely jury rigged in the studio under George Martin’s guiding hand, from the swirling circus fairground atmosphere of “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”, to the song in two keys and two tempos that was “Strawberry Fields Forever”, to the “orgasm of sound” featured in “A Day In The Life”, and beyond.
Further listening: “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles.
7. George Martin could accept when he was wrong
Quite clearly, George Martin was right about a good many things.But, as has been mentioned by now, he got a few things wrong, too. He didn’t let Ringo Play on “Love Me Do”, since he’d been burned by hearing Pete Best’s questionable talents at keeping time. He was right about “How Do You Do It?” a generic pop song in the Merseybeat tradition being a number one single. But he was wrong about it being the right song for The Beatles. Paul McCartney stated that “we couldn’t go back to Liverpool after releasing that.” He was wrong about Off The Beatle Track, which he proposed as the title to the band’s debut album. I think he was wrong about believing that the White Album should have been a single, too. But I know that’s an arguable point among fans even now!
The thing that made all of this OK was his willingness to relent and to change course on his actions, opinions, and assertions when he came to believe he was wrong about something. This is a trait that the best leaders in the world know, and what the worst ones don’t; that to say “I’m wrong” was a tremendous strength, and not a weakness. This characteristic of his allowed him to get out of the way of his own success as a producer and to create music that has been celebrated fifty years later into the 21st century, and possibly beyond that.
Further listening: “How Do You Do It?” by The Beatles.
8. George Martin was a “straight”
George Martin was a square. Sure he was open minded about things when it came to musical ideas as mentioned, and when he was convinced of a direction, no matter how unconventional it was, he was able to go for it. But, he was “a straight”, in the sixties sense of the word specifically. He didn’t grow out his hair or wear love beads. He kept his hair short, matinee movie star style, and wore a shirt and tie, like a grown up. He stayed well clear of drugs, and didn’t actually approve of their use in the studio, forcing the giggly Beatles to find serreptitious ways to indulge during long sessions. The fact is, he very deliberately separated himself from the band, socially speaking.
How did this make him a great producer? Well, I think it allowed him to be outside of the Beatle box when it came to business of working up tracks. It allowed him a level of objectivity that would not have been available to him if he were swimming in their sea, as it were. He could make decisions and suggestions for changes that would not have occurred to the band because he maintained a certain distance from them to allow him the space to do it. There were scads of stories in pop music history of producers and engineers palling around with their charges when they were supposed to be helping them record, getting messed up on the same drugs, and generally not keeping their eyes on the ball. But, Martin maintained his reserve. He kept himself separate. As such, he was able to see things that the band proabably couldn’t, and was therefore in a better position to get them to where they wanted to go as a result. That takes a certain amount of dedication and determination, not to mention a strong sense of personal identity. George Martin had that in spades.
Further listening: “Revolution” by the Beatles
9. George Martin knew no musical barriers
We’ve talked a lot about his work with the Beatles by now. But of course George Martin would helm the controls of many artists’ sessions from the sixties and into the two-thousands. Cilla Black, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, America, Cheap Trick, Jeff Beck, and even Celine Dion were blessed with George Martin’s ears on the production of their records. Otherwise, getting back to the Beatles, all of the musical styles they would try would be enabled by George Martin, who knew what the core of each musical style was, what textures to consider adding, and generally what sonic environment worked best for each style.
Maybe this part of what made him such a great producer stems from the many strengths we’ve already talked about above. But, the fact is, not all music is made in the same way. It takes a keen instinct to be able to find out where each style of music lives, and further to that, it takes a greater skill still to figure out how to marry them to other styles, match them with what the band in question could bring to it, and then even further make a cohesive album out of it all. No wonder Martin wanted the White Album to be a single! Yet, the fact that it is a glorious melange, being connected by invisible strands without it losing its eclecticism is a powerful monument to Martin’s skills behind the controls, and with so many musical landscapes to present.
Further listening: “Smile Of The Beyond” by Mahavishnu Orchestra.
10. Not in it for the money or fame
Bands and artists getting ripped off due to the shady deals of labels and other music industry denizens are legendarily common. One such practice to get a chunk of the pie for a producer was including a writing credit on songs. Now, if anyone could have argued for a writing credit on songs, it was George Martin. For all of the string parts and arrangements alone, Martin could have plumped for it. But, he never did. He appeared in a handful of press photos. But, otherwise at the height of Beatlemania, he worked largely unseen, helping the band to progress their sound instead of trying to share their spotlight.
I think the element that makes him a great producer out of this may be connected with that idea of separation. But, I think it may be an indication of how he approached his work. He definitely could have cashed in for the short term, grabbing writing credits, and doing interviews with the papers, and hiring a ghost writer to put out his autobiography. But, I don’t think any of that played into what motivated him. I think he wanted to make great records. That’s it. And where he certainly enjoyed a level of comfort as a result of that work, I don’t think that was ever the point for him. In fact, his work ethic probably made him more secure than the pursuit of fame and fortune ever could have. And out of all that he was able to create something beyond the glare of fast riches and fame; a legacy.
Further listening: “Can’t Buy Me Love” by The Beatles.
George Martin was a great producer. But, from so many stories, interviews, and books, the word that keeps coming up to describe him is this one: gentleman. George Martin was a gentleman. That’s not always said in a cut-throat and notoriously cruel industry known for its connivers and cons. He managed to stay above the mire that the music industry turned into. Maybe that was because by the time he arrived on the scene in the fifties, no one really took the recording industry seriously as a global money making venture at first. That would happen later on. As such, the people they hired at recording industry companies in the early days just wanted to do good work rather than exploit some band of kids for fast money. Who knows?
But, I think it was his gentlemanly nature that allowed him to gain such success, and such respect. He lived a good long life. He will be missed by those who knew and loved him, and by many who never met him. As far as legacies go, you can’t do much better than that. “And in the end…”, and all that. In the case of George Martin, that sentiment certainly applies.
For more on George Martin and his approach and relationship to recording, here’s an article on Rolling Stone that outlines a new PBS Series Soundbreaking, on which Martin and his producer son Giles Martin invited a long list of artists and producers to share their stories about the recording process. The series will debut on PBS in November of this year.
In the meantime, what are your favourite examples of George Martin’s production work?
What characteristics do you feel he possessed that aren’t included above?
Let’s talk about George Martin in the comments section, Good People! And meanwhile and as always,