Sir George Martin, the producer who helped to turn The Beatles into the biggest band in the world, has died at the age of 90.
Ringo Starr paid tribute to the “Fifth Beatle” on Twitter, writing: “God bless George Martin peace and love to Judy and his family love Ringo and Barbara George will be missed xxx”
Thank you for all your love and kindness George peace and love xx😎✌️🌟💖 pic.twitter.com/um2hRFB7qF
— #RingoStarr (@ringostarrmusic) March 9, 2016
Sir George was responsible for evolving The Beatles’ sound in the studio, and while he was happy to let the Fab Four enjoy their global stardom, his influence on their music is profound.
So how did this amazingly successful artistic collaboration come about?
Born in London in 1926, Martin studied at Guildhall School of Music and played the oboe professionally before joining the recording industry.
He taught himself piano and could play Rachmaninoff just by listening to recordings. But like many ambitious musicians of his generation, his career was interrupted by the Second World War, and in 1943 he enlisted in the Fleet Air Arm, Britain’s naval aircraft unit.
After WWII, Martin was hired to assist the head of Parlophone, EMI’s smallest label. There, he soon took over, and worked on a diverse array of recordings, from jazz combos to comedians, including Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.
Shaping The Beatles
At first Sir George wasn’t impressed when he heard the demo of a group managed by Brian Epstein in 1962. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Martin recalled:
“When Brian came by and played their demo, I wasn’t impressed. But when I met the Beatles soon after, they had so much charisma I offered them a studio test.”
Martin clearly saw potential in The Beatles, but realised that they needed a lot of work. While ‘Love Me Do’ announced their arrival, it was on ‘Please Please Me’ that Martin intervened directly in their music.
John Lennon originally intended the song as his ode to Roy Orbison, but Martin saw it differently:
“At that stage ‘Please Please Me’ was a very dreary song. It was like a Roy Orbison number, very slow, bluesy vocals. It was obvious to me that it badly needed pepping up.”
He sent them away to work on it, and after 18 takes The Beatles finished the up-tempo song that Martin predicted would be their biggest hit.
Paul McCartney later admitted that they were “a bit embarrassed” that Martin had found a better tempo.
Maturing their sound
In the mid-60s, after he’d quit EMI to set up his own company over a pay disagreement, Martin continued to work with The Beatles, and lent his classical expertise to their growing ambition.
The first example of this was ‘Yesterday’ in 1965. It was Martin’s idea to add a string quartet, and despite McCartney’s initial opposition, it signalled the transition point between the jangling hits and mop-tops and the world-changing experimentalism that would follow.
By the time of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ the following year, McCartney was the one pushing for more strings, and Martin obliged, with the iconic backing that was heavily influenced by Bernard Herrman’s Psycho score.
While Martin came from an older generation, he could be just as ferociously ambitious as the younger quartet.
For the bridge section in ‘A Day in the Life’ on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, he met Paul’s request for an “orchestral orgasm” by scoring 24 measures, from the lowest note to the highest, and telling the musicians:
“Make your own way up there. If you’re playing the same note as the chap next to you, you’re wrong.”
The end of an era
By the time of Let It Be‘s recording in 1969, the acrimony within The Beatles was obvious to everyone, and Martin could do little to help matters.
Lennon had made his preferences clear, telling Martin in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want “any of your production crap” on this album.
Martin was understandably hurt, but persevered with the recordings despite his misgivings. Predictably, it was a disappointing end:
“We tried to assemble an album, warts and all, just as John had insisted. But it was a mess and shoved to one side. Later, I heard that John and George took the master tapes from EMI and gave them to [producer] Phil Spector, who did all the things that John wouldn’t let me do. It was baffling.”
Despite those bitter final days of The Beatles, Martin has gone down in history as one of the greatest producers of all time, whose talents transcended sound engineering to change the course of pop.