I first met George Martin during the recording sessions for the Broadway cast album of the show The Who’s Tommy at the legendary, now-defunct studio The Hit Factory.
Being in the fabled studio was exciting enough, but as I arrived, knowing that the man who had helmed nearly every one of The Beatles’ sonic masterpieces would be behind the mixing board sent me back to my childhood bedroom, with stacks of Beatles records strew about, and those amazing sounds filling my head. “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Yesterday,” “In My Life,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day In the Life,” “Hey Jude”… The list of songs that the man put his indelible aural imprint on is truly remarkable.
As the oversized elevator reached the sixth floor, where there was a studio large enough to record a live orchestra, and the bell chimed to signal that I’d reached my destination, I could barely contain my excitement. I entered the control room and there he was, tall and lean, standing behind the mixing board, giving firm direction to the engineers scurrying around him, but with a warmth and humor I’d never seen in a producer before. Not surprisingly, that old saying that you shouldn’t meet your heroes lest they disappoint turned out not to be true in Martin’s case. Shortly after I arrived he introduced himself, no doubt wondering who I was, and we chatted amiably about the work at hand and the glorious spring weather New York City was in the midst of. I think I may have swooned when he asked about my own music.
That’s the memory that immediately came to mind when I heard that Martin, 90, had died on March 8. He’d lived a long and rich life, full of extraordinary, almost superhuman, accomplishments that will no doubt leave a mark on the arts and culture for many lifetimes to come. But the fact that he was also flesh and blood, and such a warm and friendly soul, is what struck me that day in 1993.
George Martin was born on January 3, 1926, in Holloway, North London.
He came from relatively humble beginnings – his mother was a nurse and his father a wood machinist – but his father’s love of English music hall and a piano given to the family by an uncle that he taught himself to play by ear made a lasting impression on the would-be musician. By his teen years he’d fallen in love with the sound of symphony orchestras and was running his school dance band. He moved on to foxtrots and pop standards in a local group called the Tune Tellers and dreamt of one day composing scores for films. But first he enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1943.
World War II ended before Martin saw any combat and he used a veteran’s grant to enroll at London’s Guildhall School of Music, studying composition, piano and oboe for three years. He struggled as a working musician for a few years before landing a job at the BBC Music Library and finally as assistant to Oscar Preuss, the head of Parlophone Records, after fudging his credentials in order to get the interview.
Preuss wanted to make the once great company a force to be reckoned with again and, spotting talent in the ambitious Martin in a way the young upstart would go on to do in his own turn, Martin was put in charge of the classical division, learning the basics of recording on the job as he oversaw sessions by the London Baroque Ensemble and other orchestras. Before long he was presiding over Parlophone’s jazz acts and Scottish artists, too, and eventually handled pretty much everything the label had to offer. When his mentor retired in 1955, Martin was named to succeed him.
Blissfully unaware that, in the wake of Preuss’s departure, Parlophone was seen as inconsequential by EMIs board and was in danger of being shuttered, Martin was also, at 29, the youngest person ever to run a major record company in England.
Seeking to set himself apart and make his mark, Martin found his way forward via theatrical comedy, and his recordings of the musical duo Flanders and Swann’s show At the Drop of the Hat and of performances by the Cambridge troupe Beyond the Fringe did the trick.
He went on to work with some of the era’s comedy greats, like Peter Ustinov and the hugely influential Goons. But he also had a nose for the commercial and sensed before many of his contemporaries that a new pop music boom was coming.
He tried first with the Temperance Seven, and scored a U.K. Number 1 with “You’re Driving Me Crazy” in the spring of 1961. A Top 5 single with Matt Monro followed two months later with “My Kind of Girl”. And then came The Beatles.
“I’ll never forgive him for that,” Ringo Starr, who announced the news of Martin’s passing on Twitter, told me with a chuckle for Esquire in 2014 of how, during The Beatles’ first proper recording session, the producer relegated him to shaking a tambourine while a seasoned session drummer played his parts on the songs for the band’s first single, “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You.” “He’s apologized many times since, but it hurt at the time, that’s for sure. But George was the right man for the job; the right man for us. He was full of ideas and was open to anything we threw at him. And we threw all sorts of things at him.”
“There was no ceiling in anything they did in ’64, and that revealed itself in ’66 and ’67,” Martin’s son Giles, who has succeeded him as The Beatles’ in-house producer, told me in 2014 for that same piece, clearly in agreement with Starr’s assessment.
“They just had their heads down. Their ambition was to take over the world with great music. The Beatles refused to be held back by convention or what was going on around them, and my dad was the person who helped them realize that ambition,” he continued. “I think the most important thing was that I don’t believe there was ever a time when they came to him with an idea – and some of them were pretty far-fetched for those days – and he said, ‘No, that’s a waste of time.’ He indulged them and always tried to make what they were trying to achieve work. If you look at their diary they never had a day off. When did they record? Considering the pace at which they worked, I think the results they achieved are staggering.”
Between 1962 and 1970, The Beatles and Martin recorded over 300 songs together, and in doing so they created the soundtrack for the 1960s and the blueprint for the rest of the music world. Beginning with the tentative “Love Me Do,” which reached a respectable, but hardly earth-shattering #17 on the British charts, the band were insistent on recording the material that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were writing in a time when singer and songwriter were generally two separate jobs.
For their second single Martin insisted that they learn what he considered a surefire hit: Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It?” But given that Martin considered the songs Lennon and McCartney had presented him to date relatively unremarkable, it was seemingly out of thin air that Lennon showed up with “Please Please Me.” Martin had the young musicians up the tempo and made some adjustments to the arrangement and at the end of the session he announced that the song would surely be the band’s first Number One. He was right. “How Do You Do It?” wouldn’t see the light of day until The Beatles’ Anthology series in the ’90s.
Through Martin’s encouragement the floodgates had opened. Lennon and McCartney began churning out songs that broke every songwriting rule, and under his guiding hand in the studio, The Beatles broke every rule that the lab coat-wearing technicians at EMIs studios on Abbey Road in London had so assiduously put in place.
Importantly to his always-seeking protégés, Martin’s classical background and experience making comedy records had opened his mind to a wealth of eccentric and fantastical experiences from which to suggest ideas. While those skills were limited to tweaking arrangements and suggesting different instrument choices in the early days, by the time of 1964’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” – when he suggested opening the song with its soaring, McCartney chorus, rather than the more sedate verse – his input was essential.
Martin played the inimitable piano – recorded slowed-down and then played back at normal speed – on the middle section of Lennon’s peerless “In My Life,” and he devised a way to combine two seemingly incompatible versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” into one astonishing whole. It was Martin who instructed the studio orchestra to move with sliding effects from low note to high in a loosely organized 24 bars for “A Day In the Life,” and it was he who nudged McCartney to embrace using a string quartet on “Yesterday.” But he didn’t just push his classical background on The Beatles. Martin was also fearless in his embrace of the aggressive proto-heavy metal of “Helter Skelter” and George Harrison’s love of Indian classical music.
Of course given the success he found with The Beatles, Martin and Parlophone were able to attract a host of other artists, including Cilla Black, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, the Hollies and even Shirley Bassey, and in 1963 alone the label held the top spot in the U.K. charts 37 times during that year’s 52 weeks. He won an Oscar for his score of The Beatles’ film A Hard Days Night, and he became one of the first wildly successful independent producers.
By the time the ’60s came to a close, however, The Beatles and Martin had done all they could do together.
After the band’s fractious sessions in January 1969, which wouldn’t see the light of day until April 1970 as the album Let It Be, everyone assumed it was over. Then, as the story goes, McCartney called Martin and asked the man who was still the band’s producer of choice to record them once more, “like the old days.” Dubious about the state of relations within the band, but tantalized by the prospect, Martin couldn’t say no. By all accounts those mid-1969 sessions were a hugely creative and inspired occasion. The results, released as Abbey Road that fall, were yet another landmark in the band’s career.
Later in life Martin would say that his one regret was that, having created an artistic way forward, they didn’t carry on. “We could have gone on from Abbey Road,” he told an interviewer in 1994. “It was showing the way that rock ‘n’ roll and classical music could have joined forces to become something really important. And because we didn’t go on, punk came along and put everything into reverse.”
Martin, though, went on to a long list of artistic and commercial successes, even if nothing could quite match those magical years with the four guys from Liverpool. Still, his albums with Jeff Beck, America, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jimmy Webb, UFO, Dire Straits, Cheap Trick and the Little River Band are among the best work that each of those acclaimed artists ever released. He also reunited with Ringo Starr on his ahead-of-its-time solo album of standards, Sentimental Journey, in 1970, and with McCartney on his solo albums Tug of War, Pipes of Peace, Flaming Pie and, of course, the title song he and wife Linda wrote for Wings as the theme for the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die, nine years after Martin had produced Shirley Bassey’s own Bond theme, “Goldfinger.”
Of course it was with The Beatles that Martin changed the world, and that he will be remembered for for all time, so how could any of those many recordings change that?
As Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich said upon Martin’s passing, “He did it all first… and best.”
But perhaps it’s worth remembering that Martin wasn’t all that impressed with The Beatles when he first heard the recordings that they’d made for Decca that manager Brian Epstein was peddling around London, nor when he first heard them in the studio at their audition for him in 1962. Instead, what got his attention was their chemistry with each other and their charisma, natural wit and charm. Consider that The Beatles, now so revered for their groundbreaking musical achievements, were signed because George Martin simply liked them.
Whatever The Beatles had learned in the grimey bars of Hamburg, Germany, it was because Martin recognized that, no matter what they could or couldn’t deliver in the studio, or how they might be packaged for the public, when it came to attracting fans, it was who John, Paul, George and Ringo were as people, individually and as a group, that really counted. In that way, and so many others, George Martin was truly unique in the history of the recording industry.
And now, like John Lennon and George Harrison before him, he belongs to the ages.
* * *
Frequent TIDAL contributor Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He has written intimate portraits of The Beatles as a group and as solo artists, and about many other rock legends, for publications like Esquire, Rolling Stone and the fanzine Beatlefan, and is a go-to expert for many Beatles-related radio shows. Jeff has appeared at Beatles events and conventions in New York and Liverpool and is a well-known collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and The Beatles.
Beatles fans should be sure to visit and explore The Beatles Experience, TIDAL’s immersive presentation of their timeless catalogue featuring video, facts, playlists and more.