by Andy Greene
George Martin, who produced much of the Beatles’ classic catalog, has died. The cause of death has not yet been released. He was 90.
Over the decades, many people have claimed to be the “fifth Beatle.” But the only person who can credibly hold that title was Martin. The producer not only signed the Beatles to their first record contract in 1962 but went on to work extensively with them on the vast majority of music they recorded over the next eight years, from “Love Me Do” to the majestic suite that wrapped up Abbey Road.
“George Martin made us what we were in the studio,” John Lennon said in 1971. “He helped us develop a language to talk to other musicians.”
Martin was born January 3rd, 1926 in Highbury, London. He began playing piano at a young age, and in 1943 he joined the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. After World War II, he worked in the BBC’s Classical Music Department and then moved on to EMI. Much of his time was spent producing records for British comedians like Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and Bernard Cribbins.
Martin met the Beatles in early 1962. At the time, they had a cult following in parts of England, but little success in landing a recording deal. The group’s manager, Brian Epstein, approached the producer, who worked for EMI records, and got him to agree to give their demo tape a listen.
“The recording, to put it kindly, was by no means a knockout,” Martin wrote in his 1979 memoir, All You Need Is Ears. “I could well understand that people had turned it down. But there was an unusual quality of sound, a certain roughness that I hadn’t encountered before. There was also the fact that more than one person was singing.”
He called the Beatles into Abbey Road Studios on June 6th, 1962 for a test session. The band was overjoyed to have a chance to record their material, which at the time already included “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You.” There was a clear cultural gap between the clean-cut, older Martin and the scruffy lads. When Martin asked the Beatles if they had any problems with the session, George Harrison shot back, “Well, there’s your tie, for a start.” But they nevertheless respected Martin. When he suggested that drummer Pete Best wasn’t cutting it, they agreed to fire him.
Weeks later, Martin offered the Beatles their first recording contract. When they returned with new drummer Ringo Starr to cut “Love Me Do,” Martin didn’t feel like taking chances and insisted the new drummer play tambourine while session ace Andy White sat behind the kit. When it was clear Ringo was extremely hurt, he let him play on another take of the song. Both versions were eventually released.
When “Love Me Do” became a hit, Martin felt pressure to record an entire record with the band quickly, and from that point on he became their go-to producer. “There seemed to be a bottomless well of songs,” Martin once said. “And people asked me where that well was dug. Who knows?”
The Beatles recorded their debut LP, 1963’s Please Please Me, during the course of a single day in February of that year. But as the music became more complex, the sessions grew significantly longer. Early on, Martin’s contributions were relatively minor. With 1965’s “Yesterday,” however, he left an indelible mark on their music by adding orchestration to the song. It’s something he’d explore deeper in the following year. “My approach [to the strings on ‘Eleanor Rigby’] was greatly influenced by Bernard Herrmann and his film score for Psycho,” Martin said in a 2012 interview. “He had a way of making violins sound fierce. That inspired me to have the strings play short notes forcefully, giving the song a nice punch. If you listen to the two, you’ll hear the connection.”
Martin also played on some Beatles songs, including the piano on “In My Life.” “I couldn’t play the piano at the speed it needed to be played, the way I’d written the part,” he said in another 2012 interview. “I wasn’t that good a pianist, but if you had had a really good pianist, he could do it. I couldn’t get all the notes in. One night I was by myself and played the notes at half speed but an octave lower on the piano, recording at 15 inches per second. When I ran the tape back at 30 inches per second, the notes were at the right speed and in the correct octave.”
By the time of 1966’s Revolver, he introduced the band to the concept of creating new songs by playing tape machines backwards, an approach they used on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “I introduced that to John, and he was knocked out,” Martin told Rolling Stone in 1976. “They would come in and bring me tapes of all the looks and we would just play them for a giggle. When we made ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ that was all the tapes that they had made at home, made into loops.”
Martin’s age and cultural distance from the Beatles became an advantage as their music became increasingly psychedelic. “Drugs certainly affected the music,” he said in the same interview. “But it didn’t affect the record production because I was producing. … I saw the music growing, but I rather saw it like Salvador Dalí’s paintings. I didn’t think the reason for it was drugs. I thought it was because they wanted to go into an impressionistic way.”
Toward the end of 1966, the group played “Strawberry Fields Forever” as both a traditional rock tune and a lush, orchestral rendition with brass. Lennon couldn’t pick between the two, so he suggested they somehow combine them, despite Martin telling him they were in different keys and in different tempos. “You can do something about it,” Lennon said. “You can fix it.” Martin took up the challenge, speeding up one version, slowing down the others and using a variable-control tape machine to combine them. The end result was one of his favorite Beatles recordings.
One of the many remarkable things about Martin is that he managed to produce highly complex, layered pieces of music like Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band, using a mere four-track recorder. “I felt that was the album which turned the Beatles from being just an ordinary rock & roll group into being significant contributors to the history of artistic performance,” Martin wrote in his memoir. “It was the watershed which changed the recording art from something which will stand the test of time as a valid art form: sculpture in music, if you like.”
By the time of the Let It Be sessions in 1969, the group felt it was time for a change. “They were going through an anti-production thing,” Martin said in 1976. “John said, ‘I don’t want any production gimmicks on this.'” The sessions became extremely laborious and eventually the group handed the tapes over the Phil Spector. “I was shocked when Phil overdubbed heavenly choirs and lush strings and harps and things,” Martin said. “I thought we were through then. I wasn’t happy and I didn’t want to go on.”
Much to his surprise, they called him back to produce Abbey Road. “They said, ‘Let’s try and get back to the way were in the old days, and will you really produce the next album for us?'” Martin said. “We were really amicable and really friendly. We really did try to work together.” The only problem was that McCartney loved Martin’s idea of creating a pop music symphony and Lennon wanted a more traditional collection of songs. “It was a compromise,” Martin said. “Side one was a collection of individual songs and side two was a continual work.”
Throughout the 1970s, there was tremendous pressure on the Beatles to re-form, but Martin never felt it was a good idea. “It would be a terrible mistake for them ever to go into the studio together,” he said in 1976. “The Beatles existed years ago; they don’t exist today. And if the four men came back together, it wouldn’t be the Beatles.”
He did continue to work with the members of the group on their solo projects, producing McCartney’s 1973 hit “Live and Let Die” and his early 1980’s LPs Tug of War, Pipes of Peace and Give My Regards to Broad Street, as well as Ringo Starr’s 1970 album Sentimental Journey. Martin also oversaw the soundtrack to the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper Lonely Heart’s Club Band, the Beatles’ 1995Anthology collection and, in 2006, the Beatles Las Vegas show, Love.
Although his name will always be closely connected to the Beatles, he also produced albums for Gerry and the Pacemakers, Kenny Rogers, Cheap Trick, Jeff Beck and Celine Dion. In 1997, he produced Elton John’s new version of “Candle in the Wind” to honor the late Princess Diana. It became one of the best-selling singles of all time.
His work began slowing down considerably in the late 1990s as his hearing deteriorated. By that point, his son, Giles Martin, began assisting him. They worked closely on the Love project, mashing up Beatles songs and turning them into brand new works.
In 2011, Martin looked back fondly on his time with the Beatles. “I think they’re so damn good they’ll be with us for generations, into the middle of the next century,” he said. “They’re just great musicians and great writers, like Gershwin or Rodgers and Hammerstein. They are there in history, and the Beatles are there in history, too. They’ll be there in 100 years, too. But I won’t be.”