‘Fifth Beatle’ was a talented musician and producer who oversaw landmark albums and helped the band to stretch the boundaries of sound recording
Wednesday 9 March 2016
The death of George Martin at the age of 90 is not only a sad blow to Beatles fans of all generations, but it also draws a line under a vanished age of the entertainment business. Martin’s work as The Beatles’ producer, overseeing such landmarks of popular music as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road, has guaranteed that his reputation will live as long as that of his illustrious protégés. Martin and The Beatles were stretching the known boundaries of sound recording almost every time they entered the studio. “When I started, there really weren’t more than a handful of producers,” Martin commented. “Now everyone thinks they’re a producer. Technology has been getting more sophisticated every day. You can make a tune that isn’t that great sound wonderful. This stifles creativity, because you don’t have to work for it, it’s already there.”
Martin was a trained musician who possessed invaluable arranging skills. He helped the Beatles to find striking juxtapositions of sounds and electronic effects previously unheard outside the more freakish fringes of the avant-garde, in the process helping to justify pop music’s claims to be something more than a cellarful of noise. But perhaps most important was his capacity for making his clients raise their game to levels they themselves hadn’t believed possible.
Martin sensed that it was more a matter of psychology than technology. “I realised I had the ability to get the best out of people,” he reflected. “A producer has to get inside the person. Each artist is very different, and there’s a lot of psychology in it.”
After his ground-breaking work with the Beatles, Martin had earned his ticket to ride, and he worked with a spectrum of luminaries including Jeff Beck, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, America, Jimmy Webb, Kenny Rogers, Ultravox and Elton John. Before rock & roll transformed his career, he’d already been well known for his work with jazz and popular musicians such as Stan Getz, Cleo Laine, John Dankworth and Judy Garland, but what especially endeared him to The Beatles was his track record of produciing comedy albums, particularly with the Goons and Peter Sellers. John Lennon and George Harrison were aficionados of Goon-humour, and they swiftly struck up a close rapport with Martin.
It has long been a part of Beatle mythology that Martin was the debonair toff who transformed the fortunes of four leather-clad scruffs from Liverpool, but the truth wasn’t so cut and dried. “It’s a load of poppycock really, because our backgrounds were very similar,” Martin argued. “Paul and John went to quite good schools. I went to elementary school, and I went to Jesuit college. We didn’t pay to go to school, my parents were very poor. I wasn’t taught music and they weren’t, we taught ourselves.”
George Martin was born in Holloway, north London. Having taught himself to play piano, he was running his own dance band at school by the time he was 16. With the second world war raging, Martin joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1944. He flew as an observer and achieved the rank of lieutenant. It was here that he acquired the patina of patrician lordliness that would become his trademark, an effect intensified by his aquiline profile topped by a swept-back mane of hair. No wonder the acerbic John Lennon referred to him as “Biggles”. Paul McCartney commented: “He’d dealt with navigators and pilots. He could deal with us when we got out of line.”
After being demobbed in 1947, Martin studied at the Guildhall School of Music for three years, specialising in composition and orchestration. In 1950 he joined Parlophone Records, part of the EMI group of companies, and in 1955 he was made head of the label. But it wasn’t until 1962 that Martin was approached by Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who, having had his group rejected by Phillips, Decca and Pye, was anxious to find a pair of sympathetic ears in the London-based record business.
Epstein almost struck out with Martin as well, since the Parlophone boss considered that the Beatles’ demo tape “wasn’t very good... in fact it was awful”. But Martin recognised that the group had ambition and charisma, and once drummer Pete Best had been replaced by Ringo Starr, he could see that that the necessary ingredients were in place.
Nevertheless, even Martin hadn’t foreseen the extraordinary blossoming of the songwriting talents of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Having started out writing shoddy, derivative tunes, they suddenly began churning out a goldmine of great pop songs, from I Want To Hold Your Hand and A Hard Day’s Night to Strawberry Fields Forever and Back In The USSR. Under Martin’s guidance, the band made advances in writing, arrangement and use of technology that transformed pop music. Strawberry Fields, in particular, is often cited by contemporary producers as a revolutionary achievement.
Though he will always be chiefly remembered for his Beatles work, Martin had numerous other achievements to his credit. Perhaps frustrated by being tied to the terms of his employment contract with EMI, he formed his own independent production company, Associated Independent Recordings (AIR), which lent its name to the AIR studio complex in Montserrat - later destroyed by a volcanic eruption - and more recently to AIR studios in Hampstead. Besides being in steady demand as a producer, Martin participated in a TV documentary marking the 25th anniversary of the Sgt Pepper album in 1987, and in 1993 published a book, Summer Of Love - The Making Of Sgt Pepper. He examined various aspects of music-making in the BBC TV series Rhythm Of Life and in his books All You Need Is Ears and Making Music, and produced the Beatles Anthology double-CD sets in 1995. He was knighted in 1996, and in 1997 produced Elton John’s reworking of Candle In The Wind, in memory of Princess Diana. It became the best-selling single of all time.
In 1998, he masterminded his own musical swansong with In My Life, an album of Beatles songs performed by an all-star assortment of actors and musicians including Sean Connery, Goldie Hawn, Robin Williams, Celine Dion and Phil Collins. “I’ve had a bloody good innings,” said Martin. “Knowing that I would have to finish, I decided I would make my own last record. It’s a kind of tribute, too, to all the people that I’ve been lucky to work with over the years.”
He is survived by his second wife Judy, and their son and daughter. He also leaves a son and daughter from his first marriage.
George Martin, record producer, born January 3 1926-March 9 2016
George Martin and Dizzy Gillespie received Berklee honorary doctor of music degrees in 1989, and Martin delivered the commencement address—transcribed below—to graduates and their families.
13 April 1989
I am indeed honored and delighted to be with you today, and I am particularly thrilled to be sharing this moment with someone who has always been a hero of mine, Dizzy Gillespie.
And there is a double honor for me, because of what I am. Some of you may have noticed, if you are really observant, that I do not hail from your country. I am an alien, a foreigner, a limey—actually a cockney, and I think it is doubly generous of you to take to your hearts someone from another land working for another people. But that is typical of the kindness of the American spirit that I have always found.
Music has always been of special importance in the United States, not least because you have contributed so much to the musical culture of the world. I can think of no other people whose musical influence has been so profound and universal, no other country which has melded its folk music into a new language and developed the most popular form of music in the world today. It is impossible to conceive what our lives would be like today without that musical heritage. From the blues created by the American Negro, the lineage of jazz has grown steadily, taking influences from folk and country music along the way, and in turn developed the vigorous offspring of rock and roll. And that melting pot has brewed the sounds that fill our ears today.
All this music demanded new sounds and technology, and Americans found a way of designing new instruments like the electric guitar, the Hammond organ, and more recently electronic instruments and synthesizers. Even the saxophone was adopted and transformed from an orchestral novelty into a vital new band sound, and the trumpet, in the hands of masters such as Dizzy here, has become a new and important voice expression of his genius.
For many years we folk across the pond tried hard to keep up with you, but found it difficult to match the quality of your writers like Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Ellington. Pop music was an American art form. But we kept trying, and in the 60s made our breakthrough. Learning from you, taking the best of your music, we worked at it, gave it a bit of European gloss and sent it back to you as a new sound, and we keep trying to do that today. You were generous; without that acceptance I would not be here today. And for that I thank you.
I like your attitudes, too. I do not find snobbishness here between different kinds of music. This college is a superb example of a healthy impartial approach that knows no barriers, no pigeonholes, no classical looking down the nose, no rock and roll sneering at their opposite numbers. You show the existence of only two kinds of music: good and bad. I have always believed that one form of art can learn a great deal from another, and I have always tried to incorporate, where appropriate, influences from other sources. Cross-fertilization was bound to improve the breed.
But technology has not always been to our advantage. In many ways it is harder today for young musicians starting out on their careers than it was for me when I began.
Coincidentally, it is 40 years almost to the day since I left music college to begin my career in music. And I tell you right now I would hate to be starting out in 1989.
For one thing, for music to improve it has to be created live. This may seem a paradox coming from someone who has spent most of his life in a recording studio. But I believe in the spontaneity of performance and the ability to move the soul of the listeners with music that happens at the time.
In Europe there is a sinister growing dependence on visual entertainment. TV and video have become the opium of the masses, with prerecorded and programmed sound satisfying their eternal hunger. The staple diet of millions of people is junk music. Like junk food, it may fill their bellies, but it doesn't improve their style. They are hearing with their eyes and listening to nothing.
Well, maybe that is a bit pessimistic, but I think we have to do our darnedest to counter this trend and get people to realize that mimed performances are not as good as the real thing.
I am often asked if any of the records I have made would have benefited by modern technology. I love technical wizardry, and I am enormously excited at the potential that is available today. Our tools are so much more sophisticated these days, and of course they can make life easier. But we have to remember that they are just tools nothing more and true art, true music comes from the heart and soul of the human being. So the answer to the question posed is: I believe my productions may have been easier to make if I had had today's technology. They may even have been quicker—they would probably have been a little different—but better? I seriously doubt it. Something like Sgt. Pepper may even have been not as good because different techniques would have altered its style. I cannot contemplate what a liberal use of sampling would have done to it. I would have lost a lot of those lovely human imperfections which add up to a roundness that clinical correctness fails to give.
Oh, and while I am on it, let me tell you that there is no way Pepper could have seen the light of day if Geoff Emerick and I had used drugs of any sort. That kind of crutch never improves art, no matter how glamorous it may seem at the time.
Pete Townshend said to me the other day when we launched a new school in London for the performing arts, "George, tell the young ones how to cope with success." I knew what he meant. Success and its hand in glove partner, failure, are equally difficult to handle, and everyone has to deal with both in different quantities in their lifetimes. The despair of rejection, or failure, is easy to imagine and is well documented. The perils of success are less evident. For one thing, it is a mirage, and you never really ever get to it. There is always more to do, more to learn, and always someone better than you are. Mind you, there's always someone worse as well! But public approval is a heady wine, and too much can be not only intoxicating, but downright harmful. Keep a sensible opinion of your own worth true to yourself, without the honeyed words of your admirers. They can eat you alive if you are not careful, yet drop you like a hot brick if you dare to go out of fashion.
Lord knows that it is hard to get to the top, but it is a darned sight harder staying there. The music business is littered with shooting stars that have burned out. So pace yourselves. It is not a sprint that you are running; it is more like a marathon. And remember, you have to keep running.
Obviously talent is required. It goes without saying. Equally obvious is the need for constant application, plain hard work. Every first-class musician that I have known works hard at his talent, not because he has to, but because he enjoys it. Someone like my friend Mark Knopfler seems to enjoy talent that requires no effort, but I promise you he practices on his guitar everyday to keep his technique up to scratch.
Timing is everything. When I left college all those years ago, I earned my bread playing the oboe, but I wanted more than anything to succeed as a composer. It was the time of the grand film scores, and I thought if only I had a break, I, too, could write terrific film music. It was my idea of heaven.
Well, I did write for films eventually, and very different it proved to be to my imaginings. And a lot happened on the way there. I had my share of success and failure, rejection, and acceptance.
I was lucky enough to join the record industry at a time of change, just before its big expansion. I took a job at Abbey Road studios to give me a bit more money, and I became hooked on the fascination of recording. I was lucky enough to arrive at the right time, and to become part of a team that was learning as it was developing. It was hardly science in those days. We flew by the seat of our pants, and improvisation was the order of the day. That timing, that luck, is something that we all need. Everyone has opportunities of one sort or another throughout their lives, and one cannot expect to benefit from every one. The trick is to recognize the break when it comes and to take advantage of it.
And when luck goes against you, don't let it get you down; it will all even out in the end. Try and relax with your art. Everyone is allowed a little failure now and again. The reassuring thing I have learned from working with geniuses is that no one is perfect; no one is so good that he does not need help.
I said you were running a race, a marathon. Well, on second thought that marathon is relay race, and I am close to passing on the baton. A lot of you are going to take up the baton passed to you by those ahead of you. Music of the future is in your hands. Cherish it; it is a vital part of humanity.
Thank you again for this great honor. I am deeply grateful.