How George Martin created rock 'n' roll magic with the Beatles
By Richard Cromelin
Mar 09, 2016 at 6:05 PM
George Martin was a music producer in London, on the prowl for rock 'n' roll acts in the early 1960s, when he came across a band that had been turned down by every record company in town.
He wasn't bowled over by the demo tapes, but, as he later recalled, "there was an unusual quality of sound, a certain roughness that I hadn't encountered before....something tangible that made me want to hear more, meet them and see what they could do."
A month later, Martin offered the group a contract. So began his long relationship with the Beatles.
As arranger, orchestrator and occasional player later in the group's career, Martin was responsible for some of the landmark moments of '60s rock: the swelling symphonic buildup and the lingering last chord of "A Day in the Life," the delicate, harpsichord-like piano on "In My Life," the string arrangement for "Yesterday" that signaled the group's expanding ambitions.
Martin, who died peacefully in his sleep Tuesday at 90, produced nearly all the Beatles' recordings, advising them on songwriting and arranging and capturing the vitality of their early performances in the studio.
But his crucial role may have been translating the sometimes hazy, poetic orders of the musically unschooled Liverpudlians into finished products.
That often entailed pushing the envelope. When John Lennon asked for a swirling, circus-like feel on "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," the traditionally trained producer was bold enough to snip a tape of Victorian steam organ music into foot-long pieces, toss them in the air, then reassemble them randomly into a piece that fulfilled Lennon's vision.
"John was pretty off the end at that time," says Chris Carter, the host of the long-running radio show "Breakfast With the Beatles." "Things like 'Strawberry Fields' and 'I Am the Walrus' were so out of left field musically — still brilliant, but they needed to be put into some context.... Without Paul [McCartney] and George Martin, the brilliance of those songs might have never been heard."
Artistically, Martin had shown an open mind and a taste for experimentation long before he met the Beatles, notably on the comedy and novelty recordings he made in the 1950s and early '60s with the cream of Britain's comedians, including Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Bernard Cribbins (the novelty hit "Right Said Fred") and Peter Ustinov.
That background with some of the Beatles' comedic heroes impressed the young band when their manager, Brian Epstein, contacted Martin, head of the EMI-owned Parlophone label, in April 1962. But they were eager to sign in any case, having been turned down by every record company in London — including other EMI labels.
Their first encounter, for a recording test at EMI's Abbey Road studios on June 6, 1962, sealed the deal. Martin still had reservations about their talent, especially their songwriting, but he found them irresistibly charismatic, and the following month he offered them a contract.
"There's no doubt that as things had worked out for them, I was the last chance," Martin wrote in his 1979 autobiography, "All You Need is Ears." If the deal hadn't been made, he speculated, "possibly they would have just broken up, and never have been heard of again."
:: George Henry Martin was born in London on Jan. 3, 1926, and grew up in the city's Drayton Park district. The two-room flat where he lived with his parents and older sister lacked electricity and running water, and his father struggled to find work as a carpenter during the Depression.
They did have a piano, though, and Martin was fascinated with the instrument. He took lessons briefly, then continued to learn on his own. He had perfect pitch and a natural aptitude, and was soon able to play Chopin pieces by ear. Eventually, Debussy and Ravel became his favorite composers.
While attending school in Kent, Martin played foxtrots and pop standards at dances in a band called the Tune Tellers. He had dreams of composing for films, but when he finished school he went through a few jobs and then enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1943.
World War II ended before Martin saw any combat. He returned to civilian life in 1947.
Using a veteran's grant, Martin enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music in London and studied composition, piano and oboe for three years. He had few prospects when he finished and was working as a clerk at the BBC Music Library when he was offered a job as assistant to Oscar Preuss, the head of Parlophone Records.
Preuss was trying to revitalize the once-prominent company, and 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.
Martin also presided over Parlophone's jazz acts and Scottish artists and eventually was doing almost everything at the company, which was still the poor relation among EMI's family of labels. When Preuss retired in 1955, Martin was named to succeed him, becoming, at 29, the youngest person ever to run a major record company in England.
Desperate to establish a distinctive identity for a firm he characterized as "a tinpot little label," he found his footing in theatrical comedy. Live recordings of the musical duo Flanders and Swann's show "At the Drop of the Hat" and of Cambridge performances by the Beyond the Fringe troupe became big successes.
Martin followed with albums by Sellers and Milligan, often encountering sonic challenges that forced him to become an inventive manipulator of tape and a resourceful experimenter. When the sound of a beheading was needed for a Sellers recording, Martin sent out for cabbages and chopped them in front of the microphone.
Martin's first No. 1 record at Parlophone was "You're Driving Me Crazy" by the 1920s revivalists the Temperance Seven, in 1961. But his entry into the new world of rock 'n' roll was spotty. He passed on Tommy Steele, who went on to major pop stardom in Britain, though he did get some hits with Steele's backup group the Vipers
Martin's first session with the Beatles, on Sept. 11, 1962, yielded "P.S. I Love You" and "Love Me Do" (there were two versions of the latter, one with a drummer Martin had hired and one with the band's brand-new member, Ringo Starr).
"Love Me Do" reached No. 17, and although Martin was convinced that the Beatles could be a hit, he still felt they needed better material. He insisted they record a song by Mitch Murray called "How Do You Do It?" and challenged them to come up with songs that were as good.
They responded with "Please Please Me," which came out in January 1963 and quickly topped the charts. ("How Do You Do It?" wasn't released until 1995, when it was included on "Anthology 1," though the song became a hit for Gerry & the Pacemakers in 1963.) For their debut album, Martin and the group selected 13 songs from their live set and recorded and mixed them in one 13-hour session. The album, "Please Please Me," went to No. 1, and Beatlemania had begun.
The full range of Martin's musical skills weren't tapped during the early years, when the songs and arrangements were relatively simple, but his input was a constant. He suggested, for instance, that they open "Can't Buy Me Love" with the soaring chorus rather than the more sedate verse.
With the success, Parlophone attracted other British pop acts, several via the Beatles' manager Epstein, including Cilla Black, Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas. Later came the Hollies and Shirley Bassey. In the 52 weeks of 1963, Parlophone singles topped the U.K. chart 37 times.
Martin received an Oscar nomination for musical direction on the Beatles' 1964 movie "A Hard Day's Night," but after a falling-out with director Richard Lester he didn't work on the follow-up, "Help!," though he did produce the Beatles' songs for the 1965 film.
One of those songs was a breakthrough. McCartney's "Yesterday" was recorded with just the singer and his acoustic guitar, overdubbed with Martin's string quartet arrangement. It was a radical departure from pop combo form, inaugurating a creative period that would exploit both the traditional and experimental sides of Martin's talents.
"That was when, as I can see in retrospect, I started to leave my hallmark on the music, when a style started to emerge which was partly of my making," Martin wrote in "All You Need Is Ears."
Martin maintained a distance from some aspects of the Beatles' activities, never joining them in their drug use and remaining skeptical of their quixotic Apple organization. But he was along for their ride into the most psychedelic and iconoclastic territory, shepherding such groundbreaking albums as "Rubber Soul," "Revolver," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "The Beatles" (the so-called "White Album") and "Abbey Road."
It was Martin who devised a way to combine two seemingly incompatible segments into the finished "Strawberry Fields Forever," his favorite Beatles record. He arranged the high-pitched piccolo trumpet to play the fills on "Penny Lane." For the climax of "A Day in the Life," he liberated the musicians in the studio orchestra, instructing them to move with sliding effects from low note to high in a loosely organized 24 bars.
Martin continued producing the Beatles even though he had left EMI in 1965 in a dispute over compensation. He and three EMI colleagues established AIR, a producers' cooperative.
After the Beatles broke up in 1970, Martin worked with acts including America, Jeff Beck, Ella Fitzgerald, Kenny Rogers, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Cheap Trick. He also produced Elton John's 1997 Princess Diana tribute single "Candle in the Wind."
But he never ventured far from the Beatles orbit. He produced three of McCartney's solo albums, as well as the singer's theme for the 1973 James Bond movie "Live and Let Die." He also scored that film, and was musical director for the 1978 film version of "Sgt. Pepper."
Sometimes he worked simply because of his regard for the legacy. In 1976 he voluntarily went into Capitol Records' Los Angeles studio to rescue the sound of some early monaural recordings that the label was preparing to reissue in what Martin termed "disastrous" stereo as the "Rock and Roll Music" album.
He selected the tracks for the 1995 and 1996 "Anthology" retrospectives, and conceived and produced the 1998 album "In My Life," enlisting singers and actors including Jim Carrey, Goldie Hawn and Sean Connery to perform Beatles songs.
He toured with a multimedia presentation on the making of "Sgt. Pepper," and in 1999 he conducted the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra at its namesake venue (where the Beatles had played more than three decades earlier) in a Beatles program.
Despite progressive hearing loss, he teamed with his producer son Giles to remix the Beatles canon into the score for the Cirque du Soleil's 2006 stage production "Love."
Martin won six Grammys and received a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 1996. He was made a knight bachelor the same year, and in 1999 he was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the non-performer category.
Martin remained immensely proud of his work with the Beatles, especially the progressive nature it was assuming at the end — an end that he felt came too soon.
"We could have gone on from 'Abbey Road,'" he said in a 1994 interview. "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 is survived by his second wife, Judy, and four children, Bundy, Lucy, Gregory Paul and Giles.