2016, Music

RIP George Martin

George Martin was the most innovative producer of the 1960s and, given what happened in the 1960s, perhaps the most innovative producer in the history of rock music. As someone who grew up with The Beatles (long story), his music had a massive impact on my life. Martin is, of course, most known for producing The Beatles albums that irrevocably changed music history, though he had a much longer career, than just those seven and a half years.

But whether Martin was some kind of genius producer who took The Beatles to heights they may not have reached themselves, or whether he was just the right man at the right time, who enabled The Beatles to fulfill their potential is one of the great chicken or egg questions in rock music history. Certainly judging by Martin’s post-Beatles work, one is tempted to think it was more a question of the latter.

And remember, it was a different time. Artists weren’t credited along side producers, even if they helped with the production a lot of the time, or even led it. (Brian Wilson was the only notable exception to this when the Beatles began recording.) The Beatles are officially credited with helping produce only one album, their last, Abbey Road – an album they were also credited as helping mix the finished product. But they were much more involved in the production process than that would indicate.

From the earliest days of their recording career, they were breaking rules and making suggestions to Martin and engineer Norman Smith. And from 1966 they were helping physically alter their own recordings. Lennon was involved in the mixing of his most radical recordings from 1967 on – though we don’t know whether or not any of the other Beatles got involved in the mixing prior to Abbey Road – and though they never wrote the arrangements to their songs (they couldn’t write music), they often suggested musical ideas to Martin when he wrote them. (McCartney in particular was responsible for the initial ideas of some of Martin’s arrangements.) And McCartney was once even credited as a producer for a sole track, “All Together Now,” while Martin was on vacation.

All this would suggest Martin was only a vessel, but I don’t think that’s fair. He helped create this revolutionary music in a number of key ways.

Session Musician

Martin was The Beatles’ first session musician and, more than that, he was their first keyboardist. Before McCartney and Lennon – and later Harrison and even Ringo! – were competent enough to play keys, Martin performed that role in the studio. He would end up playing piano or organ on at least one song on every Beatles album, even Let it Be, an album he was barely involved with.

The highlight of his career as The Beatles’ session keyboardist is probably his piano solo on “In My Life.” It combines both his talent as a pianist and his ingenuity as a record producer. He plays a Bach-inspired variation on the theme, but he ran the piano’s sound from a Hammond Organ speaker (the famous “Leslie” speaker) thereby making it sound like he was playing a harpsichord and helped to create the idea of “Baroque pop.”


Martin was responsible for every single string, horn, brass or orchestra arrangement for The Beatles prior to Phil Spector’s involvement in Let it Be – after The Beatles had essentially broken up – with the notable exception of “She’s Leaving Home,” which was written while Martin was on vacation. Martin also composed the score to Yellow Submarine and Paul McCartney’s first “solo” album, a film score McCartney was barely involved with.

The most notable and probably best of these is his Bernard Herrmann-influenced score for “Eleanor Rigby,” which was the first Beatles recording not to feature any of The Beatles playing an instrument, and which featured two string quartets together, to give a great heft to the sound.

But, for me, the real sign of his creativity is his “score” for “A Day in the Life.” Lennon and McCartney had each written song-fragments in different keys. At some point it was decided to combine these as one song, as The Beatles would do time and again before the end of their career. McCartney (I believe) wanted a string arrangement. So Martin wrote a squiggly line on the score and the orchestra moved up the scale from the low end of their instrument range to the high end, linking the songs together. It was utterly unheard of at the time and remains one of his coolest and most radical decisions – and certainly his most radical decision as an arranger during his entire career.

Record Producer

From the very beginning, Martin allowed The Beatles to break rules other producers would have enforced. The producer was in charge of recordings at the time and, in many cases, was essentially a dictator in the studio. (Think Phil Spector.) But not Martin. Martin tolerated and actually encouraged the rule-breaking.

The most obvious example of this from the first part of their career is the presence of feedback on “I Feel Fine,” a single and the first time a commercially issued single contained feedback. But Martin and Norman Smith, their engineer, allowed a lot of other rule-flaunting that was a lot more subtle, which you can read about in my book (see below).

But it was only after Norman Smith graduated to producer in 1965 and The Beatles got a new crew of engineers, famously led by Geoff Emerick, that Martin and The Beatles (and their engineers) really broke every recording rule in the book. Along with Frank Zappa, they were the first popular recording artists to break these rules – though “classical” composers had been doing this for 20 years.

I will list their most radical recordings, which are all worth checking out but the most impressive moment of Martin’s career as a producer – if it was Martin who came up with this, and he’s usually credited with the idea – was what he did to Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields.” Lennon had recorded different versions of the song in different keys that were completely incompatible with each other. So Martin had the engineers speed up one version and slow down the other, and combined them as one song, which was somehow released as a single, but it was the ’60s and everyone was crazy.

Here then are The Beatles’ most radical recordings, all produced by Martin:

  • “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Rubber Soul (1966), featuring some of the earliest use of tape manipulation in popular music;
  • “Strawberry Fields” / “Penny Lane,” released as a single in early 1967, the most radical single that had yet been recorded, featuring more tape manipulation (both obvious and subtle) than any popular music recording to date;
  • Really the entirety of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) but particularly “A Day in the Life,” where, as I said before, Martin linked to completely diverse song-fragments by not writing an actual arrangement – and the recording features a lot of other weird tricks as well
  • “I Am the Walrus,” released as a b-side in the summer of 1967 and then on the “double EP” “Magical Mystery Tour,” in late 1967, it is probably Lennon’s greatest success as an avant garde composer – given that it’s a radio staple! – and it contains Lennon’s most complex musical idea, possibly the first extended use of a sample on a single, and one of Martin’s most ingenious string arrangements;
  • “Revolution No. 9” from The Beatles (1968), where Lennon completely abandoned popular music for musique concrete (i.e. avant garde “classical” music).

Those are just the most radical recordings. Martin and the engineers were constantly distorting instruments and voices, and chopping up and splicing back together various tapes to create sounds that had only been heard by music snobs. And these were all massively successful records, some of the most successful ever.

I can’t comment much on Martin’s career post-Beatles, as I’ve only ever heard his work with Jeff Beck, during his jazz fusion phase. But anyway, RIP.

You can buy my book from Amazon. Or, you can find it in any ebook version you want from Smashwords.

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