Obituary: George Martin
The 'Beatle' who was never one of the boys
Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30
The first thing I did on learning of the death of George Martin, who died on Tuesday aged 90, was listen to a Beatles song. It was A Day In The Life. If one wanted to choose a song that most vividly illustrates Martin's contribution to the group, and by extension, his extraordinary contribution to popular music, this is surely it.
Five years before its release, Martin - having been persuaded, against his better instincts, to sign the group - produced their first single, Love Me Do. His role was minimal, but crucial: he replaced their drummer, and applied the slightest of touches on the rudder to allow the group their head.
The result evinced a youthful freshness and exuberance that hinted at promise, but showed no great originality. Certainly, there was nothing that anticipated the flowering of genius to come.
Yet, within five years, under Martin's guidance and mentorship, The Beatles made the quantum leap to produce the greatest masterpiece in pop music.
From its gently strummed acoustic guitar, through its ingenious, heart-jangling shifts in melody and orchestration, to the final, dying chords of its chaotic orchestral crescendo, A Day In The Life is five minutes and 12 seconds of music at its most daring.
There is no other group or artist whose musical evolution over the years was so dramatic, and satisfying, and Martin's role in this was incalculable. He enabled their ideas to pour forth, providing the electronic effects, the string quartets, the cor anglais, the trumpets and piccolos, that helped The Beatles transcend the limitations of pop and create music of sublime originality. He allowed them to give expression to their genius, and provided a model for all pop music thereafter.
It was an alchemy that could never have been planned on paper. Martin - 14 years older than John or Ringo, 17 years older than George - was a paternalistic figure, who never made the mistake of believing, or behaving as if, he was one of the Beatles.
The marvellous video of the recording of A Day In The Life - a deliriously trippy snapshot of swinging London - shows him conducting the orchestra in white shirt and bow tie, hair neatly trimmed, stoutly refusing to embrace the affectations of drooping moustache and Nehru jacket that afflicted other record producers. Martin forever maintained the calm, unruffled demeanour and the stiff-backed sartorial rectitude of the officer class.
Martin grew up in impoverished circumstances and served in the Fleet Air Arm before studying music and joining EMI. There he recorded everything from classical orchestras to comedy and novelty recordings by Flanders and Swan, Bernard Cribbens, Peter Sellers and the Goons.
It was a CV that made his association with The Beatles even more improbable.
Had they not walked into his life, it is tempting to believe that Martin would have laboured happily in relative obscurity for ever after. As it was, success with The Beatles led to him producing other Brian Epstein acts, notably Cilla Black and Gerry and the Pacemakers, and then being much in demand from performers across the musical spectrum in search of his expertise, and hopeful some of the Fab Four magic might rub off on them. He produced Jeff Beck, America, the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Apocalypse, Elton John and two James Bond themes, Goldfinger and Live and Let Die, as well as countless others. But his recordings with The Beatles were the measure by which he was ever judged.
He seemed never to tire of the endless questions about the relationship between John and Paul, the frustrations of George and the talent of Ringo. A few years ago, the comedy show Big Train produced an affectionately mocking sketch, which showed Martin discussing The Beatles' work, being kidnapped in mid-flow, confined for months to a cell then, upon release, taking the stage at a press conference and answering the first question, "Were you ever afraid for your life", with the reply, "Well, the Beatles certainly never took drugs in front of me..."
He really did say that. And they wouldn't have dared. Paul McCartney might have called him "the fifth Beatle", but George Martin - charming, patrician, somewhat remote - was ever himself.