'A man whose every sonic brushstroke I eagerly devoured'
Published 10/03/2016 | 02:30
He was like a genial uncle to a generation who grew up with the music of The Beatles and the beat music of the sixties.
He'd been the man who'd spotted something charismatic about the Liverpool mop-tops in the summer of 1962 when every other label had turned them down. Although he admitted to knowing almost nothing about beat groups, The Beatles liked him because he'd worked with surreal comedy group The Goons.
When George said he'd just recorded The Beatles, someone assumed it was Spike Milligan using a silly name. George put them right, saying, "This is a great group, we're going to hear a lot from them."
How right he was. For the next eight years his work with the group dominated the charts and set new standards of production and arrangement that would influence musicians around the world.
Unwittingly, George Martin became the architect of a global cultural revolution.
Back then, people marvelled at how this quiet-spoken man, who resembled an old-fashioned school principal, was able to harness the explosive and questing spirit of the rough-edged, street-wise Liverpudlians.
It was simply because he was brilliant. A classically-trained musician, Martin was both a calming influence and a steady guiding hand in the studio. His instincts dove-tailed with those of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr.
During those halcyon days, he also produced memorable hits with Cilla Black, Gerry and The Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and The Fourmost. Later he would go on to work successfully with Jeff Beck, Elton John and Kenny Rogers among others. Thirty No 1 singles in Britain and America is quite an achievement.
Meeting your musical heroes can sometimes prove disappointing.
Not so with George Martin, a man whose every sonic brushstroke I'd eagerly devoured and analysed while growing up.
In fact, I'd count myself as one of those who today might feel they've lost a relative. Because, other than creative talent the chief characteristic I associate with George Martin is courtesy. In a world where manners seem to be under threat, he was a beacon of gentlemanly good grace and accommodating charm.
Perhaps you'll gain something of the man's honesty and good humour if I share some insights from past conversations.
Where should we start with George Martin? Why not the end of The Beatles' short ground-breaking career.
How did George feel when the band broke up? "The end of The Beatles to me was a kind of relief," George told me. "It was wonderful in a way. I'd been working solidly for nearly a decade. Working, trying to keep these characters in the forefront. I felt I was responsible. Suddenly I was no longer responsible. I didn't have to worry about them anymore. That was tremendous."
Beatlemania swept all before it. There were casualties. Not everyone involved emerged unscathed. How did George manage to remain so thoroughly decent and diligent?
"You just have to chart your own course," he said. "It's a terrible mistake that people get overcome with show business and fall in love with glamour. The glamour is there but it is also a world of dedication and hard work… You've got to be good and you've got to be lucky. And you've got to keep your sanity. There are so many stars that fizzle out quite quickly. If I'd been a performer I'd have fizzled out."
Was there anyone else he'd like to have worked with?
"You can only do so much," he explained. "There are people I admire. Barbra Streisand in her heyday was wonderful. I would quite like to have done an album with her. Looking back at it, I'm quite glad I didn't because I understand she's quite tricky. But she is unquestionably a fine artist."
George Martin's musical contribution to the Beatles' recordings was immense. He didn't just facilitate the band's wilder flights of imaginative fancy. He contributed his own. And laughingly admitted to me that things didn't always work out as planned.
"There were failures," he revealed, as I pressed for an example. "At the end of 'A Day In The Life', I couldn't think how to end it. Before I did the piano chord, I did a giant hum. I thought of Buddhist monks. A mantra. I thought it was a terrific idea. It was absolutely pathetic. Terrible."
Sadly, George also paid a price for his long hours of dedication in the studio. Over thirty years ago, he noticed he was beginning to lose his hearing. It may seem like a cruel fate for one who's work has meant so much to so many. But George could laugh at what he knew would become a discomfort.
"Mostly growing old is a pain in the arse," he told me. "It's not to be recommended. But there are compensations. I don't have to worry about being nice to people anymore. I can say 'Piss off' if I want to. It's wonderful. But I never did really be nice to anybody for the sake of it. I've always tried to keep a fairly level look at people."