Wednesday 21 February 2018

The man who heard future of pop first - George Martin

George Martin didn't just give The Beatles their sound... he revolutionised music

George Martin and The Beatles
George Martin and The Beatles
Ed Power

Ed Power

Even in a year in which music icons have passed at an alarming rate, the death this week of Beatles' producer George Martin came as a blow.

Martin will be forever synonymous with the ground-breaking records The Beatles released through the 60s and with his departure our connection to one of the most culturally thrilling and fertile periods of the 20th century grows ever fainter. The era that gave us 'Sgt Pepper' and 'Strawberry Fields Forever' is fading into the history books.

Martin, who had recently turned 90, helped create the modern art of record production. Before him, "producers" were functionaries in white lab coats.

Their job was to stay out of the way as the musicians got on with being creative. However, Martin went beyond the role of boffin, helping The Beatles finesse their sound and explore new directions. He furthermore served as an important stabilising force as, amid escalating drug-intake and infighting, the band began to drift apart.

Yet, his most vital contribution to The Beatles may well have come at the very start. By the time Martin signed the band to his Parlophone label (a quirky in-house division of the then-mighty EMI) in 1962, the group had become intimately familiar with rejection. Decca had famously turned them down on the grounds that rock 'n' roll was on the way out; rivals were not exactly jostling for their signature.

When the scruffy quartet visited Martin, hawking a poorly-recorded demo tape, his first instinct was to agree with Decca. But Martin saw something - in their attitude more than their technical accomplishment - and was intrigued.

He'd begun his career recording comedy troupes such as The Goons and recognised a similar eclecticism in The Beatles.

"The recording, to put it kindly, was by no means a knockout," he said of their demo in his 1979 memoir All You Need Is Ears.

"I could well understand that people had turned it down. But there was an unusual quality of sound, a certain roughness that I hadn't encountered before. There was also the fact that more than one person was singing." 

Things changed as soon as Martin got involved. He did not rate the group's drummer, Pete Best, so they brought in Ringo Starr.

Moreover, the tension between Martin's patrician demeanour and The Beatles boot-boy personas gave their relationship a confrontational zing ("I don't like your tie," George Harrison told Martin during an early meeting).

The boundaries between producer and musicians turn progressively blurrier as the partnership went on. As The Beatles got around to making the records that would guarantee their immortality, Martin was fully on board as a creative member.

The fruits of their collaboration can be heard on songs such as 'Yesterday', which Paul McCartney had conceived of as an acoustic track to be performed on guitar. Martin heard strings and pushed Paul.

"George said to me, 'Paul, I have an idea of putting a string quartet on the record.' I said, 'Oh no George, we are a rock 'n' roll band and I don't think it's a good idea.'

"With the gentle bedside manner of a great producer he said to me, 'Let us try it and if it doesn't work we won't use it and we'll go with your solo version.'"

Martin is widely assumed to have been from a well off background. But while he carried himself with a gentlemanly air, he was by no means born with a silver spoon.

In fact his upbringing was far closer to that of the ragamuffin Beatles than generally understood.

He was the son of a carpenter and grew up in a lower-working class neighbourhood of north London, far from the bright lights and excess of the music industry.

By the mid 60s, The Beatles were exploring new sounds - and new substances. Martin turned a blind eye to drugs, on the understanding the group keep them out of his studio, at Abbey Road. "Drugs certainly affected the music," he said. "But it didn't affect the record production because I was producing."

Still, tensions escalated with John Lennon in particular tiring of what he regarded as Martin's studio "gimmickry".

Ultimately producer and band would part on chummy, if bittersweet, terms. After a disastrous attempt to work with Phil Spector, they briefly reconnected with Martin for their farewell LP, Abbey Road. All involved understood this was to be a grand last hurrah.

"They said, 'let's try and get back to the way we were in the old days, and will you really produce the next album for us?'" Martin said. "We were really amicable and really friendly. We really did try to work together."

Generous to the end, Martin was inclined to downplay his contribution to The Beatles.

Yes, he influenced their sound and oversaw their greatest triumphs. Yet who is to say what they would have achieved working with someone else? In the end he was, by his own telling, merely a facilitator to their genius. "Without my instruments and scoring, very many of the records would not have sounded as they do," he wrote in his memoir.

"Whether they would have been any better, I cannot say.

''They might have been. That is not modesty on my part; it is an attempt to give a factual picture of the relationship."

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