More than a Beatle
If there ever was someone worthy of the title ‘fifth Beatle’, that man could only have been Sir George Martin (1926-2016). The legendary English producer, arranger and composer not only signed The Beatles and produced almost all of their albums, but also played a key role in shaping their sound, especially after the band stopped performing live and focused on recording and experimenting in the studio.
A token of Martin’s ingenuity and creativity can be found in the story behind the recording of Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album: John Lennon had asked Martin to give the song a “carnival atmosphere”, and wanted to “smell the sawdust on the floor.” After putting together multiple recordings of fairground organs and calliope music and a great deal of unfruitful experimentation, Martin and recording engineer Geoff Emerick finally achieved the desired effect by chopping the tape into pieces with scissors, throwing them up in the air, and re-assembling them at random. Now that’s quite an imaginative recording technique!
But George Martin was much more than the fifth Beatle. A classically-trained musician (he had studied piano and oboe at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama), he worked for the BBC before joining EMI in 1950, where he produced numerous comedy and novelty records working with artists such as Peter Ustinov, Peter Sellers, and Sophia Loren.
A visionary producer
Following his collaboration with The Beatles, Martin went on to produce many successful records and worked with acclaimed musicians such as Shirley Bassey, Stan Getz, Jeff Beck, and Elton John. He also worked as a producer with the rock band America, the jazz-rock fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra (Apocalypse, 1974) and the experimental jazz ensemble Paul Winter Consort whose album Icarus (1972) was according to Martin “the finest record” he had ever made.
A few years ago I read Martin’s marvelous autobiography All You Need Is Ears, first published in 1979. It is an exciting account of his personal story and an excellent read I highly recommend not just for Beatles fans or aspiring record producers, but for anyone interested in the cultural history of the 1960s (much like White Bicycles by American producer Joe Boyd).
A true visionary who changed the musical landscape of the second half of the 20th century and pushed the boundaries of music production and studio recording, Sir George Martin knew well that, distinct genres and labels aside, all music basically aspires toward the same goal: “Rock and roll has the same function as classical music,” he once said, “to make sounds that are appealing to a mass of people and are of some worth.”
God only knows where pop music would be without George Martin’s unmistakable ears and love for melody…