Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Sir George Martin (1926 - 2016)

I read the news today, oh boy . . . George Martin has died at 90.

It would be hard to overstate the effect George Martin had on the Beatles. And it would be hard to think of any human being in the world who wasn't an actual rock musician, yet had a bigger impact on rock music, than him.

George Martin wasn't just a great producer who happened to work with the greatest rock band of all time. There's a reason he's called the fifth Beatle, but even that honorific fails to capture what he really did. He didn't merely provide so many studio innovations that it's possible to pick out many Beatles songs where his effect on the finished product was at least as important as that of some of the actual Beatles. He radically challenged every preconception of what a rock band was supposed to be, in a way that didn't just change what the Beatles sounded like, but changed the next 50 years of music. George Martin allowed the band to encompass Western classical music ("Eleanor Rigby," "In My Life"), Indian classical music ("Without You Without You," "Love You To"), jazz ("When I'm 64," "Honey Pie"), and more.

There have been so many volumes written about what George Martin added to the Beatles' recordings. I'll just point to one small example, remembering that there are dozens and dozens of things like this in the Beatles' oeuvre. This is an analysis of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" by Ian MacDonald in his book Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties:

Lennon wandered into an antiques shop and picked up a Victorian circus poster advertising . . . a show put on by some travelling tumblers . . . in 1843. This appealed to his sense of the ridiculous and, when the new album [Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band] called for another composition from him, he hung the poster on the wall of his home studio and, playing his piano, sang phrases from it until he had a song. Taking it to Abbey Road, he asked George Martin for a 'fairground' production wherein one could smell the sawdust — which, while not in the narrowest sense a musical specification, was, by Lennon's standards, a clear and reasonable request. (He once asked Martin to make one of his songs sound like an orange.) While The Beatles' producer worked more naturally with the conventionally articulate McCartney, the challenges of catering to Lennon's intuitive approach generally spurred him to his more original arrangements, of which Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! is an outstanding example. Using harmonium, harmonicas, and a tape of Victorian steam organs and calliopes cut up and edited into a kaleidoscopic wash, he created a brilliantly whimsical impression of period burlesque, ideally complementing Lennon's dry nasal delivery. Few producers have displayed a tenth of the invention shown here.

From the New York Times obituary:
George Martin, the urbane English record producer who signed the Beatles to a recording contract on the small Parlophone label after every other British record company had turned them down, and who guided them in their transformation from a regional dance band into the most inventive, influential and studio-savvy rock group of the 1960s, died Tuesday. . . .

When the Beatles played “Please Please Me” for him for the first time, for example, it was in a slow arrangement meant to evoke the style of Roy Orbison, one of their heroes. Mr. Martin told them the song sounded dreary, and insisted that they pick up the tempo and add a simple harmonica introduction. His suggestions transformed “Please Please Me,” which became their first big hit.

Always intent on expanding the Beatles’ horizons, Mr. Martin began chipping away at the group’s resistance to using orchestral musicians on its recordings in early 1965. While recording the “Help!” album that year, he brought in flutists for the simple adornment that enlivens Lennon’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and he convinced Mr. McCartney, against his initial resistance, that “Yesterday” should be accompanied by a string quartet.

A year later, during the recording of the album “Revolver,” Mr. Martin no longer had to cajole: The Beatles prevailed on him to augment their recordings with arrangements for strings (on “Eleanor Rigby”), brass (on “Got to Get You Into My Life”), marching band (on “Yellow Submarine”) and solo French horn (on “For No One”), as well as a tabla player for Harrison’s Indian-influenced song “Love You To.”

It was also at least partly through Mr. Martin’s encouragement that the Beatles became increasingly interested in electronic sound. Noting their inquisitiveness about both the technical and musical sides of recording, Mr. Martin ignored the traditional barrier between performers and technicians and invited the group into the control room, where he showed them how the recording equipment at EMI’s Abbey Road studios worked. He also introduced them to unorthodox recording techniques, including toying with tape speeds and playing tapes backward.

Mr. Martin had used some of these techniques in his comedy and novelty recordings, long before he began working with the Beatles.

“When I joined EMI,” he told The New York Times in 2003, “the criterion by which recordings were judged was their faithfulness to the original. If you made a recording that was so good that you couldn’t tell the difference between the recording and the actual performance, that was the acme. And I questioned that. I thought, O.K., we’re all taking photographs of an existing event. But we don’t have to make a photograph; we can paint. And that prompted me to experiment.”

Soon the Beatles themselves became intent on searching for new sounds, and Mr. Martin created another that the group adopted in 1966 (followed by many others). During the sessions for “Rain,” Mr. Martin took part of Lennon’s lead vocal and overlaid it, running backward, over the song’s coda.

“From that moment,” Mr. Martin said, “they wanted to do everything backwards. They wanted guitars backwards and drums backwards, and everything backwards, and it became a bore.” The technique did, however, benefit “I’m Only Sleeping” (with backward guitars) and “Strawberry Fields Forever” (with backward drums).

Mr. Martin was never particularly trendy, and when the Beatles adopted the flowery fashions of psychedelia in 1966 and 1967 he continued to attend sessions in a white shirt and tie, his hair combed back in a schoolmasterly pre-Beatles style. Musically, though, he was fully in step with them. . . . His avant-garde orchestration and spacey production techniques made “A Day in the Life” into a monumental finale for the kaleidoscopic album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”


Unknown said...

Mr. Martin's legacy speaks for itself, but it's only fair to point out the true genius of Geoff Emerick, the Beatles recording engineer for every album from "Revolver" to "Abbey Road," with the exception of "The Beatles" (the so-called "White Album"). It was Emerick who figured out how to get all the ideas of Martin et al onto four, and later, eight tracks. It was he who experimented with all the new sounds and recording techniques in the pre-digital era. His book, "Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles," is a must-read, along with the Mark Lewisohn catalog. RIP, Mr. Martin.