George Martin’s death March 8 at the age of 90 is significant in the history of the Beatles because it marks their further passage into the past. The Beatles have been part of “history” for a very long time. The premature deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison were tragic, but Martin’s passing indicates just how long ago the Beatles were a recording unit.
Martin was so integral a part of the band’s story that he was called “the Fifth Beatle” – a moniker that, in the 1960s, was also given to their then manager Brian Epstein. In both instances, the accolade is richly-deserved – without Epstein the Beatles would have not won a recording contract, and without Martin they would not have made records.
What the Beatles were before Martin was the best group in Liverpool, what they became with him was the greatest popular cultural phenomenon of the 20th century. Why? Because what Martin was able to give to three very talented songwriters was the ability to bring to life the sounds they heard in their imaginations.
As the Beatles’ success exposed them to wider and wider cultural influences, their collective imagination expanded exponentially, and Martin was always there to meet their increasingly elaborate needs – whether it was string arrangements for Paul McCartney, a 19th-century fairground soundtrack for Lennon, or Indian musicians for Harrison.
In 1966, the Beatles stopped touring. Even before this, they had spent several months in the studio making the Revolver album. On Revolver, the extent of Martin’s role as the band’s recording midwife is fully-evident, notably in the multi-track recording and the use of various forms of tape-effects, including automatic double tracking (ADT), vari-speeding and backward recording. Even before this, his classical training had been instrumental to the recording of Yesterday with a string quartet. In these ways, Martin created a template that would dominate popular music long into the future.
Martin helped to transform the Beatles from a great live band into true “recording artists”. With his input and guidance, the group switched from releasing singles to making albums; albums that were distinctive because they took full advantage of multi-tracking.
The Abbey Road studio helped to pioneer eight-track recording (by synching two four-track machines together). And Martin and his engineers pushed the envelope of sound recording in as many different directions as they could muster.
Today, we take complex recordings for granted, but it was inside Abbey Road and within the relationship engendered by Martin with the four young men from Liverpool that the recorded sound of popular music took its fullest shape. Ironically, EMI (his then employers) did not see it quite this way. They were content to retain him as a “staff producer” – as if the Beatles were simply just another job – until Martin made the decision to create his own production company and hire his services to EMI. This then led to the creation of his own recording studio, AIR (Associated Independent Recording) in 1965.
The affection the Beatles had for Martin is evident in all published accounts of the time they spent making records together. Equally, his respect for them, and fascination with them, is evident in the many interviews conducted with him. But there was potential for a very strong clash of cultures during their few months of working together.
Martin’s background was substantially removed from that of the Beatles – he was a classically-trained public schoolboy and ex-RAF officer, they were a motley collection of (mostly) grammar school boys from a provincial city. It is to Martin’s credit that he put them at ease and saw their (potential) worth from the outset, and it is to The Beatles’ credit that they realised from the outset that, while he was an insightful mentor, his true value lay in his ability to realise the sound they wanted to make. As those sounds became richer and more complex, Martin rose to every challenge.
Sir George – he was knighted in 1996 – remained an active producer for many years after the Beatles ceased to exist as a unit. McCartney continued to favour him as producer into the 1980s and he was involved, with his son Giles Martin in the production of the Love album that underpins the Cirque du Soleil show of the same name. His work, however, will live on for many years yet – in more or less every pop song you will ever hear.
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