Sir George Martin: 1926-2016
It’s no secret that 2016 has been a cruel year for the arts world, with the likes of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Glen Frey all leaving us at relatively young ages. We now sadly add to that list the producer, arranger, and composer, Sir George Martin. Thankfully on this occasion, the departed lived a wonderful life right up to the age of 90, and there is no question that he fulfilled his potential.
Sir George was a producer for artists such as Elton John and Gerry and the Pacemakers, and a very talented composer, however, he is known and adored the most for his work with The Beatles, arguably the greatest band of all time. Sir George was one of the first people to have belief in them, and it was his unique creative vision that helped John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Star become the most innovative, brilliant musical act the world had yet seen. Tributes have immediately been coming from across the music world, with Mark Ronson calling him “the greatest producer of all time.”
When Sir George was six years old, his family acquired a piano, giving him the vital prod in to his interest in music. He began having piano lessons until his mother fell out with the teacher eight lessons in, leaving him to become the self-taught musician he is famously known to be. He was born in Holloway, North London, before being evacuated to Welwyn Garden City during the war. Around this time, the BBC Symphony Ochestra came to town, who he would later work with. Hearing an orchestra for the first time had a profound effect on him; he called the experience “magical”. His use of orchestral sounds was to become his hallmark.
One of his first jobs was a temporary clerk for the war office, filing paperwork and making tea. He then joined the Royal Navy at 17, eventually becoming a commissioned officer. He was later able to use his veteran’s grant to attend the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Here he studied piano and oboe, cementing his classical roots in music. Upon graduating, he took a job at BBC’s classical music department, and subsequently at EMI, working for the small imprint Parlophone. His first work as a producer was recording classical and baroque music, and he also began recording comedy and novelty acts. Sir George turned the small label into a big, profitable name. He wanted to add rock and roll to the label, but could not find a “fireproof” hit-making artist or group.
A pivotal moment came for Sir George when Sid Coleman contacted him and put him in touch with Brian Epstein, who wanted to speak to him about a band he was managing. He listened to a tape rejected by Decca Records, which Sir George himself said was “rather unpromising”, but liked the sound of the combined vocals of the band’s singers: John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The Beatles auditioned for Sir George on 6th June 1962, although he was not present until the recording session was finished at Abbey Road Studios. Martin was again unimpressed, but was won over when he asked each of the guys if there was anything they personally did not like, to which George Harrison replied: “well, there’s your tie, for a start.” With his background in recording comedy, he initially signed The Beatles thanks to their good humour and banter in their audition. In his own words, “I thought their music was rubbish, but I fell in love with them.”
Still unconvinced by their original songs, Sir George and The Beatles started out recording covers, Twist and Shout amongst them. They did not give up, however, and after virtually begging, Lennon and McCartney got their way with Sir George relenting and recording Please Please Me. This was a crucial moment where he proved to be an integral part of the Beatles creative process – he convinced them the song would work much better if sped up. At the end of the recording, he looked over the mixing desk and announced, “gentleman, you have just made your first number one record".
His classical expertise also moulded The Beatles sound to a great extent. He played keyboards on their earlier releases, and arranged their orchestral parts. Paul McCartney was originally against the idea of adding a string quartet to Yesterday, until Sir George played the song in a Bach style to show him how effective it could be. For the song Penny Lane, McCartney hummed a melody he wanted, which Sir George transcribed into a piccolo trumpet solo.
Sir George also employed innovative recording techniques that would greatly influence later producers, and also ensure The Beatles’ sound was always experimental. For Strawberry Fields Forever he took two different takes and turned them into a single master through meticulous editing and the vari-speed technique. For In My Life, he included a sped up baroque piano solo, and on I Am the Walrus he added a particularly quirky arrangement for brass and strings. He and McCartney worked together carefully to create the orchestral climax in A Day In the Life.
His ‘Fifth Beatle’ moniker was by no means unwarranted, composing and performing some very important parts for songs including the harpsichord on Fixing a Hole, piano on Lovely Rita, and the organs and tape loop technique for Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite to create the circus backdrop as per the request of John Lennon. It was only when the band began work on The White Album that Sir George was for the first time too in demand as an arranger and producer, leaving George, John, Paul, and Ringo to produce several of the songs themselves.
Sir George was also wise to employ his composing talents in the world of film. He worked on a number of movies, most notably A Hard Day’s Night, Yellow Submarine, and the James Bond hit Live and Let Die, featuring a title song by Paul McCartney, another winning meeting of minds between the two. He also produced theme song Goldfinger with Shirley Bassey, making himself a key figure in the film series.
While he will always be known best for his brilliant work with The Beatles, Sir George was also a key producer for a great number of other artists: Cilla Black, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Jeff Beck, Ultravox, Kenny Rogers, Elton John, and Celine Dion to mention only a few. Another accolade was his contribution to Elton John’s 1997 rerelease of Candle In the Wind to raise money for Princess Diana’s charities, following her death. That song smashed records and became the greatest selling single of all time.
Fellow producer, Tony Platt, has remarked "Sir George set the tone for record production, and in particular British record production, by putting the artist at the centre of the music making process rather than treating them as a product.” And Sir George said himself that perhaps his greatest talent was getting the best out of an artist. So if he did that with The Beatles, his legacy is truly sealed.
Brian May has said “what a glorious innings”, and rightly so; it is not often we get to write about someone who achieved quite so much. So long, Sir George, and thank you for the music. In the words of Mark Ronson, “we will never stop living in the world you helped create.”
Words by Adam Protz