As well as being a man of taste, kindness and immense musical talent, George Martin also had an impeccable sense of humour. This was essential if he was going to get anything done with the Fab Four. But most importantly, in the words of Alan Parsons, ‘he had great ears.’ He listened to the band, nurtured their ideas and collaborated rather than competed with them. It’s impossible to know what The Beatles would have achieved without George Martin, but thankfully, we’ll never have to contemplate that particular fate.
His contributions always served the song and not himself. While we mourn the passing of the gentleman whose accent was that of an Air Vice-Marshal and whose hair resembled the floppy mop of a wizard from Middle Earth (at least later on), it’s worth reminding ourselves of ten stunning contributions he made to The Beatles’ music.
1) His rock and roll piano
Before Paul and John could play proficiently themselves (Paul was still having lessons in 1965) George Martin provided the rock and roll piano on early tracks like Rock and Roll Music, Misery, Money, Slow Down, Long Tall Sally and A Hard Day’s Night. In plenty of other bands, these contributions alone would be enough to make him a fully paid up member.
2) His rule breaking
Often portrayed as the disapproving headmaster to The Beatles errant schoolboys, George Martin showed he was as anarchic as the rest them, allowing such studio tomfoolery as the sound distortions on She’s a Woman, the super-compressed drum and bass on Ticket to Ride (said to be the invention of heavy metal!) and famously, the feedback that begins I Feel Fine. Most other producers at the time would have called a halt when the needle slipped into the red.
3) The production on Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite
Responding to John’s request to make a record that ‘sounded like a fairground’ Martin pulled out all the stops for this song from Sergeant Pepper. The kaleidoscopic production is full of whizzes and whistles, steam organs, sound effects, crescendos and tumbling scales. You can taste the toffee apples.
4) The electric piano solo in In My Life
Out of nowhere, this astonishing, feather light and giddily melodic solo appears in the middle of John’s otherwise elegiac song, somehow capturing the nostalgia, colour and energy of the Beatle’s childhood. He had to sneak in and overdub it on, fearful the Beatles would disapprove of his suggestion.
5) The string quartet on Yesterday
Paul was initially skeptical about adding strings to his song; afraid it would become mawkish or treacly. To overcome this, George Martin astutely invited him to work with him on the arrangement. By playing the chords on the piano and with McCartney singing phrases that came to him, they collaborated to produce a beautifully restrained setting for an already sublime song.
6) The whole of Tomorrow Never Knows
To move from She Loves You to Tomorrow Never Knows in three years is the pop equivalent of inventing the wheel to designing the Apollo XI moon rocket in a similar space of time. Responding to another Lennon request to ‘sound like the Dalai Lama and a thousand Tibetan Monks chanting on a mountain top’ George Martin supervised a recording like no other. It is the sound of east and west colliding like the buckling of tectonic plates.
7) Achieving the impossible in Strawberry Fields Forever
Again it was John who was responsible for another extraordinary challenge for George Martin. He asked for two different versions of his song, each in a different key and tempo to be spliced together. Pushing the studio (and engineer Geoff Emerick to the limit) you can hardly see the join.
8) The brass on Martha My Dear
This has always been one of my favourite Beatles songs, although actually it is the work of just McCartney and George Martin, who provides the sympathetic brass orchestration. It is the perfect accompaniment to a perfectly formed song.
9) The orchestra crescendo at the end of A Day in the Life
Persuading classical musicians to abandon their charts and climb up the scale to provide the totemic finale to this extraordinary song (before ending on that thunderous E Major piano chord) George pulled out every stop, and presumably every ounce of his considerable charm. This surely ranks as one of the most memorable sounds of the 20th century.
10) Side two of Abbey Road
When The Beatles came back to George Martin cap in hand after the Let it Be fiasco, he agreed to produce their next album – but only if they allowed him to do it properly. The final medley was a showcase for everything The Beatles could do: the lush harmonies, the unorthodox chord progressions stitched together by gossamer melodies, sweeping orchestration and witty interplay of voices and instruments. It was also a showcase of everything they had learnt from George Martin. Think of the pedestrian plod of Love Me Do next to euphoric conclusion to The End. It’s the sound of a band that went to the moon.
With acknowledgements to Ian McDonald’s superb book on The Beatles’ music ‘Revolution in the Head.’