Looking Beyond the Beatles to Appreciate George Martin's Genius

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Looking Beyond the Beatles to Appreciate George Martin's Genius

Listen to an interview with George Martin from 2001 in the player below.

To properly appreciate producer George Martin, who died Tuesday at age 90, it’s better to start not with his best known clients, the Beatles, but with Gerry & the Pacemakers. Like the Beatles, Gerry Marsden and his mates were signed out of Liverpool’s Cavern Club by manager Brian Epstein and turned over to Martin at London’s Abbey Road Studios. Unlike the Beatles, the Pacemakers weren’t geniuses, merely a likable bar band.

But on two separate occasions, Martin’s own considerable gifts were enough to lift Gerry and the Pacemakers out of bar-band oblivion into artistic triumph. Both the singles, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” and “Ferry Cross the Mercy,” were ballads capable of breaking hearts, due not to Marsden’s vocal or lyrics but to Martin’s brilliant orchestral charts.

Channeling his hero Nelson Riddle (who wrote similar charts for Frank Sinatra’s greatest records), Martin used hovering, unresolved string parts that didn’t push heartache on the listener but rather evoked the anxiety that makes heartbreak possible. When the wistful woodwinds added an element of melancholy, the listener could find one’s own sorrow without being manipulated by the arrangement. It was great art, but the art was Martin’s, not the performers listed on the label.

This, of course, refutes the rock ‘n’ roll myth that the music only gets worse when the record-company man interferes with the musicians’ work. Martin was very much a company man. He was on the staff at EMI’s Parlophone Records in London and had already produced several hit comedy records when he took on the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black, the Vipers and Billy J. Kramer during the label’s early foray into rock ‘n’ roll. But a record-company guy can also be an artist, as Martin soon proved.

But just as singers and guitarists are artists who can be either good or bad, depending on the underlying talent and the choices made, so can producers. Compare, for example, the transcendent production done by Phil Spector before 1967 and the heavy-handed interference he practiced afterward. In the 1960s, Martin made the choices necessary for great art. He knew enough to take the lead with a lesser artist like Marsden and to take a complementary role with greater artists such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Martin pushed the two songwriters into two crucial decisions that made the Beatles’ historic run possible. First of all, he told them point-blank that they needed a better drummer than Pete Best. So they hired Ringo Starr.

Second, Martin told them that if they didn’t want to record songs like Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It” (which the producer had the Beatles record before turning it over to Gerry and the Pacemakers for the latter’s first UK No. 1 hit), they’d have to write better songs than “Love Me Do” or those churned out by London’s professional hacks. So Lennon wrote “Please Please Me” with an arresting IV-II-VI-IV-I progression to start the chorus.

Martin was impressed, but it wasn’t until he insisted that the arrangement be altered from a Roy Orbison-like ballad to an Everly Brothers-like pop-rocker that the song really clicked. Before long, McCartney countered Lennon with “All My Loving,” and the fruitful songwriting competition to impress each other—and Martin—was off and running.

And once that competition reached a certain level, Martin’s background as a classically trained arranger and as a vanguard tape editor (he once spliced in the sound of a cabbage being chopped in half for a Peter Sellers comedy skit about a beheading) became invaluable. When “Yesterday” reminded Martin of Bach, the producer insisted that McCartney, against the singer’s wishes, record the song on acoustic guitar backed only by a string quartet playing a Martin chart. Lennon, Starr and George Harrison weren’t involved on this, one of the greatest English-language records of the 20th century, but Martin, often called the “Fifth Beatle,” was.

Martin wrote the chart for the trumpet on “Penny Lane,” the flute on “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” the string quartet on “Eleanor Rigby,” the French horn on “For No One,” the tablas on “Love You To” and the orchestral crescendo on “A Day in the Life.” He played the piano keys on “In My Life,” the piano strings on “Getting Better,” the harmonium on “Word” and the organ on “Got To Get You Into My Life.” He taught “the lads,” as he called them, how to use chopped-up or backwards-running tape to create sound effects on songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

After the Beatles broke up in 1970, Martin, like the band members themselves, never achieved such artistic heights again. Each of the five men created admirable, enjoyable music in the future, but they apparently needed each other to make truly great records.

This was especially true of Martin, whose great gift was arranging, not composing. The incidental music he composed for the A Hard Day’s Night and Yellow Submarine movies was nice but forgettable. He produced Elton John’s 1997 version of “Candle in the Wind,” three of McCartney’s solo albums, two Jeff Beck albums, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Apocalypse and Cheap Trick’s All Shook Up, but it wasn’t the same.

In his later years, Martin allowed himself to be pulled back to the Beatles catalog again and again. He oversaw the music for the The Beatles Anthology TV specials and accompanying CDs in 1995-96. He toured the world with a multimedia presentation on the making of Sgt. Pepper. With his son Giles, Martin sampled tracks from 120 different Beatles songs, created new tracks and remixed everything into an 80-minute, 27-segment audio collage for the 2006 Cirque de Soleil production Love and its soundtrack album. By then, his health was already failing.

Lennon and McCartney were so talented and so ambitious that they would have made important records even without Martin as producer—or without Starr as drummer. But those records wouldn’t have been as important, and that difference is the measure of Martin’s contribution (and of Starr’s as well). After all, the producer could make even Gerry and the Pacemakers sound special.