The deadline was fast approaching in March 1964 as The Beatles worked to complete the songs for the soundtrack of their hotly anticipated film debut, “A Hard Day’s Night.” Paul McCartney had brought in an uptempo new number called “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and the band’s run-throughs sounded strong, but up in the sound booth, producer George Martin wasn’t satisfied. The song needed tweaking, but he couldn’t put his finger on what exactly was needed.
Then it came to him: Instead of starting off with the first verse (“I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend, if it makes you feel all right…”), he instructed the group to open with the chorus, which was far more catchy and”radio-friendly.” He was right — the result was The Beatles’ third consecutive #1 song in the US in less than two months.
Martin, who passed away Tuesday at age 90, made an extraordinary impact on pop culture that was seismic but subtle. While other London-based record labels were unimpressed by The Beatles’ 1962 demo tapes and auditions, it was Martin who recognized the innate talent, charisma and potential of the four scruffy lads from Liverpool, signed them to EMI/Parlophone, and became the producer who oversaw the creation of the recordings that changed the face of popular music.
He was always the British gentleman, the helpful mentor, the skilled arranger, the savvy hitmaker who had a knack for getting the best work from his charges. McCartney, who reunited with Martin in 1982 on his excellent “Tug of War” LP, put it this way: “George has a wonderful way with artists. He has the right bedside manner, as I call it. He’s easy to work with, and he’s pretty much the best there is.”
In a 1980 interview, Lennon had this to say about the band’s partnership with Martin: “We did a lot of learning together. We’d say, ‘We want to go “Ooh,ooh, aah” and then “Yeah yeah yeah,” and he’d say, ‘Well, look, chaps, I thought of this a few hours ago. I was talking to a musician friend, and I came up with this.’ And we’d say, ‘Oh, okay, great, we can put that here.’ Then he’d say, ‘Have you heard of an oboe?’ ‘No, which one’s that?’ ‘It’s this one, and it sounds like this.’ ‘Oh, that‘d be nice.’ So we grew together.”
One of the reasons Martin and the Beatles were such a perfect match, perhaps, was their diametrically opposite musical backgrounds. The Beatles had no formal musical schooling and couldn’t read nor notate music. But they had a passion for, and had been exposed to, many genres — R&B, rock and roll, country-western, dance hall, show tunes, English folk music — and were keen to try anything and everything in the songs they were writing and performing. Martin, on the other hand, was a graduate of the highly regarded Guildhall School of Music, accomplished in piano, oboe, orchestration, composition and musical theory. His tastes leaned more toward Rachmaninov and Ravel, although he also professed a fondness for Cole Porter.
Despite his classical leanings, he was far from stuffy. Indeed, Martin had made a name for himself in the ’50s by taking the struggling Parlophone label and making it profitable by producing several successful comedy records for Peter Sellers and other British comedians, as well as the “Beyond The Fringe” cast album starring Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. He had a wry sense of humor and a willingness to be open, to stir things up a bit now and then, even defy conventional methods if the situation warranted.
McCartney and Lennon have each mentioned many instances when they were stymied by a song they were working on, and Martin offered an idea that turned out to be just what the arrangement required. In 1963, they were working on a promising new song called “Please Please Me,” which imitated the sound of one of their idols, Roy Orbison. Martin thought it sounded too much like Orbison and suggested, “Why don’t you try it again at a faster tempo? And John, let’s hear some of that harmonica you’ve been toying with.” Sure enough, those two changes did the trick, and the song became their first #1 song in England, and the title song of their first album.
Perhaps most famously, Martin coaxed McCartney into using a small string quartet behind his vocal and acoustic guitar to give a soothing touch to his ballad, “Yesterday.” McCartney was wary of strings, which, if mishandled, might sound cloying and syrupy. But thanks to Martin’s involvement, the minimalist arrangement worked beautifully, and the recording ended up spawning more cover versions than any pop compositions of the last 50 years.
Even later on, when the Beatles began calling the shots in the studio sessions, they often turned to Martin for help. He was the guy who hired and then persuaded a symphony orchestra to play the radical low-note-to-high-note 24-bar climb in the middle break of the monumental “A Day in the Life.” On Lennon’s surreal masterpiece “I Am the Walrus” from “Magical Mystery Tour,” you can hear multiple sound effects, sonically altered strings and distorted vocals, conceived and realized by Martin and his talented engineer, Geoff Emerick. (By the way, “Here There and Everywhere,” Emerick’s fascinating autobiography about working with Martin and the Beatles in EMI’s Abbey Road studio, is a must read for any serious Beatles fan.)
An even more impressive contribution of Martin’s is the work he did on the magnificent eight-song medley that ends Side Two (remember Side Two?) of the group’s swan song, “Abbey Road.” The whole thing works so well partly because of Martin’s uncannily creative segues that connect the various song fragments, particularly from “Polythene Pam” to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and from “Carry That Weight” to “The End.”
In his 1979 memoir, “All You Need is Ears,” Martin wrote that during the years he worked with The Beatles, their fluid relationship seemed to evolve in two directions. “On the one hand,” he said, “the increasing sophistication of the records meant that I was having a greater and greater influence on the music. But the personal relationship moved in the other direction. At the start, I was like a master with his pupils, and they did what I said. They knew nothing about recording, but heaven knows they learned quickly. And by the end, of course, I was to be the servant while they were the masters. I still tried to put in my two cents’ worth, but all I could do at that point was influence. I could no longer direct.”
Martin could smell a hit single a mile away; he was the producer of more than 30 #1 hit singles in the UK, and 23 in the US. Besides the Beatles’ 20 chart-toppers, he produced Number Ones in four different decades for the likes of Gerry and the Pacemakers (“How Do You Do It?” “I Like It”), Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas (“Bad to Me,” “Little Children”), Cilla Black (“You’re My World”), America (“Sister Golden Hair”), Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder (“Ebony and Ivory”), Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson (“Say Say Say”), Kenny Rogers (“Morning Desire”) and Elton John (remake of “Candle in the Wind”). He also produced Shirley Bassey’s James Bond movie hit “Goldfinger” and McCartney’s Bond Oscar nominee “Live and Let Die.”
And he was the man at the controls of the mixing board for highly-regarded albums like Jeff Beck’s “Blow by Blow” and “Wired” and top sellers like America’s “Holiday,” “Hearts” and “Hideaway” (#3, #4 and #11, respectively), and LPs for Robin Gibb and Little River Band. Martin may have slowed down the pace in his later years, but he remained active, most notably by shepherding the hugely successful “Beatles Anthology I, II and III” series in 1994 and 1995, and the 2006 soundtrack to Cirque de Soleil’s phenomenal “Love” show in Las Vegas, which utilizes extraordinary “mashups” of Beatles recordings produced by Martin and his producer son Giles.
It seemed that Martin had the golden touch and could do no wrong in his exemplary career, but once in a while, his opinion was ignored, and rightly so. McCartney loved to tease him about his insistence that 1968’s “The White Album” should have been cut down to a single album with 14-15 songs instead of the 30-track extravaganza it became.
“I thought some of the songs they brought in were not terribly good and that they ought to compress it a bit, condense it to maybe 15 titles, and make a fantastically great single album,” Martin said in 1995. “A lot of people, I know, think it’s still the best album they made. It’s not my view, but you know, horses for courses (a British saying meaning ‘different strokes for different folks’).”
McCartney responded, “I think it’s a fine album, and the fact that it’s got so much on it is what’s cool about it. Very varied stuff on there — “Rocky Raccoon,” “Piggies,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” that kind of material. You know, I’m not a great one for that kind of revisionist thinking — ‘Well, maybe it was too many songs.’ What do you mean? It’s great, it sold, it’s the bloody Beatles White Album. Shut up!”
Rest in peace, Sir George Martin. Your proud legacy is secure.