In a year of the deaths of giants we say goodbye to George Martin: the fifth Beatle, the producer who made them sound like The Beatles. The man who framed those songs in those patchouli psychedelic frames, or equally in those woody bucolic or cut-glass European classical frames.
The Beatles were the first band to break the hegemony of the popular artist in the early ’60s – usually a solo singer whose songs were written for him by professional song writers, then arranged and produced by his record label. The Beatles brought their own songs and presented as a four-headed entity entirely, it seemed, self-contained. Martin’s ever-sympathetic arrangements and recordings brought out every wonderful nuance and flavour – paisley, bitter-sweet or childlike sweet – in those wonderful songs; however cinematic the arrangement (think “I Am The Walrus” or “All You Need is Love”) the song was always to the fore.
Even from the very beginning, he seemed to entirely ‘get’ the songs – the splashing hi-hats of “She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)”, the surreally moonlit space of “And I Love Her” or “Yesterday’s” bare acoustic guitar and silvery strings. Perfect.
They used to sneak weed behind the old man’s back like naughty schoolboys – then go back into the classroom and, giggling and chilled, create Revolver. But despite his pin-sharp, conservative appearance, Martin wasn’t a fuddy-duddy at all – he had been around the entertainment and comedy scenes (he had worked with the anarchic and surreal Goons) long enough to create a picaresque world view. So when he was called upon to wrap “Walrus” or “Lucy In The Sky (with Diamonds)” in a psychedelic wizard’s cape, he could call upon a lifetime of artistic experience, which he sharpened with a keen sense of innovation and imagination.
John Lennon said at one point “George Martin was always more about Paul’s songs than mine” and used Phil Spector on his solo albums (and on Let It Be, the final Beatles record). Yet Martin had seemed to know just what to do with Lennon’s songs – putting his trippily dry vocal against the throbbing shamanic tribalism of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, cutting up tape and playing avant-garde games for the lysergic circus background of “Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite” from Sgt Peppers – in a way that Spector never could have.
Martin constructed an entirely new world for every song – especially during The Beatles’ hyper-compressed creative explosion that began with Revolver. Although an academically schooled musician and orchestrator, he happily flung tape splices in the air with Lennon or ran George Harrison‘s guitar solos backwards. His sense of play, though a generation apart, was equal to that of the Fab Four.
It is one of the sweetest serendipities of modern art that Martin found The Beatles and he, them.
Suggested listening? Too many to list – in fact, the entire Beatles catalogue – but some peaks always stand out to me. The bad trip orchestration of “I Am The Walrus”; the children’s merry-go-round of “Lucy In The Sky (with Diamonds)”; the movie-for-your-ears of “Eleanor Rigby’s” strings (double tracked, close-miked string quartet); the cut-ups of “Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite”; the stoned green pasture of “Mother Nature’s Son”; everything (every single thing) about “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Sgt Peppers “A Day In The Life” (its final monster E-major chord made by three pianos and a harmonium).