The death of George Martin at the age of 90 is not only a sad blow to Beatles fans of all generations, but it also draws a line under a vanished age of the entertainment business.
Martin’s work as The Beatles’ producer, overseeing such landmarks of popular music as Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road, has guaranteed that his reputation will live as long as that of his illustrious protégés. Martin and The Beatles were stretching the known boundaries of sound recording almost every time they entered the studio. “When I started, there really weren’t more than a handful of producers,” Martin commented. “Now everyone thinks they’re a producer. Technology has been getting more sophisticated every day. You can make a tune that isn’t that great sound wonderful. This stifles creativity, because you don’t have to work for it, it’s already there.”
Martin was a trained musician who possessed invaluable arranging skills. He helped the Beatles to find striking juxtapositions of sounds and electronic effects previously unheard outside the more freakish fringes of the avant-garde, in the process helping to justify pop music’s claims to be something more than a cellarful of noise. But perhaps most important was his capacity for making his clients raise their game to levels they themselves hadn’t believed possible.
Martin sensed that it was more a matter of psychology than technology. “I realised I had the ability to get the best out of people,” he reflected. “A producer has to get inside the person. Each artist is very different, and there’s a lot of psychology in it.”
After his ground-breaking work with the Beatles, Martin had earned his ticket to ride, and he worked with a spectrum of luminaries including Jeff Beck, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, America, Jimmy Webb, Kenny Rogers, Ultravox and Elton John. Before rock & roll transformed his career, he’d already been well known for his work with jazz and popular musicians such as Stan Getz, Cleo Laine, John Dankworth and Judy Garland, but what especially endeared him to The Beatles was his track record of produciing comedy albums, particularly with the Goons and Peter Sellers. John Lennon and George Harrison were aficionados of Goon-humour, and they swiftly struck up a close rapport with Martin.
It has long been a part of Beatle mythology that Martin was the debonair toff who transformed the fortunes of four leather-clad scruffs from Liverpool, but the truth wasn’t so cut and dried. “It’s a load of poppycock really, because our backgrounds were very similar,” Martin argued. “Paul and John went to quite good schools. I went to elementary school, and I went to Jesuit college. We didn’t pay to go to school, my parents were very poor. I wasn’t taught music and they weren’t, we taught ourselves.”
George Martin was born in Holloway, north London. Having taught himself to play piano, he was running his own dance band at school by the time he was 16. With the second world war raging, Martin joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1944. He flew as an observer and achieved the rank of lieutenant. It was here that he acquired the patina of patrician lordliness that would become his trademark, an effect intensified by his aquiline profile topped by a swept-back mane of hair. No wonder the acerbic John Lennon referred to him as “Biggles”. Paul McCartney commented: “He’d dealt with navigators and pilots. He could deal with us when we got out of line.”
After being demobbed in 1947, Martin studied at the Guildhall School of Music for three years, specialising in composition and orchestration. In 1950 he joined Parlophone Records, part of the EMI group of companies, and in 1955 he was made head of the label. But it wasn’t until 1962 that Martin was approached by Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who, having had his group rejected by Phillips, Decca and Pye, was anxious to find a pair of sympathetic ears in the London-based record business.
Epstein almost struck out with Martin as well, since the Parlophone boss considered that the Beatles’ demo tape “wasn’t very good... in fact it was awful”. But Martin recognised that the group had ambition and charisma, and once drummer Pete Best had been replaced by Ringo Starr, he could see that that the necessary ingredients were in place.
Nevertheless, even Martin hadn’t foreseen the extraordinary blossoming of the songwriting talents of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Having started out writing shoddy, derivative tunes, they suddenly began churning out a goldmine of great pop songs, from I Want To Hold Your Hand and A Hard Day’s Night to Strawberry Fields Forever and Back In The USSR. Under Martin’s guidance, the band made advances in writing, arrangement and use of technology that transformed pop music. Strawberry Fields, in particular, is often cited by contemporary producers as a revolutionary achievement.
Though he will always be chiefly remembered for his Beatles work, Martin had numerous other achievements to his credit. Perhaps frustrated by being tied to the terms of his employment contract with EMI, he formed his own independent production company, Associated Independent Recordings (AIR), which lent its name to the AIR studio complex in Montserrat - later destroyed by a volcanic eruption - and more recently to AIR studios in Hampstead. Besides being in steady demand as a producer, Martin participated in a TV documentary marking the 25th anniversary of the Sgt Pepper album in 1987, and in 1993 published a book, Summer Of Love - The Making Of Sgt Pepper. He examined various aspects of music-making in the BBC TV series Rhythm Of Life and in his books All You Need Is Ears and Making Music, and produced the Beatles Anthology double-CD sets in 1995. He was knighted in 1996, and in 1997 produced Elton John’s reworking of Candle In The Wind, in memory of Princess Diana. It became the best-selling single of all time.
In 1998, he masterminded his own musical swansong with In My Life, an album of Beatles songs performed by an all-star assortment of actors and musicians including Sean Connery, Goldie Hawn, Robin Williams, Celine Dion and Phil Collins. “I’ve had a bloody good innings,” said Martin. “Knowing that I would have to finish, I decided I would make my own last record. It’s a kind of tribute, too, to all the people that I’ve been lucky to work with over the years.”
He is survived by his second wife Judy, and their son and daughter. He also leaves a son and daughter from his first marriage.
George Martin, record producer, born January 3 1926-March 9 2016
This article was written by Adam Sweeting, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 9th March 2016 06.25 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010