Perhaps the greatest lucky break in rock history is when a young producer named George Martin had an affair with his secretary. Contrary to the oft-related story of how Martin was so impressed by their wit he signed them to a contract, the truth is that Martin was assigned to the Beatles, largely as punishment by his bosses for the affair. He had no great love for the music he heard on their original tapes, or in the audition tapes. He thought they were raw, their songs were lacking, and their drummer was terrible. But the voices…now that was something that came through the amateurish noise he heard.
George Martin turned out to be exactly what the Beatles needed. His first order of business was convincing them to fire Pete Best, which they did. But his most important contribution at that stage was to trust them. Martin gave the band a Mitch Murray song called “How Do You Do It?” and told them to learn it and record it. He assured them it was a hit single. The Beatles recorded the song against their better wishes, protesting bitterly the whole time, and Martin agreed to release “Love Me Do”, a song he didn’t like, instead. When it was time to release a followup, Martin again suggested “How Do You Do It?” Building on the fair success of “Love Me Do”, Martin told the band that “How Do You Do It?” would be a number one hit. The Beatles hated the song and refused to release it. Martin, whose word was final, challenged them to come up with something better. The result was “Please Please Me”. Martin admitted that the song was better.
He was right about “How Do You Do It?” The song was a chart topper for Gerry and the Pacemakers, Liverpool’s also-rans in the wake of the Beatles. But it bears saying how extraordinary this was in 1962-63. Artists, especially newly signed artists with a four-song contract, never contradicted their producer. Producers of that time in England functioned more as Artists & Repertoire experts, matching songs to performers, while engineers did the real recording work. In the studio the producer’s word was gospel; he was the boss and the artists did what he said. Had the Beatles been given to any other producer their weak, disinterested recording of “How Do You Do It?” would have been their first single. It’s almost certain they’d have been told to follow with another cover, hand-chosen by the producer from a pool of songs whose copyrights belonged to EMI. The recording studio was no place for real creativity; EMI Studio was a laboratory (the engineers wore white lab coats) where everything was highly regimented…microphones were placed a precise distance from instruments, drums were recorded with a specific microphone setup, etc. The studio was where music was recorded professionally, quickly, and at little cost.
And this was truly Martin’s greatest achievement: he was willing to break the rules. He listened to the band and worked with them to make their musical vision come true. He’s often said to be the “fifth Beatle” and if anyone can lay a claim to that title it was George Martin. He brought order to the band’s chaotic creativity. He harnessed their energy and focused it. He made their musical ambition a reality because he was the only trained musician in the studio. It was Martin who suggested that “Please Please Me” be sped up and turned from a Roy Orbison-like ballad into a smash hit rocker. It was Martin who suggested and scored the strings for “Yesterday”, and turned the song from a ballad into a standard. It was Martin who had the genius to record the piano solo of “In My Life” at half-speed, then speed it up, turning it into a baroque harpsichord solo. It was Martin who transcribed McCartney’s humming into the gorgeous French horn solo on “For No One.” It was Martin who figured out a way to stitch together two versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” that were in different keys and different tempos, and got it to work.
His imagination, and his own musical creativity, were fueled by the Beatles, and he returned the favor by acting less like a studio boss and more like a collaborator. What the band wanted, he made happen even if there was no precedent for what they requested. What he suggested, the band took very seriously and, more often than not, tried (usually to great effect). The Beatles smashed all the rules of the recording studio. They were such a money machine for EMI that they couldn’t be refused. George Martin, naturally rebellious, musically creative, and in sync with the band, played a huge part in that. As the band threw out the rule book for a musical artist, Martin rewrote it for a producer. Before Martin, pop music producers tended to be either martinets like Phil Spector who insisted that everything be done their way or disinterested clock-punchers who hit the record button and let those no-talent rock and rollers sing their song until the serious jazz and classical musicians arrived; after Martin and the phenomenal success of the Beatles producers listened to the band’s ideas while offering suggestions for improvement. Producers were there to shape the final product, not to create it.
The Beatles and George Martin were the perfect yin and yang of popular music. Four young, long-haired, drug-fueled, musically immature, creative artists and one older, short back and sides, straight-arrow, musically mature, creative producer. Rarely, if ever, in rock or pop music has the marriage of band and producer been so complementary or so fruitful. Had the Beatles recorded with anyone else at the helm their career would have had a remarkably different path. One need only listen to Let It Be, the album recorded by Glyn Johns and produced (dreadfully) by Phil Spector to hear the difference. If Spector had produced “Yesterday” it probably would have featured a bombastic forty-piece orchestra and choir instead of the sympathetic and tasteful string quartet Martin suggested. Listen to the band’s recordings compared to anyone else from that era, and you’ll be able to hear the difference. One of the reasons the Beatles were so dominant in the Sixties was not just that they had better songs than anyone else. They also sounded better, and that was the result of working with George Martin. As my friend novelist (his Broken Glass Waltzes is a great combination of noir and rock and roll; you should buy it), Berries drummer, and fellow garage rock enthusiast Warren Moore wrote in his encomium:
Despite the technical limitations of the period (remember, Sgt. Pepper was recorded on a pair of four-track machines), and despite the increasing complexity of the instrumentation as the band developed…things don’t get lost in Beatles cuts — they get found. Martin’s work allowed space for a variety of nuance that other producers lost.
Martin went on to record other artists (he actually worked with others in the Sixties, as well). He produced Jeff Beck’s landmark fusion album Blow By Blow and it’s worthy, but lesser, sequel, Wired. He worked with Cheap Trick, America, Ringo, and Paul McCartney. He even worked with Neil Sedaka and Celine Dion, but nobody’s perfect. He will always be remembered for his work with the Beatles. It’s too flip to say that Martin made the Beatles what they were; their talents existed even without him. But Martin made their musical dreams come true, and that made ours come true, too.