As the world knows by now, George Martin, the man who helped the Beatles shape their sound and vision, died earlier this week at the age of 90. If you’re wondering why so many people are saddened over his passing–or if you’re a Beatles fan and you want to acknowledge George’s contribution to the creation of the greatest band that will ever be, take some time to browse through these tributes. Understanding the past is the best way to understand the present and the future.
1. The National Post asked me to write something about George. It appeared on page A10 of Thursday’s (March 9) edition.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: while the Beatles were creative geniuses, among the best our species has ever produced, they wouldn’t have become the most influential band in history if they didn’t get some firm adult supervision in their early years. Fortunately, they received it — from a producer of comedy records.
George Martin, an ex-Royal Navy pilot who studied music after leaving the service, drifted into the employment of music production and publishing company EMI, where he was assigned to work for Parlophone, an obscure part of the organization. As a salaried employee, he showed up every day wearing the required crisp white shirt and tie. When the bell rang at 9 a.m. — as it still does today at Abbey Road Studios — everyone got got down to the business of recording audio in the workmanlike fashion of the era. His job was to make comedy records with people like Peter Ustinov and most famously, the highly influential The Goon Show, which featured Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe.
This may seem as a footnote to a career that eventually involved becoming the “Fifth Beatle,” but his time with the Goons was more important than most people realize.
2. The Beatles posted this tribute video.
3. Music Business Worldwide had this reflection on George as an A&R man.
“I don’t like your tie, for a start.”
The music business owes these eight words – a flippant gag, lightly dipped in caustic lacquer – a deep gratitude.
This was the cute response to Sir George Martin from namesake Harrison when, after The Beatles’ underwhelming June 1962 Abbey Road audition, the producer asked if there was anything the group didn’t like about the studio.
The quip, compounded by some trademark Lennon horseplay, gave Martin an inkling that this was no ordinary band.
That inkling led to the most important A&R commitment in pop history.
At this point, every other significant record label had turned The Beatles down. Having heard ten tracks including Like Dreamers Do and Money (That’s What I Want), Decca famously opined that “The Beatles have no future in show business”.
George Martin disagreed. Not, primarily, because of The Beatles’ sound or instrumental ability, nor because he had devised a clever path to commercial triumph, but because he saw a gang in which he immediately wanted to be a member.
A gang in which any of us would want to be a member.
It surely helped that Martin, a classically-trained musician, had recently become attuned to a different mellifluent noise.
4. PSN Europe, an industry newsletter for the professional sound/audio industry had this appreciation.
It probably would have been enough just to have defined the beat sound of 1963-65. But Sir George Martin CBE (as he became in 1996), in cahoots with his young charges, kept going. By the end of the decade he had played a huge part in the invention of folk rock, progressive rock, guitar-driven power pop and several experiments that fed into glam, ambient, electronica and a host of other starting points – as well as a greater appreciation of what has become known as ‘world’ music. Rock became as intellectual as jazz, as moving as opera and more fun than six gallons of port wine down at the Old Bull & Bush.
A cocktail of comedy, folk music and jazz – as typified by The Goons, Andy Stewart and Humphrey Lyttelton, stirred and shaken by the legacy of Oscar Preuss (who hired him at Parlophone) and Martin’s own mighty chops on the spinet – led to him midwifing the most ambitious progeny of pop: The Beatles. Yes, it was the band that coined the handfuls of words and hooks that could, simultaneously, strike lightning into the individual heart and yet also lash the whole of society with the storm. But for that to happen demanded a complex chain of events, leading to the EMI pressing plant in Hayes and a fleet of vans, that began with one man’s decisions about everything from the position of a microphone to the position of a chorus.
5. And no, the Beatles weren’t the first band to have a Number One hit with George. That honour went to a group called The Temperance Seven. From The Guardian letters page.
I am curious that in your obituary for George Martin (10 March) you fail to mention the band that gave him his first No 1 hit, the Temperance Seven’s You’re Driving me Crazy, which was significant for both George and us. We went on to enjoy considerable success, including sharing top of the bill with Shirley Bassey for a season at the London Palladium.
George was a great appreciator of quirkiness. What other jazz band would have included an interlude with a quartet where the singer sang Autumn Leaves in French and English or Falling in Love Again in German and English?
Our followers are today mostly dancing to us in care homes but there are still quite a few. In his film It’s Trad, Dad!, Dick Lester used the Temps to try out some of the techniques he would later use with George Martin and the Beatles.
Might have justified a mention, I would have thought. Even a whisper.
Paul McDowell (formerly Whispering Paul)