Quincy Jones, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson… these are people who changed the sound of modern music by taking big risks in the studio. But even if these three had not made the albums they’re best known for, they would still be known for their popular work as musicians and producers. That may not have been the case with perhaps one of the most innovative producers of them all: George Martin, who died this past Tuesday. Had Martin not steered the Beatles through their radical transformation from pop sensations to psychedelic bards, we may not have heard his name outside of the small worlds of classical and film music and British comedy records.
Was he the “fifth Beatle” or more of a paternal figure, as Paul McCartney wrote yesterday? Is it hyperbole to call him, as Mick Ronson did in tribute, “the greatest British record producer ever”? Maybe not. In any case, just as Martin changed the Beatles—prompting them to recruit Ringo and bring complex orchestrations into their arrangements—the Beatles changed Martin, from a rather conservative, cautious producer and composer to an adventurous creative force.
That’s not to say that Martin didn’t have an eccentric streak before he signed the band that would secure his name in rock and roll history. He spent a good bit of his early career producing novelty albums. “Time Beat” and “Waltz in Orbit”---his compositions at the top of the post, created with Maddalena Fagandini of the famed BBC Radiophonic Workshop---show an eccentric, playful side of the buttoned-up producer. It was perhaps a side Martin preferred to keep hidden; he released the single under a pseudonym, “Ray Cathode.”
Just a few months later, Martin auditioned the Beatles and brought them into Abbey Road Studios to record their first album. While the band’s early sixties records are forever beloved for their songwriting and performances, the production itself didn’t stray far from the conventional. The early albums, writes Mike Brown at The Telegraph, "evinced a youthful freshness and exuberance that hinted at promise, but showed no great originality. Certainly there was nothing that anticipated the flowering of genius to come.” Likewise, Martin’s own releases at the time, such as the big band orchestrations of Beatles songs from 1964 (further up) and a lounge-jazz, bossanova-tinged instrumental version of Help! from the following year, show none of the wizardry to come in Sgt. Pepper’s or Abbey Road.
After the Beatles’ psychedelic break, so to speak, in 1966/67, Martin himself moved in an entirely new direction as a composer, as you can hear in his very Beatlesesque “Theme One,” which served, writes Dangerous Minds, as the “ceremonial first song” every morning for BBC Radio 1 when it launched in ’67 until the mid-70s. The thrillingly Baroque piece of chamber pop could easily have been an extended outro on Sgt. Pepper’s; it shows Martin fully embracing the Beatles’ sound. Hear both the robust original and a tinnier, more Beatles-y version above.
As skilled as he was at creating instantly recognizable experimental pop melodies, Martin never left his classical roots far behind. In the video of “A Day in the Life,” above—shot on location during recording sessions—Martin conducts the orchestra, Brown observes, “in white shirt and bow tie, hair neatly trimmed, stoutly refusing to embrace the affectations of drooping mustache and Nehru jacket that afflicted other record producers.” The famed producer, “forever maintained the calm, unruffled demeanour and the stiff-backed sartorial rectitude of the officer class.”
Martin’s musical discipline reigned in and gave shape to the Beatles’ wildest ideas, and gave their most tender and dramatic songs an immensity and lushness that still leaves us in awe. He combined conventional and avant-garde sensibilities seamlessly. (As McCartney once remarked, Martin was "quite experimental for who he was, a grown-up.") Just above hear an example of that synthesis, the sweeping, powerful “Pepperland Suite,” composed in 1968 for the Yellow Submarine film. It represents some of the best original work from an incredible producer who also became, we must remember as we say our goodbyes, an astoundingly original composer.