Hear the Unique, Original Compositions of George Martin, Beloved Beatles Producer (RIP)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Mar­tin, Leg­endary Bea­t­les Pro­duc­er, Shows How to Mix the Per­fect Song Dry Mar­ti­ni

Inside the Mak­ing of The Bea­t­les’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lone­ly Heart’s Club Band, Rock’s Great Con­cept Album

Here Comes The Sun: The Lost Gui­tar Solo by George Har­ri­son, Dis­cov­ered by George Mar­tin

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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