How George Martin Defined the Sound of the Beatles: From String Quartets to Backwards Guitar Solos

Peter Jack­son’s new doc­u­men­tary series Get Back allows its view­ers to spend about eight hours watch­ing the Bea­t­les at work in the stu­dio. In that time, a fair few non-Bea­t­les linger in the frame as well: from Yoko Ono to key­boardist Bil­ly Pre­ston to a cou­ple of grumpy young police­man try­ing to shut down the cli­mac­tic rooftop con­cert. If you’ve seen Get Back, you’ll also have noticed one fel­low some­what taller, old­er, and more taste­ful­ly dressed than every­one else, who, though often in the stu­dio, seems not to have had much to do. This, as every Bea­t­les afi­ciona­do knows, is George Mar­tin: the EMI record pro­duc­er who, sev­en years ear­li­er, had been tasked with help­ing the not-yet-Fab Four start prop­er­ly record­ing their songs.

From then on Mar­tin kept work­ing close­ly with John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and that, as Poly­phon­ic argues in the video above, grants him right­ful claim to the cov­et­ed title of “Fifth Bea­t­le.” Mar­tin, he explains, “was the pro­duc­er, com­pos­er, and arranger for most of the Bea­t­les’ career, and his con­tri­bu­tions are direct­ly respon­si­ble for some of the band’s most icon­ic songs.” Take “Yes­ter­day,” a sim­ple gui­tar-based num­ber enriched, at Mar­t­in’s sug­ges­tion, by a string quar­tet. Though Paul ini­tial­ly balked at this no doubt square-sound­ing addi­tion, he was per­suad­ed by the results. For the first time but not the last, the con­trast between the musi­cal back­grounds of band and pro­duc­er — the for­mer being obsessed with Amer­i­can rock-and-roll and the lat­ter hav­ing come out of the BBC’s clas­si­cal-music depart­ment — paid off.

The fol­low­ing year, Mar­tin con­tributed an even more pow­er­ful (and Psy­cho-inspired) string arrange­ment to “Eleanor Rig­by” as well as “all kinds of stu­dio exper­i­men­ta­tion,” includ­ing the run-in-reverse gui­tar solo on “I’m Only Sleep­ing” and the hyp­not­ic tape loops on “Tomor­row Nev­er Knows.”  Despite not belong­ing to a gen­er­a­tion espe­cial­ly invest­ed in the psy­che­del­ic expe­ri­ence, he made pos­si­ble the mind-blow­ing son­ic tex­tures of songs like “Straw­ber­ry Fields For­ev­er” and “I Am the Wal­rus.” The unusu­al vari­ety of sound in the lat­ter owes a great deal to Mar­t­in’s tech­ni­cal know-how and will­ing­ness to exper­i­ment: “If I said ‘I want the radio on it,’ George would make it so that I could mix it in, and the radio would be com­ing through the machines,” John remem­bers in the 1975 inter­view clip below.

John acknowl­edges that Mar­tin did­n’t just real­ize the Bea­t­les’ uncon­ven­tion­al musi­cal ideas, but con­tributed his own more tra­di­tion­al but no less effec­tive ones: “He’d also come up with things like: ‘Well, have you heard an oboe?’ ” Because “he taught us a lot, and I’m sure we taught him a lot,” not much in the Bea­t­les’ record cat­a­log is ascrib­able sim­ply to him or them. By the time of Get Back, the Bea­t­les had decid­ed to return to their live-per­form­ing roots by record­ing an album with­out stu­dio over­dubs, and much few­er orches­tras and back­ward tape loops. Those ses­sions put Mar­tin in the back­ground, but there­after he “returned tri­umphant­ly” on Abbey Road. From the orches­tra­tion on “Here Comes the Sun” to the “ethe­re­al harp­si­chord riff” on “Because” to “some of the great­est moments ever record­ed” on the side-two med­ley, that album stands as per­haps the most com­pelling tes­ta­ment to the achieve­ments of the Fab Five. 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

The Bea­t­les’ 8 Pio­neer­ing Inno­va­tions: A Video Essay Explor­ing How the Fab Four Changed Pop Music

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

Break­ing Down the Bea­t­les’ Get Back Doc­u­men­tary: Stream Episode #111 of the Pret­ty Much Pop Pod­cast

The Beach Boys’ Bri­an Wil­son & Bea­t­les Pro­duc­er George Mar­tin Break Down “God Only Knows,” the “Great­est Song Ever Writ­ten”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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