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.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.