Author: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
8th March 2016
George Martin was best known for his work with Peter sellers, Michael Bentine, Charlie Drake, spike Milligan, Dudley Moore, Flanders & Swann, and Bill Oddie.
"WHA-A-AT?!?!" SCREAM plebs chorus, stage left, "Surely more English speaking people know him as the composer of the BBC Radio 1 theme tune and the producer of Barwick Green, the theme tune of The Archers, the longest running radio drama series in the world!"
Of course, George Martin was even better known as the creator of the Merseybeat sound and as THE MAN WHO SIGNED THE BEATLES, Quoth the Old Scribe, And as one of the great pioneers of music production.
George Martin began playing the piano at 6 years old, when his family got one at home. He attended the prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama, on a war veterans grant, studying piano and oboe, after serving in the navy, where he also acquired an equally useful upper class accent. While evacuated from London as a child he had heard, and been inspired by, hearing Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He soon worked for the BBC Classical Music Department, which are just two of many reasons why publicly funded broadcasting organisations, like the BBC, must continue to exist.
George Martin then moved to EMI. He was employed in their previously German Parlophone imprint (Parlour Is an archaic term for the best room in ordinary British houses). His sense of humour was initially resisted by management until his series of hit novelty records demonstrated that he had an ear for a popular spoof. Martin became famous for his high quality productions of comedy records like The Goons (Walking Backwards for Christmas), Peter Sellers (Songs for Swinging Sellers sending-up Sinatra's Songs for Swinging Lovers, and Bernard Cribbins. There was a tradition of novelty records in the UK and these were great earners for the record companies whose profits could cross subsidise developments in classical recording equipment and technique. George Martin applied similar innovation and commitment to quality to a one-hit-wonder novelty song as he did to extending the boundaries of the studio in 60's psychedelia. Your old scribe, when still a young pre-scribe, enjoyed his parents collection of George Martin's novelty records without realising the significance of their provenance. George Martin's production of the Bernard Cribbins comedy song Right Said Fred (a band named themselves after this record), that became a staple of the BBC Light Programme and BBC Radio 2, included sound effects and environmental samples that lifted it from the banal to the repeatedly amusing.
Until George Martin, the producer's job was to get the sound down as accurately as possible. The pinnacle of these achievements included the EMI classical recordings of the late 50's & early 60's. Martin worked in the studios and halls where these great monuments to dynamic range and timbal accuracy were created. He recorded baroque and classical orchestra works for them, eventually becoming head of the division in 1955, homing his craft before applying it to all he recorded and produced.
George Martin's first pop hit was the Temperance Seven, during the rag time revival after unsuccessful efforts with Shane Fenton (later Alvin Stardust). He signed The Beatles, on meeting the unsigned band and being impressed by their humour and charisma, if not their demo material. He and the Beatles shared an irreverent sense of humour that first attracted them to work together. He asked them, when they first met and listened to their demos, what it was they didn't like and George Harrison answered, "Well there's your tie, for a start" and p[opular mythology testifies this was the cementing of their relationship. The Beatles debut album was then recorded in one day.
The studio became another instrument for Martin and The Beatles long before Sgt. Pepper. George was one of those who contributed to the invention of multitracking, along with the Phil Spector's efforts on the other side of the Atlantic. They were bouncing tracks between two tape recorders. This indicated the need to create tape recorders & mixing consoles capable of handling far more channels than there were musicians in the room. Martin began by using just two 4-track machines. This was a startlingly original notion that led to modern production and to the modern role of the producer. He picked up this ball and carried it even further, like Brian Wilson with Pet Sounds, using the increased palette enabled by the studio. These created the psychedelic musical colours of the Summer of Love and equally inspired Hendrix making Electric Ladyland & to build Electric Lady Studios. As a musically gifted producer, he was able to offer orchestration suggestions and transcribe parts for other instruments. Martin knew how to use the technology of individual instruments, in the context of the studio, to achieve the sounds an artist wanted. His use of very close miking to get the close-up sound of horsehair on steel, for Eleanor Rigby intimidated the classical musicians who kept trying to move their chairs back. The staccatto strings in Eleanor Rigby were at a time when string sections in pop tunes were usually schmaltzy and syrupy. Until George Martin's treatment of Eleanor Rigby, strings were brought in to flesh out of ballads with long sweeping bow strokes, but Martin's familiarity with recording small Baroque ensembles meant that he had other strings to his bow. More evidence is In My Life that includes a baroque piano solo played by Martin and given the varispeed treatment.
John Lennon said of George Martin, "He had a great musical ability so he could translate for us".
George Martin made more than 700 recordings including 295 Beatles tracks. Elton John's Candle in the Wind was biggest seller at 37 million copies sold. George achieved 30 UK number 1 hits and 23 USA number 1 hits. Martin recieved 6 Grammy awards, 2 Ivor Novellos and an Oscar nomination for 'A Hard Day's Night'.
Neil Portrow, president & CEO of The Recording Academy, said George Martin was one of the most innovative producers of all time, with greater impact on the industry than any other individual.
Strawberry Fields Forever showcases Martin's originality and skill. Recordings of different takes of different versions were combined by using the varispeed feature of some analogue recorders, and manual editing to integrate pitch and pace to construct the final master. Lennon preferred the opening section of Take 26 and a different part of Take 7 and suggested that George Martin would know how to fix it. This collaboration, typical of much of their work, was why the whole was so often much greater than the sum of the parts, of the band and of the songs. Even audiophile readers with hi-res systems will struggle to spot the joins. The inevitable subtle shifts in ambience and soundstage only serve to contribute to the song's intended weirdness.
George Martin produced Jeff Beck's first solo album, Blow by Blow when Beck was seen in the industry as the ex Yardbirds guitarist with a patchy track record. Together they invented the 70's idiom of British Jazz-Rock fusion, coming after the more whimsical Canterbury scene electric jazz material. This had global influence on players like Satriani and Vai. Beck described George Martin as fatherly and the best producer he ever encountered.
Most important for TNT-audio.com readers was Martin's attention to detail and the psychological aesthetics of music and sound. For the Beatles Anthology he located an original EMI analogue 8-track recorder in order to create the right sound for the music. He explained that a modern digital console would sound different and be inappropriate for the material.
After EMI, Martin founded AIR studios (with installations by DAS designer Bill Dyer, featured in these pages) Associated Independent Recording (AIR). His contributions to the soundtrack of the 60s and 70s includes a dozen other hit artistes and a couple of James Bond films.
Alan Parsons said of Martin "He had great ears"
Paul McCartney paid this tribute:
I'm so sad to hear the news of the passing of dear George Martin. I have so many wonderful memories of this great man that will be with me forever. He was a true gentleman and like a second father to me. He guided the career of The Beatles with such skill and good humour that he became a true friend to me and my family. If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George. From the day that he gave The Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I've ever had the pleasure to know.
It's hard to choose favourite memories of my time with George, there are so many but one that comes to mind was the time I brought the song 'Yesterday' to a recording session and the guys in the band suggested that I sang it solo and accompany myself on guitar. After I had done this George Martin said to me, "Paul I have an idea of putting a string quartet on the record". I said, "Oh no George, we are a rock and roll band and I don't think it's a good idea". With the gentle bedside manner of a great producer he said to me, "Let us try it and if it doesn't work we won't use it and we'll go with your solo version". I agreed to this and went round to his house the next day to work on the arrangement.
He took my chords that I showed him and spread the notes out across the piano, putting the cello in the low octave and the first violin in a high octave and gave me my first lesson in how strings were voiced for a quartet. When we recorded the string quartet at Abbey Road, it was so thrilling to know his idea was so correct that I went round telling people about it for weeks. His idea obviously worked because the song subsequently became one of the most recorded songs ever with versions by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and thousands more.
This is just one of the many memories I have of George who went on to help me with arrangements on 'Eleanor Rigby', 'Live and Let Die' and many other songs of mine.
I am proud to have known such a fine gentleman with such a keen sense of humour, who had the ability to poke fun at himself. Even when he was Knighted by the Queen there was never the slightest trace of snobbery about him.
Copyright © 2016 Mark Wheeler - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com