We lost another Beatle yesterday. George Martin, the band's only producer throughout their seven-year run in the 1960s as the most popular band on the planet, died Tuesday, March 9, at his home in England. He lived to the ripe old age of 90 and left behind a body of work unrivaled by any record producer in history — not just with The Beatles but also with Paul McCartney's Wings, America, Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick, Shirley Bassey, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and dozens more.
Of all the claimants to the title of “Fifth Beatle,” Martin deserves it the most. (Sorry, Billy Preston.) At a time when the record producer's job consistently mainly of just setting up the microphones and pressing “record,” Martin pushed his young quartet from Liverpool to broaden their sound and try things no other rock group had ever attempted.
It was Martin who convinced McCartney to sing “Yesterday” accompanied only by his guitar and a string quartet. He was the one who put Lennon's vocal through a Leslie speaker on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” giving it the quavering, disembodied quality psych-rock singers have emulated ever since. He recorded George Harrison's backwards guitar solo on “I'm Only Sleeping.”
Nowadays, the “studio as instrument” concept is commonplace. But back then it was revolutionary, and the way Martin played his “instrument” was every bit as critical to the band's sound as Ringo's snare or McCartney's Rickenbacker bass.
Even before The Beatles stopped touring and discovered psychedelic drugs (not necessarily in that order), Martin's abilities as a producer helped give the band a sound unmatched by their contemporaries. Just think of Lennon's feedback-tinged guitar at the opening of “I Feel Fine,” or the way Ringo's drums rumble and crack on “Ticket to Ride.” Martin, who came from a classical background, brought a fastidiousness to the recording process that was almost unheard of among early rock producers, and the way he captured every instrument in all its dimensions, even on mono recordings, had a kind of formalist beauty to it — in stark contrast to the era's other most celebrated producer, Phil Spector, who became famous for cramming as many instruments into the mix as it could hold (and who was brought in to muck up Martin's original production work on the recording sessions that would eventually become the band's final album, Let It Be).
Although many of The Beatles' later studio experiments with things like Eastern instrumentation, guitar feedback and tape loops were of their own invention, it's fair to say that without the presence of Martin and, beginning with Revolver, engineer Geoff Emerick, these ideas might never have translated. Working with just four-track recorders, Martin and Emerick were geniuses at splicing together tape to achieve exactly the results the band wanted. Perhaps no track better illustrates this than “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which was actually the result of layering two versions of the song played on different instruments, at different tempos — giving the finished track its druggy, hypnagogic allure.
Beatles fans will forever debate which album ranks at the group's greatest. But for Martin, the choice is pretty clearly Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the landmark 1967 album on which he and Emerick presented their most brilliantly refined rendition of the group's sprawling sonic palette. Many of the most indelible moments on that record — the 40-piece orchestra that pans in and out of the mix on “A Day in the Life,” Lennon's tape-manipulated vocals on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the Indian-inspired violins and cellos on “Within You Without You” — owe their flawless execution, if not their whole existence, to Martin's guiding hand.
So next time you're listening to your favorite rock band and they break out a full orchestra, or a backwards guitar solo, or nearly any kind of studio trickery, raise your glass to the late, great George Martin. Without him, rock & roll would be a whole lot less interesting. Thanks for taking us down, George.