Fifteen years ago, George Martin — who began his career as a producer of classical recordings – created a series of classical anthologies for an L.A. independent label. To celebrate the event, the company invited a select few guests to a dinner for Martin in Beverly Hills.
He joined us like someone out of a dream, but familiar, as we’d come to know him from countless TV interviews about his work with the Beatles. Dapper. Elegant. Intelligent. Soft-spoken but precise in conversation. And, of course, a careful listener.
Everyone at the table sat in awe, and hung on his every word. At one point, he began to talk about the way records were mastered at EMI’s studio in Abbey Road. Turning to me, he leaned in and asked rhetorically, “And what principle do you think governed the mechanics of mastering?” I opened my mouth but just shrugged. “Gravity,” he said with a faint smile, and then he went on to explain how simple gravitational physics were employed to run the studio’s mastering lathe at a consistent speed.
A master class, in more ways than one. George Martin proved that mastery again and again over time, most dramatically in his work with the Beatles, which encompassed some of the greatest imaginative leaps in the history of recorded music. Few other figures so refined and redefined the role of producer as he did.
Perhaps it was because he could hear things others could not. When Brian Epstein came knocking at Martin’s door at Parlophone Records in April 1962, the Beatles had been rejected by England’s other major labels, including the parent of Martin’s imprint, EMI. In his 1979 autobiography “All You Need is Ears,” he recalled that he wasn’t knocked out by the demo Epstein played for him.
“But…there was an unusual quality of sound, a certain roughness that I hadn’t encountered before,” Martin wrote. “There was also the fact that more than one person was singing, which in itself was unusual. There was something tangible that made me want to hear more, meet them and see what they could do.” And thus, after cutting a new demo session that June, he signed the group to the label.
From the first sessions in September 1962, Martin’s recordings of the Beatles mated an unprecedented toughness and a razor-sharp clarity. There were initial missteps, to be sure – Martin’s enthusiasm for “How Do You Do It,” a duff tune penned by a pair of pro songwriters that later became a hit for Gerry and the Pacemakers, or his decision to replace Ringo Starr with studio drummer Andy White on a second version of “Love Me Do.” But the producer quickly came to respect the musicians’ instincts, and moreover evidenced his ability to execute their vision of new sonic possibilities.
In his book, Martin offered a succinct statement of his production philosophy, which goes a long way towards explaining the way in which he and the Beatles extended the language of the studio.
“For me, making a record is like painting a picture in sound,” he wrote. “Not only are we painting sound pictures, but our palette is infinite. We can, if we wish, use any sound in the universe, from the sound of a whale mating to that of a Tibetan wood instrument, from the legitimate orchestra to synthesized sounds.
“The fascination of recording is that you really do have an unlimited range of musical colors to use,” he continued. “That’s one of the main reasons why I enjoyed working with the Beatles so much, because our success won me artistic freedom.”
The immense early success of the Beatles’ invigorating but relatively simple records gave Martin and his charges unprecedented creative license, and they used it to the fullest until the producer’s final sessions in the group’s service in August 1969. To use a film analogy, the band’s music moved from a black-and-white 1:33 production to IMAX 3-D over the course of eight years of work with Martin.
If there was a sound they heard in their heads, they found a way to execute it on the studio floor. And so the public was gifted with such remarkable feats of recording as “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day in the Life” and the sweeping suite that took up side two of “Abbey Road.”
It’s all the more amazing to consider these achievements in the light of the studio technology employed by Martin and the Beatles, who were using equipment – though top-flight by the U.K. standards of the day — which was trumped by multi-track gear that could already be found in some sophisticated Stateside recording facilities.
What set the Beatles and their producer apart? That most elusive ingredient in all great art: imagination. Many would attempt to replicate their groundbreaking records, but alchemy is a rare quality.
George Martin enjoyed a long and fruitful career after leaving “Abbey Road” and its eponymous studio behind. He established his own facility, produced a host of top talents (including his former charges Starr and Paul McCartney) and helmed Elton John’s 1997 remake of “Candle in the Wind,” widely acknowledged as the bestselling single of all time.
But it was with his work with the Beatles that he left his most profound and enduring mark. With his rare combination of taste, intellect, adventurousness and sonic acuity, he changed everything in popular music with those recordings. Everything.