When George Martin first heard the Beatles’ audition tapes, legend has it, he was unimpressed. But when he met them in person, their cheeky wit and energy eventually won him over. Soon enough, Martin — a classical music and comedy aficionado roughly 15 years the band members’ senior — became the honorary “fifth Beatle,” sealing his legacy by suggesting they speed up their song “Please Please Me.” This change helped the “gentlemen” make their first #1 hit.
From there, Martin guided George, John, Paul, and Ringo as they grew from rough-edged Liverpudlian lads into the worldwide pop-rock act that pioneered new sounds and smashed sales records for the better part of the ’60s.
I’m no more or less knowledgeable about Martin’s role in certain production decisions than the average Beatles fan. I know he convinced the group to axe Pete Best, their original drummer, and play with classical instrumentation; that he helped make the Beatles’ more “far-out” requests, from sitar solos to those infamous backwards loops, into memorable music; and that his comedy background worked well with their desire for interesting and unique funny sound effects as the ’60s wore on. Speaking of the backwards loops on Revolver, McCartney recalled, “George Martin [was] quite experimental for who he was, a grown-up.”
And, as Sir Paul said today, Martin’s influence on the recording of “Yesterday” is particularly famous:
… 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.
People who bemoan schmaltzy orchestration in their pop songs may rue the day that string quartet was introduced, but it’s also a symbol of something much more positive: the idea that pop music doesn’t have to be an expression of intergenerational antagonism. It can reach across genres and age groups, as a collaboration.
Indeed, Martin’s fruitful collaboration with the Beatles is a reminder that art, and particularly music, doesn’t have to pit young revolutionaries against their elders. Just as many kids are secret fans of music their parents love and they’re subsequently supposed to hate, there are always “grown-ups” (to quote McCartney) who recognize when the kids have something special going on, and help those kids reach their audience.
Today, the Beatles are often dismissed as gentle and safe, but in the ’60s, they were the most recognizable mainstream ambassadors of an edgy youth culture — before they were bopping around on Ed Sullivan, they were popping pills all night in brothel-strewn Hamburg. Martin was smart enough not to try and mold the Beatles to fit anyone else’s image. Working with him was a stroke of great fortune for them, and for all of us.