Wednesday, March 9, 2016

RIP Sir George Martin

Who was the Fifth Beatle?  That was a debate for many decades.  Was it one of the Beatles' road managers, such as Neil Aspinall?  Brian Epstein?  Some say Billy Preston.  After all, he was the only artist to share billing with the Beatles on one of their published records.

But to me - and millions - there could be no question.  George Martin, the Beatles' producer, was the Fifth Beatle.  It was Martin who made the Beatles sound so good.  For the purposes of publicity and marketing, during the 60s, especially during the height of their career, his contributions were downplayed.  It was better for fans to believe that every note and every sound was coming straight from the chemically altered minds of the Beatles.

But as the years went on, more and more musicologists, historians, and fans began to realize that it was Martin who gave the Beatles their sound, their depth, and their trademark recording styles.  Not that the Beatles weren't talented.  In the context of popular music, they are the closest to Classical Composers we'll probably get.  They were good.  Very, very good.

But it was Martin who recognized the talent, took chances on letting them break with the norm and compose their own songs, and helped them craft their outlines into the publishable music that we recognize today.

A veteran of WWII, Martin was considered, within his generational context, a bit of a wild card who would try any new thing.  Compared to the era he helped shaped, however, he was the straight man  to the Beatles' counter-cultural whirlwind.  Divorced from a war era marriage, he otherwise walked the straight and narrow - at least compared to the Beatles.  No fan of the drug culture, according to Ringo Starr, he was like their school master.  At times, they would run and find places to hide while they smoked pot in order to avoid his wrath.  Martin was also the only person able to control the Beatles.  At one point, when McCartney approached him after the disastrous Let It Be sessions, Martin put him in his place.

Years after the break-up, Lennon went on a tirade and denounced the Beatles' entire career as tripe and low brow popular garbage.  Soon after, he met Martin while the two were in the US.  They had dinner together.  Lennon went off on how he appreciated all Martin had done.  Martin responded by chastising Lennon for what he said about the Beatles.  He reminded Lennon that a lot of people invested their lives in making the Beatles what they were, and they were none too happy to hear Lennon go off the way he did.

But that was Martin.  The person of stability, maturity and talent around which the Beatles' famous hurricane spun.  Probably the most beloved tale of Martin's contributions to the Beatles involved the song Strawberry Fields Forever.  Especially in their later years, it was nothing for the Beatles' to have only the vaguest outline of a song idea.  The songs themselves became simpler than their early work, as they increasingly counted on studio tricks and recording effects to add complexity.

Lennon wrote Strawberry Fields pretty much off the cuff.  The first recording session made it an acoustic affair.  After they wrapped up the recording, Lennon changed his mind.  He wasn't happy with it.  So Martin brought in some musicians, and wrote a background score along and added several recording tricks that were common to the Beatles c. 1966.  Lennon liked the results.  But he decided he liked the original recording as well.  He asked Martin to combine the two.  Martin explained it wouldn't be possible.  The two were a semitone apart, were in different recording modes, and had different tempos.  According to tales, Lennon patted Martin on the shoulder and said, "I'm sure you'll think of something."

And of course, he did.  Just like he did for most Beatles' songs.  He was often the go-to keyboardist, playing on many of the records.  It was he who scored most of the orchestrations, though McCartney could sometimes add his own contributions.  Martin dreamed of scoring soundtracks for movies, just like Henry Mancini.  He had experience with classical music, and had done work for such comedians as Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan (and what were the Beatles' songs known for?).  Fortunately for history, his life took a different turn.

In June, 1962, when an unknown group of musicians who had been turned down by every other major studio came to audition, he gave them a chance. He wasn't impressed with their playing.  Most of their songs he dismissed outright.  But, according to him, it was their charm.  After he met with them and read them the riot act, explaining that they weren't that good, had much work to do, and needed to improve, he asked if they had anything to say, anything they didn't like.  According to Martin, they sat there for a moment, and then George Harrison popped up and said, "Yeah, I hate your tie."   Suddenly the boys burst out in giggles.  Martin decided, by sheer strength of their personalities, to give them a chance.  The rest, as they say, is history.

George Martin
1926 - 2016
Thanks for the music 

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