The news of the passing of legendary producer Sir George Martin greatly saddened the music world in March last year. Affectionately known as the “Fifth Beatle” (Paul McCartney stated in his tribute that “if anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle, it was George”), Martin played a major part in all but one of The Fab Four’s original albums, from their 1963 debut ‘Please Please Me’ to penultimate record ‘Abbey Road’.
Martin’s eye for musical success was razor sharp – as well as his work with John, Paul, George and Ringo, Martin worked with a wide and diverse array of music, film and comedic talent during his long and prosperous career. He was no stranger to topping the charts as a producer, either: achieving 30 number one singles and 16 number one albums in the UK, there was also the small matter of the 23 number one singles and 19 number one albums that his work racked up in North America.
His finest work wasn’t always to be found at the top of the charts, however – Martin’s genius was often best exemplified through his majestic orchestral arrangements, instrumental solos, and overall guidance on some of the best music ever put to record. With that in mind, here’s a look at some of his greatest musical moments.
‘Love Me Do’
The Beatles’ first single was by no means an easy task to undertake, but through Martin’s insistence at perfection (his gripe with the sound of former drummer Pete Best’s recordings is a particularly intense tale) the ideal result was finally produced. Martin was particularly attracted to the idea of Lennon’s harmonica leading proceedings, which made for the cherry on top of the band’s first piece of pop perfection.
The piano solo on ‘In My Life’
Taken from ‘Rubber Soul’, Martin contributed a wonderful turn on the piano that was, by his own admission, “Bach-influenced.” Taking on a baroque quality for the bridge, Martin used his musical nous by recording his piece with the tape running at half speed – this meant that when the track was played back at normal pace, the piano was twice as fast and an octave higher. Simple but effective.
The orchestral genius of ‘I Am The Walrus’
Entirely Martin’s own work, his arrangements here turned The Beatles’ rather mad song ideas into a rather digestible and memorably reality. Handily, someone’s spliced Martin’s orchestral arrangement from the final cut into its own audio file, which you can take a listen to below.
Oh, and the orchestra on ‘All You Need Is Love’ too
Another of The Beatles’ most-adored songs, ‘All You Need Is Love’ benefitted hugely from Martin’s orchestral arrangements. Interpolating, among other pieces, the French national anthem, the intro is a call to arms for lovers the world over to link shoulders in celebration of everything good in the world.
Martin’s innovative streak took hold of one of The Beatles’ most tender moments on record. McCartney remembered the recording process in his aforementioned tribute:
“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.”
Martin’s classical knowledge worked wonders here too, with a double string arrangement performing Martin’s own score to give this lyrical tale of loneliness an extra kick in the heartstrings.
‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’
Arguably The Beatles’ finest full-length album (although that’s a debate that’ll rattle on throughout the rest of time), Martin’s presence on ‘Sgt Pepper’ was, as we’ve said in Martin’s obituary, “the glue that made it such a monumental album.” From the pioneering use of sound-shaping signal processing to splicing the sound of a chicken clucking at the end of ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ to overlap with a guitar being tuned in ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)’, Martin’s presence tied together The Beatles’ genius.
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On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
While you could pinpoint a seemingly endless number of Beatles moments to highlight the producer’s huge impact, Martin’s influence spread far and wide across music. Indeed, his studio might spread across two of the theme songs from James Bond movies, ‘Goldfinger’ (although this was in credit only, as Martin was singer Dame Shirley Bassey’s regular producer at the time) and McCartney’s (and Wings’) ‘Live and Let Die’. The latter’s orchestral arrangement is its most striking and instantly recognisable feature – and that’s all thanks to Martin.
‘Candle in the Wind 1997’
Elton John’s re-recorded tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales following her death in 1997 became the official soundtrack for the global grief that poured forth in the days and months following. The song became the UK’s fastest-selling single of all time – no doubt benefitting from Martin’s production guidance, adding a string section and oboe to John’s original set-up to strike the perfect chord.
His work with iconic comedians
Prior to signing The Beatles, Martin had previously worked in comedy and novelty recordings. His most notable collaborations were with Peter Sellers (who would later go on to play Chief Inspector Clouseau in the original Pink Panther films) and Spike Milligan, producing full-length comedy albums from the two during the 1950s and early 1960s. Martin also worked with the likes of Bernard Cribbins, Dudley Moore and Joan Sims – truly, his was a formidable CV.