Obituary: Sir George Martin, 1926-2016

“George Martin is a tall man. He is also a musician with short hair. In spite of this he records rock groups.”

So wrote John Lennon in the sleevenotes for ‘Off The Beatle Track’, a 1964 instrumental album of Beatles’ classics released by their soon-to-be legendary producer. It was Martin, who died aged 90 last night (March 8), who signed The Beatles when nobody else would, who continuously encouraged them to break the mould musically, and who wrote and played on many of their most iconic arrangements. The sped-up piano solo on ‘In My Life’, the string quartet score on ‘Yesterday’ (the first time anybody had mixed traditional rock/pop with classical music) and the entire jaw-dropping backing track and orchestral coda on ‘I Am The Walrus’ were all entirely his work. It’s for this that he should truly be remembered as ‘the fifth Beatle’.

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Born in Highbury, London on January 3, 1926, Martin’s early life was musical. His uncle worked for a piano company and by the time he was six he was already composing his own music on the instrument. As a teenager he started a “corny” dance band called The Four Tune Tenors while still at school, but music really ignited a passion in him after the family had left London at the start of the Second World War. Newly enrolled at Bromley Grammar School, Martin saw a performance of Debussy’s ‘Prélude à l’Après-Midi D’un Faune’ by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and it changed his life.

“It was the first time as a child that I really got turned on to orchestral classical music,” he said on Desert Island Discs later, adding: “I couldn’t believe that this magical sound was made by human beings. I thought it was the most wonderful sound I’d ever heard in my entire life.”

After leaving school, Martin joined the navy in 1943. Although he never served in combat, he became an aerial observer and commissioned officer, spending over a year training in Trinidad. It was a trip that ignited a lifelong love affair with the Caribbean (he later opened a recording studio in Montserrat). While serving, Martin used to entertain troops by playing the piano, which led to him being invited to perform on ‘Navy Mixture’, a BBC World Service entertainment programme incorporating novelty, music and comedy skits. He turned down the offer of starting a naval music ensemble, but when the war ended and he left the service in 1947, he found himself without a career, so used his veteran’s grant to begin a course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he studied the oboe and piano.

Despite his proficiency for playing the oboe, he eventually realised he wasn’t skilled enough to make a career out of it (apparently, he sold his instrument and purchased a house with the proceeds). After graduating from the Guildhall, Martin worked for the BBC’s classical music department and was soon headhunted by Oscar Preuss, the head of EMI’s Parlophone Records, who asked him to work as his assistant in 1950. “I didn’t even know what EMI stood for,” he later said of the company.

So began an illustrious career in the recording industry, although at that point Parlophone was one of EMI’s smaller and more insignificant labels. Martin recorded classical and baroque music, before gradually getting into jazz (he produced bandleader and trumpet pioneer Humphrey Lyttleton, who Radiohead later collaborated with on ‘Life In A Glass House’).

When Preuss retired in 1955, Martin took over the label. Without the luxury of being able to release big-selling American imports, he turned his attention to comedy acts in a bid to keep Parlophone afloat. It was a method that struck gold: Martin’s work with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and The Goon Show would later become legendary, and he got his first big break as a producer working on the Beyond The Fringe cast album, featuring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller in 1961.

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Around this time he also became interested in pop music, although he turned down signing the soon-to-be-successful Tommy Steele after disliking a gig of his at London’s iconic 2i’s coffee bar (“Probably the worst thing I’ve done in my entire life”). Fate would intervene on February 13, 1962, however, when a mutual friend of The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein’s put the two men in touch.

Then still largely unknown outside of Liverpool, Martin listened to the band’s demo tape – which Decca Records had already turned down the previous month – but was impressed only with Lennon and Paul McCartney’s vocals. He stayed in contact with Epstein, and following a make or break meeting in which the manager pleaded their case that May, invited them to an audition at Abbey Road Studios the following month. Martin wasn’t present for the session, and didn’t like the results, but when he met the band later and saw their sense of sparky humour and god-given gift for wordplay, he decided to sign them purely because of their personalities. Undoubtedly, he and EMI would have looked at the deal, which awarded the band a pitiful royalty rate, as if they had nothing to lose.

From here, the rest is history: Martin’s uneasy start with Ringo Starr (session musician Andy White played on The Beatles’ debut single, ‘Love Me Do’); His advice that Lennon and McCartney speed up ‘Please Please Me’ and accurate declaration upon its completion of, “Gentlemen, you have just made your first Number One record”; His pioneering echo use on ‘And I Love Her’; That opening chord on ‘A Hard Days Night’; That closing chord on ‘A Day In The Life’; The use of the piccolo trumpet on ‘Penny Lane’; His straight-edged, Hitchcock-influenced score on ‘Eleanor Rigby’; The batshit crazy backing track on ‘I Am The Walrus’; Turning ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ from an acoustic, band-led track into something that still sounds futuristic today (Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick also “pulled off one of the most effective edits in pop” around the 1:00 mark, according to Beatles biographer Ian MacDonald); Building the soundscapes that make ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!’ so thrilling; Piecing together ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ from its authors’ lofty ideas… Martin’s contributions to The Beatles legacy are rich and varied, always positive and often unbelievable. He took their already great songs and made them even better.

Martin was also the glue that made ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band’ such a monumental album in 1967 and, along with Epstein, he acted as a spiritual guide who was with the band from the start. It’s often said that when they closed the door to Studio 2, Abbey Road, the stresses and shackles of Beatlemania were temporarily shelved by all four band members, but Martin offered further salvation. He holidayed with Lennon and his first wife Cynthia, travelled to America with the band on their groundbreaking first visits, appeared astutely aloof when it came to their dalliance with harder drugs, got McCartney hooked on classical music and, as a family man, (or a “grown up” and “real musician” as they jokingly referred him), was a perennially calming influence throughout the never-ending whirlwind of their ever-expanding world.

When The Beatles broke up in 1969 he was dragged into myriad legal and personal battles between all four members, sometimes being taken to task for his interview comments on their business matters. Lennon was particularly scathing, and in September 1971 wrote a letter to Martin (now published in The John Lennon Letters) stating: “When people ask me questions about, ‘What did George Martin really do for you?’ I have only one answer, ‘What does he do now?’”

Despite difficulties, the two men never seriously fell out, and Martin remained close to all four Beatles in the years following their split. He would never work on another project as huge as them again, but found considerable success working in film (he scored one of the most iconic and best-loved James Bond themes, Paul McCartney’s ‘Live And Let Die’ in 1973) and with the LA-based, British band America in the 1970s. However, by the end of the decade he was struggling with his hearing. “Nobody warned us that listening to loud music for too long would cause damage,” he said in a Wall Street Journal interview in 2012. “I was in the studio for 14 hours at a stretch and never let my ears repair.”

A dedicated producer all his life, Martin had left EMI in the mid-60s after the company refused to increase his salary (despite The Beatles being the world’s biggest band, he was still earning the same as before he signed them) and set up Associated Independent Recording (AIR), effectively becoming self-employed and working on a freelance basis. He didn’t tell The Beatles of his decision until afterwards, but the band had no qualms about keeping him on as their sole producer, and continued to work with him almost exclusively (only on their final album ‘Let It Be’, recorded in the midst of their break-up, did he take a backseat role). He founded the AIR studio complex in 1969, first based on London’s Oxford Street and then at Lyndhurst Hall in Hampstead. Acts who have recorded there include The xx, Oasis, Adele, Coldplay, Muse, Paul Weller, Mark Ronson, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mystery Jets, U2 and many others.

After stepping back from studio work in the mid-1980s, Martin also hosted several essential TV series’ for the BBC about music, speaking to fellow luminaries including Brian Wilson, Rick Ruben and McCartney about the art of songwriting and recording.

He was made a CBE in 1988, and worked with the surviving members of The Beatles on 1995’s much-loved ‘Anthology’ release, and their Cirque du Soleil and ‘Love’ projects a decade later – often alongside his producer son Giles.

Speaking to me for an NME interview in late 2013 about Paul McCartney’s album ‘NEW’, Giles Martin said of his father:

“He’s 87 now and doesn’t get around much, and he’s also very deaf, but he came to the sessions with Paul and I took them for dinner down the road here and it was funny. My mum started working at Abbey Road in 1948, so she knows Abbey Road pretty well and they walked in the door and they told him, ‘Giles Martin is in Studio 2 with Paul McCartney’. [The receptionist] said to my dad, ‘Do you know the way to Studio 2?’ And of course my dad looked at him in a sort of, ‘Yes, I do, thank you very much!’ way, and then he came in and they sat at the back of the room.”

Giles added that following the recording session, his father had looked back on his career fondly. “We’d finished the session and we went for dinner and he said, ‘Sometimes Giles, I think that I wish I was young and I wish I could hear, and I wish I was standing there doing what I did for years. But then at the same time, I wouldn’t change anything in the world for watching you do it’.”

George Henry Martin CBE, record producer, was born on January 3, 1926. He died peacefully at his home yesterday (March 8). He is survived by his second wife Judy Lockhart Smith and his four children Alexis, Gregory, Lucy and Giles.

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