Wednesday, March 9, 2016

George Martin: the greatest music producer who ever lived

Written by Neil McCormick — George Martin was the greatest music producer who ever lived. And perhaps the least likely.

His work alone stands testament to his production genius. He was the man who discovered, nurtured and facilitated the explosive growth of The Beatles, and in so doing he played an irreplaceable part in a cultural revolution that changed the world. Whatever else he did (and he did plenty), those eight years he spent (from 1962 to 1970) as the musical guide, educator, protector and partner to John, Paul, George and Ringo ensure his legendary status. Of all the people who could claim fifth Beatle status, Martin was the closest to making the quartet a quintet. But the really notable thing is, Martin would never ever have laid claim to such a status himself. For Martin was the rarest of things in the music business: a man of humility, whose enormous talent was bounded by a conspicuous lack of ego.

Other great producers have been louder, brasher, more notorious and more obviously brilliant, with signature sounds that remain immediately recognisable today. Whereas Martin was a quintessential English gentleman: a former grammar school boy and Navy pilot, who carried himself with the quiet gravitas of a British officer. He dressed with the modest conservatism of a university academic and spoke with the gentle tones and sophisticated eloquence of a royal equerry. Martin was eminently respectable. In rock and roll terms, he is just about the most improbable revolutionary ever.

Phil Spector, who regularly used to top producer lists until his madness and narcissism took him to jail for murder, developed a style that will always be referred to as Spector’s Wall Of Sound. Like many great producers, Spector dominated the talent he was producing.

But Martin did not have a signature sound. What he had was a pair of ears. He brought things out of the artist he was working with, rather than imposing his own vision. Martin's were a particular blend of musical and personal skills and it was good fortune that the artists he is most famous for working with were able to respond to his gentle touch, an open-minded, open-hearted group of uneducated but preternaturally gifted young men ready to embark on a journey of growth and adventure that would surprise everyone, including themselves.

You could say that Martin was the right person in the right place at the right time. But that is not luck, that is being ready. A self-taught pianist and classically trained oboist and easy-going but hard working professional, he became a respected producer in the EMI set up. There, his work as an arranger and producer ranged across symphonic, choral and chamber music, jazz albums and, quite significantly, comedy records of The Goons which demonstrated Martin's sense of play and openness to experimentation.

At 36 years old, with an incredible array of unusual skills, he was not just ready for The Beatles when they turned up in his studio – he was the only A&R man in the music business to recognise their potential. Martin signed this powerhouse northern combo when everyone else was turning them down. Decca records had the absurdity to tell them guitar groups were on the way out. Martin, significantly, was not of the rock and roll generation. Perhaps this is what allowed him to detect something bigger in the talents and personalities of Lennon and McCartney.

Martin took The Beatles from the simple pop of Love Me Do through the thrill of screaming Beatlemania, the grand experiments of Revolver and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and all the way to the masterful final bow of Abbey Road, which, for my money, is still the greatest album ever made.

He introduced them to old musical ideas, expanding their range of harmony and instrumentation, adding a baroque harpsichord style solo on In My Life (actually a piano played at half speed) and a string quartet to Yesterday. And he was the great enabler when they came to him with their own wild and apparently impossible imaginings: recording instruments backwards on Tomorrow Never Knows, editing two different tempo takes together on Strawberry Fields Forever, and persuading a classically trained orchestra to improvise the apocalyptic conclusion to A Day In The Life.

Martin wouldn’t just say yes to whatever mad notions The Beatles concocted, he was the guy who would work out how to do it. That to me is the mark of a real producer, someone who helps the artist to realise their greatest possible version of themselves.

Of course, Martin produced a lot of other very fine music. It was a mark of his versatility that he made records with artists as varied as Ella Fitzgerald, Cilla Black, Kenny Rogers, Kate Bush, Jeff Beck, Elton John, Jimmy Webb, Celine Dion, Haley Westenra and synth pop band Ultravox. He produced two of the greatest Bond themes, Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger and Paul McCartney’s Live And Let Die (and composed the classic soundtrack to the latter movie). If The Beatles outweighs them all, well, The Beatles outrank everyone in popular music. And we have effectively lost a Beatle today.

Music is going through a lot of loss at the moment as the elder statesmen of the Sixties and Seventies pop culture explosion shuffle off the stage. But it would be wrong to think of George Martin as a loss to music. He lived a long and full life, and stopped actually producing music at the end of the nineties, when he no longer felt his hearing was good enough to remain at the top of his profession.

But he has left a legacy, not just in those recordings that have become part of history and will be played as long as there are ears to listen, but an actual legacy that is still operating now. His son Giles Martin is a gifted producer in his own right, and has done much to continue, update and extend The Beatles story under his father’s guidance.

Martin also leaves a fantastic recording studio, Air, which he established in 1965 and which remains one of the leading studios in the world, still flourishing as a space where musicians go to physically play instruments in a time when most production has retreated into tiny home studios and involves little more than digital computer technology.

For anyone who has had the pleasure and privilege to meet Martin, one thing that strikes someone is a quality this patrician gentleman (albeit one born to a carpenter in Holloway) had in common with the working class Liverpudlian superstars. He was incredibly approachable, unfailingly polite and charming, with time for everybody.

When I was a young man, I came across him in Air studios, and seized the opportunity to tell him what The Beatles' music meant to me. His response was one of great warmth and patience, and I can still see his smile in my memory, a real smile which expressed pleasure, pride and empathy. “That’s what they meant to all of us,” he said, as if he could take no personal responsibility for their extraordinary genius.

But the world of music, and, indeed, the world at large, knows what Martin did, and will listen to the music he helped make forever.

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