Sir George Martin, most famous for acting as the producer of all but one of The Beatles’ albums, passed away yesterday, aged 90.
Already, reports and obituaries have been published, quoting Martin and highlighting his amazing achievements with and without The Beatles. Though Martin was a producer for over a decade before meeting them, it is undoubtedly his work with this music-changing band, the very Zeitgeist of musical development in the nineteen-sixties and beyond, for which he will be best remembered and discussed for years to come.
There’s been plenty of debate on whether or not The Beatles succeeded artistically because of suggestions made by Martin, or if he was simply very effective in channelling their natural talent. In reality, it was probably a mix of the two. That in itself is not a bad legacy to leave behind.
Though Martin now sadly has passed away, we can still learn something valuable from the work he left behind. Here are my three things which we can learn from the life and career of George Martin:
Have an open mind
I’ve mentioned this in several previous posts, but an open mind and a willing pair of ears is without a shadow of a doubt the most important tool for any artist. This is especially true for musicians and producers, and a sentiment to which Martin himself prescribed more than once, including in his own books.
It is well established in rock history canon that The Beatles were been turned down by several record companies prior to being signed by Martin to EMI. Think about this for a moment: every almost ‘industry expert’ had refused to take on another guitar band, believing them to be going out of fashion. Fair enough, it is called the music business for a reason. Money has to be made and trends will always be followed. This is as true today as it was in the nineteen fifties and sixties. However, ‘following the money’ is a great way to be a follower, but you are default already a follower from the start, and not a leader.
The best leaders, artists, teachers, and indeed the best in any profession listen first. In seeing the potential that The Beatles had, Martin was able to continue listening to them throughout their eight years working together making hit after hit, and classic album after classic album. This is especially noticeable when at the point mid-sixties where the band stopped performing live altogether, becoming a studio band only. The resulting works, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, The Beatles and Abbey Road, are unique in sounding very much of their time, but still fresh and exciting in 2016.
And it wasn’t just Martin doing all of the listening. The Beatles themselves were avid consumers of art and music. In being open to anything interesting, they brought elements of avant-garde, atonalism, looping, sampling and a whole world of musical styles to their music. By opening your ears, and combining the sounds you love, it is entirely possible to produce a new work, which speaks to the future while recognising that which has gone before.
Know your limits, and push them
Looping, you say? Sampling? In the nineteen-sixties?! It is worth noting that the vast majority of The Beatles’ recorded output was recorded on a four-track (or, at very best towards the seventies, eight-track) tape machine. This was state of the art back then, but lacking in the limitless options of the digital recording software in use everywhere. Leaving aside all the other technological innovations and improvisations Martin would conjure up to accommodate the visions of The Beatles in their songwriting, there is the question of the sheer number of instruments and sounds on some songs. The solution to squeezing so many different elements onto a four-track recorder? Multi-tracking.
Multi-tracking was first developed by guitarist Les Paul some decades before Martin made such effective use of the technique. Put simply, the process involves recording onto three of the available tracks, then ‘bouncing’ that mix onto the fourth track. The process can be repeated using tracks one and two, then bouncing to the third. Then it can (if needed) be taken even further by mixing tracks three & four onto one of the other tracks, meaning there are now three left to add on more parts (and here is where I start to go cross-eyed myself!).
The biggest issue with this method of recording is the physical degradation of the tape onto which the sound was being copied. By layering track upon track, the overall mix becomes more dense, and done incorrectly, can leave with a muddy sounding, uninspiring record. George Martin, however, seems to have been perfectly capable of getting clean, crisp recordings of individual mixes, which hold their brightness as they get ‘bounced’ and mixed into a deeper and more complicated arrangement. Even with Martin’s confident ‘know how’, there was still a limit to how many additions could me made. In these days of endless tracks and almost any possible sound available to laptops worldwide, I personally don’t see the same level of mechanical creativity. Sometimes working with what you have, pushing the limits, is better than having no limits at all…
Have a sense of humour
There’s a famous anecdote – which Martin was often fond of telling – detailing the first time The Beatles first met their producer (retold once more in the Washington Post’s obituary of George Martin today). After Martin had spoke at length about the recording process, he asked the Fab Four is there was anything they didn’t like. The response, from George Harrison, was “Well, I don’t like your tie for a start…”. From there, Martin knew that they would get along famously.
A sense of humour can not only ease any tensions rising in the studio, which can be high-pressure for some acts expected to produce hit after hit. It can also serve to bridge the gap between generations. In that respect, Martin must have impressed the Beatles from the start, having quite an extensive background in comedy and novelty recordings – some of which became unexpected hits – including John Lennon’s comedy heroes, The Goons. In quite a lot of interview footage from the early sixties, The Beatles were set apart from their questioners, an exclusive club with a shared sense of humour and in-jokes which created a barrier to those outside of the group. Martin, I believe, was very much inside their ‘circle of trust’, otherwise they would not have allowed him such authority in the studio. A shared sense of humour must have been a major in-road to gaining the trust of these young Liverpudlians.
As a musician, producer and in some ways, mentor, Martin helped the Fab Four to realise the sounds they heard in their heads. His creative, yet critical thinking fuelled The Beatles’ insatiable appetite for art, and helped their music transcend to heights which otherwise may have remained untouched. Though I have spoken mostly about Martin’s work with the Fab Four, we should be no means overlook all of the other artists he worked with & film scores he wrote/arranged. Without Martin, popular music, and therefore the world we live in today, would be very different indeed…
R.I.P. Sir George Henry Martin (1926-2016).