A great patriarch of my own biggest geekdom, Sir George Martin (not the author, no “R”s), died last night, March 8, 2016. This is no tragedy. He was 90 years old. He led a thoroughly fulfilling life.
The tragedy would be to ignore this, to not acknowledge or realize the monumental impact he had on popular music. George Martin helped turn rock music into a relatively respected art form. And “helped” is even too mild a word for it.
You’ve probably heard the story of how the Beatles failed their audition for Decca Records, being told that “guitar groups were on the way out.” It’s often used as an example of higher-ups stupidly failing to recognize genius. But Decca was hardly an outlier. Many record labels turned down the Beatles in the beginning. It wasn’t a stupid decision, it was based on real business sense: the sense that this style of music was a flash in the pan, that all the bands sounded the same, and frankly, their audition tape really wasn’t all that special.
Instead of all these record companies making a huge mistake, this is really a story of just one record producer, George Martin, taking a chance no one else wanted to take. It was his own genius that spotted the potential genius in the band’s mediocre audition tape. He headed a small label, Parlophone, under the larger company EMI, that made classical and comedy records. Why not try this charismatic little rock band? It could turn into something.
Again and again, it was Martin’s risk-taking, hidden-genius-spotting belief in the Beatles that turned them into legends on the world stage and changed the way popular music worked behind the scenes. Lennon and McCartney wanted to record their own songs? Another producer would have insisted they cover standards and songwriters employed by the company instead. Martin said, all right, we’ll try, and soon bands that wrote their own music became the norm. Their original drummer wasn’t quite meshing? Martin caught it and insisted they needed a new drummer, so they called in Ringo, who’d always fit in better with them all along. Paul had a quiet love song that didn’t fit the band’s electric style? Martin said let’s record it anyway and bring in a string quartet to back it up. Now it was okay for rock bands to switch things up and use classical instruments.
George Martin not only allowed the Beatles to try new things in the studio, he encouraged it. The recording studio became another musical instrument they experimented with to create new sounds. Today record producers are even more involved in playing the studio, and more instruments are included, and more new effects are tried, because of Martin’s willingness to take chances in the studio.
A lot of people have tried to lay claim to the title “The Fifth Beatle” for themselves or others: manager Brian Epstein, former band members Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe, road manager/Apple executive Neil Aspinall, various collaborators and guest artists, even a deejay, Murray the K, who promoted the band when they first came to the U.S. But in my opinion, George Martin has done the most to deserve the title, providing arrangements and instrumentations that took their songs to another level. “Eleanor Rigby” might be more George Martin’s than even Paul McCartney’s, and he’s really the only Beatle involved in it. With George Harrison there, George Martin is technically the other George. But only because there’s two Georges. George Martin, also, was an indispensable member of the band.