6 - What George Martin gave The Beatles
6 - What George Martin gave The Beatles
George Martin, not Brian Epstein, was the 5th Beatle. He was almost a full-fledged member of the group and largely responsible for creating their unique signature sound.
Lennon said his major influence on them was that he helped them to develop a language to speak as musicians.
The time Martin and The Beatles spent in the recording studio is summed up by Beatle scholar Ian MacDonald:
“They evolved a new way of making records in which preplanned polyphony was replaced by an unpredictable layering of simultaneous sound-information, transformed by signal-distortion and further modified during the processes of mixing and editing. The same multifocal mentality determined their lyrics, which, starting from barely considered verbal projections of musical moods in their early work, later became largely randomized streams-of consciousness, cut up and sprinkled into the sensory cauldron of the general sound.”
Probably the most important contribution Martin would make is the observation, very early on, that they were unlike any other act that came before them. The Beatles would be defined by how they sounded as a group. Their unique sound was a “group sound”, not just the combination of four separate musicians.
In his autobiography, he describes the point that he came upon this realization:
“Paul was warbling away and John was backing him with that peculiarly distinctive, nasal, almost flat second harmony that was to become a trademark of their early sound. And it suddenly hit me, right between the eyes. This was a group I was listening to. I should take them as a group, and record them as a group. That distinctive harmony, that unique blend of sound – that was the selling point.”
From day one, Martin’s musical expertise helped fill the gaps between The Beatles’ raw talent and the sound they wanted to achieve. Then, his chief role was, in his own words:
“To make sure that they made a concise, commercial statement, that the song ran for approximately two and half minutes, that it was in the right key for their voices, that it was tidy and with the right proportion and form.”
His regular duties were to inform them if they were singing in tune, to establish song order on the albums (to ensure they began and ended with the strongest material), and to decide which songs should be issued as singles. His influence is deeply felt in the many spectacular introductions and endings of some of The Beatles’ greatest hits.
Walter Everett points out:
“These few seconds were the most crucial moments of a two- to-three- minute song. In The Beatles’ first albums, little editing was required, but a disproportionate amount of that done was intended to perfect the first and last seconds of a recording.”
George Martin’s contribution to Beatle music
Martin referred to the work he and The Beatles did together in the studio as trying to paint pictures in sound. Like Picasso with a canvas, this would begin with a central motif: a drum and bass guitar rhythm track and then stack additional layers of sound on top of it to give extra dimensions and vitality to the original idea.
Most of The Beatles’ orchestral arrangements and instrumentation, as well as frequent keyboard parts on the early records, were written and/or performed by Martin.
His first contribution to improve their songs was his suggestion to speed up the tempo in Please Please Me. When they finished recording the song he knew how good it was, and he told them:
‘Congratulations boys, you’ve just recorded your first number one hit.’
For Can’t Buy Me Love he told them they had to change the introduction to something that was catchier to the ear: a hook. He suggested starting off with the chorus, an extremely innovative concept. The result was another number one hit.
On A Hard Day’s Night he played the piano solo.
On Misery he devised what he has called the “wind-up piano” recording a piano part at half-speed an octave lower so it would sound rhythmically precise, but with an altered sound envelope when replayed at the correct speed.
The licks he traded with Harrison in You Like Me Too Much anticipated by two years The Beatles’ fascination with imitative counterpoint. (Counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm and are harmonically interdependent).
It was Martin’s idea to put a string quartet on Yesterday, which met with McCartney’s initial reluctance. He derived the voice leading for the string parts almost entirely from McCartney’s guitar playing and his verbal suggestions.
On In My Life, he played a sped-up Baroque piano solo. In his best-selling book, Can’t Buy Me Love, Jonathan Gould recounts how Martin was unable to articulate the notes at tempo so he ingeniously recorded his part at half-speed, an octave lower, and then sped up the tape. The technique gave the piano a harpsichord-like tone. The end result is that Martin’s baroque stylization, while thoroughly satisfying in its own right, gently parodies the song’s nostalgic leanings.
On Rain he manipulated the tape speed and direction in the song. Both the vocal and instrumental tracks were recorded very fast and later slowed to add a more mysterious effect. When attempting to enhance the play-out of the song, he took John’s phrases he had sung
and turned them around realizing that musically it would fit the chords.
For I’m only sleeping he created the vocal track which displays a circuitous process of speeding up and down which ended with the song a semitone below its original key of E Minor.
On For No One Martin suggested the use of a French horn for the solo sections of the song.
For Eleanor Rigby, Martin’s advice to McCartney combined two melodic lines. Martin explains: “I had noticed that the phrase ‘Ah, l look at all the lonely people’ would work if it were sung against the end of the main tune. Counterpoint. So I suggested we do an overdub. They were knocked out with the result.”
McDonald points out that in Paperback Writer, Martin suggested closely overlapping several lines in the opening sequence, which occurs throughout the song. She says it was the first time The Beatles used counterpoint with this level of sophistication.
On Here, There and Everywhere, the harmonies were performed by Paul, John, and George, but were arranged by Martin.
It was his idea on Penny Lane to feature a piccolo trumpet solo. McCartney hummed the melody he wanted, and Martin wrote it down in music notation for David Mason, the classically trained trumpeter. McCartney was imitating Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto which he had heard Mason play on TV.
He worked with McCartney to implement the orchestral “climax” in A Day in the Life, and shared conducting duties the day it was recorded.
Walter Everett says of his contribution to Good Morning, Good Morning:
“Martin’s production maximizes the aggression by viciously compressing everything, picking up the ‘a-hunting we will go’ mood in a rollicking brass score.”
He contributed less-noted but integral parts to other songs, such as the piano in Lovely Rita which he sped up and wobbled to simulate a honky-tonk sound. Both Martin and Lennon played organ parts for the circus instrumentation in Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.
On Strawberry Fields Forever he and chief engineer Geoff Emerick turned two very different takes into a single master through careful use of vari-speed and editing. For I Am the Walrus, he provided a quirky and original arrangement for brass, violins, cellos, and vocal ensemble.
His guidance in creating the lush harmonies on Because is described by Ian MacDonald:
“Overdubbed twice, making nine voices in all, the harmony is one of the most complex on any of the group’s records. Even under the guidance of George Martin, it took them some while to learn.”
Martin also arranged the score for the films Yellow Submarine and Live and Let Die.
Martin’s special relationship with McCartney
In all the books documenting The Beatles’ recording process, and in their own autobiographies, there is no mention of the degree to which they were able to work in apparent harmony with Martin or Martin’s shifting role as master/servant of the production process. His only remark on the subject was that he successfully resisted trying to restrict them to a particular pattern of popular music.
The only conclusion to be drawn from the official record is that The Beatles, as a whole, were extremely experimental and were ready to push the transitional boundaries of recording technology. Who came up with which ideas? We don’t know. All we know for sure is that they were taken seriously, and usually implemented by Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick. Techniques such as backward tapes, distortion, filters, random effects, manipulation of speed, close-miking of acoustic instruments and Ringo’s drums, and direct injection, were developed by all five of them during the course of the seven years they recorded together at Abbey Road studios.
In general Lennon stayed clear away from Martin’s engineering booth and had little interest in the recording process. Harrison, for the most part, just wanted to be left alone to compose his parts and work them out. There was not much more that could be done to manipulate the sound of drums other than close-mike and filling them with towels to dampen the sound.
McCartney displayed the most interest in the recording process and in learning the art of how music was engineered. As he was the de-facto arranger of the band, he and Martin had a natural bond. It was a relationship of teacher and student.
How they would have fared without him
The conventional view is that Martin complemented the music that the group was playing, but for the most part it was their brilliancethat sky-rocketed them to fame.
Another view entirely was expressed in April 2010 by Jeff Beck, one of the world’s greatest guitarists. Martin produced Beck’s 1975 platinum-selling album Blow by Blow:
“They were as good as George Martin made them. George put in all these chords and these fantastic sounds, and implemented many of their ideas to experimentation. He enabled them. When we later got the psychedelic stuff, George taught them everything he knew. Of course the songwriting’s there and the melodies are marvelous. But without him they would have been much more crude and raw.”
Emerick agrees with Beck that Martin made The Beatles’ sound what it was. In his book, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles, he recollects:
“He may have lost control over The Beatles toward the end of their career, but there’s no question that his influence was profound in the early days. The most important contribution he made was the way he expanded the band’s horizons. When they showed up for their first
few sessions, their only instrumentation was two guitars, bass, and drums, with a little John Lennon and his harmonica thrown in as a gimmick. Martin understood the importance of adding other tone colors. Even his simple piano and celeste overdubs gave Beatle records
that certain extra something that made them stand. After working with them for just a few short years – he would then be scoring full orchestras for them. He was much more than “the 5th Beatle.”