It’s a little eery that The Beatles’ record producer George Martin has just passed away, since it’s happened right as I’m in the middle of a pretty heavy Beatles period. Granted, I’ve been in a pretty heavy Beatles period for about half of my life, since they’re the band that seemed to inform a lot of my early tastes (musical and otherwise), and whose records I’ll often return to for inspiration and enlightenment. But I’ve been thinking about The Beatles lately because I’m in the middle of reading Ian MacDonald’s book Revolution In The Head, which chronicles The Beatles career by breaking down and examining each song in their discography track-by-track. There’s a passage I just read where MacDonald says of George Martin’s collaboration with The Beatles, “it’s almost certainly true that there was no other producer on either sides of the Atlantic then capable of handling The Beatles without damaging them — let alone of cultivating and catering them with the gracious, open-minded adeptness for which George Martin is universally respected in the British pop industry”.
And I think it’s Martin’s combination of pop acumen and respect for Lennon and McCartney’s talent, as well as his willingness to try out new ideas, that are not only why Martin was a great producer, but also why The Beatles records are as important as they are. I have to imagine that part of Martin’s willingness to experiment came from his early work doing comedy records with the likes of British comic talent like Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Dudley Moore, since there was always a spirit of anarchy and penchant for breaking the rules in The Beatles’ records. It’s no coincidence that what first broke the ice between The Beatles and Martin on a personal level was a joke that George Harrison made about Martin’s tie. And yet at the same time, like any great producer, Martin clearly had a well-trained ear that knew how to facilitate and expand upon the incredible songs these guys were churning out.
Also, just on a personal level, George Martin’s importance within The Beatles has always been something I’ve been aware of, because my devouring of The Beatles’ albums as a teenager coincided with me watching all of The Beatles Anthology TV series, which Martin is heavily featured in. So for that I do kind of feel like Martin was really the first person that I knew of who helped make popular art, but from a “behind the scenes” perspective. Like I’m sure I knew what a film director was at that point, but I think my becoming aware of George Martin’s influence on The Beatles recordings’ made me truly aware for the first time that there are smart, talented people out there that are involved in the creative process, but aren’t necessarily the star of the show.
Yet because Martin was such a secret weapon in The Beatles’ arsenal, I do fear his contributions to The Beatles’ music may be a bit overlooked in the annals of history, since I feel like the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership/competitiveness is what is often thought of as the crux of the band’s brilliance. But this was a band that after all retired from touring because they wanted to continue exploring their creativity in the studio, and the particular way those records sound is I think a big reason why they still resonate the way they do. Which is why I’ve never seen anything remotely cheeky about George Martin being nicknamed ‘the fifth Beatle’.