Sir George Martin: How the fifth Beatle changed pop music forever

Why The Beatles needed their producer as much as he needed them.

Fab Sir George Martin (second right) creates more history in the studio with The Beatles. Image Picture Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In among the tributes paid to Sir George Martin this morning, one salute stands out above all: without Sir George, pop music as we know it would not exist.

That’s not to take away for a moment the songwriting genius of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. If they’d worked with a different producer than Sir George Martin, they’d still obviously have made brilliant records.

But to make the songs that transformed music forever? That required a musical foil who was willing to be every bit as revolutionary as the band themselves.

“As incredible as The Beatles were, none of them were great producers. They didn’t need to be”

It would have been so easy for Sir George – 15 years older than eldest Beatle Lennon – to humour his young charges and tell them their ideas were too far-fetched. “Sorry, chaps, the technology doesn’t exist for this Sgt Pepper caper.”

Instead, Sir George flung himself with full vigour into helping The Beatles be even better than the ideas they had in their heads.

It’s fairly well known that Sir George began his career producing comedy songs for the likes of Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and even Bruce Forsyth. The chart-topping Right Said Fred by 60s comedy actor Bernard Cribbins was one of Sir George’s too.

Such a background doesn’t sound like it would lend itself to wildly experimental pop music. Yet the maverick ideas of comedians like The Goons stars Sellers and Milligan meant that a pre-Beatles Sir George was already well used to people asking for bizarre sounds on their records.

Beatles producer Sir George Martin
True gent Nobody had a bad word to say about Sir George.

And humour was an integral part of the Lennon & McCartney relationship anyway, with The Beatles initially revelling in hearing tales of what Sellers and Milligan were like in the studio.

Exactly how Sir George was able to create the first ever use of feedback in the I Feel Fine intro and melding together Lennon and McCartney’s separate songs into A Day In The Life or, well, you get the picture? That’s been discussed endlessly by Beatles experts.

What’s crucial is to remember that none of it was deemed too much trouble. As incredible as The Beatles were as musicians, none of them went on to be considered great producers. They didn’t need to be, because they had Sir George Martin with them. Or they did until they went with Phil Spector for The Beatles’ penultimate album Let It Be, an experience so unpleasant that they eventually released a completely different version of the album, Let It Be Naked, 40 years later.

In fairness, Sir George never quite reached the heights of his Beatles output with other musicians once the Fabs split in 1970. When your first experience of making pop music is working with the best band of all-time, it must be hard to muster the same enthusiasm.

But he crafted solid albums for 70s folkies Stackridge and harmony masters America, as well as the under-rated album Quartet by synthproggers Ultravox.

Sir George suffered from hearing problems for the last couple of decades of his life, meaning that his final production work was on Celine Dion’s 1997 album The Reason. Not exactly a fitting finale.

But what of it? For a decade, Sir George Martin was the best producer on the planet. And, perhaps most importantly, not one person in the music industry has a bad word to say about him.

People with far less talent had far bigger egos. If there was an image of how people abroad expect a British gentleman to be, then Sir George Martin was that suave and charming archetype.

Play a Beatles song at random as a tribute to Sir George’s memory. You can guarantee it’ll sound sensational.

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