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George Martin – A Little Help For His Friends

Updated: Nov 26, 2022


Sir George Martin

Sir George Martin

A Little Help for His Friends

by Ken Sharp

George Martin is inarguably the most successful music producer of all-time.

If there’s anyone who can legitimately lay claim to the mantle of “Fifth” Beatle, it’s George Martin. Martin’s unparalleled production expertise coupled with his profound talents as a musician, arranger and conductor helped catapult The Fab Four to unprecedented waves of worldwide success.

Born in London in 1926, Martin has been an integral force in the musical scene for almost fifty years. Classically trained at The Guildhall School of Music, Martin parlayed his education with a job as assistant to Oscar Preuss, EMI Parlophone record chief. After Preuss retired in 1955, Martin was elevated to head of Parlophone where he worked with such disparate acts as Peter Sellers, Shirley Bassey, Stan Getz, Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sophia Loren.

Prior to his involvement with The Beatles, Martin had a rich and diverse career, working in the fields of classical, comedy, jazz and light pop. His exemplary work with the legendary British comedy troupe “The Goons” further cemented Martin’s reputation – impressing John Lennon in particular.

But the course of George Martin’s life inexorably changed – as it did for four lads from Liverpool – on June 6, 1962. This was the fateful date Martin first met the Beatles at a recording audition for Parlophone Records held at London’s Abbey Road Studios. Impressed more with the group’s cheeky charm and charisma than their as yet latent musical talents, (George Harrison even criticized the producer’s tie!), Martin signed the group to Parlophone, in the process making undoubtedly the smartest A&R move in recording history.

Yet while it’s his long-standing connection with the Beatles that is most widely known, Martin is also responsible for working/and or producing a Besides his historic work with The Beatles, he has produced sessions for a dazzling array of disparate artists including Jeff Beck, Judy Garland, Pete Townshend,  Elton John, America, jazz great Stan Getz, Aerosmith, comedy legend Peter Sellers, Bee Gees, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cheap Trick, Jimmy Webb, Badfinger, Ultravox, Gerry & The Pacemakers, UFO,  Billy J. Kramer, Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker, Cilla Black and many more.

Burt Bacharach, George Martin and Cilla Black

Burt Bacharach, George Martin and Cilla Black

On July 12, 2008 a special Grammy Foundation Starry Night Benefit Honoring Sir George Martin was held on the USC campus in Los Angeles. Under an appropriately magical starry sky, the esteemed music icon was feted with a wonderful concert sporting an impressive musical lineup whose highlights included Jeff Beck, who performed a stunning instrumental version of The Beatles epic, “A Day In the Life,” “Tin Man” by America, Burt Bacharach’s delicate reading of his signature Bacharach-David standard, “Alfie” (a Cilla Black session in the 60’s was produced by Martin), Michael McDonald’s soulful take of “Got To Get You Into My Life” and a climactic ending by Tom Jones’ emotional interpretation of the “The Long and Winding Road.”

Ken Sharp caught up with Sir George Martin for a career spanning chat.

Tell us about your musical beginnings at Guildhall School of Music and how that background influenced your later work. 

Well, I was very similar to both John and Paul in a way where I wasn’t taught music to begin with. I just grew up feeling music and naturally making music. I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t making music on the piano. I was running a band by the time I was fifteen.

What was the name of the band?

(Laughs) Very corny but I thought it was fantastic. The first one was a four piece and then it became a five piece. When it was a four piece I called it “The Four Tune Tellers” (laughs again). Then it became “George Martin and the Four Tune Tellers”. Very clever. I had TT’s on the stands in front. We made quite a little bit of money as well. Then the war intervened and by the time I was seventeen I was in the Fleet Air Arm which is part of the Royal Navy. We flew off carriers and we were fliers in the Navy. That was the tail end of the war. I was four years in the service; I was twenty one when I came out. Having managed to evade Japan, I was all right. And I had no career. A professor of music who befriended me, he’s received from me during the war various compositions that I’d painfully put together. I went to see him and said, “you must take up music.” I said, “How can I? I’m not educated. I’ve never had any training?” He said, “Well get taught. I’ll arrange it for you.” He arranged an audition for me to play some of my work to the principal of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – which is a college in London. He said “we’ll take you on as a composition student.” I got a government grant for three years to study. I started composition, conducting and orchestration and I took up the oboe. I took up the oboe so I could make a living playing some instrument. You can’t make a living playing the piano. I just played piano naturally. I wasn’t taught. I didn’t take piano as a subject because I didn’t see any future in it, I didn’t rate myself as being a great pianist. I could never see myself making a living at it. I wanted to be a film writer. So that’s what happened. I was trained and I came out and I would work playing the oboe in different orchestras in the evenings and sometimes afternoons in the park, that kind of thing. I was a jobbing oboe player.

George Martin and the Beatles

George Martin and the Beatles

Do you still play?

No (laughs). I don’t think I could now. I took a job during the day to make some extra money. That was in the music department at the BBC. Then out of the blue I got a letter from someone asking me to go for an interview at a place called Abbey Road.  So I cycled along there and the guy said, “I’m looking for someone to help me make some classical recordings and I gather you can do this.” Because I was a woodwind player and educated by now, I got the job of producing the classical baroque recordings of the Parlophone label. And I got hooked. Gradually this guy who was running the label gave me more and more work to do. I started doing jazz records, orchestral, pop of the period. It wasn’t rock. Over a period of five years I worked as his assistant gradually doing more and more. By the time the five years was up I was virtually doing everything. Five years later in 1955, he retired. He was sixty five years old and he left. I thought somebody was going to be brought in over me because I was in my twenties still. But to my astonishment I was given the job of running the label. I was the youngest person ever to be given that job.

Prior to your work with The Beatles, you worked in many different musical idioms. How did that impact your production skills? It seemed you were very willing to be experimental in your work with The Beatles.

Oh absolutely. But I always was experimental even before The Beatles came along. One of the records I made was an electronic record called “Ray Cathode” which was collaborating with the BBC radiophonics people. I made a lot of what I call “sound pictures” with actors and comedians – because it was fun to do. I’m a person who gets bored quite easily and I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again. Once I was running the label I didn’t earn much money, but I did have freedom to do what I wanted to do.

Discuss your approach toward string arrangements. Your work on Beatle songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “Glass Onion” is extraordinary.

The writing of the parts is me and the requirements are them. It varied between John and Paul. Paul was generally quite articulate with what he wanted. Mostly we would sit down at the piano together and play it through and work out how it would sound. Paul still doesn’t know how to orchestrate but he knew what he wanted and would give me ideas and I would say “you can’t do that” or “you can do this.” We’d talk about it, talk it through. John would never take that kind of attention. John was less articulate and much more full of imagery. He would have ideas which were difficult to express. It was quite difficult for me to interpret. One of the problems was getting inside his brain to find what he really wanted. Quite often he would say, “you know me, you know what I want.: In the case of “I Am The Walrus,” when I first heard that he just stood in front of me with a guitar and sang it through. But it was weird. I said to him, “What the hell am I going to do with this, John?” He said, “I’d like for you to do a score and use some brass and some strings and some weird noises. You know the kind of thing I want.” I didn’t but I just went away and did that.

Paul McCartney, George Martin and George Harrison

Paul McCartney, George Martin and George Harrison

What orchestral arrangement that you did for The Beatles of which you’re most proud? “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a wild score.

The Beatles wanted something unusual. Although at the core of it is orchestration that I liked to do. I liked to have clean orchestration. I’ve got various theories about orchestration. I don’t think the human brain can take it too many notes at once. For example, when you’re listening to a fugue of Bach or someone and you hear the first statement and the second one joins it, you can catch hold of that all right and then the third one comes in and it starts to get more complicated. Any more than that and it then it becomes a jumble of sound. You can’t really sort out what is what.

Tell us about the time you tried to turn John Lennon onto a piece of classical music. 

He went back to my flat one night. We had dinner and were rapping away. We were talking about different kinds of music. I wanted to play him one of my favorite pieces of classical music. It was the “Deathless and Fairy Suite Number Two” by Ravel, which is a gorgeous piece of music. It lasts about nine minutes and he sat through it patiently. I mean it’s one of the best examples of orchestration you can get because it’s a swelling of sound that is just breathtaking. He listened very patiently and said, “Yeah, it’s great. The trouble is by the time you get to the end of the tune you can’t remember what the beginning’s like”. I realized it was too stretched out for him to appreciate in one go. He couldn’t assimilate it. He was so used to little soundbites. A lot of people are nowadays. It’s the curse of advertising and television that we are now tuned to little jingles that we can connect and recognize right away. We can’t listen to anything longer than that, so consequently the way people write sometimes is to connect together a lot of little jingles – which is not maybe the best way of doing things.

When you met up with John in the 70’s he would tell you if he had the chance he would re-record every Beatles song. Could you understand where he was coming from? 

It’s a funny thing, when John said this to me originally was when we were spending an evening together. It shook me to the core when we were talking about old things and he said, “I’d love to do everything again.” To me that was just a horror. I said, “John, you can’t really mean it. Even ‘Strawberry Fields?’” He said, “Especially ‘Strawberry Fields!’” I thought, oh shit, all the effort that went into that. We worked very hard on that trying to capture something that was nebulous. But I realized that John was a dreamer. In John’s mind everything was so beautiful and much better than it was in real life. He was never a person of nuts and bolts. The bitter truth is music is nuts and bolts; you’ve got to bring it down to horse hair going over a bit of wood, people blowing into brass tubes. You’ve got to get down to practicalities.

Sir George Martin and Paul McCartney

Sir George Martin and Paul McCartney

In the Sixties, did any of the other major British bands – like The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces and The Rolling Stones – attempt to have you produce them?

They didn’t approach me, mainly because I was so damn busy. I really couldn’t have worked any harder than I did. All of the people from Brian’s (Epstein) stable came along; I was just about able to cope with those and very little more. I had a tremendous roster of artists.

You did work later in your career with another major Sixties band, The Bee Gees. How would you characterize their talents?

Terrific songwriters. I remember going to meet with them in The Bahamas when we were talking about doing the Sgt. Pepper film and they played me the tracks that they just recorded for a new film that nobody had ever heard about called Saturday Night Fever. I couldn’t quite connect what I was hearing with the guys that I knew because it was so hip. I was looking at Barry and Maurice and Robin and I was saying it was a great dance sound. It could have been Motown, it was so good. I asked, “Have you done this? It’s fantastic. You’ve got big hits here.” I was enormously impressed. What was good about them was they weren’t just writing good songs but they were writing good production ideas into the songs the way that they were putting it together – and the guitar work. Barry is very talented and the others also contribute quite a bit too.

And in the early 70’s you produced Jeff Beck’s now classic album Blow By Blow and you had him cover “A Day in the Life.”

Jeff and I had been mates for a long time although we hadn’t worked together for a long time. But we’ve talked about working together and never got around to it. And Jeff came to see me when I was working on the Anthology at Abbey Road. It so happens that the day he came in Paul was already there listening to stuff that I’d selected for him to hear. It was then, in front of Paul, where we talked about him doing a track for the album. Jeff said to me, “Can I choose the track?” I said, “Sure, if you want to.” He picked “A Day in the Life.”

He covered The Beatles’ “She’s A Woman” on the Blow By Blow album.

That’s right. It was good track, wasn’t it? He used “the bag” on that. Anyhow, you could have knocked me sideways when he chose to do “A Day in the Life.” I thought he would have chosen to do something like “Yer Blues.” When he did it, I was very pleased to hear what he he’d done.

We also spoke to a few luminaries in attendance at Grammy Foundation Starry Night Benefit Honoring Sir George Martin who shared their thoughts on his importance in music.

Lamont Dozier (legendary songwriter of Motown’s hitmaking writing team, Holland-Dozier-Holland):

George Martin’s production work with The Beatles definitely had a big influence on our production work. The tracks that he did like “The Long & Winding Road”, they were so mind blowing and also new in their approach. George Martin and The Beatles together were innovators and they brought to the table so many new things and new approaches to music that made us work harder. Those Beatle records were daring to take a chance and jump into the fire. As writers and producers they just jumped out there and did it. They didn’t follow the crowd, they had the crowd follow them.

Jeff Lynne

As a member of ELO, The Move and The Idle Race and an established producer in his own right, Jeff Lynne’s musical style is profoundly inspired by The Beatles. Here’s his take on George Martin’s legacy.

I think George Martin’s approach as a producer was very classy. The decisions he made in the studio, the way he blended instruments together, the way he pioneered bouncing tracks across and back and forth from machine to machine. He made records you couldn’t make in those days because you didn’t have enough facilities. Now everyone has a million tracks to work on but I’m sure they’ll never come up with anything as good as he did on four-track.

George has always been a big inspiration to me just listening to the records he made – like I said, just the class that he brings to it. He’s a wonderful musician as well. I think that the two together is what makes him what he is. He’s above the rest of everybody.

Yoko Ono

George Martin is somebody that meant so much to the Beatles and the Beatles family. That’s why I flew in from New York to be here for this event. As a producer, he had a sense of that period and the time of the world as well as the music. He had this feeling what would work well at the time.

Leiber & Stoller

What Lennon and McCartney meant to the Sixties, the esteemed songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller meant to the pulse of the 50’s music scene.

Jerry Leiber: George Martin initiated a whole world of sound and music. Even though there were singers and performers, George Martin was the mind that pulled it all together and made it more interesting than pop music ever was.

Mike Stoller: I feel the same way. I feel that he created out of working with a group of extremely talented people. He created something that was beyond a group of talented people because he brought his own musical genius to that and created the Beatles sound.

Tom Jones

Singer Tom Jones worked with George Martin in the studio on “Come Sweep My Chimbley,” a track earmarked for the Under Milkwood project.

It was a Dylan Thomas poem but then he did the music. It was good. We did it for the Prince’s Trust and recorded it in George’s studio in London. That was the first time I worked with him. I actually recorded it with George in L.A. But we did the musical for the Prince’s Trust. As a producer he’s so musical. He’s a great musician and he knows a lot about music and he’s got a great sense of humor as well; he made a lot of comedy records (The Goons, Peter Sellers) before he became famous working with The Beatles. He’s such an easy person to get along with. As soon as I started working with him I was in tune with him.

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved. Posted: July 13, 2008.

Photo Credits:#1 Courtesy of George Martin Music. All rights reserved.#2 Courtesy of George Martin Music. All rights reserved.#3 Courtesy of George Martin Music. All rights reserved.#4 Courtesy of George Martin Music. All rights reserved.#5 Courtesy of George Martin Music. All rights reserved.

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