Chew on this: Without George Martin, the 1960s would never have happened.
At least, not the way we know them. If you accept the notions that A) the Beatles laid the framework and led the way for all of pop music from 1963 to well beyond the group’s demise in 1970, that B) pop music was a primary engine driving the era’s cultural changes — the sounds, the clothes, the style, the rhetoric — and that C) cultural change, collision, an unstoppable youth culture finding its voice was what the era was all about, then George Martin was a critical formative influence.
Maybe the critical formative influence. In the wake of the legendary music producer’s death on Tuesday, at 90, the obituaries and remembrances have been full of praise for the “fifth Beatle” — the polite, well-groomed gentleman who laid down the tracks and helped with the arrangements. But Martin was much more than an upper-class knob twiddler. He enabled the Beatles to become the Beatles, and, in the process, he helped define their generation.
We don’t give enough credit to the enablers — the people who remain behind the curtains while shaping our cultural heroes as they step onto the stage. Sam Phillips was American rock ’n’ roll’s great enabler, the Memphis record producer who in 1954 thought to record a kid named Elvis Presley and then, when the kid would only cut loose on black R&B songs when the microphones were off, turned on the tape and insisted, “Go back, find a place to start, and do it again.” Sometimes our most important natural wonders need permission.
And sometimes they need permission to be what they are, rather than what the market says they “should” be. When the Beatles — at that point John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and drummer Pete Best — first met with Martin, in June 1962, they were a rough-edged beat group from Liverpool (i.e., the sticks) and he was running Parlophone, a second-rank EMI subsidiary devoted to classical music and comedy acts like Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and the “Beyond the Fringe” gang. But it was Martin’s ear for comedy that alerted him to the young men’s edge; the legend goes that when the producer asked the boys if there were anything they didn’t like about the studio set-up, Harrison responded, “Well, for starters, I don’t like your tie.” Another record executive might have recoiled from such a stroppy lad. Martin warmed to the wit.
More to the point, he understood — as the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, understood — that here was a group in which no one was the star yet all of them were. In 1962, that was revolutionary. The model for rock groups had always been a cute face out front and anonymous musicians behind. We all know Buddy Holly, but who remembers the Crickets? Wrote Martin in his 1979 memoirs, “All You Need Is Ears,” “My original feeling was that Paul had a sweeter voice, John’s had more character, and George was generally not so good. I was thinking, on balance, that I should make Paul the leader. Then, after some thought, I realized that if I did so, I would be changing the nature of the group. Why do that? Why not keep them as they were?”
It took a while for the culture to adjust. In the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” you can see the cameras frantically searching for the star, to the point where Lennon is barely even miked. But the fans got it, and the meme spread to embrace all of early-’60s rock: that each member of a group contributes an individual personality and that the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. (For that to happen, Martin had to lower the boom on subpar drummer Best — the other three were about to sack him anyway — and sign off on his replacement, Ringo Starr, as an integral part of the group, sonically and otherwise.)
Another innovation enabled by Martin that we now take for granted: A pop act should write its own songs. Before then, most performers relied on professional songwriters; even Elvis didn’t pen his own hits. But Lennon and McCartney pushed for their compositions, and Martin, after initial reluctance, saw the light, urged them to lay down a faster version of “Please, Please Me,” and announced once the tape stopped rolling, “You have just recorded your first Number One record.” He was right, of course.
How does allowing performers to record — and create, and expand upon — their own material change things? It gives them a voice. It means that they mean what they sing, that a song isn’t a generic sentiment but a personal, even profound statement, and that’s a notion that has never left us since, through waves of singer-songwriters, rap artists, and beyond. Dylan was pushing similar boundaries on his first two records, but he was a folk artist known only to cognoscenti at that point; it was the Beatles who took the idea to the pop mainstream. And it gave them artistic ambitions beyond anything they had imagined.
Because of George Martin, those ambitions were realized. As the Beatles moved forward in musical and lyrical complexity over the next eight years, leading popular music by seeming always to be one step ahead of it, Martin was the man who made the new sounds possible. A trained musician and recording engineer, he could take Lennon and McCartney’s brilliant but often inchoate ideas and translate them into studio actuality.
He suggested and scored the string quartet on “Yesterday,” a conceptual breakthrough at the time. He spliced two versions of “Strawberry Fields Together” into one and made the song we know today. He found the piccolo trumpet player for “Penny Lane” and created the phantasmagoric soundscapes of songs like “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” (“As usual, having written a great song, [John] said to me, ‘Do what you can with it,’ and walked away.”) And he oversaw the surrealistic maelstrom of “A Day in the Life,” up to and including the mighty multi-keyboard chord that ends the song.
“A two-way swing developed in our relationship,” wrote Martin in his autobiography. “On the one hand, as the style emerged and the recording techniques developed, so my control — over what the finished product sounded like — increased. Yet at the same time, my need for changing the pure music became less and less. As I could see their talent growing, I could recognize that an idea coming from them was better than an idea coming from me, though it would still be up to me to decide which was the better approach. In a sense, I made a sort of tactical withdrawal, recognizing that theirs was the greater talent.”
A modest and balanced sort of humblebrag, yet imagine this: What might the Beatles have sounded like — what might the culture have sounded like — without George Martin at the boards? You can get a sense on the one album of theirs in which he wasn’t involved, the intentionally rough-edged “Let It Be” (produced, contentiously, by Phil Spector). More than that, imagine the jolting butterfly-effect of a 2016 in which all the group’s innovations and ambitions, musical, lyrical, and otherwise, didn’t exist. It’s a world that would sound radically different and undoubtedly poorer.
George Martin allowed those innovations and ambitions to be realized. He was the man behind the curtain of the 1960s. We should pay attention to the man behind the curtain.