“They were crap!” is how George Martin described his first impressions of The Beatles, talking to MOJO a decade ago. When he first met the four-piece at Abbey Road Studios on June 2, 1962, Martin, then 36, was 14 years senior to the oldest member of the band. If he doubted the material that The Beatles were playing (“A weird collection of songs,” he remarked), he found the harmonic prowess displayed by Paul McCartney and John Lennon affecting, and the chemistry of the group utterly fascinating.
“Martin’s leap of faith that would change the face of modern music.”
“What made me sign them was their charisma,” he admitted. It was a leap of faith that would change the face of modern music, and unleash an unprecedented cultural force.
Born on January 3, 1926, in Holloway, North London, Martin’s mother had been a nurse and his father a wood machinist. It was the latter’s fireside music hall renditions that proved an initial influence, as did a piano given to the family by an uncle. His initial exposure to a symphony orchestra also proved inspirational. At 15, Martin was running his school dance band, enrolling two years later in the Navy.
Demobbed at 21, he entered the Guildhall School Of Music, using his veteran’s grant to pay his way. Following his graduation, he became a jobbing musician, playing the oboe, before securing a job at the BBC’s classical department in 1950. Out of the blue he received a letter from Oscar Preuss, the head of EMI’s Parlophone Records, essentially offering him a job at the label. Exaggerating his own classical credentials, Martin found himself assisting Preuss, initially overseeing a group named the London Baroque Ensemble, and then working with some of the finest classical musicians in the country.
Martin was, by his own admission, a “brash young man” and “a bit of maverick”. It was these qualities – alongside the fact that he would not command a particularly daunting salary – that saw him succeed Preuss as the head of Parlophone in 1955. Aged 29, he was the youngest person in the country to run a label at that point, and was blissfully unaware that Parlophone – viewed as inconsequential by the EMI hierarchy – was in danger of being shut down.
His work recording a raft of comedy stars – including Peter Ustinov and the cast of The Goon Show (Spike Milligan and Martin would enjoy a lifelong friendship) – saw Parlophone remain afloat, but Martin was aware that pop music was changing and, looking over enviously at Norrie Paramour’s signing of Cliff Richard And The Shadows at Columbia, he knew he needed to find an act of his own that could produce “a tolerable song” that would sell.
Early attempts to find a pop artist who could enthrall the masses led to him producing The Temperance Seven (“nine alcoholics – authentic old jazzers with a great sound”) who scored a UK Number 1 with You’re Driving Me Crazy in May ’61. A Top 5 single with Matt Monro followed two months later. Love Me Do, the first single he produced by The Beatles, would hit the same position in October ‘62, but it was the recording of follow-up, Please Please Me, that would truly set the band on their way.
Martin’s benevolent and schoolmasterly influence on the group can be summed up by that recording. His initial impression of the song was, once again, unfavourable, describing it as “their attempt at writing a Roy Orbison song… a horrible dirge”. Nevertheless, he suggested that the song might work if they doubled the speed. The band went away, took his advice and re-presented him with the song, at which point he helped them tighten the arrangement further, adding a harmonica part. As they completed the recording of the track, Martin famously opened up the talkback microphone and stated, “Gentlemen, you’ve got your first Number 1.”
From there, progress for the band was fast. “That success sparked off The Beatles’ creativity, they were like hothouse flowers starting to blossom. They started to think more and more about songs,” recalled Martin.
Indeed, despite his well-documented contributions as a producer and arranger on a number of key Beatles tracks (Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, I Am The Walrus, to name but three), such was the speed at which the band moved over the next five years that Martin would question his own value within their world. “They could have ditched me completely and made their own records, but they didn’t,” he said. Equally, Martin continued to provide a valuable sounding board for a band who, following the death of their manager Brian Epstein in August 1967, were desperately in need of an objective view of their achievements and subsequent decision-making.
While The Beatles would consume much of Martin’s time and energy, their official split on April 10, 1970, allowed him to become “a free man” and saw him work with a raft of varied artists. These included America (“terrific!”), jazz-rock fusionists The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Webb, Cheap Trick and UFO among several others.
“It was impossible not to be enthralled by Martin’s urbane charm.”
His work extended into TV and film, but Martin remained intrinsically associated with The Beatles, closely involved with various restorations of (and innovations regarding) their catalogue. His advancing years and hearing difficulties would see him pass on the baton to his son Giles, starting with the Love project in 2004.
In late 2011, your correspondent was invited to attend the annual Sound Fellowship Lunch hosted by the Association Of Professional Services, an organization that Martin presided over. Sitting at Sir George and Lady Judy’s table alongside Jimmy Page, recording console pioneer Clive Green, and producer Chris Thomas, it was impossible not to be enthralled by Martin’s urbane charm mixed with genuine openness.
The presence of Chris Thomas also served as a reminder of the man’s acumen and generosity of spirit – Thomas having written to Martin in 1967 to ask him for a job, only to find himself immediately employed, and thrown in at the deep end the following year during The Beatles’ White Album sessions when his mentor had elected to head off on holiday.
Martin’s death on March 8, 2016, brings an end to a life that was rich and full of adventure. It was also a life spent in wonder at music itself.
“Can you tell me what music is?” mused Martin, talking to MOJO’s Jim Irvin in early 2007. “It’s completely intangible. It grips you, gets into your soul.”
Finally, check out 10 of George Martin and The Beatles' greatest studio innovations in our list of The 10 Most Technically Brilliant Beatles Songs...