Examining George Martin’s Sweeping Impact on the Beatles
Of all the strokes of good fortune that the Beatles had, perhaps none was as great as the day that their failed Decca audition tape wound up in the hands of the late producer George Martin. So great was Martin’s contribution to their music that he is one of the few people who could truly lay claim to being called the Fifth Beatle.
Born on Jan. 3, 1926, Martin studied piano and oboe at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama after a stint in the Royal Navy during World War II. In 1950, he joined Parlophone Records, an imprint of EMI. He guided the company from a lightly regarded classical label to a profitable comedy one on the strength of hits by Flanders and Swann, the Goon Show (featuring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe) and the Beyond the Fringe troupe, which included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
Martin had already produced a handful of pop records, to slight success, by the time a friend in the music-publishing business told him about a group from Liverpool that had already been turned down by every other label in England. Martin wasn’t blown away by the Beatles' Decca tape, but he heard enough potential and brought them down to London for an audition on June 6, 1962.
After they cut four songs, Martin spoke to them in the control room about what was expected from the members (who were familiar with his comedy records) if he signed them. About half an hour later, Martin asked if there was anything they didn’t like, to which George Harrison replied, “For a start, I don’t like your tie.” The ice had been broken, laughter ensued and Martin knew he could work with them.
His impact on the Beatles was felt before they had even recorded their first single. After the audition, Martin expressed his dissatisfaction with Pete Best’s drumming. The Beatles had been thinking the same thing and promptly fired Best, replacing him with Ringo Starr. But Martin, not knowing if Starr was up to the task, hired late session drummer Andy White to play on the band's debut single, "Love Me Do."
As the Beatles grew as songwriters, Martin’s keen ears were there to guide them. Sitting on a stool, he’d listen to John Lennon and Paul McCartney play their songs on acoustic guitars and figure out what was needed, even adding his own piano to their early records. When they wanted to add orchestral instruments, Martin drew upon his classical background to write out charts and conduct the musicians. He also composed and arranged the scores for the Beatles' films A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine.
But it’s the period between 1966-67 where Martin’s collaboration with the group reached full steam. He and his engineers worked tirelessly with the Beatles in their experiments with loops, tape speeds, backward recording and editing to create the psychedelic masterpieces Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Martin continued to work steadily after the Beatles broke up, producing hit albums by artists as diverse as America, Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. McCartney and Starr enlisted Martin’s services several times during their solo careers. He also oversaw the remastering of the Beatles' catalog when the classic records were first released on CD in 1987.
Martin was knighted for his lifetime of work in 1996, and died on March 8, 2016 at the age of 90.