The grammar isn’t all that great (at least to speakers of American English), but that’s the title of Sir George Martin’s autobiography. Mr. Martin, who died yesterday at the age of 90, was the producer of all but one of the canonical Beatles albums, and 205 of the band’s tracks. He also produced a panoply of other artists over the decades, from the comedians of the Goon Show to Elton John’s rewrite of “Candle in The Wind”, which the BBC lists as the best-selling single of all time. But it’s for the Beatles that he’ll be remembered, I think, and that’s how I became familiar with his work.
I discovered the Beatles in 1974-5, when I was nine years old and in the fourth grade. My friend Mike Dearing (a grade ahead of me) was singing a song that made no sense to me whatsoever, but talked about a variety of weird things, like Edgar Allan Poe and some very unpleasant custard. I asked him if he was making it up, and he said no. It was a song called “I am the Walrus”, and after a couple of minutes of talk he offered to write out a copy of the lyrics for me. He did so, and they still didn’t make a lick of sense (which turned out to be pretty perceptive on my part, as they were deliberate nonsense), but I’ve always been fascinated by oddity, so I asked if Mike had a copy of the song. He brought over the collections known as the “Red” and “Blue” albums, and we sat around the den in my house on Bonnamere Drive. I quickly came to the conclusions that I preferred the later, weirder stuff, and that I was going to be listening to these guys every chance I could get.
That was pretty much the case for the next several years, with room left only for Frank Zappa and Klaatu (which I got into because of the Beatles rumor, but learned to love independently.) And really, the Beatles have remained my musical touchstone ever since.
As the years went by, I came to realize how essential Martin’s work was to the group’s sound. A lot of that knowledge came as I drifted further and further into the realm of 1960s music, and in particular, the British Invasion bands. Granted, George Martin generally had better material with which to work than other English producers of the period, but even if you listen to the great non-Beatle tracks of the era (such as Shel Talmy’s work with the Kinks and Who, or Andrew Loog Oldham’s work with the Stones), there’s a warmth and presence, a clarity, to the Beatles tracks that just isn’t there in the other stuff. Steve Earle has said that it is impossible to make a better-sounding record than Revolver, and I’m inclined to agree. Despite the technical limitations of the period (remember, Sgt. Pepper was recorded on a pair of four-track machines), and despite the increasing complexity of the instrumentation as the band developed (a complexity that began when Martin suggested adding a string quartet to “Yesterday”), things don’t get lost in Beatles cuts — they get found. Martin’s work allowed space for a variety of nuance that other producers lost.
And beyond the technical achievement of what Martin did, his musical contributions were as impressive. His arranging skills come to the fore over and over through the Beatles corpus. Compare the strings on “Eleanor Rigby” to what Phil Spector brought to “The Long and Winding Road”: Martin’s arrangement carries the song; Spector’s buries it.
In short (“Too late!”, they cried), Mr. Martin’s work brought, and continues to bring, a great deal of beauty to my life. I’m grateful for that.
I’ll close with a few tracks that he produced. The first is a British Invasion piece from Gerry and the Pacemakers. While they were a pretty lightweight band, this song includes a Martin orchestral arrangement before the Beatles started doing that. (At least in part, it’s because this was meant as a movie theme.)
Next, here’s a cut from Cheap Trick (a band a DJ back in Cincinnati called “the Sears Beatles”), on the Martin-produced All Shook Up album. The album dates from 1980, but this song still feels pretty fresh, and there are several wink-and-nods to the guys from Liverpool:
A track from Jeff Beck’s thunderous Blow by Blow album, this cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” is an amazing track.
And finally, one of my favorite Beatles cuts, with a piano solo cribbed from Bach and performed by Martin. And the recording of the piano solo is itself a testimony to Martin’s cleverness. So long, and thanks for the music.