Sir George Martin, legendary record producer and the fabled “Fifth Beatle,” has left us, passing away yesterday at age 90. He outlived two of the Beatles (George Harrison and John Lennon) who helped make him an icon unto himself. Over the course of their collaboration, Martin and the Beatles would change the face of popular music through clever orchestrations (Martin often sat in with the band; he played the indelible harpsichord solo on “In My Life” among many others) and innovative recording techniques (including recording Harrison’s guitar solos in reverse on “Taxman” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”). He’s a giant in the realm of 20th Century pop music.
But his contributions almost didn’t happen.
When he met the Beatles, at the urging of their manager Brian Epstein, Martin was a producer best known for working with comedians like Peter Sellers, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on albums for seminal British comedy acts like The Goon Show and Beyond The Fringe. He’d spent little time in the world of pop, and he found the band from Liverpool, with their leather jackets and limited musical experience apart from jamming away in clubs, to be “unpromising,” according to Beatles biographer Bob Spitz.
Nevertheless, Martin was talked into auditioning the band, and the Beatles recorded a few songs at Abbey Road. Though he enjoyed the vocals, Martin (again, according to Spitz) thought the group to be “rotten composers,” and was particularly displeased with the performance of drummer Pete Best—his displeasure would ultimately lead to the hiring of Ringo Starr. After hearing the recordings, Martin and engineer Norman Smith were almost relentlessly critical of the Beatles, tearing down everything from Best’s drumming to the band’s lack of “suitable material.” At the end, though, Martin decided to ask the band if there was anything they were dissatisfied with.
George Harrison responded, “I don’t like your tie.”
At first, Martin didn’t know how to respond. But when he realized Harrison was joking, everything changed. “That was the turning point,” Smith recalled, according to Spitz. From that moment on, the Beatles (minus Best, who was apparently silent as he feared he was on his way out) couldn’t stop launching wordplay and other jokes at Martin and Smith. Thanks largely to Martin’s background in comedy recording, he ate it up.
“We’ve got to sign them for their wit,” Smith told Martin. Martin agreed, and the rest is history. A legendary musical partnership was born, and it began not out of musical respect, but out of a comedic bond. Martin may have doubted The Beatles’ recording prowess, but he saw a charisma in them that he knew would make them stars, and through a combination of their energy and his genius for arranging and recording, they forged what it is perhaps the greatest partnership in the history of recorded music.
So, as we remember the late, great Sir George Martin, let’s remember him as someone with an eye not just for musical brilliance, but for joy.
(Source: The Beatles by Bob Spitz; Little, Brown, 2005)