He was the tallest, oldest, least famous, most nattily dressed man in a recording studio herding four younger, wilder, more famous men toward greatness and into the realms of legend beyond. But what did the “fifth Beatle,” producer George Martin — who died Tuesday, as Ringo Starr told the world and Martin’s management confirmed to The Washington Post — actually do for the Fab Four? It was a question once floated by a Beatle — and not in a kind way.
“When people ask me questions about ‘What did George Martin really do for you?,’ I have only one answer, ‘What does he do now?'” John Lennon once wrote. “I noticed you had no answer for that! It’s not a putdown, it’s the truth.”
In some ways, Lennon was right. None of the many acts Martin worked with before or after the group came within spitting distance of their influence. The Beatles had already been through the wringer when they met Martin in 1962 — put in their time at Hamburg dance halls, written “Please, Please Me.” Couldn’t any guy in a suit patient enough to translate the group’s youthful exuberance into No. 1 hits have filled in?
“He’s just a pro,” Paul McCartney said in a film clip from the 1980s in his “Pipes of Peace” period. “He just goes for what we’re trying to get. And there’s all this random stuff on the way, and he’ll spot a good idea if it’s there.”
It’s easy to hear Martin’s contributions to many Beatles songs. As The Post’s John Kelly noted in Martin’s obituary, the producer sped up “Please, Please Me” and came up with the dramatic ending of “A Day in the Life.” He also played piano on “In My Life,” got a choir for “I Am the Walrus” and helped Lennon realize the eerie vocal effect on the unforgettable “Tomorrow Never Knows” with studio trickery rather than an intercontinental trip
“He wanted his voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a hilltop,” Martin later said. “Well, I said, ‘It’s a bit expensive going to Tibet. Can we make do with it here?'”
Then there was “Eleanor Rigby.”
“My approach was greatly influenced by Bernard Herrmann and his film score for “Psycho,” Martin said. “He had a way of making violins sound fierce. That inspired me to have the strings play short notes forcefully, giving the song a nice punch. If you listen to the two, you’ll hear the connection.”
And then there was “Yesterday.” McCartney recounted Martin’s contribution to the song in a Facebook post after Martin’s death:
I brought the song “Yesterday” to a recording session and the guys in the band suggested that I sang it solo and accompany myself on guitar. After I had done this George Martin said to me, “Paul I have an idea of putting a string quartet on the record”. I said, “Oh no George, we are a rock and roll band and I don’t think it’s a good idea”. With the gentle bedside manner of a great producer he said to me, “Let us try it and if it doesn’t work we won’t use it and we’ll go with your solo version”. I agreed to this and went round to his house the next day to work on the arrangement.
He took my chords that I showed him and spread the notes out across the piano, putting the cello in the low octave and the first violin in a high octave and gave me my first lesson in how strings were voiced for a quartet. When we recorded the string quartet at Abbey Road, it was so thrilling to know his idea was so correct that I went round telling people about it for weeks. His idea obviously worked because the song subsequently became one of the most recorded songs ever with versions by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and thousands more.
Though fun to read about, these are, in some sense, technical details. Martin’s effect on the Beatles transcended the sum of its parts. He was the fifth Beatle because, to borrow a sports metaphor, he was the group’s all-purpose sixth man — its accountant, its technologist and its editor.
“If you’re stuck, you say to him, ‘Excuse me, what are we going to do?'” McCartney said. “… He’ll work it out some way.” Of working with Martin in later years, he added: “His style is the same, his bedside manner if I call it, is the same. … He’s got a really good way with artists.”
Even when working for a group who helped define psychedelia, Martin could be quite the seer.
“I don’t think you can really see the wood for the trees if you’re doing it all yourself,” Martin said of an artist’s need for a producer.
To see Martin’s mystical method on display, look no further than McCartney and Martin playing piano at 0:49 in the video below — or, rather, McCartney playing between Martin’s hands on the keyboard. This relationship transcends that of a producer-for-hire marking time with an artist they don’t care much about; it’s intimate.
And no other ex-BBC stuffed shirt could have pulled this off. A bolder spirit was required.
“I always was experimental even before The Beatles came along,” Martin said in 2013. “One of the records I made was an electronic record called Ray Cathode which was collaborating with the BBC radiophonics people. I made a lot of what I call ‘sound pictures’ with actors and comedians because it was fun to do. I’m a person who gets bored quite easily and I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again.”
Another way to see Martin’s influence on the Beatles is to consider the Beatles without him. “Let It Be” was produced by Phil Spector — his recent conviction for murder aside, the wizard behind hits from the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers, among many, many others. And although “Let It Be” is a classic, it was re-released in 2003 at McCartney’s insistence — though one might argue that Spector had merely tried to do the same kinds of things with “Let It Be” that Martin had with previous Beatles albums.
“Despite the album’s status in rock history, Paul McCartney was never a fan of Phil Spector’s production flourishes on ‘Let It Be,’” Rolling Stone wrote in 2010. “In Rolling Stone’s original review of the album, writer John Mendelsohn also criticized Spector’s superfluous additions, saying the famed Wall of Sound producer rendered ‘The Long and Winding Road’ ‘virtually unlistenable with hideously cloying strings and a ridiculous choir’ when compared to the version that appeared on the ‘Get Back’ bootlegs in May, 1969. After years of dissatisfaction with the released version, McCartney announced plans to put out ‘Let It Be … Naked’ in November 2003, which stripped the ‘Let It Be’ songs of Spector’s ornate production.”
For the record, Martin wasn’t a fan of Spector’s work on “Let It Be,” either. Martin, who had worked on the record in the earlier stages, criticized the final mixes.
“We had arguments about the credits, because he wanted my name taken off,” Martin said. “… I think the best way of doing it is, look: ‘Recording by George Martin, overproduced by Phil Spector.'”
On “Let It Be,” it seemed, some connection was missing. Beatles records can be stripped down to their studs and analyzed — who did what and when in the studio is documented in countless books. And though Martin twisted a lot of knobs and rode a lot of faders, he fostered something less tangible. Call it a feeling or a vibe. But whatever you call it, know that it is not easy to duplicate.
What Martin once said of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” it seems, has broader application.
“When we made that record, we could never reproduce it again,” he said.