George Martin's Greatest Moments as the Fifth Beatle
David Train/Creative Commons 2.0
Although it seems more irreverent to watch just after Sir George Martin has passed away, the British comedy sketch show Big Train had a brilliant bit called "George Martin Kidnapped" which poked fun at the legendary producer's constant recounting of Beatles recording sessions.
He never tired of retelling them, and no self-respecting Beatles freak ever tired of listening to them. Nor did any musicians who might view George Martin as McCartney did, a "second father," a parent who would indulge his spawn's wackier ideas and somehow make them work as both music and art.
Although everyone from over-ingratiating disc jockeys to former timekeepers (yeah, you, Pete Best) have laid claim to that elusive Fifth Beatle title, only Martin altered the course of the Fab Four's career like one of its members where it mattered most — their unblemished discography, the vast majority of which contains a final George Martin brush stroke.
While we could, like the kidnapped Sir George, rattle off the favorite anecdotes, here are five major decisions made by Martin that ensured we got The Beatles as we know and love them today.
1. The decision to sign The Beatles To Parlophone
We know from Mark Lewisohn's exhaustive tome Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years that Martin was actually strong-armed to sign the Beatles, as the label was keen to have Lennon and McCartney for their song publishing. Once he heard them and was still not totally impressed by their music, he was bowled over by their personalities and the charm that would eventually win the world over.
If we want to imagine what might have happened to the Beatles without the care afforded by George Martin, look no further than the career of Brian Poole and The Tremeloes, who were chosen by Decca Records instead of The Beatles, with the A&R blundering Dick Rowe telling Brian Epstein that "Guitar groups are on their way out" and then proceeded to prove it with their handling of The Tremeloes, who only seemed to cover other people's material. Just listen to their version of "Twist and Shout," released after the Beatles and hear this bad decision come into full focus. The band is still very much in the mode of Cliff Richards and The Shadows, a backing band and a lead singer. And they are actually covering the Beatles' version instead of the original by The Isley Brothers.
2. The decision to sign The Beatles as a group with two lead vocalists
Last month, a rare 10-inch demonstration disc (dubbed by the press as The Beatles' Holy Grail) was brought to an auction block. The recorded contents were nothing new; anyone who owns a copy of the Decca auditions would have heard these versions of "Hello Little Girl" and "Till There Was You." What makes it valuable is that the handwriting on the label is of Brian Epstein, and that this was the disc the Beatles' manager brought to Martin to secure a deal from EMI. One side is labeled "Paul McCartney and The Beatles" while the other side is billed as "John Lennon & the Beatles." For a while Martin, toyed with making either man the lead vocalist, which would have single-handedly destroyed the songwriting partnership in due time, given what we know about their intra-band rivalry. Martin allowed that rivalry to work to the team's hitmaking advantage.
3. The decision not to release "How Do You Do It"
"How Do You Do It" was a song the Beatles recorded but never released. Written by proven songwriter Mitch Murray, Martin could have used his authority to force out the Beatles to release it. Instead, the Beatles released "Love Me Do," and the rest is history. Martin ended up going against his original intentions and cut the song instead with Gerry & The Pacemakers, who did achieve a number one with it the song while "Love Me Do" petered out at number 17. But Martin recognized The Beatles' strong will and determination, as well as the malleability of Gerry & The Pacemakers.
4. The decision to speed up "Please Please Me"
In truth, Martin's influence on the group didn't manifest itself in the studio until they returned to cut a Roy Orbison-type ballad of John's that Martin fashioned into the band's first chart-topper. Hereafter, whether it was advising them to start out a song with the chorus ("She Loves You," "Can't Buy Me Love") or suggesting instrumentation (the tasteful string quartet on "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby" instead of the type of string arrangement he'd use for Gerry and The Pacemakers or Cilla Black, the calliope on "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"), his suggestions often played out as a deciding vote from here on out. That you never heard the band second guess any of Martin's embellishments shows how much they trusted his judgment.
5. The decision to overindulge the Beatles
While one could hardly say no to the world's most successful recording artists, it's hard to imagine an EMI staff producer like Ron Richards affixing "I Feel Fine" feedback to the beginning of one of the Hollies' early records or Mickie Most risking a Herman's Hermits hit by starting it with a fade in like"Eight Days a Week." Yet Martin's allowing the Beatles to use their clout for experimentation ensured that every other producer from Holland-Dozier-Holland to Brian Wilson had to up their game and find new sounds or fall behind.
Even when the head Beatles John and Paul bristled at giving George Martin too much of the credit (one reviewer had the impertinence to call Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band "George Martin's finest hour,") one would have to admit that without his guiding hand in the studio, Pepper could've very well gone the way of Their Satanic Majesties Request, a chaotic mess. When they were going over budget with "A Day In The Life," he wondered if they were being overindulgent. Luckily, he had the musical sense to realize that this was also a game changer. However chaotic a track like "I Am the Walrus" seemed on paper, Martin would proudly point out that it was "organized chaos" and his score and use of chorale singers give it the frightening aura that carries the track to this very day.
God bless, Sir George. Thank goodness your Beatles recollections are forever preserved and easily accessible on YouTube. They are every musician's beloved bedtime stories.
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