We knew it would come sooner or later, of course — he was ninety years old, and given the horrible tendency of those associated with the Beatles to die prematurely we were *very* lucky he was with us for as long as he was — but it’s still horrible to see that Sir George Martin has died.
He was, of course, most well-known for his work with the Beatles, which is among the most important work in the history of recorded sound, but he would have been hugely important even had he not been assigned a scruffy group of no-hopers from Liverpool, more or less as punishment, and accidentally helped them change the world.
He was a hugely experimental producer — “Time Beat”, which he did with Maddalena Fagandini of the Radiophonic Workshop before ever meeting the Beatles, sounds like the more unusual work of Joe Meek, while its B-side, “Waltz In Orbit”, sounds like nothing so much as a mash-up of Gary Numan’s “Cars”, “Take Five” and the theme from Zorba The Greek. And his production on “Sun Arise” by (the now disgraced) Rolf Harris is still one of the strangest things ever to chart.
But his real pre-Beatles importance was as a producer of comedy albums. It’s because of Martin that we have preserved for us the stage shows of the Beyond The Fringe team and Flanders & Swann. In the era before home video, those albums were the only way for people to become familiar with those astonishing shows, and the only way we have now to access them at all. His productions for Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers were also the main reason that the reputation of the Goons was kept alive for decades — we almost certainly would not have the vast collection of Goon material available now had Martin’s work with them not shown its commercial potential for record sales.
Had Martin never worked with the Beatles, the fact that he was capable of working with artists as diverse as Shirley Bassey and Peter Cook, and getting some of the best work out of both, would now have made him one of those figures people like me admire as a sort of Zelig figure — “did you know that the George Martin who did Bridge On The River Wye was the same George Martin who did the Goldfinger theme?” “Wow, really?!” — but of course he became, along with Phil Spector, one of only two record producers most people could name at all, thanks to his work with them (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of Brian Epstein’s coattail-riding artists).
Lennon was, in the early 70s, absolutely scathing about George Martin’s contributions to the Beatles, because as he saw it Martin was being credited with being the “real talent” behind them. Nonsense, of course — the Beatles were all supremely talented musicians, and directors of their own careers — but Martin *did* make massive, massive contributions to the band’s sound. Tomorrow Never Knows is clearly the work of the same songwriter as Ticket To Ride, but it’s *also* clearly the work of the same producer as Sun Arise. The Beatles would have been able to do great work with a different producer, but it wouldn’t be the *same* great work.
He wasn’t a visionary, radical, creative figure. But he was a solid craftsman with (at least up through his forties) great taste, a wonderful sense of humour, and a willingness to experiment, to do whatever it takes to get the right sound for the record.
Without his work with the Beatles, the world would be indescribably different. Even discounting that, though, without his comedy and novelty records of the fifties and early sixties, the world would be a much culturally poorer, less joyful, place.
I could here put in all the well-worn anecdotes about him chopping tapes and throwing them in the air, or about “sounding like an orange” (it may be my last chance — when the next volume of Lewisohn’s biography comes out we’ll probably find out that all the anecdotes are false anyway, as so much of pre-1962 Beatle history turns out to be), or talk about how he managed to make Billy J Kramer’s voice sound almost listenable, or a million other things. But I won’t.
I’ll just say to go and listen to Sgt Pepper. It’s not the greatest album ever made, despite its reputation, but it’s what he thought his own best work was. Then go and listen to any Lennon or McCartney solo work. That’ll show you what George Martin did and didn’t do for their work.
And then go and listen to Beyond The Fringe and At The Drop Of A Hat, and realise we’d not be hearing those shows fifty or sixty years on, and after the deaths of many of the participants, without George Martin’s dedication to recording comedy.
The non-Beatles work is of its time — the references in the comedy become increasingly hard to parse as the world of British Railways, Woodbines, two TV channels, and vending machines taking tanners recedes into history, while the three-chord pop of the Pacemakers is unlikely to excite today’s teenagers — but that time is still close enough to our own that one can hear echoes of it in his work, and can still feel some of the excitement, even if one doesn’t, like myself, live a cultural life that mostly ping-pongs between the 1930s and 1960s, barely ever touching the present day.
Martin is somewhat underrated because he came to rock and roll (as opposed to his novelty and comedy work) relatively late in life — he was a few months younger than I am now when he met the Beatles for the first time, which is ancient for the rock music world — and so he didn’t continue innovating after he stopped working with the Beatles, preferring to work with middle-of-the-road acts like America, Elton John and Celine Dion. But that he kept working at all into his eighties (although increasingly aided by his son, Giles, as his hearing decayed) shows the man’s character in itself.
He will be missed. Thank you, George. Remember him this way:
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I love Flanders & Swann, whom I learned to sing from LPs of my mum, when I was a child – I think I probably love them more than the Beatles (whom I also love). Ah George, what an excellent set of accomplishments. We should be so blessed.
George reports somewhere that he saw Lennon again before he died and the latter said “I was out of my head when I said all those things”
That’s nice to know. It’s obvious to every other observer he was talking rot, of course, but it’s nice that he had the self-awareness to eventually realise it himself.
(I often think that had Lennon lived it would have done immense damage to his artistic reputation, given that by the time he died he was already far blander and more middlebrow than McCartney ever got, but it would have made us think much better of him as a person. He was a rather unpleasant person, but was trying *very hard* not to be, and by the time of his death he had largely succeeded. Were he alive today he’d probably be a cuddly national treasure, but one who’d not made a worthwhile album since 1976…)
Lemmy, Bowie, just today Keith Emerson … but, without ever having been a recording artist himself, George Martin outshone them all by a full order of magnitude. An absolute genius, and also a man capable of recognising and incubating genius in those very different from himself.