George Martin: The Producer Who Took a “Calculated Risk” on The Beatles

The greatest argument for George Martin’s musical genius may be this: He had an open mind and was willing to take what he later called “a calculated risk” in auditioning and signing The Beatles.

Think about that. Martin didn’t like their “old stuff,” a bunch of cover tunes, or their “mediocre” originals. Decca, Pye, Phillips and virtually every other major record label in London had flat out passed on the band. At that point, common sense should have prevailed, with Martin tossing Beatles manager Brian Epstein out of his office and then heading to the corner tavern for a pint.

But music, like love, isn’t about common sense. Martin, who died on March 8 at age 90, instead deferred to his curiosity and sense of adventure.

“I simply thought it was worth a shot,” Martin said of the band. Then came a musical shot heard across the universe.

Here we look at three areas of innovation where Martin clinched his title as the greatest pop producer of all time.

The recording, to put it kindly, was by no means a knockout. I could well understand that people had turned it down. The material was either old stuff, like Fats Waller’s ‘Your Feet’s Too Big,’ or very mediocre songs they had written themselves. But there was an unusual quality of sound, a certain roughness I had not encountered before. … There was something tangible that made me want to hear more, meet them and see what they could do. … I did not do handstands against the wall and say: ‘This is the greatest thing ever!’ I simply thought it was worth a shot.”

~ George Martin, on hearing The Beatles’ early demos, from his 1979 book “All You Need Is Ears.”

Martin Collaborated with The Beatles

For much of the 1950s and early ‘60s, record producers had clear roles. They found the songs their artists recorded. They guided bands and singers in much the same way film directors take actors through their paces. But Martin turned his producer-artist relationship with The Beatles into a collaboration. We take that dynamic for granted today, but it took Martin to realize it in ways never before explored.

So when The Beatles wanted to hop genres on the same album, Martin helped them do it: not once, but twice, three times and arguably more.

Sir George Martin with the Beatles

Sir George Martin with the Beatles (Photo from thebeatles.com)

“On Revolver, you could have a song with a double string quartet like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sitting side by side with something psychedelic and crazy like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’” says Mark Caro, a former Chicago Tribune entertainment reporter and co-author of the upcoming book “Take It to The Bridge: Unlocking the Great Songs Inside of You.”

Martin wrote the string arrangement for “Rigby” and conducted the octet. And to get Paul McCartney’s homemade loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” he and engineer Geoff Emerick, who was just 19 at the time, commandeered five studio tape machines.

“In the control room, George Martin and I huddled over the console, raising and lowering faders to shouted instructions from John, Paul, George and Ringo,” Emerick wrote in his book “Here, There and Everywhere.”

“With each fader carrying a different loop, the mixing desk acted like a synthesizer, and we played it like a musical instrument, too,” Emerick added.

No doubt. This was done live, in one off-the-cuff take.

Martin Empowered Recording Engineers to Experiment

George Martin & Paul, during a recording session for the album Beatles For Sale

George Martin & Paul, during a recording session for the album
"Beatles For Sale" (Photo from thebeatles.com)

Remarkable as it sounds today, EMI Studios, known today as Abbey Road, was a place where technicians wore white lab coats and engineers were constrained to operate by the book, and a very strict book at that. But when The Beatles came to Martin requesting certain sounds, he didn’t break out the Abbey Road studio code and cite section 12-B-4. He condoned bending and breaking the rules — and often did so himself.

On the Sgt. Pepper disc, John Lennon instructed Martin that he wanted a crazy carnival atmosphere for his song “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!”

“John said he wanted to ‘smell the sawdust on the floor,’ wanted to taste the atmosphere of the circus,” Martin said, as quoted in “The Beatles Recording Sessions,” by Mark Lewisohn. “So I got a hold of old calliope tapes, chopped the tapes into small pieces, and had Geoff Emerick throw them up in the air, reassembling them at random.” It took two “takes” to get the tape pieces scrambled just enough to get the effect Martin wanted and that Lennon sought.

Martin Played on Beatles’ Tracks and Made Artistic Decisions

We will bow out of the Fifth Beatle debate, but George Martin’s influence on The Beatles artistic output was specific, sizable and longstanding. Plus, he actually played on the records and made artistic decisions that directly affected the band’s sound and success.

George Martin, working out a guitar phrase during the recording of the album A Hard Day's Night

George Martin, working out a guitar phrase during the recording of the
album "A Hard Day's Night" (Photo from thebeatles.com)

“Martin completely adapted himself to what The Beatles’ needs were, taking them to places they couldn’t get to themselves,” Caro says.

Without George Martin in the studio, for example:

  • there would be no piano solo on “In My Life.” Martin achieved the baroque feel by recording the solo one octave down at half speed. On the finished song, it plays back one octave up at double speed.

  • there would be no harpsichord on “Fixing a Hole” or piano solo on “Lovely Rita,” both of which Martin played.

  • “Strawberry Fields Forever” would’ve never have been finished. John Lennon left Martin to stitch together two entirely different takes: one with the band, and one Martin orchestrated for four cellos and three trumpets. But they were in different keys and played at different speeds. Martin got them to work together by speeding up the first and slowing down the second, with the stitch point at the 60-second mark. Once you recognize the edit, you’ll hear a pitch drop that adds to the song’s dreamy, trippy texture. In fact, it’s just after Lennon sings “Let me take you down … ”

  • “Please Please Me,” may never have reached No. 1. Still growing as songwriters, Lennon and Paul McCartney presented Martin with “Please Please Me,” written in the style of Roy Orbison, the band’s friend and tour mate. Ron Richards, who worked the earliest Beatles sessions, recalled to Lewisohn: “We were standing in the corridor outside the control room after the session. George was saying, ‘We haven’t quite got “Please Please Me” right, but it’s too good a song to just throw away. We’ll leave it for another time…’” Martin had them speed up the song and throw in some tight harmonies.

In Martin’s words, “it was worth a shot.”

Photo from thebeatles.com


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