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Remembering George Martin, 1926 -2016

George Martin who died yesterday, is one more in the sadly collapsing line of musicians who changed the culture in the nineteen-sixties—a change, for once, entirely for the better. As the discoverer and early producer of the Beatles, and the most important arranger for them, he played a role deeper than an average arranger, more essential than a normal producer ever could. By acting as the wise grownup, deep in musical roots, he showed, unconsciously but by example, that grownup musicians and old music could be as much part of that revolution in sensibility as the young musicians who made it. He was the genial overseeing adult of a beautiful children’s crusade, who helped keep it from chaos.

Martin is famous first as the only producer in London who had time, in 1962, for a Liverpool group whom no one else wanted. That view of his prescience, or insight, was somewhat overturned last year by Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive history of the band’s early years, “ Tune In. ” In truth, it seems, Martin was almost as indifferent to their sound as everyone else was, and the decision to sign them to his Parlophone label, a small subsidiary of giant EMI, involved in reality a far more complicated dance with a previously forgotten music publisher, who was about the only man in the music business in London who did want them signed, in order to get the rights to a (never recorded) Paul McCartney song called “Like Dreamers Do.” It was only after they were already signed, over Martin’s reluctance, Lewisohn tells us, that Martin began to think they had something.

In fairness, his late arrival to their genius was a sign of intelligence. The famous Decca audition tape, available on the “Anthology “ project of the mid-nineties, really is terrible, or at least uninspired, full of kittenish covers and ragged sound. And Martin always readily admitted that it was the Beatles as people, not, at first, as musicians, much less composers of genius, that turned him on.

More important for the future greatness of the Beatles was the past work of Martin. He had been until then primarily a maker of comedy records—famously, the sounds of the fictive awaiting audience at the beginning of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” are the actual sounds of the audience at the early sixties “Beyond The Fringe” revue, whose four oddly mated satiric stars anticipated the chemistry of the still more famous musical four. It was his reputation as a comedy-record maker—for Peter Sellers, though not the Goons themselves—that is said to have most impressed the Beatles. For the Beatles always remained, in the first instance, a comedy team—their energies are satiric and expansive far more often than they are subversive or explosive. It was always bizarre that Paul said that his favorite Beatles recording was “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number!),” a strange exercise in pure Goonism. Bizarre, but meaningful—the Beatles are as much the bridge between “Beyond The Fringe” and Monty Python as they are between early rock and roll and what came after. George Martin’s presence had much to do with that.

But Martin’s real genius came to play only in the second half of the Beatles’ absurdly brief career, when McCartney’s growing gift for more expansive musical forms met Martin’s expertise as a professional arranger and connoisseur of baroque sounds. That Martin was there to arrange the larger ensembles has always been noted—what is not noted frequently enough is how brilliant, austere, and original his arrangements were. Every Beatle fan knows the story of how Martin orchestrated a version of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” only to have John Lennon want it joined, improbably, with an earlier electric version, with the two finally put together with a bit of studio magic. What is overlooked is how audacious that orchestral arrangement was on its own: a biting, dark cello and brass setting where almost any other arranger of the time would have done something more conventionally “psychedelic” or syrupy. Martin’s famous string-quartet arrangement for “Yesterday,” perhaps the most famous string arrangement of its period, is equally impeccable: a classical-minded music perfectly accenting a classical-minded song. (The only ones remotely as clean are Nelson Riddle’s Hollywood String Quartet arrangements on Sinatra’s “Close To You.”)

Indeed, one need only hear what happened when anyone but Martin arranged a Beatles song to grasp how hard a task it was: Mike Leander’s string arrangement of the otherwise beautiful “She’s Leaving Home” does go a little over the top, while Phil Spector’s notorious vandalizing of “The Long and Winding Road” is still the blackest moment in the Beatles discography. Fortunately, Martin later rearranged the beautiful song beautifully—though, unfortunately, it was on an album no one listens to, the soundtrack of McCartney’s ill-fated “Give My Regards To Broad Street.”

Like anyone lucky enough to have a brief high period bordered by longer fallow periods—in which, of course, real life still went on just as juicily—Martin could at times seem impatient for being known only for his seven-year service to one band. But by the end he seemed to have become as happily baffled by his fate as he was by the band of brothers who brought that fate to him. He arranged the energies of youth with the wisdom of the ages. It made a beautiful sound.

Source:, March 9, 2016

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