For many aficionados of studio recording, pop-music production can be divided into two eras: Before George Martin, and after.
The well-connected producer and talent scout, who helped bring the Beatles out of obscurity in the early '60s and was regarded as "the fifth Beatle," died Tuesday at age 90.
Paul McCartney posted a remembrance on his web site and called Martin "the most generous, intelligent and musical person I've ever had the pleasure to know."
"Thank you for all your love and kindness, George. Peace and love," Ringo Starr said on Twitter.
Beyond his critical role as the Beatles' collaborator, Martin helped usher in a new era of studio recording with his innovative treatment of the band's songs. Everything from classical music to avant-garde touches went into the mix, with Martin figuring out ways to execute the Beatles' increasingly bold sonic schemes.
On groundbreaking tracks such as the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," John Lennon offered his producer and confidante an outlandish suggestion. "He wanted his voice to sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a hilltop," Martin later recalled. "Well, I said, 'It's a bit expensive going to Tibet. Can we make do with it here?'"
By manipulating the speakers and electronics in Abbey Road studio, Martin and his team of engineers produced the desired effect. Such innovations were commonplace on Beatles recordings, and books such as Mark Lewisohn's "The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962-1970" have served as bibles for producers and recording engineers ever since. In the hands of Martin and the Beatles, the recording studio became a sonic laboratory where anything was possible and entire worlds were created in the space between the headphones for generations of listeners.
"The definitive record producer," Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich said of Martin. "He did it all first ... and best."
Mark Ronson, who has produced for artists such as Amy Winehouse and Bruno Mars and recently won a record of the year Grammy for "Uptown Funk," praised Martin as "the greatest British record producer of all time. We will never stop living in the world you helped create." Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend and producer for artists such as M.I.A., Santigold and the Weeknd, tweeted that "George Martin is why I make music."
Martin, a classically trained musician and producer who was born in London in 1926, worked on a number of hit records in the 1950s by comics such as Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and had turned around the fortunes of his employer, Parlophone Records, a subsidiary of the powerhouse label EMI. But he did not have any major successes in pop music, and was eager to break the label into the burgeoning rock 'n' roll market in the early '60s.
After just about everyone who was anyone in the British music industry took a pass on the Beatles, Martin played a hunch. At the time, the Beatles were, in Martin's words, "the joke of the business," turned down by every record label in England. Martin, on the other hand, was a producer of joke albums, including the Goon Show troupe. The Beatles were Goon Show fans. Martin was charmed by the Beatles' "wacky sense of humor." From that tenuous beginning, one of the most successful partnerships of the rock era was forged.
The relationship got off to a rocky start, when the Beatles snubbed Martin's suggestion that they record a song called "How Do You Do It?" It was later recorded by the quartet's rivals, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and became a No. 1 hit. But in September 1962, the Beatles re-recorded their song "Love Me Do," after Martin replaced Starr with session drummer Andy White. Though Starr felt burned, the song cracked the top 20. Martin then coaxed the Beatles into speeding up another one of their originals, "Please Please Me," and was so pleased with the results that he confidently said to his young accomplices, "Gentlemen, you have just made your first number one record."
Martin would go on to play a crucial role in fleshing out the Beatles' arrangements and helping them morph from a powerful rock combo into an art-pop band that used the studio as an instrument. He would often play keyboards and layer orchestral instrumentation around the melodies composed by Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison.
In the era of the generation gap, there was a significant difference in the ages of the Beatles and Martin when they started working together. The veteran producer was 36, the oldest Beatle 22. But they bridged the chasm by developing an unusually flexible and supportive relationship. Initially, Martin served as something of a guide to the recording studio. The Beatles had cut their teeth on the stage, playing hundreds of shows, primarily in England and Germany, where they served a long residency in Hamburg, but were novices when it came to harnessing their creativity in the studio.
It was Martin who suggested that McCartney add strings to augment "Yesterday." The songwriter was reluctant to indulge in any "Mantovani rubbish," but Martin's microphone placements helped bring out the attack and texture in the classical instruments, and underlined the song's air of sadness verging on despair. He composed the harpsichord part and played piano on "In My Life," arranged the string section to "Eleanor Rigby" and the walloping orchestral finale of "A Day in the Life," transposed McCartney's whistled melody line to a trumpet solo in "Penny Lane," and facilitated the Beatles' experimentation with backward and vari-speed tape loops and other avant-garde touches in the experimental era that produced the landmark "Revolver" album and the celebrated "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
Martin's role transitioned from that of all-knowing conductor to an accomplice and facilitator, as the Beatles became more confident and audacious in their ability to exploit studio technology. His willingness to adapt and encourage the band made for one of the strongest band-producer partnerships in rock history, despite lingering social differences. "I knew they smoked marijuana, but they never did it in front of me," Martin insisted at a presentation at the Park West in the 1990s. "The drug thing was blown out of proportion. . . . The brilliance of 'Sgt. Pepper' was because of the Beatles, and it came in spite of the drugs, not because of it."
But in a Tribune interview a few years later, McCartney contradicted that assertion. "George said that?" McCartney said. "Aww, noooo. George is sweet, but . . . I love it, don't you love that generation? So sweet. I think he's being very defensive and non-litigious, but it's not true. Those were the times. I don't defend or attack them, it's just how it was. It's like saying the soldiers didn't sleep with girls before they went off to World War II. We all know they did. And so did we. George is a hip guy, but he doesn't want to let you naughty journalists know we did naughty things. But to give him the benefit of the doubt, [the drug use] wasn't in his face. He was a grownup and you didn't do that sort of thing in front of the grownups."
Martin was indeed a grownup, a sophisticated musician who at the same time appreciated and enabled his students-turned-masters in their mission to remake popular music. After the Beatles broke up, he would go on to produce significant albums by a wide range of artists, including Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick, Dire Straits, America, Ultravox, Aerosmith and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But his name will always be most closely linked to the Beatles. "George Martin made us what we were in the studio," Lennon once said. "He helped us develop a language to talk to other musicians."