Sir George Martin: The Real Fifth Beatle
May 4 2006
Many have lain claim to the title of "the fifth Beatles". But, as writer Paul Collins, argues, that accolade truly belongs to one man - legendary producer George Martin
By Paul Collins
FOR A certain generation, it's difficult to accept the fact that Sir George Martin, the prolific record producer, without whom the Beatles may have ended up being a very far cry from how the world remembers them today, is 80 years old.
Suddenly, a generation feels old, as they see, in the person of George Martin, their own mortality being reinforced. The legacy of this icon is a rich one indeed.
His contributions to the recording industry were enormous, and the body of work that he compiled still matters to this day.
For his is a portfolio of accomplishment that should not be forgotten simply because different trends and tastes have come and gone across the years.
At the risk of sounding more than a bit jaded, in the minds of some from today's technology-savvy generation, Sir George Martin may indeed be a figure who is shrouded in mystery.
To the generation which gets the news of the world in 30-second sound bites, and whas a steadily shrinking attention span, there is perhaps a vague and misty image of him.
In their collective mind, he may be seen as a person of distant celebrity status.
In today's world, our heroes seem to be disposable, and sensitivity often dumped along the side of life's highway like a crushed beer can.
To those who may not have a clear recollection of Martin, and who have never had the opportunity to acquire an appreciation for his timeless work have missed a great deal along the way.
Today's generation demands instant gratification, and subscribe to the belief that if you can't push a button on a keyboard and acquire real-time results and instant answers, the effort is hardly worth making.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when technology hadn't advanced to the level where it could provide all of the answers to all of the questions, and solve all of the problems with the click of a mouse.
Those were the times that found a rather polished and sophisticated London gentleman named George Martin at the very top of his game.
Simply put, George Martin was, without question, the most acclaimed and celebrated producer in the history of the music industry.
For it was George Martin who, all those years ago, before computer technology became the mainstay of all industrial and creative disciplines, had to actually dream-up and invent the things that today are taken for granted by pop artists and producers alike.
This was the man who produced the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an effort that stands as a towering achievement of musical excellence and social commentary that raised the bar dramatically.
Looking back at it now, what is clear is that Sgt. Pepper was a painstaking labour of love for Martin, and obviously for the Beatles, that changed the course of record producing forever.
It was an album that, arguably, remains as rock music's finest masterpiece as it served to set the creative standard for the generations of artists and producers who followed in the wake of the Beatles.
It is a musical production that is still relevant after all these years, and its tracks still sound as fresh and vital as they did all those years ago.
How many other musical offerings can claim this same mass appeal and longevity in an industry where, typically, performers are only as good as where their current single happens to be in the charts on a particular day of the week?
However, at the end of the day, there is one thing that remains far more important than any single musical initiative.
It is the fact that it was Martin who had the vision to see, immediately, the wealth of raw talent and the enormous potential of four scruffy young musicians from Liverpool who showed up in his office one day in 1962 having the unlikely name of the Beatles.
Imagine the thoughts that must have been winding through his mind as he first faced those young lads. One can only wonder at his shock when, after saying to the band words along the lines of, "If there's anything that you're not happy with just let me know," and a young George Harrison coming back with, "Well, I don't like your tie."
It was the beginning of a warm and productive working rapport that would transform rock music into an art form.
Martin was responsible for adding touches of classical music into the Beatles sound that were revolutionary at the time.
Be it the baroque piano in John's In My Life, the string quartet on Paul's Yesterday, the trumpet in Penny Lane, or the surreal electronic wizardry that he employed in Strawberry Fields Forever, Martin's unique production techniques represented a key element in the Beatle mix.
From Day One, George Martin was virtually the only record producer who had the capacity and the guidance to harness and nurture the creative genius of the songwriting team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
For when they showed up at his door, the Beatles had already been rejected and dismissed in short order by virtually every other major record label in Britain.
In those long ago and far away days in Liverpool, Brian Epstein was the one who was able to smooth out their rough edges, and who took the Beatles out of their leather jackets and repackaged them to a waiting world in suits, ties, pudding bowl haircuts.
However, George Martin was the man who was destined to give life to myriad of often fragmented, diffused and inarticulate ideas that were tumbling around inside the minds of those two young song writers whose creative brilliance would change the face of pop music forever.
This quiet classically trained musician and record producer was able to channel the genius of his young protégé's and bring a sense of cohesive discipline to the ideas of Lennon and McCartney, leading them down the road to making relevant songs that have indeed stood the test of time.
When Martin first took the Beatles under his wing in 1962, they were a far cry from how the world remembers them today.
None of them could even read or write music in those early days and the recording studio and control room was an intimidating and mysterious no-man's-land to them.
It was a world where the door was locked, and it George Martin who offered them the key to open it up. It was Martin who was the musical mentor who they'd been searching for.
Like many other people, I'm one who always enjoys watching the Beatles documentaries that are shown on television periodically.
Each time I watch one of them, I rediscover all over again how much I loved their cutting-edge music, their unique personalities, and their enduring impact across multiple generations.
And, each time I watch George Martin sharing his memories as part of such programs, I am always struck by the fact that arrogance, conceit and smugness are conspicuous by their absence in this soft-spoken and sophisticated Englishman.
Nobody could really blame him if these traits were present in him, and yet, they are not.
He seems to have always cared much more about the music than about being in the spotlight, and perhaps his quiet and self-depreciating ways are what still draws us to him, and increases our sense of awe for his achievements in the studio.
These days, whenever I watch him being interviewed and when I see him reflecting back on his days producing the Beatles records, at 80 years old, there is still that bright sparkle in his eyes, and that tone of youthful enthusiasm is still present in his voice.
For me, listening to his reflections across his storied musical odyssey serves to make the legendary Beatles come alive once again.
In a weird way, these Beatles documentaries are a bit like watching the old videos of Muhammad Ali in the ring.
Through the years one can almost forget just how remarkable a boxer he was, and how he seemed to breathe life into a dead sport.
Then one sees the old video and film footage that has the power to make him come alive again.