George Martin, the music producer of the Beatles and one of the most influential producers in music history, has passed away. He was often referred to as ‘the fifth Beatle’ for having discovered the Beatles and producing their records when no one else would. In memory of his passing, below is a foreword that he wrote for the book The Great British Recording Studios.
AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR, England was a battered nation with the hopes of its people at a low ebb. True, no enemy had landed on our shores, but the standard of living and morale were low. Everyone was weary, yearning for a sign of relief from the misery that war had brought. The heavy bombing of major cities like London and Coventry had done more damage to the spirit of the people than any material destruction of their homes and property.
But then, with the coming of the ’50s, music began to lighten the scene. Records gave the young hope, and teenagers bought and swopped records from the USA as well as the homegrown ones. In a pretelevision age, sound was king. And the United States seemed to be the best place in the world for rock ’n’ roll music.
So Britain woke up. Suddenly, good sounds were being made in good studios. Not just from the big boys like EMI and Decca, but also in little independent studios that gave free rein to their clients. We demanded and received better recording facilities. Tables were turned, and our records became the envy of other European nations.
And happily, I was there.
When the Beatles first met George Martin, no one could have been a more unlikely candidate to produce their records. At 36, he was nearly twice their ages. From his patrician upbringing to his choice of neckties, the Parlophone Records producer and talent scout had a style and stature that was diametrically opposed to the young Liverpudlian upstarts. But Martin and the erstwhile super group (especially John Lennon) clicked, partly because of a shared passion for the lunacy of the BBC’s The Goon Show.
Martin’s involvement with the Goons wasn’t just as a fan and a devotee; he’d actually produced records for the Goons, including their classic album The Bridge on the River Wye, which spoofed the Academy Award-winning movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. Martin was a friend of Spike Milligan, the show’s creative voice, who he met through Peter Sellers (whose early Parlophone albums Martin also produced). The breakout single from Sellers’ second album was a parody of Lonnie Donegan’s recording of “Puttin’ on the Style,” a nineteenth-century pop song that was in the early repertoire of the skiffle-mad Quarrymen. Later on, Sellers did one of the first covers of “A Hard Day’s Night,” performed in the style of Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III.
The half-hour wacky weekly Goon Show had been a staple in sophisticated British households since its immaculate conception in 1951 and was a forerunner to an entire new wave of British comedy, inspiring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to go Beyond the Fringe. (Martin produced their album as well in 1961.)
The affliction with the Goons immediately endeared Martin to John Lennon, who was just entering adolescence at the time the Goons took to the airwaves, and whose view of reality was inalterably shaped by their mind-expanding programs. The myriad sounds rattling around inside Spike Milligan’s mind were accomplished through the insidious use of ingenious sound effects, engineered through a mastery of echo, reverb, multiple edits, and playing with recording tape speeds, all of which would become hallmarks of the Beatles’ studio repertoire, and especially, John Lennon’s mad, unspooling, and acid-soaked creative vision. To be a Goon Show freak turned out to be an absolute requirement for producing the Beatles, as the group grew and changed, and as their studio techniques (and minds) expanded.
Ever since he came to Parlophone, George Martin had been cutting his teeth on comedy records. His earliest credits include Peter Ustinov’s 1955 LP Mock Mozart, which involved fooling around with tape effects and overdubs. In addition to Beyond the Fringe, Martin recorded David Frost’s satirical TV show That Was the Week That Was. He also directed shows at Peter Cook’s trailblazing nightclub, the Establishment, where Australian jet-setter Dame Edna Everage (Barry Humphries) was known to perform alongside visiting U.S. personages like Lenny Bruce. Martin worked with satirists Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, who took on any and all subjects for their comedy songs (much as the droll, Harvard-educated Tom Lehrer did in the U.S.), producing their albums At the Drop of a Hat and its follow up, At the Drop of Another Hat. A rabid fan of the cinema, Martin worked with actress-singer Joan Sims, a regular in twenty-four Carry On films, and produced her two best-known singles: “Hurry Up Gran / Oh Not Again Ken” and “Spring Song/Men.”
Martin’s appreciation for comedy and studio wizardry may have found a kindred spirit in John Lennon, but his classical training (on piano and oboe) and fondness for film scores made an impression on the more tradition-minded Paul McCartney. As a fan of Johnny Dankworth’s 1960 score for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (another “kitchen sink” drama à la A Taste of Honey), Martin produced Dankworth’s “Experiments with Mice,” jazzy variations on “Three Blind Mice” that hit the Top 10 in the UK in 1956. In 1961 Dankworth wrote the theme for the popular British TV spy series The Avengers. That same year Martin produced Danworth’s first Number One record, a version of the jazz standard “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” performed by a nine-piece trad band called the Temperance Seven, which featured vocalist Paul Macdowell. The Dankworth-Martin association continued in 1976, when Martin produced the album Born on a Friday for Dankworth’s wife, jazz singer Cleo Laine.
The Beatles came up in the rock and-and-roll era, when Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley defined cool. Their early shows were big beat bacchanals, the Brit interpretation of that crazy American sound. But it wasn’t long before they were absorbing and creating more and more music – from folk to experimental, to psychedelia and hard rock, quite literally changing music forever and influencing hundreds of great bands in the process.
This is the first book for music lovers that begins with the simple premise, “If you like the Beatles . . . ,” and takes off from there, digging into their influences and everything that came after them, opening up new doors for listeners looking for no-risk discs to expand their collection.
Beginning with the Beatles’ lesser-known roots in rockabilly and Tin Pan Alley, and working through American R&B, the British Invasion, California folk, and the Summer of Love, and to the great pop and rock bands of the ’80s, ’90s, and the 21st century, this is a must-have for anyone who likes the Beatles, which is…everyone.
Robert Rodriguez is the author of Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock’n’Roll. In the video below, he continues his discussion on how Sgt. Pepper gained its popularity over Revolver.
Ahead of the curve in recognizing Revolver as something special was critic Richard Gold- stein, writing for New York’s Village Voice. Just out of college, Goldstein was on his way to a long and distinguished career when he sang the praises of this new Beatles release. “Hear it once and you know it’s important. Hear it twice, it makes sense. Third time around, it’s fun. Fourth time, it’s subtle. On the fifth hearing, Revolver becomes sublime.” Though his review overall gave the Beatles much credit for doing something distinctly new as they explored the possibilities of what a rock album could be, Goldstein would distinguish himself the following year as one of the few professional critics that did not fall all over himself to exalt Sgt. Pepper.
In Britain, the response to Revolver was equally positive, if less expository. A reviewer in New Musical Express wrote that Revolver “. . . certainly has new sounds and new ideas, and should cause plenty of argument among fans as to whether it is as good as or better than previous efforts.” Melody Maker, who’d previewed the album, merely stated what would become a near-universal reaction, reporting to readers that “their new LP [will] change the direction of pop music.” Disc and Music Echo tapped the Kinks’ Ray Davies to act as celebrity reviewer, and ran his song-by- song take in the July 30 issue. He was predictably frank with his appraisal, calling BS where he saw it (“Yellow Submarine”—“a load of rubbish, really” and “Doctor Robert”—“not my sort of thing”) while dispensing praise where he felt it was earned: “The best thing on the album,” he declared “I’m Only Sleeping” (an unsurprising judgment, given how closely Davies’s work resembles it). Their experimentation on “Tomorrow Never Knows” didn’t particularly impress him (“I can imagine they had George Martin tied to a totem pole when they did this”).
Keep reading this excerpt on bookgasm.
The making of Revolver – hunkered down in Abbey Road with George Martin – is in itself a great Beatles story, but would be nothing if the results weren’t so impactful. More than even Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds, Revolver fed directly into the rock ‘n’ roll zeitgeist, and its influence could be heard everywhere: from the psychedelic San Francisco sound (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead); to the first wave of post-blues hard rock (Sabbath, Zeppelin); through movie soundtracks and pretty much everything that followed it – including every generation of guitar-based pop music and even heavy metal. More than any record before or after, Revolver was the game-changer, and this is, finally, the detailed telling of its storied recording and enormous impact.