In Praise of the Wizard: George Martin, 1926–2016

Yes, yes, you'll say, leave it to a copy editor to panegyrize the seldom-glimpsed technician, the trouper behind the scenes, the un- or the undersung. (Also, to dance around the first-person in a way he'd surely ax from other such overcooked prose.) This one won't deny the vocational kinship: Much like the put-upon c.e.'s, the music producer's is a task, frequently thankless, of taking the raw material furnished — be it near to brilliance or in need of deep reassessment — and giving it that fine polish by which it becomes fit for the world. Both endeavors are necessarily (all this barely suppressed first-person notwithstanding) self-effacing. Whatever the name of the game is, it ain't personal glory or aggrandizement. You — the reader, the listener — are emphatically not meant to pay any attention to the man behind the curtain.

All of which might seem weird to say of a fellow known as "the fifth Beatle." As producers/engineers/arrangers go, George Martin was/is/shall ever remain pretty damn famous. He's maybe the most famous producer of all time, in fact — particularly if we're talking in terms of producers qua producers, and not figures known just as much or more for scandal (Phil Spector), business savvy (Dr. Dre), or, to paraphrase the president, jackassery (Kanye West, who stepped out from the control room a long time ago anyway). Even if you've been living in a quarry for the past half-century, you've probably got some vague sense of Martin's achievements: his pioneering use of multitrack recording techniques; his infusion of classical and other unidiomatic elements into the pop lexicon. And even the casual fan will grok snatches of his actual performance on Beatles tunes, from his baroque, elegiac piano-as-harpsichord solo on "In My Life" to the literal hand he played in what are arguably the two most recognizable single chords of all time — the closing E major on "A Day in the Life" and, well, whatever the hell it is that preludes "A Hard Day's Night." There is, in short, a general awareness that "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby" wouldn't exist without George Martin; that, in his absence, it'd be far less accepted or fashionable to consider rock songs in the same high-minded academic mode as the symphonic, orchestral, or jazz music with which he inflected them; and that one can trace a direct line between how recording is done today and how Martin laid that groundwork fifty years ago.

And yet — the job of the producer being what it is — the finer gradations of Martin's labor now stand in peril of being lost amid these broader brushstrokes; this seems an especial danger today, on the heels of his passing, with the obituarist's inevitable big-picture-isms now set to spill forth from all corners. And no doubt the Beatles' own unshakable renown will continue to play its part — these are geniuses, after all, visionaries and prodigies the lot, whose innate talent, the feeling goes, would've borne out regardless of circumstance (not a bad trick, it should be noted, for an act Martin initially found at best unprepossessing). Here, then, are George Martin's greatest generally un- or under-heralded contributions to the Beatles canon, however wonky or technical or ostensibly inconsequential. It is the copy editor's undertaking, after all, to lose the forest for the trees.

Knowing When to Rock

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For a guy crossing over from the world of classical — not to mention the even farther-afield realm of comedy and novelty recordings — Martin sure seemed to possess an uncanny knack for intuiting when a Beatles number needed more vim and vigor. One such cut: "Please Please Me," now unimaginable without the rapid-fire patter spurred by its uptempo arrangement (I do all the pleasin' with you/It's so hard to reason/With you), which started life, per Martin, as "a Roy Orbison type of song...very slow...rather dreary, to be honest.... It was obvious to me that it badly needed pepping up." Recalled Paul McCartney, "We sang it and George Martin said, 'Can we change the tempo?' We said, 'What's that?' He said, 'Make it a bit faster. Let me try it.' And he did. We thought, 'Oh, that's all right, yes.' Actually, we were a bit embarrassed that he had found a better tempo than we had." After the session, as Martin would later recount, "I was able to say to them, 'You've got your first No. 1.' " He was right about that, too (if you go by the NME and Melody Maker charts, anyway).

As musicologist Alan Pollack puts it, in his indispensable "Notes On..." series, "Compared with the extant tapes of the Quarrymen, the Star Club, the Decca audition, or even the couple of preceding EMI sessions, 'Please Please Me' gives us an energized performance and an arrangement more complicated than anything these Boys had attempted heretofore. This would seem to suggest that the firm and creative influence of George Martin began to be felt even at this early date."

Embracing the Counterintuitive

A funny thing happens at roughly the two-minute mark in "I Should Have Known Better," the second song from the Hard Day's Night LP: John Lennon's voice, thus far double-tracked throughout, splits off along a single vector. That this should occur so deep into the tune ("I Should Have Known Better" clocks in at only 2:43 in total length) is doubly curious given that here we have a repetition of an earlier bridge section — which itself had maintained the double-tracking the first time around.

But if you're thinking that the move would have the effect of reducing tension, you'd be wrong, according to Pollack: "This section is perhaps the high point of the song," he writes, "because of the single tracking; it has the power to stop you in your tracks. Based on rough outtakes of other Lennon songs from this period...I'm tempted to argue that John was more usually double-tracked not because he didn't sound secure enough without it, but, quite the opposite, because in single-track mode, he almost sounds too intense." (Pollack also notes the audible return to double-tracking, just for a moment, when Lennon reaches the falsetto'd hi-hi-HI, as a way of bolstering what might've been a comparatively attenuated head-voice. This, he claims, is "an example of the sort of attention paid to fine detail" by Martin and co.)

Eschewing Dull Repetition

Pollack sees evidence of this one so often in Martin's work with the Beatles that he's devised a name for it (cribbing from Emerson, of course): Foolish Consistency Avoidance. Be it a third-verse addition of handclaps or a change-up from off-beat to on-every-eighth shaking of the tambourine for a song's coda, the m.o. here was a subtle but profound one — to add to or alter a track's layering as it proceeds, thus negating, sometimes on a subliminal level, the prospect of the listener experience growing stale or predictable. Among the more easily perceptible examples, consider the revised vocal harmonies in the final verse of "The Word"; "And Your Bird Can Sing," which does likewise and also has Lennon stretching to hit a new and pretty far out-there note in the same passage (the final syllable in the phrase But you can't hear ME); and the many, many Beatles songs that end on an unexpected or unresolved chord, sometimes one that hasn't appeared in the song at all until that point ("No Reply"), sometimes one that'll make for a nifty transition into the next track on the album ("And Your Bird..."). Also consider, as Pollack urges, "the value added in the final verse of a song like 'We Can Work It Out,' where, in the same place where there always was a syncopated kick in the rhythm, they execute the phrase in rather perversely equal eighth notes." The cheek of it!

Having It Both Ways

As with "Yesterday" and its stitched-in string quartet or "Please Please Me" and its frothy tempo, it's hard to imagine "Strawberry Fields Forever" without its staggering bricolage of horns, cellos, Ringo Starr's bonkers drumming, and George Harrison's lysergic swarmandal. But that would be to ignore various embryonic and comparatively stripped-down versions of the song — tinkerings or takes that involved everything from melodica to spare acoustic guitar — and, indeed, to forget the finished product's first full minute, comprising little other than McCartney's mellotron and the rest of the band on the instruments they stuck to normally. And while the credit assigned Martin for the track typically cites his role in scoring the orchestral side of the equation, he and engineer Geoff Emerick had to pull off an even more difficult feat in splicing the two versions — the fluttery full-band take and the heavier drum'n'strings rendition — after Lennon found himself unable to decide which he liked better and insisted on a marriage of the two, despite the fact that they'd been recorded in different keys and at different tempos. As Emerick would recall, "My jaw dropped. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see George Martin blinking slowly. I could almost detect his blood pressure rising."

What followed was part crack editing, part happy accident. Martin and Emerick, equipped only with tape machines, scissors, and a variable-speed pitch control, found that by speeding up the quieter full-band take and slowing the busier orchestral version, they could unify the piece under an approximate key (Pollack calls it "B-flat (more or less)"); they also discovered that doing so allowed Lennon's vocals to take on, as Emerick puts it, "a smoky, thick quality that complemented the psychedelic lyric and swirling instrumentation." The result is also that rarest of birds: an example of trying to please everyone and actually doing exactly that. Just don't try to play along with it — unless you're prepared to do some serious retuning of your own.

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