Top 12 George Martin Beatles Contributions
Of all the people who claimed to be the fifth member of the Beatles (and there were plenty), perhaps none earned that title as much as George Martin, who passed away on March 8, 2016. He not only produced all of the groups's records, except Let It Be, he also signed them to EMI’s Parlophone label, which he ran, and was the most trusted sounding board for ideas within the Beatles' inner circle. Our list of the Top 12 George Martin Beatles Contributions shows just how much he guided them throughout their career.
Even though he had very little experience producing rock music before meeting the Beatles, they proved to be a perfect fit. Martin encouraged the band to keep improving as songwriters instead of relying on covers and by-the-numbers R&B and rockabilly styles. As they branched out beyond rock 'n' roll, and needed someone who could read and write notated music, Martin's formal training on piano and oboe (at the Guildhall School of Music) gave him the ability to compose orchestral arrangements for some of the Beatles' most storied compositions. And when there was a sound they were chasing that didn’t exist yet, he and his engineers worked with the band to invent new techniques.
After the Beatles broke up, Martin worked with plenty of great artists, but it was with the Fab Four upon which he built and cemented his reputation. The Top 12 George Martin Beatles Contributions reflect both his work on specific songs and the overall influence he gave them throughout their career. But the entries represent just the tip of the iceberg; his presence can be felt in nearly everything they ever recorded.
Martin’s classical training came in handy on many Beatles recordings. While their experiments with full orchestras are some of their most celebrated songs, sometimes it just needed one instrument to make the tracks stand out. With Martin’s guidance, they brought instruments such as the French horn (“For No One”) and piccolo trumpet (“Penny Lane”) -- to say nothing of the sitar ("Norwegian Wood [This Bird Has Flown])" -- into the language of rock 'n’ roll.
After writing a song based on a 19th-century circus poster, John Lennon told Martin that he wanted to “smell the sawdust on the floor.” Martin found old recordings of calliope and steam organs in the EMI library, transferred them to tape and told engineer Geoff Emerick to cut them up, throw them into the air and piece them back together. The new tape was spliced into the mix for the instrumental bridge and at the end of the Sgt. Pepper song
When Paul McCartney presented “Yesterday” to the group, the other members quickly realized that it didn’t make sense to give it the typical Beatles treatment. Martin suggested adding a string quartet, and he and McCartney collaborated on the arrangement. McCartney made some suggestions that Martin didn’t think would work at first, but the producer gave in, an example of the trust he had in the untrained McCartney (also see No. 2 on our list of the Top 12 George Martin Beatles Contributions). “He’d show me how to write the song correctly, and I’d try to sabotage the correct method and move toward the way I like music – make it original,” McCartney once said. “I still think that’s a good way to work.”
Following the tumultuous sessions for the White Album and the then-shelved Get Back/Let It Be project, Martin walked away from the Beatles. But he agreed to return for their next album on the condition that the sessions run like they did in the early days -- with him in charge. On Abbey Road, Martin oversaw the group's only experiments with the new Moog synthesizer (“I Want You [She’s So Heavy],” “Here Comes the Sun” and “Because”) and, most importantly, working closely with Paul McCartney on piecing together the medley that comprises most of the celebrated second side.
After the success of “Yesterday,” the Beatles decided to add strings to another Paul McCartney composition, "Eleanor Rigby." Martin again composed the score, this time for a string octet. The touches that he put in there — such as the violas underpinning the melody on “Darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there” and the high violin note that accompanies the title character's death in the last verse — bring out the sadness of the characters in a way that guitars couldn’t.
In addition to writing another score that makes particularly good use of cellos, Martin’s kitchen-sink production -- which incorporates a BBC broadcast of Shakespeare’s King Lear and a vocal group called the Mike Sammes Singers chanting “Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper“ -- is one of the Beatles’ most elaborate.
The Beatles’ audition with Martin on June 6, 1962, was enough to get them signed, but he wasn’t thrilled with drummer Pete Best. He told the group that it could use Best onstage, but he would bring in a steadier drummer for the studio work. As it turned out, the other three Beatles weren’t thrilled with Best either and replaced him with Ringo Starr a few weeks before their first session. Unsure of Starr's ability, Martin still went with Andy White for “Love Me Do,” with Starr playing the tambourine. Best would claim that his firing was because the others were jealous of his success with the ladies, but the official release of five songs from the group's failed Decca audition on 1995’s Anthology 1 confirmed that the Beatles made the right move.
In the early days, Martin was called upon to play piano on songs like “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Rock and Roll Music.” But it’s his Bach-influenced solo on “In My Life” that is his greatest contribution as a performer. He wrote out the 16-bar part, but realized he couldn’t play it at the tempo of the recording. So he slowed the tape down, which caused the piano to sound a bit like a harpsichord when played back at the right speed, making it sound even more Baroque.
For what is arguably the Beatles’ finest achievement (we think so), they brought in a 40-piece orchestra, with Martin creating a score that confused many of its members. For the passage that separates John Lennon’s verses from Paul McCartney’s bridge, he had the musicians start at the lowest note they could play, regardless of key, and progress up the scales until they reached their highest note within the key of E at the conclusion of those 24 bars. Martin also played the harmonium on the final sustained E major chord that brings the song to its climactic finish.
The Beatles were always looking to change the sound of their music and rock 'n' roll in general. Some of their ideas (Indian music, classical instrumentation) were readily available, but others needed to be invented. Working with the group and EMI’s engineers, Martin oversaw such developments as the use of feedback (“I Feel Fine”), tape loops (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), automatically double-tracking (basically all of John Lennon’s lead vocals from Revolver onward), backward playback (the guitar on “I’m Only Sleeping”) and playing with tape speeds to achieve a desired effect (“Rain” was slowed down, “Penny Lane” was sped up, etc.).
The Beatles’ rapid improvement as songwriters is as much the work of Martin’s as it was the group’s. He encouraged them to make every new song different than the last and, more importantly, he trusted their instincts from the very beginning. Two examples: For their second single, Martin wanted to release a song written by a professional called “How Do You Do It,” while the Beatles wanted a Roy Orbison-esque ballad they wrote called “Please Please Me,” both of which were recorded in the same session as “Love Me Do.” Martin suggested speeding up the latter and giving it a new arrangement in time for the next session. “Congratulations, gentlemen. You’ve just made your first No. 1,” he told them after they recorded it (he was right). A year later, Martin objected to George Harrison’s harmony note that closes “She Loves You,” saying it sounded like the Andrew Sisters or Glenn Miller, but deferred to their wishes, and the rest is history.
The top entry on our list of George Martin’s Beatles Contributions is one of the most famous stories in the history of rock-music production. After recording a couple of different versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” one with a basic pop track and another with trumpets and cellos, John Lennon told Martin that he wanted to use both versions. But there was a catch: They were in different keys, and the more elaborate version was a little bit faster. Martin’s solutions was to speed up the first and slow down the second, and combine the two until everything matched up seamlessly.