The fifth Beatle: George Martin’s gift

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It’s about relationships.

That, perhaps even more than the knee-bucklingly great records he made with the Beatles, is what producer George Martin was here to teach us.

Martin, who recently died at the age of 90, has rightly been called “the fifth Beatle.” Although a generation older than the band, he served as mentor, collaborator and, at times, the grown up in the room. Paul McCartney described him as a father figure.

It is hard to overstate the quality and impact of the work he and the Beatles did together. I’ll just say that no body of recorded music, by anyone, has ever sounded more original.

Martin, whose background was in classical music, and who connected with the Beatles after recording comedy, classical and jazz artists, brought a worldly ear to their early sound. From the very beginning — you hear it in “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — Beatles records projected an unprecedented polish and dynamism that simply sprang from the turntable.

Later, when the Beatles eschewed touring to concentrate on studio creation, Martin’s technical know-how enabled the band to take flight, resulting in records, from Revolver through Abbey Road, which thoroughly vaporized previously encrusted distinctions between popular and high culture, the avant-garde and entertainment.

This was a creative run that, it is not too much to say, changed the world.

People, understandably, have been trying ever since to figure out how George Martin and the Beatles did it. Imagine what might be possible if you could somehow find the formula, develop a system, that might replicate even a decent fraction of the Beatles’ creativity and transfer it to other endeavors, from the arts, say, to business and community building.

This would indeed be catching lightning in a bottle. What the mystics call Alchemy.

There’s a part of us that wants to believe that the right system can make anything possible. This is a comforting notion; it downplays the vagaries of time and place and personality — circumstances beyond our control — in favor of a plan: just follow the directions, heat and serve.

Pop music had a system of its own in the early 1960’s. George Martin was part of that system — so much so that, like every other record producer in England at the time, he initially passed on recording the Beatles.

Then he actually met them. This is where the story gets interesting. Martin was impressed by the boys’ wit, their charisma and camaraderie. He enjoyed being with them enough to want to work with them. It was the beginning of one of the most fruitful artistic relationships of the 20th century.

For many of us who lived through it, albeit from afar, the tragedy of the Beatles’ break-up had less to do with the dissolution of a great band than with the awful realization that even friendship has its limits. The Beatles made it seem as if friends could accomplish anything together. The amazing thing is that, for awhile, this was actually true.

And for that, George Martin deserves our undying gratitude.








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