George Martin passed away yesterday at the age of 90. The music he helped created more than 50 years ago has become a part of my life and the lives of so many others.
When I was in kindergarten in 1974 and 75, my sister Karen (who was in high school at the time) bought the Beatles 1962-66 and 1967-70 compilations (the “red” and “blue” albums), and as a result, all the songs on those albums bring back extremely potent childhood memories and were essentially my introduction to the Beatles. I also remember a few Wings albums getting a lot of play in our house shortly afterwards (Band on the Run and Wings at the Speed of Sound), and of course, I remember when John Lennon died. I was 11 years old, living in Nashua, New Hampshire with my mother and older brother. I came downstairs for breakfast before school the next morning and my mother was listening to news reports on the radio. I still remember that little blue and white AM radio in our kitchen.
A couple of months later, in February 1981, my brother and I went to Orlando to visit my father, who had recently moved there (the two of us would move their ourselves a couple of years later). He had a VCR, the first one we’d ever seen. This enormous Magnavox top-loader with a non-wireless remote control – it cost about a thousand dollars. Anyway, one night he took us down to this mysterious business called a “video rental store.” How modern! One of the movies we rented was Let It Be, the difficult, fractured documentary about the making of that difficult, fractured album. It’s important to note the presence of that VHS tape on the commercial market, seeing as how it’s virtually impossible to find in any format nowadays. And I suppose it planted a seed. I enjoyed it as I enjoy any “making of” film about a musical venture.
Other than random footage from the Let it Be sessions, I still hadn’t really heard any deep album cuts from the Beatles at that point – the red and blue albums were still my only true reference point. In 1984, HBO celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Beatles arrival in the United States by playing a whole bunch of Beatles-related programming during the month of February. I remember watching (and loving) The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, a mockumentary by Monty Python’s Eric Idle about a fictional Beatlesque band, featuring tons of cameos including Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, John Belushi, and even George Harrison. HBO also showed George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, in addition to a smattering of Beatles solo music videos (in case we really needed a reason to check out the video for Ringo’s “Stop and Smell the Roses”), and a documentary that sort of changed my musical outlook, called The Compleat Beatles. This 1982 documentary, narrated by Malcolm McDowell, probably doesn’t contain much information not already familiar to rabid Beatles scholars, but for someone like me, who had very limited knowledge of the band at the time, it was a revelation. Their upbringing, Stu Sutcliffe, the Hamburg Years, the Beatlemania, the “bigger than Jesus” controversy, the psychedelic stages, Yoko Ono, the breakup – it was all unfamiliar to me and was documented in fascinating detail.
George Martin is one of the people interviewed, and he’s featured extensively. He talks about his initial, historic meetings with the band, the decision to replace drummer Pete Best, the suggestion of arranging “Yesterday” as a string quartet, recruiting a trumpet player to play a solo in “Penny Lane,” rearranging tape splices in random order to create the psychedelic audio effects of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and so much more. He was not only the producer of arguably the greatest band in the world, he was also one of the first producers I ever listened to extensively discuss studio techniques. It was fascinating to hear how everything came together. The Compleat Beatles, by the way, is basically impossible to find – you may be able to locate segments on YouTube, but apparently Apple purchased the rights to the documentary in order to prevent it from competing with their own Beatles Anthology. A shame, really, because it’s an excellent, concise history of the band.
The Compleat Beatles gave me the incentive to seek out individual, non-compilation Beatles albums, particularly The Beatles, a.k.a. The White Album – hearing snippets of that album in the documentary had such a profound effect on me that I begged to get the album for my birthday the following month. It’s still my favorite Beatles album. I suppose The White Album is hardly the best place to go to seek Martin’s production genius – it’s wildly, refreshingly experimental, but the personal issues beset by the band members caused Martin (and engineer Geoff Emerick) to stay an arm’s length from the band during the making of the album (although he is credited as producer). He was replaced by Phil Spector for the Let it Be album and brought back (to wonderful effect) on Abbey Road.
There have been countless contributors to the Beatles legacy that have been labeled “the Fifth Beatle,” but George Martin was the real deal. It’s hard to imagine the band doing what they did without his guidance.