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George Martin, the fifth Beatle and the key to their success

George Martin’s first impression of The Beatles was not very positive. “I was not impressed by the tape Epstein played me,” he once commented. “There was something there, but I couldn’t find out if it was worthwhile or not. What I said to Brian (Beatles’ manager) was, if you want me to judge on what you’re playing me, I’m sorry, I’ll have to turn you down.”

George Martin continued with his thoughts on the young Beatles’ manager: “I felt sorry for Brian. He was such an earnest young man. I gave him a lifeline. I said if you want to bring the boys down from Liverpool, I’ll give them an hour in the studio.” Of course, this is not the final chapter in the story that pitches the Fab Four as protagonists but George Martin as the orchestrator behind the curtain.

Martin’s scathing words came in a documentary about the brilliant composer’s life when asked about meeting the Fab Four for the first time. Brian Epstein, another key component in the success of the most influential rock and roll band, The Beatles were keen to ensure the band were given a break by Martin and he, eventually, relented. Ultimately though, it was The Beatles’ wit that broke down the walls between George Martin and the boys from Liverpool. 

“It was their tremendous charisma, rather than their music, that won me over,” the maestro recalled, “I’ve laid into you now for quite some time (he said to The Beatles, on 6th of June 1962, during the audition as he critiqued every little move) is there anything that You don’t like?”

Following a quick silence, George Harrison, the supposed ‘quiet Beatle’, responded: “For one, I don’t like your tie.” Laughter erupted and the rest was history.

To assume that George Martin should only be associated with The Beatles’ music is a classic mistake. Born in 1926 on today’s date, January 3rd, Martin was a classically trained composer and musician. Before The Beatles, he worked with comedy giants such as Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Bernard Cribbins. He also worked with American jazz legend, Ella Fitzgerald. George Martin was one of those rare breeds that was destined for music — despite unbelievable odds — he had a natural ability. 

Born in 1926, Martin grew up in a non-musical family and, after surviving during the poverty-stricken decade of the 1930s, served in the navy during World War Two. After the war, he joined the Guildhall School of Music to study music, specifically, composition. George Martin met Brian Epstein on February 13th of 1962; unimpressed by the Decca demos, he reluctantly agreed to that fateful audition where Martin would hear an early version of ‘Love Me Do’. Shortly after, ‘Please Please Me’ was recorded in November of 1962, after which George Martin said to the Liverpool lads, from inside the control room: “Gentleman, You have just made your number one record.”

When Paul McCartney wrote ‘Yesterday’ for 1965 Help Me! record, and after many unsuccessful attempts at recording various versions of the song — including Lennon on the Hammond organ — George Martin suggested a string quartet arrangement. It became the first-ever orchestral arrangement for the Beatles. 

McCartney was initially sceptical of the idea, saying: “We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Martin would eventually convince McCartney. George Martin invited Paul over to his home one day, and they wrote the score out together. This would prove to be the prime example of how the two would subsequently write out music scores together.

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McCartney once recalled the memory: “He would say, ‘this is the way to do the harmony, technically.’ And I’d often try to go against that. I’d think, ‘Well, why should there be a proper way to do it?’

“‘Yesterday’ was typical. I remember suggesting the 7th that appears on the cello. George said, ‘You definitely wouldn’t have that in there. That would be very un-string-quartet. I said, ‘Well? Whack it in, George. I’ve got to have it.”

George Martin was not considered the fifth Beatle accidentally or for accessibility’s sake. It was his orchestral and compositional expertise for one, but also his friendship and bond that allowed him to function within the band as a creative component. A great snapshot into this facet of the band and the producer’s relationship can be observed through the seminal album Revolver. The album, which marked a milestone for the band as they transitioned from performers to real studio artists, saw Martin and the Fab Four get very close in the engineering room; they would push the boundaries of conventional rock and pop music. 

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is a perfect example. Who would have thought, at the time, by placing a speaker connected to a microphone inside a Hammond organ (according to The Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn) would create John Lennon’s distant and raw vocal track for the song; or by perpetually re-recording guitar track after another, then looping them on top of the next, would create that natural analogue feedback shrill? Today, these are things we take for granted; The Beatles were the first to do this kind of thing, and George Martin contributed to the process, indubitably.

To top it all off, George Martin’s last intended contribution to the world of music was an orchestral interpretation of The Beatles’ music. He invited friends of his, including major names such as Robin Williams, Phil Collins and Jim Carrey. He produced interesting, different and unique versions of select Beatles’ songs — songs that may not have gotten a fair spin or listen, compared to the other major hits.

When discussing a classical guitar rendition of ‘Here comes the Sun’ in the documentary of the same name as the tribute album, In My Life; George Martin describes the Harrison hit as “containing complicated rhythms and bar lines all over the place, it also has a lot of repetition. In that case, we can use that repetition quite well, by making theme and variations. I wrote a special score, that starts off in a sunrise-like way.”

This should sum up George Martin’s contribution to The Beatles and, as a result, to the world. He truly was the fifth Beatle; he believed in the music and also contributed to the writing process.

As Paul McCartney once said: “George Martin left an indelible mark on my soul and the history of British music, and he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person, I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.”

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