Producer George Martin was the most essential contributor to the music of The Beatles from someone not named John, Paul, George, or Ringo. Throughout their entire discography – minus a rather confusing carousel of producers helming the Get Back project that eventually morphed into Let It Be – Martin walked in stride as The Beatles entered their most experimental and psychedelic phase.
That’s not to say he always agreed with what was going on. Martin had little hand in the recording or production of ‘Revolution 9’ and argued against its inclusion in The Beatles. He also stepped in when necessary, like during the recording of ‘A Day in the Life’ where Paul McCartney’s instructions to the orchestra were too vague and Martin was required to write a rough score to make the final crescendo more tangible for the musicians. But by and large, there was no scenario too far out or too strange for Martin to handle.
Martin met his match, however, when John Lennon arrived with a new composition in 1967 entitled ‘I Am the Walrus’. After having arranged the carnival cacophony of ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!’, syncing up two completely different takes of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and organising the wild madness of the coda for ‘All You Need is Love’, Martin finally came across a song that completely befuddled him.
“George looked flummoxed; for once he was at a loss for words,” engineer Geoff Emerick recalled. According to Emerick, Martin’s first reaction upon being played the track was to turn to Lennon and say, “‘Well John, to be honest I have only one question: What the hell do you expect me to do with that?’”.
Never one to back down from a challenge, Martin began to cull inspiration from his vast experience as a producer. His classical piano training helped him sequence the song’s different movements, while his arranging expertise helped make sense out of the strange orchestral requests that Lennon was making. Perhaps most importantly, Martin’s previous history with recording comedy records lead to goofy sounds and off-beat noises sung by The Mike Sammes Singers.
“John worked with George Martin on the orchestration and did some very exciting things with the Mike Sammes Singers,” Paul McCartney explained in the book Many Years From Now. “Most of the time they got asked to do ‘Sing Something Simple’ and all the old songs, but John got them doing all sorts of swoops and phonetic noises. It was a fascinating session. That was John’s baby, great one, a really good one”.
“The idea of using voices was a good one,” Martin himself recalled to Mark Lewisohn. “We got in the Mike Sammes Singers, very commercial people and so alien to John that it wasn’t true. But in the score I simply orchestrated the laughs and noises, the whooooooah kind of thing. John was delighted with it”.
Along with the singers, Lennon also added in radio broadcasts from the BBC, adding in an additional layer of strangeness to the already dense mix. Even though Martin was initially mystified at how to tackle such an idiosyncratic song, the end result would up being one of the most innovative and exciting arrangements that he and the band ever put to tape.