George Martin: An Appreciation

Martin working with the Beatles in studio during Beatles’ For Sale sessions, 1964. Public domain.

I’m not sure why the news of Sir George Martin’s death on March 8 surprised me so much; perhaps it was because he seemed so ageless, I had no idea he’d reached 90. Perhaps it was because we hadn’t heard news of his fading health, though it’s a measure of his grace and class that we didn’t.

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For those who spend nine decades on the planet, let alone change the world, celebration is far more appropriate than mourning. And that’s what I choose to do for George, because I marvel every day at just how much I owe that gentleman. I’m not exaggerating when I say he may have had more impact on my life than almost anyone outside of family. I’ve often told the story of when my mother bought her Beatles-rabid daughters Meet the Beatles for Valentine’s Day, right after their first Ed Sullivan appearance. My father said, “Get it out of the house.” I still have it. And played it right up until the good CD versions came out.

Music history, as far as I’m concerned, is divided into B.B. and A.B. — everything before the Beatles, and everything after. Whenever I feel old, I remind myself how lucky I am that I can remember the moment when four lads appearing on TV changed the world — and didn’t stop. I didn’t know then how much they would mean to me, but I owe my career — and countless friendships — to those four men and their music. And that means I owe endless gratitude to George Martin.

Martin’s immortality might have been assured just by the fact that he was willing to sign the Beatles to a label contract after countless others had passed. But without his willingness to give them chances in the studio — and to push them to places they didn’t know they could go, including such touches as the string quartet on “Yesterday” — that signing might not have turned into one of most important decisions in rock ‘n’ roll history. If it hadn’t been for Martin’s brilliance in guiding their talents, I likely wouldn’t have spent decades studying the timeless genius of the Beatles’ all-too-brief career or writing about their continued impact.

When they said, “figure it out,” he always did, pulling off the most extraordinary feats with tools we’d now consider primitive. Sgt. Pepper’s done on just four tracks? Splicing tape? Still unbelievable.

Just last week, I heard “Oh! Darling” on the radio and thought it might be one of the definitive examples of Paul McCartney’s talents; he uses his full range: the falsetto howls, the low growls, the swampy blues and balls-out rock (not to mention the killer instrumentation). You can hear the joy he felt in making that music. (Ironically, Lennon disparaged the vocals, saying he could have done it better. Just imagining if he was right is part of the continued fascination.) The lyrics are as simplistic as their early songs, yet they still resonate.

As I write this, “I Feel Fine” just came on the radio. John Lennon’s perfect vocal lead, the sweet harmonies, the terrific guitar licks … they all still move me, every time. To this day, I can’t put on Meet the Beatles without wanting to dance around the room and sing along to every word, just like I did as a child. I remember excitedly tearing the cellophane off my copy of Abbey Road, acquired the day it came out; I already owned a serial-numbered, embossed-title edition of the White Album. (I was still in grade school when it came out, but had already spent years debating the merits of Beatles songs on the playground.)

Had it not been for Martin’s ability to go miles beyond even the band’s expectations as they smoked countless cigarettes while hashing out songs at Abbey Road, would I still be able to find new revelations, 50 years in? Would I hear that joy in every note, and still experience it after countless listens? I can’t imagine what the Beatles might have become if they’d built their career with another producer — though Let It Be … Naked stands as a testament to their Phil Spector experience.

When Entertainment Weekly ranked the top cultural moments of the 20th century’s second half at the turn of the millennium, there was no question in my mind what belonged in the top spot. The editors, in their wisdom, agreed. The Beatles’ Feb. 9, 1964, performance on The Ed Sullivan Show outranked even the moon landing. Though I once dreamed of being an astronaut, I was thrilled they got it right.

When I heard about the Love album, I was a bit dubious, but I knew Martin would never cheapen those perfect gems he helped to craft — or fail to honor George Harrison’s original Cirque du Soleil concept, which inspired it. When I heard it, I was blown away all over again by Martin’s sorcery. And I loved that he came out of retirement to do it with his son, Giles, passing the torch in grand fashion. Hearing Martin discuss it, and the rest of his career, in a Recording Academy talk a year or two later was a rare experience. His humor, humility and genuineness are often mentioned, but can’t be overstated. He reminded me a bit of Fred Rogers … the rare icon who’s everything you hope and expect, and more. Such gentlemen and women carry no airs, which earns them even more respect.

The details of Martin’s talent, class and brilliance are already written indelibly into not just music history, but world history. His career feats are widely chronicled and don’t need to be rehashed further here.

But I’d just like to say thank you so much, sir, for your humble service — and everything else.

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