George Martin and the Beatles were meant to be. A groundbreaking and experimental producer, Martin was fearless, unafraid to play with sound and genre to push the limits of recorded music. He was the perfect complement to the Beatles: a classically trained musician who could translate any outrageous idea to notes on a page and who always found a way to accomplish what initially sounded undoable… or downright wrong. His never-ending search to achieve something new helped the Beatles realize their greatest musical triumphs, and the level of artistic freedom he gave them — which quickly became a partnership — was unprecedented in popular music. There is no doubt: Beatles wouldn’t have been the Beatles without George Martin.
As we mourn his passing, REBEAT celebrates just a few of the countless times when George Martin’s willingness to say yes — when most producers would have said “hell, no” — helped the Beatles break convention and break ground, time and time again.
1) “Please, Please Me” (1963)
Pop music in the early ’60s was pretty straightforward: producers chose songs written by professional songwriters, and bands recorded what they were told to record. But the Beatles broke that mold pretty quickly. So when George Martin chose Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It?” to follow the band’s middling success with “Love Me Do,” they objected. Unlike other groups, the Beatles wrote their own material and had no interest in recording an unknown, generic pop song, no matter how much their producer liked it.
But instead of forcing them or firing them, Martin challenged them: if they didn’t want to record “How Do you Do It?” then what song did they have? They showed him “Please, Please Me,” though at the time, it was arranged in a blusey, Roy Orbison-esque style that Martin wasn’t too keen on. But he gave his determined songwriting duo a chance to speed it up, clean up the arrangement, and present the song again. When Martin heard the new version, he recognized the song’s — and the songwriters’ — potential, declaring, “you’ve got your first #1.” The trust formed in those early days lasted through the Beatles’ career and beyond. (Martin wasn’t wrong about “How Do You Do It?” either. It was a #1 hit for another Liverpool group in the Brian Epstein stable, Gerry and the Pacemakers.).
when most producers would have said “hell, no” — helped the Beatles break convention and break ground, time and time again.
2) “Yesterday” (1965)
“Yesterday” was an all-around departure from the Beatles’ usual patterns. Not only did Paul compose it on his own via his famous “Scrambled Eggs” dream, but it was the first Beatles song that had no vocal or instrumental input from the other three. After hearing the bare, acoustic recording, Martin suggested they back it with a string quartet. As Paul McCartney explained in a Facebook post remembering Martin, he was reluctant, but “with the gentle bedside manner of a great producer, he said to me, ‘Let us try it and if it doesn’t work we won’t use it and we’ll go with your solo version.’ I agreed to this and went round to his house the next day to work on the arrangement. He took my chords that I showed him and spread the notes out across the piano, putting the cello in the low octave and the first violin in a high octave and gave me my first lesson in how strings were voiced for a quartet. When we recorded the string quartet at Abbey Road, it was so thrilling to know his idea was so correct that I went round telling people about it for weeks.”
This was the first time Martin dug into his classical training to meld genres in a way that would have been thought impossible — if not outright laughable — for any other pop group, and paved the way for masterpieces like “Eleanor Rigby,” “All You Need is Love,” and “A Day in the Life.”
3) “In My Life” (1965)
It’s one of the Beatles’ most beautiful and most enduring love songs, regularly making lists of “Best Songs of All Time.” If it wasn’t your wedding song, I bet you know at least two couples who picked it for themselves.
After finishing his part of the recording, John Lennon asked Martin to fill the bridge with “something Baroque sounding.” To achieve the desired effect, Martin played the bridge at half-time, then doubled the tempo on playback. This slight tempo adjustment makes all the difference, giving the bridge that distinctive sound vaguely reminiscent of a harpsichord, but not quite placeable — and nearly impossible to replicate.
4) “Rain” (1966)
When John brought the tapes from the “Rain” recording sessions home and accidentally threaded them in his machine backwards, what he heard blew him away. He was so excited about the new sound that he insisted it be incorporated into the song. Did Martin tell John that was silly, or unmusical, or couldn’t be done? Of course not! Instead, he made it work. What sounds like “Sdaeh rieht edih dna nur yeht semoc niar eht fI” at the end is really the first line (“When the rain comes they run and hide their heads”) backwards. This is the first backwards tape that ever appeared on any recording, and spawned one of the Beatles’ signature and most revolutionary experimental sounds. It would never had happened without George Martin’s open mind and adventurous outlook.
5) “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (1967)
Once again, John Lennon brought George Martin a very specific request: he wanted “Mr. Kite” to be so reminiscent of a carnival you could “smell the sawdust.” So Martin tried something new: he gathered up bits and pieces of actual carnival organ tapes, cut them up, and stitched them back together at random. Out came the woozy, trippy, yet surprisingly melodic, bridge we know so well.
6) Love (2006)
George Martin was clearly proud of the work he and the Beatles did together, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t reinvent it. In the early 2000s, Martin, working with his son Giles, remixed over 130 different tracks into Cirque du Soleil’s Love soundtrack. The Martins’ fresh take on on the catalog redefined the Beatles (again) for a new generation, using mixing and sound techniques that wouldn’t have been possible without George’s pioneering work in the ’60s.