George Martin passed earlier this week. He was undoubtedly best known as the producer of almost all the Beatles records (the exception being Let It Be which was smothered, I mean produced, by Phil Spector). If you think about it, George Martin was indirectly one of the most influential people of the 20th century. Martin signed the Beatles to Parlophone Records in 1962. The Beatles went on to change the relationships between popular music and high art as well as that of pop music and mainstream culture in general. The world we know today would be different if there were no Beatles and there would be no Beatles if not for George Martin.
George Martin was also essential in developing the concept of the recording studio as an instrument unto itself. When the Beatles decided to stop touring and concentrate their musical efforts on making records, they changed the way in which we thought about music. Before then, records were documents of real time events, the musical performance. But the Beatles, along with other forward looking artists like Phil Spector and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, abandoned that model and developed a new one. You can use the studio to manipulate the sound of the vocals, the guitars, the drums. You can use the studio to paint sound pictures that would not be possible by just recording a bunch of musicians in a room together. Simply put, these were records that could not have been made any other way and George Martin was essential to enabling the Beatles to do it. His background in classical music and familiarity with the work of avant-garde electronic composers as well as his experience producing comedy records made his particularly well suited to help the Beatles create their amazing music.
George Martin produced many other great records besides the Beatles and I would like to call your attention to a couple of them.
The Paul Winter Consort were an interesting group that mixed jazz, classical and world musics. Martin produced their fourth album, Icarus (1972). Winter said that Martin taught him “how to use the studio as a tool”, and allowed him to record the album in a relaxed atmosphere, which was different from the pressurized control in a professional studio. The result was a remarkable record that was unlike anything else you were hearing at the time. George Martin once described it as “the finest album I’ve ever made”. Very bold words from the man who was part of the creative process that made Sergent Peppers but Martin is certainly entitled to his own opinion on his own work.
Paul Winter Consort – Icarus
Jeff Beck was certainly no unknown quantity in 1974, having already make his mark with The Yardbirds, The Jeff Beck Groups and Beck, Bogert & Appice but I think everyone was unprepared when Beck came out with the all instrumental album Blow By Blow. The record covers a wide range of styles within the context of the instrumental guitar record and really showcases thetalents of both the artist and the producer. This is no better demonstrated than by the tune Diamond Dust, where the George Martin arranged strings work perfectly with Beck’s guitar to create a wonderfully atmospheric guitar piece.
Jeff Beck – Diamond Dust
As I was listening to these two very different records, it occurred to me how much they grew out of creative impulses that can be traced back to George Martin’s amazing groundbreaking work he did with the Beatles. He was one of those rare gifted individuals who really helped change the world.