When I was growing up in the 1980s it wasn’t particularly fashionable to like the Beatles. John Lennon was dead, Paul McCartney was doing the Frog Song, George Harrison hadn’t yet reemerged on Cloud Nine… and Ringo was Thomas The Tank Engine.
Lucky for me, I had a dad with a collection of Beatles vinyl and an older brother and sister who insisted on playing the records in spite of fashion. In reality, I think it’s because they were the only records we had, but whether design or thrift led to it – my life began with a Beatles soundtrack, a soundtrack that I would later learn could never have happened without George Martin.
As I grew up, and background music became a serious interest and the Beatles a mild obsession, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the story of four lads from Liverpool going from backroom clubs and dodgy tours of sixties Sin City, Hamburg, to become the biggest, best and most enduring band in the history of music.
And every account charts two major influences on making that journey happen – the band’s enigmatic manager Brian Epstein, who tragically died at just 32 in 1967, and the ‘fifth Beatle”, producer George Martin.
As I read more about Martin and watched documentaries on The Beatles the idea of being a producer intrigued me. Having the ability to bring together phenomenal talent, and to harness it, refine it and to make something as beautiful, groundbreaking and experimental as the dozen studio albums The Beatles produced fascinated me.
By the time the 90s came round and Beatlemania 2 was in full swing thanks to Britpop, Oasis and Cool Britannia, I (along with every other 17-year-old in Britain) was in an indie band. But my obsession – gigging and adoring fans? No, making records… first on 4-track machines in a garage, and later upgrading to recording studios and 2-inch tape 24-track analogue.
Despite being the singer and guitarist, my true love was crafting ‘the sound’, multi-tracking and making a warm and pleasing experience for the listener, much to the frustration of the rest of the band and the actual producer.
When I closed my eyes and stood in the control room, I more often thought of myself as George Martin as I did John Lennon. And that’s because despite almost everyone who lived in the sixties being dubbed the fifth Beatle at some stage, George Martin actually was.
He was a man who saw the potential of four raw musicians barely out of school and developed them every step of the way from Please Please Me (remarkably, recorded in a single day) to the incredible audio journey that is Abbey Road (the record that defines what an ‘album’ should be).
It’s no coincidence that the only Beatles album Martin didn’t produce, Let it Be (the work of Phil Spector) was, well, disjointed at best. Yes, it was recorded at the nadir of John and Paul’s relationship breakdown, but somehow even after this Martin was able to get one last (and in my opinion the best) Beatles album out of the Fab Four. If there had been any doubt that Martin was essential to making The Beatles who they were, the creation of Abbey Road against all odds just before the band’s acrimonious split in 1970 was it.
Martin, an older man than the Fab Four, with a background in comedy and classical production proved that to create greatness you needed experience and knowledge – and not always in the most obvious places.
Few would have thought that a well-spoken, gentle-mannered producer who wasn’t keen on the life of excess that a young John, Paul, George and Ringo led would shape an audio revolution – and inspire generations of musicians and music fans. Even fewer might think that teenagers, like me, would grow up wanting to be like him.
Of course it’s no coincidence that such a brilliant, inspirational and transformative figure continued to flourish post-Beatles and worked with everyone who’s anyone in British music. The tributes will flow in thick and fast as news of his death spreads across the world.
But even just as a kid who grew up in Essex with a few records (later CDs), a guitar, a tape recorder and dreams of stardom, it feels like today’s the day the music died.