BY MIKE METTLER – UPDATED JUNE 14, 2016 / ORIGINALLY POSTED APRIL 10, 2016
Sir George Martin passed away at the age of 90 in Wiltshire, England on March 8, 2016. Best known for his indelible, enduring, and daringly innovative studio work with The Beatles from 1962–70, Martin also produced a wide swath of artists including Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Cilla Black, Gerry and The Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, Shirley Bassey, Ella Fitzgerald, The Bee Gees, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy Preston, America, Jeff Beck, Ultravox, and Cheap Trick. (The list could indeed go on and on and on…)
Perhaps ELO mastermind Jeff Lynne (and onetime latter-day Beatles producer himself) said it best: “His productions were brilliant. He created his own sound.” I reached out to a number of musicians and producers to get their impressions of Sir George’s legacy from behind the board, as a trusted collaborator, and as someone who forever changed the way we listen to pop and rock music. (SoundBard aside: I will continue to add more tributes and impressions here as I get them. The latest update, done on June 14, 2016, are the comments from Butch Vig of Garbage.)
Amen and fare thee well, Sir George. Good night, sleep tight. Now the sun turns out its light. Dream sweet dreams for me.
Steve Berkowitz (mastering supervisor and tape researcher for The Beatles in Mono vinyl box set): George Martin produced the records that changed the world — and, for the most part, they changed the world in mono, and this is the way that people heard them. Since there isn’t a better idea than that, what we did for the mono box set was to try and replicate the records in the way that George Martin and The Beatles intended for them to sound, and did sound. The record is the document. That’s the Mona Lisa. It’s not the sketches, it’s not the studies, it’s not what you think it might be. The record is it. It’s what they made, it’s what they approved, and that was the goal.
The union of those four guys, Martin the producer, those engineers, and the way their brains worked together and how they accepted one another — they invented this particular sound. In the past, everyone would say, “You can’t make that sound! It’s feeding back! You can’t make that noise!” But they did.
I had an emotional and psychological moment listening to the original master tapes of “Yesterday” [from 1965’s Help!] while I was sitting at the board in Abbey Road. I looked out the window, and there’s the roof, and the strings come in and I go (whispers), “Wow.” You can hear the slight misplaying, some of the wrong-fretting of the strings. The brilliance of George Martin and the engineers had in placing the mikes on the strings, and adding that in — and how beautiful the strings are in space. I can’t say it’s my favorite, but I’m struck each time I hear “Yesterday.”
Sean Magee (Abbey Road mastering engineer): With George Martin, there’s an amazing period where it goes from making and manufacturing “product” to the art and craft of producing. It’s a true demonstration of the skill they had in those days to get the sound as clean and as wide-sounding as they did on “Yesterday,” considering it’s mono. We’re used to stereo being wide and everything, and that’s fitted in a nice narrow rack. When you get to later albums like [1967’s] Sgt. Pepper, the amount of sound fit in there yet still having it sound as dense and high quality — it’s quite something.
Narada Michael Walden (drummer for The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Robert Fripp, and Jeff Beck; producer for Whitney Houston, Steve Winwood, Ray Charles, and George Benson): I always had the fire of aspiration. I knew I would be a hot drummer because I always worked hard at it, and I always wanted to write songs and sing, but to be a producer — no. if I’m honest about it, that was something that came after I watched George Martin. I watched him work on these albums [points to The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Apocalypse (1974) and Jeff Beck’s Wired (1976)], and I also watched Ken Scott. I watched how he miked drums and put the towels in there, like he did on [1968’s] The White Album. They made it look so easy! I thought to myself, “Yeah, OK. Got it.” So when the time came for me to produce records, I wanted to help people out like they did.
Dewey Bunnell (guitarist/vocalist for America, singer and songwriter of Martin-produced tracks like “Tin Man”): When George’s name came up, we had just produced our third album [1973’s Hat Trick] ourselves and we thought, “Gee, this is a lot of work.” There’s more involved than just going in there and saying, “This sounds good.” So we shot for the stars. George Martin was coming into town, so we thought, “Let’s start there.” We hit paydirt, because he was very receptive to it.
We got along really well. The fact that we had started in England with a British-based sensibility of humor, weather, music, and food may have helped. We hit it off really well as friends. When we would go out to dinner or hang out or whatever, we’d ask him who he thought was the best, and he’d almost always say Brian Wilson was the best producer, the best writer, the whole nine yards.
We did a series of albums together [1974’s Holiday, 1975’s Hearts, 1976 Hideaway, 1977’s Harbor, and 1977’s Live], and George always made them interesting. We’d record at different locations. He liked to bounce around and try different things. He was coming out of his own shell to some degree, because working as a producer at EMI in London in those days was practically the white gloves approach. He was the producer and lo and behold, yes, those were The Beatles, but he was just a technician, technically, at the time. In retrospect, we know he was much more than that.
Gerry Beckley (also a guitarist/vocalist for America, singer and songwriter of Martin-produced tracks like “Sister Golden Hair”): We did the third one [1973’s Hat Trick] on our own, just us 19- and 20-year-olds as record producers. And then, within another album [1974’s Holiday], there’s George. Clearly, there are noticeable differences in approach, but what we were doing was enough to anchor everything from the center.
Hearts (1975) was the second album we had done with George Martin, and that triggers so many memories in us. Obviously, it’s about as brightly a highlight as you’re going to have. We were very fortunate. A song like [Abbey Road’s] “Because” is an incredible four-part tune; a beautiful tune. To me, that’s the kind of example that runs so deep.
Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick guitarist and 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee; Martin produced CT’s 1980 album, All Shook Up): It was great we got to work with George, yes. It was wonderful. He was the best producer, musically, and the best person I’ve ever worked with. A gentleman, and a great guy. And every year, I got a Christmas card from him too. The experience the band and I had with him — it was Numero Uno, Ichiban, the best. He was a great person.
When I did my part for the liner notes on our new album [2016’s Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello], I mentioned the quote that George Martin did on All Shook Up. I had written this part down for George to speak, which is buried in the background. It’s kind of odd and strange — about a month after I had written that quote down for the credits, he had passed away. He probably didn’t ever get to see it, but I respected him enough to do that. It was a quote that I had written, but he was the one who said it. It talks about the power of music.
[The full quote reads: “I’m wishing to live longer, aided by the supreme healing force of music. It most definitely overcomes all weakening aspects of the body. I have felt quite lost and distraught, without those wonderful vinyl productions. I’m convinced it’s an addiction too. I feel just great again!”]
When I went to see George in England — I kind of invited myself, but he didn’t say no — I went out to his house in the country. He and his wife Judy cooked for us, and Giles [Martin, his son, also a noted producer] and his wife were there too, along with my wife. He walked me around the grounds, and he gave permission for us to do Sgt. Pepper Live (2009). I got his blessing. He also gave us the original charts of the musical score to Pepper. And when we did the Sgt. Pepper stuff, we also had [Beatles engineer] Geoff Emerick, who engineered every show we did, all 80 of them.
The funny thing was, when I went to use the bathroom, there was a gold record above the toilet — for Cheap Trick! (chuckles) What an honor, to be in George Martin’s bathroom, along with some Beatles records.
Graham Nash (The English third of Crosby, Stills & Nash who participated in the live Our World satellite broadcast of “All You Need Is Love” on June 25, 1967): If anybody ever laid claim to the title of The Fifth Beatle, it’s gotta be George. I mean, I love [legendary American rock DJ] Murray The K, but it’s not Murray. George Martin — the guy was brilliant, utterly brilliant.
The Beatles found out George had been a recording engineer for The Goon Show in England, which was a comedy group in the late ’50s [featuring Spike Milligan and broadcast via BBC Home Service from 1951-60], where they would create situations on the radio that were completely absurd, of course, with sound effects. George Martin had to do all those sound effects, so by the time he started working with The Beatles, there was nothing strange you could ask him to do with a sound effect that he hadn’t already done. And as straight as he was, he was always a gentleman, he was always kind. George knew what he was doing.
Lawrence Gowan (keyboardist/vocalist on Styx’s spot-on 2005 cover of “I Am the Walrus” who recorded his 1985 solo album Strange Animal at Startling Studios at Tittenhurst Park in England, when Ringo Starr owned it): George Martin made such a tremendous contribution to the music of our lives. Although his name is intrinsically tied to The Beatles’ music, it is equally notable to recognize that he followed his own musical path to the fullest. It is a beautiful coincidence of fate that his path ran parallel to theirs, but he enriched the entire palette of rock music with his characteristically strident approach to orchestration. Martin expanded great songs into even greater sound experiences. I love his own compositions, particularly the “The Pepperland Suite,” from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack (1968).
The versatility he showed depending on whose songs he was giving the “Martin” treatment is incredible. There’s such a vast expanse of styles from which to choose, but to narrow the focus, consider his sweeping range between the Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper (1967) records. Listen to how used a string section to lift the pathos of [Revolver’s] “Eleanor Rigby” with Paul McCartney as compared to the mystic flavor he evokes from another string section on [Sgt. Pepper’s] “Within You Without You” with George Harrison. They’re entirely different, and yet both bear the unmistakable Martin stamp. Then there’s the John Lennon masterpieces of daring arrangement and sonic experimentation he helped bring to life on [Sgt. Pepper’s] “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and [Revolver’s] “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The list goes on and on, and to each he gave his unique and amazing touch.
Tommy Shaw (Styx guitarist/vocalist): Seeing the news of George Martin’s passing literally took my breath away. His absence feels like a personal loss. His masterful guidance, experience, and discipline took The Beatles and their incredible contributions to heights that will more than likely be unattainable by any other mere mortals for generations to come. Thank you, Sir George, for being there to shepherd their raw talent through the lens of your great musical mind in their most creative, sea-changing days.
Ricky Phillips (bassist for the Babys, Coverdale Page, Montrose, and Styx): Although they’re my favorite band, truth be told, The Beatles would not have had the legs of such a storied career without George Martin. He recognized amazing young talent and nurtured it to a place that will never be equaled. What he did with Jeff Beck on Blow by Blow (1975) was beyond amazing, and it will always be my favorite instrumental record. He had a gift, and it made all those around him shine.
Butch Vig (drummer/loopmaster/producer for Garbage, producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind, Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways, and Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream): He’s Number 1 in my book. George Martin broke so many boundaries and set the bar so high for how you could use a studio and what you can do in terms of arranging a rock song. He was an absolute genius.
I think the key is he obviously had an unbelievably great relationship with The Beatles, and he encouraged them on those first records to really explore the harmonies and the double-tracking, and to really make the vocals absolutely soar.
And then he and Geoff Emerick were coming up with new tricks in the studio everyone takes for granted now, but at the time, it was incredibly groundbreaking: tape editing, running things backwards, double-tracking, flanging, phasing, even the instrumentation he brought in with strings. George Martin was brilliant at arranging strings. They never were schmaltzy. They were always dark and broody. A lot of times, they had rhythmic eighth-note energy to push the song along. He just wrote some brilliant orchestrations.
What’s my favorite recorded moment of his? Oh man, there are too many! I love “Eleanor Rigby.” We heard that on the radio yesterday, actually, when we were in the car — that’s phenomenal. It’s just the strings, and the vocals.
I never met him, but I always heard he was a real, classy person. Just really lovely, and funny, and smart, and a pretty cool guy to hang out with. I wish I would have had the chance to meet him.
Paul Gilbert (solo vocalist/guitarist extraordinaire, guitarist for Mr. Big): The music he made is what made me want to be a musician. That’s what I grew up with. I was always curious about his contribution, because The Beatles didn’t go to a music conservatory; they were self-taught and they weren’t readers or studiers, but their music is really sophisticated. I always had that impression that the extra bit of sophistication had to do with what George brought to the mix. What he did is absolutely infused into my DNA, and I get emotional thinking about not only what he contributed to me, but to the world.
Gary Tanin (Milwaukee-based producer/engineer who’s worked with the likes of Genesis and Phil Collins touring guitarist Daryl Stuermer, former BoDeans vocalist Sam Llanas, and former Utopia keyboardist/synth player Roger Powell): I cannot say this as elegantly as others may, however, modern record production began with George Martin. He became an equal part of every Beatles record he produced, and was my inspiration for developing my own fascination and passionate desire for the art. Though I had never met my hero, he has been the basis for comparison and excellence in this recording artform.
Micah Sheveloff (CE marketing and PR maven who’s also an ace pianist, vocalist, and composer): In fairness, I can’t say that I possess a ton of relevant knowledge pertaining to George Martin’s specific contributions to songs or records in The Beatles’ extensive catalog other than myself being a passionate Beatles disciple — with one great exception: the iconic piano solo in the bridge of [Rubber Soul’s] “In My Life” (ranked 23rd on Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” as well as fifth on their list of The Beatles’ 100 Greatest Songs). The solo is just simply elegant, starting a winding melodic journey on A above middle C and painting itself with trills along the way, repeating then exiting with a playful glissando. One almost gets the impression that George was gleeful to be playing the piano part; it just smacks of such free-form artistic pleasure. As a young man, I would play the solo over and over again. I guess I felt like it brought me closer to The Beatles in some way. “In My Life” is truly one of the all-time great pop tracks. Every single time I hear that song, I am sad when it ends.Tags: Abbey Road, All Shook Up, All You Need Is Love, America, Apocalypse, Because, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, Billy Preston, Blow by Blow, Butch Vig, Cheap Trick, Cilla Black, Crosby Stills and Nash, Dewey Bunnell, Electric Light Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald, ELO, Foo Fighters, Garbage, Gary Tanin, Geoff Emerick, George Harrison, George Martin, Gerry and The Pacemakers, Gerry Beckley, Giles Martin, Graham Nash, Harbor, Hat Trick, Hearts, Help, Hideaway, Holiday, I Am the Walrus, In My Life, Jeff Beck, Jeff Lynne, John Lennon, Ken Scott, Lawrence Gowan, LOVE, Micah Sheveloff, Mr. Big, Murray The K, Narada Michael Walden, Nirvana, Our World, Paul Gilbert, Paul McCartney, Peter Sellers, Revolver, Ricky Phillips, Ringo Starr, Rubber Soul, Sean Magee, Sgt. Pepper Live, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Shirley Bassey, Spike Milligan, Steve Berkowitz, Styx, The Beatles, The Bee Gees, The Goon Show, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Pepperland Suite, The White Album, TommyShaw, Tomorrow Never Knows, Ultravox, Wired, Within You Without You, Yellow Submarine, Yesterday