George Martin, producer of the Beatles, who has died at the age of 90, was a colossus of popular culture. Such figures are rare enough; Martin was rarer still among them, in that he was not himself a visionary. He was an enabler of visions. He was exactly the right man, in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time.
What an astonishing piece of luck it was for the Beatles, and for the rest of us, that their path should have crossed with Martin, the head of Parlophone records. The world would be unimaginably different had it not. Hindsight has a way of making things seem inevitable. But to assume that the Beatles, or a band like them, would have emerged sooner or later, regardless of Martin’s intervention, downplays his pivotal role in their success.
It is not just that he took a punt on an act everyone else had rejected. A man of lesser ability and greater ego would never have allowed the Beatles to blossom into the most magical and influential group in music history. That our greatest-ever pop band is also our greatest-ever art-pop band owes as much to Martin as it does to the Beatles themselves.
If the Beatles are the bridge between the Britain that fought the second world war and modernity, then Martin was an engineer of Brunel-like ingenuity. He was impeccably of the old school; the archetype of the clever, respectable working-class grammar-school boy for whom “getting on” meant assuming the manner of the middle classes. He served in the war, in the Fleet Air Arm. He might have been a hero in a Powell and Pressburger film: decent, wry, sensible and modest (although never for a moment cowed or deferential).
But unlike some of his fellow war veterans, Martin had a very modern sensibility. He did not make a virtue of being open-minded, he simply was. His instictive sympathy for the new, anchored by hefty musical knowledge, was his most powerful gift.
Martin, who had made comedy recordings with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, also had a dry taste for the absurd. For their manager, Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ musical talent had been of secondary importance to their rough and redolent sexual aura. Martin, similarly, was drawn first not to their sound, but to their effortlessly sharp humour. After the recording session for their first British record, “Love Me Do”, Martin asked the Beatles whether there was anything they didn’t like. George Harrison famously replied, “I don’t like your tie” (a quip, which, according to Beatles chronicler Hunter Davies, irked Martin, who was proud of his brand-new purchase from Liberty).
Martin’s experience producing those earlier comedy records, where he experimented with new studio techniques to conjure up entire little worlds, would prove crucial. He was equipped to meet the ambitious artistic and technical demands of a band reaching simultaneously deep into the past and far
What other producer could have found a way to bring about both “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which to this day sounds as if it were beamed in from another dimension) and the definitively trippy Victoriana of “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite”? Who else could have helped Paul McCartney devise a new kind of chamber music on “Eleanor Rigby”, and allowed the band at once to prefigure and perfect album-oriented rock with “Abbey Road”?
Any producer who had enjoyed Martin’s post-Beatles career – setting up AIR studios, and working with a host of major names – would be considered a giant of the music industry, and Martin was. More importantly, he was cherished by the world’s record-buying public, who recognised his achievement as midwife, nursemaid and schoolmaster to a musical revolution.