‘Fifth Beatle’ who brought classical to pop

Lonely hearts: The Beatles were ‘like an orchestra without a conductor’ until Martin arrived.

They are the most influential rock’n’roll band of all time. Behind their success was George Martin, a musical ‘genius’ who changed the sound of pop music. Just how big were the Beatles?

When four Liverpudlian lads travelled down to the Abbey Road recording studios with roughed-up instruments and a broken amp in 1962, the ‘suave’ producer George Martin was unimpressed. He went to get a cup of tea during the audition, and by the time it was over he gave them a long lecture about all of their mistakes. ‘I thought their music was rubbish,’ he admitted years later.

‘I’ve laid into you for quite a long time,’ he eventually said after about half an hour of criticism. ‘You haven’t responded. Is there anything you don’t like?’

‘Well, for a start,’ replied George Harrison, ‘I don’t like your tie’.

The ice was broken — and as the Beatles chatted and joked, Martin was captivated by their charisma. ‘I fell in love with them,’ he said. ‘It’s as simple as that.’

It was the beginning of one of the most creative relationships between a band and their producer ever. Martin took the Beatles’ potential and helped to turn it into the distinctive, revolutionary sound which has stayed fresh for more than half a century. He introduced classical elements, adding a string quartet to Yesterday and a marching band to Yellow Submarine. Later, he encouraged their more experimental side by cutting up tapes and playing recordings backwards.

When news of Martin’s death broke yesterday, tributes flooded in from friends, musicians, even politicians. He was called a ‘visionary’ and a ‘giant’. Paul McCartney said he was ‘a true gentleman and like a second father to me’.

‘Beatlemania’ propelled the band to international stardom in the 1960s. Their popularity was not just about the songs; it was the laid-back style, the disregard of authority, and eventually the open drug-use which both reflected and shaped the decade.

But in the end, it was the music that endured — even when the band could barely stand to be in a recording studio together, they still produced some of the best albums ever made. But are comparisons to Beethoven a bit much?

But perhaps it is a false argument to begin with. As Martin himself put it: ‘Rock and roll has the same function as classical music — to make sounds that are appealing to a mass of people and are of some worth.’

‘Bigger than Jesus’?

The Beatles are the best of pop music, admit even the most conservative music critics. But no pop music in the world will ever be as good as Symphony No. 9 performed by a full orchestra. The latter simply has more breadth of sound, more aesthetic value, more emotional depth. It cannot be matched.

What snobbish nonsense, say others. Pop music has a universal appeal that instantly connects with people. And how can the haunting story of Eleanor Rigby or the decade-defining All You Need Is Love not have depth?

You Decide

  1. Are the Beatles as good as Mozart?
  2. Has pop music got worse since the Beatles? And is there a contemporary act who can match them?

Activities

  1. As a class, write a pop song inspired by the Beatles and George Martin.
  2. Write a review of an album by your favourite artist, comparing them to famous musicians of the past.

Some People Say...

“From music producers to film directors, the people behind the scenes are always the real stars.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So Martin was the true genius all along?
No — Lennon and McCartney still wrote most of the lyrics and melodies, creating an amazing collection of 217 songs in just seven years. Lennon had the lyrical ambition; McCartney had the musical knowledge. Martin’s role of producer was about taking the excellent raw materials and polishing them into gold. Later, he worked with artists including Elton John and Celine Dion.
I don’t really like the Beatles. Convince me?
You don’t have to love the music to appreciate its technical brilliance, which intricately blends genres, rhythms and harmonies in a way that was unlike anything else the world had heard. But for most people, this translates into something far simpler: catchy tunes which can be both mournful and optimistic, and are often both at once.

Word Watch

Abbey Road
A recording studio at 3 Abbey Road in Camden, London. The studio has become the most famous in the world, in part because it was used for the title of the Beatles’ 11th album.
George Harrison
The Beatles’ guitarist, often referred to as the ‘quiet one’. He died in 2001.
Paul McCartney
The Beatles’ bassist, and one of its two lead singer-songwriters, alongside John Lennon.
Drug-use
The band was introduced to cannabis by Bob Dylan in 1964 and LSD by Lennon and Harrison’s dentist in 1965. The experiences with both drugs would influence their musical style in the years that followed; George Martin is known to have disapproved.
Best albums
In Rolling Stone’ s list of the ‘500 greatest albums of all time’, four of the top ten were Beatles albums — including Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at number one.
Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer whose work marked a transition from traditional Classical music to Romantic — much like the Beatles marked a transition in rock music.
Symphony No. 9
Beethoven’s final symphony, often considered his masterpiece.

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