March 11, 2016
George Martin, 1926-2016
Tonight I was flipping through a sampling of Beatle LPs. George Martin received a one-line mention on every album: “Produced in England by George Martin.” What exactly does that mean? I moved on to LPs by Steely Dan, Michael MacDonald and Al Jarreau. Separate individuals were credited as producer, for rhythm section arrangements, horn arrangements, string charts, etc. A Paul Simon CD, “Rhythm of the Saints” had multiple individuals credited for “guitar arrangements.”
I’ve done enough studio work to witness producers at various levels, some of whom were not musicians at all but had developed a good ear and a perceptive sense of what was needed for a particular group of musicians. For bands fortunate enough to have a big budget contract, the average producer might say, “Hmm I think I hear string parts on this song. Let’s get someone in here to listen and arrange it.” An arranger would come in, listen to the song, write the chart and pass it off to a music copyist. Meanwhile the producer might call a contractor whose job it is to know who the proper musicians were and how to contact them. The contractor books the date, the arranger may conduct the session, or perhaps another conductor is called in to facilitate the recording of these parts.
Mr. Martin did all of these things. His classical experience enabled him to write effectively for all the strings and brass, and to know what setting would take the Beatles’ songs to a yet-unheard-of level. In addition to his skills as an arranger, Mr. Martin had the connections to know exactly who to call and how to get things done.
Most important of all, he heard in his head what would complete the potential musical gems offered by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. That’s the first step. Musicians can listen to arrangements and say “I could have written that.” They might listen to the strings that graced McCartney’s “Yesterday” and say “I could have done that.” Perhaps, but probably not. Writing the actual arrangement must be preceded by the insight that the song can benefit from it. All the skill of putting notes on paper is worthless if one does not have ability to conjure up the perfect accompaniment for the songwriters.
I would suggest you listen to the Beatles song “For No One.” How did George Martin know that a French horn solo would complete the song? How did he know that a small clarinet choir would make “When I'm 64” a song that would provide the appropriate geriatric sensibility to the lyrics? The list goes on and on.
We now know that George’s name credited on the back of these LPs was pivotal to the phenomenal body of work we love from The Beatles.