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Happy Belated Birthday to George Martin

January 4, 2016

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966

I’ve been forced to edit this from a 90th Birthday tribute to an obituary tribute.  An inevitable if depressing task.

I mourn his passing, partly because I would have loved to have met him, somehow and somewhere but also because he, more than anyone else, was best placed to cut through the stupid zero-sum arguments regarding the respective musical talents of Lennon and McCartney.  He, more than anyone, respected and understood the complex nature of their jealous, competitive yet immensely creative and constructive song-writing partnership.   Whenever he as interviewed, he drew on his close working relationship with The Beatles to de-stabilise some of the over-simplifying and impoverishing over-generalisations regarding how they worked.

Oddly enough, some of his most original productions were for Lennon tracks like I am the Walrus, Strawberry Fields Forever and Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite.  John Lennon was very demanding and exacting as a songwriter – insisting on very precise effects – but he had no interest whatsoever in the technical process whereby those effects were achieved.  He would ask Martin to “circus up” Mr Kite, and not let Martin rest till the sawdust smelled just right – but exactly how sawdust is communicated as an auditory effect did not interest Lennon.

In the 70s, Lennon made disparaging remarks about Martin which were unfortunate.  Always hypersensitive to claims that ordinary Scousers could not be “real” musical geniuses – he tended to over-react to those snooty types who proclaimed Martin the authentic talent in the operation. Although Martin disclaimed undue praise as politely and as often as he could, Lennon’s knee-jerk anti-establishmentism meant that he felt bound to disparage the contributions of someone with such a posh voice.

Martin worked far more congenially with McCartney for the most part (though he recalls being very hurt when McCartney in a hurry – always in a hurry – hired Mike Leander to produce She’s Leaving Home because Martin wasn’t immediately available).  He continued to produce McCartney as a solo artist of course.  Closer technically to McCartney, spurred to greater innovation to Lennon, Martin  always asserted extraordinarily equitable nature of Lennon and McCartney’s respective contributions.  Never one to let personal feelings get in the way of professional judgement.

Martin never saw himself as a musical genius – in the way Phil Spector did (does).  Of course, George Martin was an infinitely nicer human being than Phil Spector (which is perhaps not the sternest benchmark of niceness).  But he was the best and most important listener of the Beatles ever – and this is no small achievement.  He recalls being impressed initially not so much by their music as by their personalities.  As for the Beatles, they were won over when they found he’d worked with Peter Sellers.  It was this Goon Show connection that forged their relationship, and Martin’s gut feeling that these creative and anarchic personalities could translate to the idiom of popular music.  By looking at the Beatles as unusual people rather than as conventional musicians – a beautiful recording environment was born.

Everyone points out how courteous and polite he was.  The more I think about it – the more this politeness seems to me to be not just some extraneous private virtue but part and parcel of a quality of listening.  It was because he was a great listener, a perceptive and generous listener, that he was able to respond so perfectly to the Beatles’ needs.  It was sympathy of a rare kind he offered, a patient willingness to comprehend.  George Martin is, therefore, and inspiring example of how being a nice guy can help make great art.

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