Before George Martin, the record producer’s job was merely to provide a faithful document of a live performance. Greg Kot explains how the great man changed everything

George Martin, who died on Tuesday at the age of 90, may not have invented the job of a contemporary music producer, but he certainly helped set the bar for what a producer could accomplish. Since Martin’s death, artists and producers from several generations – Brian Wilson, Rick Rubin, Mark Ronson, Nigel Godrich – have genuflected in a manner usually reserved for legendary musicians such as David Bowie or James Brown.

His work with The Beatles in the 1960s has been studied, emulated and fetishised.  The reverence afforded by studio aficionados to Mark Lewisohn’s nuts-and-bolts account of their collaboration, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962-1970, is near biblical.

Before Martin’s era, producers aimed primarily to provide a faithful document of musicians and singers interacting in real time. The studio was regarded as little more than a more controllable environment for recording a live performance. If a musician flubbed a chord or a singer veered off-pitch, it was the producer’s job to demand a retake until everything sounded up to par. Producers were responsible for picking songs, guiding arrangements, hiring backing musicians, and making sure the engineers were recording the performance with the utmost fidelity.  

Phil Spector took this job of über-overseer to new heights in the early '60s

Phil Spector took this job of über-overseer to new heights in the early ‘60s by crafting elaborate orchestrations, manipulating seemingly interchangeable singers and vocal groups and hand-picking top-flight songs, usually cranked out by the song-writing factory in New York’s Brill Building. Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ came with his thumbprints all over it, his name often carrying as much or more weight than the artists he produced.

‘Studio craftsman’

Martin, who made his reputation by producing comedy recordings in the 1950s, was a classically trained musician who was in his mid-30s when rock ‘n’ roll began to show some signs of long-term life in the UK during the early ‘60s. His label, Parlophone, was lagging far behind in reaching this new generation of listeners, and Martin was on the lookout for a band he could produce and promote. By the time he signed The Beatles, the band had already been rejected by all the major labels in Britain.

The relationship was fairly old-school in the beginning, with Martin as the ‘grown-up’ in the room refining The Beatles’ sound and shaping their songs. The producer helped nudge Pete Best out the door as drummer, and then had his replacement, Ringo Starr, sit out on one of the band’s early singles so that a session drummer presumably better suited to the job could play.

He persuaded Paul McCartney to try out a string section on his ballad Yesterday,  and he added sped-up keyboards to the bridge of John Lennon’s In My Life.  But The Beatles weren’t anyone’s puppets, and soon began working with Martin as studio equals. Martin’s role went from The Boss to Mr Fix-It, a studio craftsman who could turn even The Beatles’ most far-fetched ideas into sonic forget-me-nots that enhanced the song.

Want something that sounds like Tibetan monks chanting on a mountaintop? A crescendo that evokes the end of the world? A fairground organ from a circus fit for an insane asylum? Martin came up with the answers on iconic tracks such as Tomorrow Never Knows, A Day in the Life and Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!

He turned The Beatles into the first true studio band

He used multi-track recording and the studio itself as an instrument, manipulating sound in a way that turned The Beatles into the first true studio band in their post-Revolver era. With Martin’s assistance, the band was crafting sounds that couldn’t be reproduced by drums, bass and guitars on a stage, so why even try?

The Beatles were a performing band with swagger and charisma who became the most innovative studio band in rock history, thanks in large measure to Martin’s empathy and creativity, his understanding of classical music and appreciation for the avant-garde. Here was a man as comfortable with the music of JS Bach as he was with tossing pieces of recording tape into the air and then reassembling them into fun-house collages of sound.

The ‘sound lab’

Martin’s greatest legacy was to change the role of the producer from a professional who documented a performance to a creative enabler who built new worlds of sound between the headphones. 

A legion of listeners drew inspiration: The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson; Brian Eno; Radiohead’s Nigel Godrich; the indie-rock collective Elephant 6, which included Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control; Daniel Lanois. But in recent decades, hip-hop, R&B and a variety of urban pop genres have overtaken rock as the great producer-driven art forms.

On the surface, the way studio gurus such as Timbaland, El-P, No ID, The Bomb Squad, RZA, J Dilla, DJ Premier and Dr Dre operate has little to do with what a patrician gentleman did in London’s Abbey Road studios with four rock musicians in the ‘60s. And yet their approach has everything to do with it.

Their cultural, social and musical influences may be vastly different. But they share one common trait: their appreciation of the recording studio as a sound lab, a place where imagination and technology create a universe of infinite possibility. For that, anyone who has disappeared into the plush musical contours of a studio recording owes George Martin a debt of gratitude.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here. 

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