George Martin and the Beatles: A Producer’s Impact, in Five Songs

When we hear a great recording, we tend to think of the music as having sprung fully developed from the imagination of the musician or band that cut the tracks. But that ignores the role of the producer, who translates the musician’s vision into the sound we experience.

The contributions that George Martin, who died Tuesday at 90, made to the Beatles’ recorded catalog were crucial, and although he was the first to say that most of the credit belongs to the band, many of the group’s greatest songs owe their sound and character to his inspired behind-the-scenes work. Here are a few of his most telling musical fingerprints:

‘From Me to You’

When the Beatles turned up at EMI’s studios on Abbey Road to record their third single, on March 5, 1963, they brought “From Me to You,” a short song that John Lennon and Paul McCartney had started writing less than a week earlier. Mr. Martin pondered the possibilities through the first four takes, and then proposed a solution for the song’s two biggest problems, its brevity and lack of variety. After two verses, a bridge and a repeat of the first verse, the Beatles would play the verse yet again, this time with the first two lines as a short instrumental break, punctuated with the phrases “from me” (after the first line) and “to you” (after the second), before singing the final two lines. To fill out the break, Mr. Martin had Lennon play the song’s melody on the harmonica, shadowed by Mr. McCartney on the bass.

For the introduction, Mr. Martin experimented with a string of overdubs. In one, Lennon played the tune on the harmonica. In another, the group hummed it. They also sang it, twice using the syllables “da-da-da, da-da, dun dun da,” and once with a falsetto floating across the top. In the end, Mr. Martin chose a combination of the harmonica and the sung line (sans falsetto), which establishes the song’s bright character immediately.


Mr. McCartney first played Mr. Martin his classic torch song during the group’s Paris residency in January 1964, so the producer had plenty of time to mull how to handle it. The group may have considered it, at first, as simply a ballad that would get the full-band treatment. But when Mr. McCartney decided to record it, during the “Help!” sessions in 1965, Mr. Martin proposed that Mr. McCartney accompany himself on an acoustic guitar, with a string quartet taking the place of the other Beatles.

Mr. McCartney had his doubts: In his view, string arrangements on rock records were suspect. But Mr. Martin played him some recordings and sat him down at the piano to show him what could be done. In the end, Mr. McCartney was convinced, and Mr. Martin — typically open to the group’s ideas — worked out his quartet arrangement with Mr. McCartney present. Mr. Martin has said, in fact, that one of the arrangement’s highlights — the descending cello line, after the lyric “I’m not half the man I used to be” — was Mr. McCartney’s idea.

‘In My Life’

Mr. Martin began adding keyboard parts to the Beatles’ recordings virtually from the start, a notable early example being the ringing celesta line on “Baby It’s You.” But the finest such contribution was his solo on “In My Life,” an autobiographical meditation by Lennon, on “Rubber Soul.” When the Beatles recorded the song, on Oct. 18, 1965, they left an instrumental verse open, to be filled with a solo, the nature of which was yet to be agreed upon. By Oct. 22, the group agreed to turn the solo over to Mr. Martin, who decided to give it a Bachian twist, writing a part that had the character and ornamentation of a Two-Part Invention.

On his first pass, he used a Hammond organ but didn’t care for the result. A piano worked better, but Mr. Martin, a functional but not virtuosic pianist, was unable to fully channel his inner Glenn Gould. So he played the master tape at half-speed, recording his part slowly and precisely. When the tape was played at full speed, the piano line was not only suitably crisp, but the speed change gave the instrument an unusual character — somewhere between that of a piano and a harpsichord, but not quite either.

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George Martin, Redefining Producer Who Guided the Beatles, Dies at 90 MARCH 9, 2016
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’

“Strawberry Fields Forever,” the first song recorded for the sessions that produced the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, had as difficult a birth as any song the Beatles and Mr. Martin created. Lennon wrote this psychedelic dreamscape while filming “How I Won the War” in Almería, Spain, and recorded demos of all kinds — on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, with and without keyboard overdubs — before taking it to Abbey Road on Nov. 24, 1966. That night, the Beatles recorded a simple, short version with harmony vocals and a Mellotron approximation of a slide guitar, but they junked it two days later and started again, recording a tougher, tighter version with Mr. McCartney playing a fluty Mellotron introduction.

Lennon didn’t like that one either, and asked Mr. Martin to write an orchestral score. Mr. Martin responded with a hard-driven chamber score for brass and cellos. He sped the piece up, and moved the song to a higher key so that he could use the vibrant sound of the cello’s lowest open string. On Dec. 8, the band and its symphonic friends recorded this third version, which also boasted a raucous timpani part, played by Mr. McCartney, and an Indian zither, played by George Harrison.

Lennon liked it, briefly, and then he didn’t. He told Mr. Martin that he enjoyed both the band’s version and the chamber version, and envisioned a combination. Mr. Martin protested that the two were in different keys and at different tempos, but Lennon knew the extent of his producer’s magic, and said, “You can do it, George.” As it turned out, the key and tempo changes worked to Mr. Martin’s advantage: by slowing down the orchestral version and speeding up the band take, he found common ground without making either sound too unnatural. If you listen closely, you can spot his splice exactly one minute into the song.

‘A Day in the Life’

The song that closes “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and is, for many listeners, the most astonishing track on an astonishing album, actually began as a pair of unrelated songs: The melancholy outer verses were Lennon’s, the brighter central section was Mr. McCartney’s. What transformed these fragments into a cohesive whole is a touch of avant-garde string scoring by Mr. Martin. By the time the Beatles set to work on the track, on Jan. 19, 1967, they and Mr. Martin had mapped out its structure. Two of Lennon’s verses would open the song, followed by Mr. McCartney’s verse, which would lead back to final thoughts from Lennon. Between the two composers’ sections, though, the band would vamp for 24 bars, and there would be another long vamp after the closing verse. How these would be filled — well, Mr. Martin would figure that out later.

For several weeks, the group tweaked the main parts of the song, polishing the vocals, drums and bass, adding extra percussion parts, and trying to imagine what should occupy those long vamped sections. Mr. McCartney thought an orchestral section would be good, but left the question of what that should entail to his producer. Mr. Martin’s solution was to take a page out of the playbooks of classical composers like John Cage and Krzysztof Penderecki, who at the time were creating works in which chance played a role. Mr. Martin hired 40 symphonic musicians for a session on Feb. 10, and when they turned up, they found on their stands a 24-bar score that had the lowest notes on their instruments in the first bar, and an E major chord in the last. Between them, the musicians were instructed to slide slowly from their lowest to highest notes, taking care not to move at the same pace as the musicians around them.

The sound was magnificently chaotic, and it became more so once Mr. Martin combined the four takes he recorded (some with Mr. McCartney on the podium, some conducted by Mr. Martin himself). It was a brilliant solution: as Lennon’s voice faded into the echoic distance, the orchestra began its buildup, ending sharply on the chord that begins Mr. McCartney’s section.