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Sir George Martin (1926-2016): An appreciation

Phil Ward reflects on the life of "the world's most famous producer"

It probably would have been enough just to have defined the beat sound of 1963-65. But Sir George Martin CBE (as he became in 1996), in cahoots with his young charges, kept going. By the end of the decade he had played a huge part in the invention of folk rock, progressive rock, guitar-driven power pop and several experiments that fed into glam, ambient, electronica and a host of other starting points – as well as a greater appreciation of what has become known as ‘world’ music. Rock became as intellectual as jazz, as moving as opera and more fun than six gallons of port wine down at the Old Bull & Bush.

A cocktail of comedy, folk music and jazz – as typified by The Goons, Andy Stewart and Humphrey Lyttelton, stirred and shaken by the legacy of Oscar Preuss (who hired him at Parlophone) and Martin’s own mighty chops on the spinet – led to him midwifing the most ambitious progeny of pop: The Beatles. Yes, it was the band that coined the handfuls of words and hooks that could, simultaneously, strike lightning into the individual heart and yet also lash the whole of society with the storm. But for that to happen demanded a complex chain of events, leading to the EMI pressing plant in Hayes and a fleet of vans, that began with one man’s decisions about everything from the position of a microphone to the position of a chorus.

Martin changed the professional recording industry from within, setting up the Association of Independent Recorders in 1965, followed by the two AIR studios – the first of which contributed, alongside Olympic and Trident, to the abandonment of white laboratory coats and all inhibitions. Many engineers flourished under his tutelage, becoming pioneering producers in their own right, while the original recordings, once so shockingly new, gradually took on the mantle of classics: constantly refreshing and refreshable even as the world moved on.

Peter Filleul, so instrumental in securing the legacy of UK recording through his APRS (Association of Professional Recording Services) and MPG (Music Producers Guild) ministrations, remembers him as “brilliant, honourable, generous, funny and fun, inspiring, good company and an icon of great musical and cultural significance. I met him in the late ’70s but, in truth, like so many of us I had wanted to be him since 1963.

“I was fortunate to work with him on some of the industry stuff the MPG and the APRS got up to, flying the flag for producers and the pro-audio industry in general. In recent years, his love and support for [Caribbean island] Montserrat drew our paths together and his contribution to the island’s revival after its two devastating disasters – Hurricane Hugo and the volcanic eruption – has and continues to have a lasting impact. His 1997 Albert Hall concert, with performances by many of the stars who’d recorded on the island, raised money to build a new Cultural Centre and his Montserrat Foundation funds a graduate of his alma mater, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, to assist with musical tuition and activities on island.”

Filleul concludes: “[My wife] Sian and I were privileged to spent some private time with George and his family in recent years, and our thoughts are with his wife Judy, his son Giles, his daughter Lucie and the grandchildren.”

Dave Harries joined Abbey Road as a technician in 1964, and quickly found a team that coalesced around a mild-mannered, softly-spoken father figure: “Firstly, he was such a likeable man,” Harries recalls. “Secondly, such a modest man. Thirdly, he was exceptional in that he was a classically trained musician, a score composer and a conductor: how many pop record producers can you say that about?”

Harries also pays tribute to Martin’s A&R acumen. “Don’t forget he launched a hundred careers, more. My favourite is the guy he discovered to croon on Peter Sellers’ album Songs For Swingin’ Sellers: he called him ‘Fred Flange’ on the record and, although it was a pastiche, everybody wanted to know who this great singer was. It turned out to be Matt Monro.”

Beyond Abbey Road, there were countless location recordings of British cultural events and visiting US stars; the extraordinary rooftop performance by The Beatles in Savile Row during the filming of what became Let It Be – “George was up there,” confirms Harries, “and you should have seen his face when the police arrived: it was white…”; and eventually the building of AIR studios in Oxford Street and AIR Lyndhurst in Belsize Park.

Harries built AIR Lyndhurst alongside Malcolm Atkin, an AIR Oxford Street acolyte since 1974 and a man given a breathtaking task by Martin after only four years there: “The chief tech resigned exactly two weeks before George announced that he was going to build a studio on Montserrat,” recounts Atkin. “And he turned round to me, just a technician, and said, You can do that…

“I was only 26! Dave did all the building supervision and I contributed a lot to the technical design. That was the first studio I ever built, thanks to George’s extraordinary faith.”

The fabled modesty was shown years later when Atkin was in a meeting at Lyndhurst with Martin and Chrysalis boss Chris Wright, who suggested that Lyndhurst Hall, the famous live room, should be renamed ‘George Martin Hall’. “George said no way,” says Atkin. “He absolutely refused to consider such an idea under any circumstances. We all thought it was a very fitting accolade, but that’s a measure of the man. Quite amazing.”

Atkin adds that Sir George once told him that John Lennon remarked how he thought AIR was a great name for a company and he “wished he had thought of it instead of Apple”.

This is typical. The legacy is staggering. It was such an odd partnership, at the heart of it, of English gent and Scouse upstarts. In the end it was discipline that he gave to The Beatles – landing their jets on his Royal Navy aircraft carrier – and the secret psychology of the record producer in an age when artists needed more careful handling than ever. It’s because of that alchemy being right that we now have all this gold.

Main pic: Sir George receives his Outstanding Contribution to UK Music Award from the MPG in 2013, as producer Paul Epworth looks on (pic courtesy MPG)

Middle pic: Sir George addressing the APRS Sound Fellowship Awards, 2008

Bottom pic: Sir George and your correspondent, c.2007