Friday, March 18, 2016

The Man Behind the Music

I was on vacation last week when Sir George Martin passed away, so I want to take a moment to honor the man who worked behind the scenes to produce the greatest music in history.  While there have been more than a few people referred to as the "Fifth Beatle", it was Martin who deserved it the most.  He was the one who took the sounds that the Fab Four heard in their minds and somehow managed to put it on tape.

Martin's role in making music history is a matter of great timing.  His background was in recording classical music and comedy albums.  The Beatles were his first rock and roll band, and at the beginning he figured they would record just one--maybe two albums--at the most.  His first great decision was to record them at all.  His second was to allow John Lennon and Paul McCartney to record songs they had written themselves.  If those first couple of albums had just been a bunch of covers--with original material relegated a few tracks on the B-side of the album--the greatest songwriting duo in history would have been quashed before it could get started.

And for most of the Beatles' recording period, Martin was hamstrung by the equipment with which he had to work.  The EMI Abbey Road Studios in London (which I have vistited, by the way) were fairly primitive and behind the times in the '60's.  The first few Beatles' albums were recorded on four-track machines--which meant that as the group wanted to add more instruments or voices than four to the mix, the takes had to be overdubbed again and again.  Pieces of one take would be edited to match sections of another take to create final versions of songs.

Martin's crowning achievement was taking two versions of Strawberry Fields Forever that John Lennon had recorded--which were in different tempos and different keys--and somehow getting them to mesh by controlling the speed of the tape during editing.  As someone who has listened to every song in The Beatles' catalog at least 1,000 times, you start to pay attention to subtle things each time--like the placement of a voice or an instrument in the stereo mix, or how background handclaps are looped in some songs.  All of that was the handiwork of George Martin.  He even wrote an entire orchestral score for the Yellow Submarine movie and soundtrack.

Martin has long been the caretaker of the original master tapes of The Beatles' recordings.  He oversaw the conversion to digital and the release of the CD's back in the late 1980's.  And he completely re-mastered the tapes in the early 2000's--so his death has me concerned.  Will we someday have to put up with "re-mixes" or "re-imaginations" of Beatles' classics from DJ Shorte or Flashmaster Flash?  You know how we like to "improve things" nowadays.

So thank you, Sir George for getting it all down on tape.

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