George Martin and the Beatles: A musical symbiosis

George Martin, the legendary producer for The Beatles, passed away on March 8, 2016 at the age of 90.

When I think about George Martin, what comes to my mind most is the extraordinary musical relationship he and the members of The Beatles had with one another. The best term to describe this is perhaps “symbiosis.” Here’s the definition that popped up when I googled the word:

interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.
a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.
plural noun: symbioses
“a perfect mother and daughter symbiosis”

The key here is a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups. This is EXACTLY what The Beatles and George Martin had with one another.

Martin was a little older than The Beatles and was already an established producer when they met. He was a trained classical composer and could arrange music in any style. Then, as is even more the case now, it’s extremely difficult for a classical composer to earn a living composing classical music. So keep in mind that while Martin obviously enjoyed producing pop acts and doing classical-type arrangements in commercial settings, he had a wellspring of creativity that wanted to be expressed. And along came The Beatles.

At first, Martin wasn’t impressed with the 4 lads from Liverpool. And the band’s early live recordings bear him out. They didn’t have musical training and hadn’t yet mastered their instruments (with the possible exception of Paul McCartney.) What interested Martin initially was actually their wonderful sense of humor and repartee with one another. In short, he was enchanted by their spark. Another thing he noticed was their work ethic. Midway through The Beatles’ first recording session, the crew took a lunch break. Rather than join then at the nearby pub, The Beatles stayed in the studio and rehearsed through their lunch break. Martin recalled how this was the first time he had ever seen a band do this. I’m sure he was getting more and more glimpses of how special their potential might be!

Here’s the thing: The Beatles had many musical ideas they wanted to try and could accomplish some of them on their own. The could write great songs. McCartney could come up with inventive bass guitar parts. They could harmonize their voices and work out perfect background vocals. George became increasingly good at playing lead guitar. Lennon and Ringo were inventive on their instruments too. But they also had ideas they couldn’t bring into fruition by themselves, and this is where George Martin became more and more valuable to them and their sound.

At first, Martin wasn’t too sure what to make of them. Creative as he was, he didn’t think “out-of-the-box” at the level they did. In fact, I don’t think they even had a “box” in the first place! When they recorded Twist and Shout, The Beatles ended it with a jazz chord, even though the song itself is rock and roll through-and-through. Martin immediately objected, telling them it sounded out of place and old-fashioned, like it belonged on a Glenn Miller record. But The Beatles were open to anything they thought sounded good and insisted it would work. Indeed, that concluding jazz chord gives the piece a certain charm and helps give The Beatles a unique identity, distinct from their American counterparts.

Martin was smart enough to embrace this kind of cross-stylistic creativity himself. When Paul McCartney brought in the song Yesterday, he recorded it with just acoustic guitar and vocals. According to McCartney, it was Martin who had the idea of adding strings to the arrangement, despite McCartney’s initial reluctance. The amazing thing about this is that the chamber-like string arrangement that Martin had in mind was classical, not the type of lush strings that a lot of pop music of the time featured. (Remember, this was in an era when popular recordings ranging from Sinatra to soul music commonly used string sections. Martin’s string arrangement on Yesterday is even more striking when seen in this context!)

In retrospect, I think this may have been the moment when Martin realized that he could nurture and express his love for classical music through his work with The Beatles. In any event, he started to write more and more classical-type arrangements for the group as time went on, notably Eleanor Rigby and I Am The Walrus. By this time, the members of The Beatles were fully “on board.”

The Beatles themselves were obviously highly great songwriters and had highly creative ideas about how their songs could sound. But they didn’t have the instrumental or orchestrational training to bring their ideas to fruition (unlike, say, Duke Ellington or George Gershwin). They needed someone like George Martin who was open to their requests to “make the keyboard sound like it’s not a keyboard” or “put something Bach-like in the middle.” (They also needed someone like Martin to tell them that their idea of getting 1,000 Buddhist monks to sing “Tomorrow Never Knows” was “impractical!”) In return, Martin needed a group like The Beatles to bring out the best in himself too. This type of musically symbiotic relationship, where they helped each other, is best heard on songs like “Penny Lane,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” which are unique in the history of music. There are other too, of course, that will always remind us of the wonderful music that can be produced when all the planets align with the right people working together at the right time.

Luckily for us, we’ll always have the music of George Martin and The Beatles! I’d like to hear your favorites on the comments below 🙂

Here’s something we can learn from Paul McCartney

1 thought on “George Martin and the Beatles: A musical symbiosis”

  1. Very pleased you have written a tribute to George Martin on the site Ron.
    I am old enough to have seen the rise of the Beatles and living in London made it even more special.
    It was such a creative time and I feel privileged to have lived through it.
    I never saw the Beatles live although I was quite envious of a work colleague who did see them live.
    I asked him how it was, he said great but he couldn’t hear them for the screaming girls!
    As you say George Martin was perfect for the Beatles.
    He provided an even handed translation to their musical ideas so important for their recording career.
    I do feel lucky that I have visited the No 2 Studio at Abbey Road on three occasions. Alas not to record!

    The first two occasions was in the eighties. EMI were refurbishing the control room. They decided to open the studio to the public and they did a presentation called “The Beatles at Abbey Road” this was a video and they played Beatles recordings via master tapes as well.What better way to hear their music! I visited this presentation twice.
    One of the titles was Leave my Kitten Alone by John Lennon, never released at the time.
    The video, Beatles at Abbey Road, to my knowledge, has never been publicly released. It was truly wonderful to go to this studio where so much great music has been recorded by the Beatles and others.

    In Apr 2014 Abbey Road did another presentation this time called The Sounds of Abbey Road and again it was in the No.2 Studio
    This presentation detailed the history of not only recording but also Abbey Road. On display were mixing desks and equipment used over the years. Naturally the Beatles were included in the history of the studio.

    The BBC ran the documentary, Produced by George Martin the day he passed away. It’s on DVD now.
    I always remember one quote by George Martin when he said, ” the Beatles were musically very intelligent”
    So true.


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