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George Martin: The Man Who Liberated Modern Music

The moment that freed music from the tyranny of narrow paradigms and singular identities? It was when the Beatles hired George Martin. Period.

His influence is freshly renewed every day. He died last night at the age of 90.

george martin

It's easy to lose sight of something fundamental: that the way things came to be is usually the result of something quite specific.

All those classic albums that happily include free associations of tracks ranging from crisp acoustic to wailing electric? Albums by the Eagles, Heart, America, Bread, Eric Clapton, Crosby Stills & Nash, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Muriel Anderson, and so many others...

Individual songs that begin quietly with acoustic instruments, then build and build into anthems driven by electric guitars — "Stairway to Heaven" must come to mind...

Iconic acoustic recordings embraced in the pantheon of rock, like "American Pie"...

Thoroughly plugged-in bands doing all-acoustic performances and records, like the Five Man Electrical Band doing the landmark album, "Five Man Acoustical Jam"...

The moment that freed music from the tyranny of narrow paradigms and singular identities? It was when the Beatles hired George Martin. Period.

And the subsequent, long running MTV series, "Unplugged," which began with Clapton — and has featured a procession of electric guitarists and bands anxious to demonstrate their acoustic chops and revel in sharing that with their fans...

All were ostensibly rock acts making rock albums for their time, and all yielded both rock and Americana classics. But it wasn't always possible for a record to be inclusive like that, or a stage act to perform outside a narrowly defined identity. You couldn't be "ostensibly" anything. You had to be one thing.

Remember, Pete Seeger wanted to take a fire ax to Bob Dylan's electric guitar cord at the Newport Folk Festival. Play any early rock record: it's electric guitar, electric bass, vocal, and drums, with no room for so much as a harmonica.

The moment that freed music from the tyranny of narrow paradigms and singular identities? It was when the Beatles hired George Martin. Period.

Even when we cite the success of an "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" as blowing the doors open for the popular embrace of an Old Crow Medicine Show and a Mumford & Sons, and a general roots music revival? A cognitive framework had to be in place in popular culture to provide a place for its acceptance — a readiness for things outside the soundalike convention of the singular and mundane.

And that brings us right back to George Martin.

The Beatles' catalog mixes acoustic recordings in some classic tracks with electric instruments in others. It features complex studio magic that changes tempo and creates auditory landscapes. And when George Martin did those things, they weren't simply new, they were unthinkable. One act? Not doing one thing?

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For the first time in the history of rock, all of it was driven by the artists themselves and made real by the genius of a producer who enabled their visions to be realized.

Suddenly, a signature thing wasn't the same singular thing, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. It was the unique expression of depth and breadth of all you could do, presented thematically. Rock became a session with a storyteller around an ancient campfire. The need in the human brain to explore variety was fulfilled, derailing the rutted road of rock's beginnings.

You can read any of many books about that, or you can read the feature story by Hillel Italie, AP National Writer, dated today, March 9, 2016.

It is not an obituary for George Martin: it is a celebration of his role in the legacy of recorded music, as established with the music of the Beatles. And we highly recommend it.

Here are a few excerpts:

"Besides the Beatles, Martin worked with Jeff Beck, Elton John, Celine Dion and on several solo albums by Paul McCartney.

"But his legacy was defined by the Beatles, for the contributions he made, and for those he didn't.

"Before the Beatles, producers such as Phil Spector and Berry Gordy controlled the recording process, choosing the arrangements and musicians; picking, and sometimes writing the songs (or claiming credit for them). The Beatles, led by the songwriting team of McCartney and John Lennon, became their own bosses and were among the first rock groups to compose their own material. Inspired by native genius, a world's tour of musical influences and all the latest stimulants, they were seekers of magic who demanded new sounds.

"Martin was endlessly called on to perform the impossible, and often succeeded, splicing recordings at different speeds for 'Strawberry Fields Forever,' or, for 'Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,' simulating a calliope with keyboards, harmonica and a harmonium that the producer himself played with such intensity he passed out on the floor. Martin would have several good turns on the keyboards, performing a lively music hall solo on McCartney's 'Lovely Rita' and a Baroque reverie (at studio-heightened speed) on Lennon's 'In My Life.'

"The Beatles were a miracle not only of talent, but of chemistry. No producer was better suited for them than the resourceful and open-minded Sir George Martin, who dedicated himself to serving their vision instead of imposing his own."

And therein is everything.

"If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George," Paul McCartney said Wednesday following the announcement of Martin's death at age 90.

We've explored some of the significance and lasting legacy of George Martin's professional life. We strongly suggest you read Hillel Italie's fine story that offers a chronology and fascinating details of his critical role in the success of the four lads from Liverpool. It includes a video link from an ABC News interview with George Martin.


Larry Wines