Ranking George Martin’s Most Important Beatles Moments
The late London producer, arranger and composers worked with many artists, but he helped change pop music forever with The Beatles.
Renowned producer and composer George Martin passed away in his home in England last night. He was 90 years old. The London native worked with a laundry list of disparate and influential pop acts, composed numerous movie soundtracks, and wrote other concert works. However, Martin — who got his start working on largely comedy and novelty records — made his reputation as the Beatles’ chief producer and arranger, from 1962 on. In many ways, he also helped the band make theirs. When their music took a more experimental direction, Martin was there to help the group realize whatever unusual sound they had in mind. He was also instrumental in shaping many of their songs, especially their most ambitious projects, and had an excellent ear for hit potential.
Here is Inverse’s list of George Martin’s most exceptional contributions to the Beatles’ oeuvre — just a taste of what more-than-earned him the nickname “the Fifth Beatle.”
8. The piano solo in “In My Life”
George Martin’s classically trained musical background is part of what made him such an important compliment to the the Beatles in their formative years. As the band’s experiments got more outlandish, Martin’s willingness to accommodate (and even suggest) some of their strangest ideas became more evident. But his deep-seated knowledge of more consonant 18th- and 19th-century classical music also often reared his head in his arrangements. His J.S. Bach-like figures in the rapidfire piano solo in 1965’s “In My Life” are the best single highlight of his tremendous musicianship, as a performer in his own right in the Beatles discography.
7. The Leslie speaker device/tape loop in “Tomorrow Never Knows”
The “In My Life” solo demonstrated Martin’s love for tape manipulation and studio trickery, which would become hugely important in the group’s work of the next three years; the performance, sped up, takes on a weird, slightly comic quality. Paul and John were also both known for their love of playing with tape and jerry-rigging odd effects, as was Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. But on immutable Revolver psychedelic classic “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Martin was central to giving Lennon’s vocal the desired “monk”-like effect. He ran his raw vocal take through a percolating Leslie speaker to give in the disembodied, eerie quality it has on the album. Martin also assembled the dense tapestry of glitchy backwards melodies and shrieks from 30 plus tape loops McCartney provided for the song.
6. The string arrangement in “Something”
Both the fifth and sixth Beatles were involved in realizing the Beatles’ version of Harrison’s most perfect, heavily covered pop composition to date. You can argue which is which, but organist Billy Preston will always be sixth for this writer. The band is stunningly arranged, dominated by Harrison’s phased guitar, and Preston’s organ builds necessary tension. But Martin’s seasick strings on the governing instrumental riff give the record its cinematic scope. It’s proof that Martin knew how to support and shape a song as much as transform it.
5. The horn break in “Carry That Weight”
Martin was a huge part of making the medley that forms the better part of Abbey Road’s second side work. He suggested touches that unified the disparate group of songs. The climactic moment is the horn reiteration of the “You Never Give Me Your Money” in “Carry That Weight” — the triumphant return that clarifies the whole suite.
4. The tempo of “Please Please Me”
Some might reasonably argue that this one deserves the #1 spot. When John Lennon brought “Please Please Me” into a session as a Roy Orbison-esque ballad in the fall of 1962, Martin suggested that the band speed it up to make a better single. Of course, it ended up being the group’s first major hit, charting at #1 on multiple charts in the UK, and gradually gaining traction in the U.S. as the band began to get radio play there for the first time in 1963. Would “Please Please Me” have helped catapult the band to international stardom at the old “Only the Lonely”-ish tempo? One could reasonably credit Martin with jumpstarting the band’s career.
3. The orchestral arrangement of “I Am The Walrus”
Martin’s most unhinged and expansive arrangement for the group is a truly breath-taking achievement. Even if one doesn’t love Lennon’s gobbledygook lyrics (I do, mind you), it’s hard not to marvel at the detailed rhythmic interplay and multiple catchy melodies woven into Martin’s backdrop. Gestures like the bluesy, syncopated horn line that enters with “Yellow matter custard…” help provide the balance that Lennon’s bizarre Jabberwocky-in-song needed to make it to the top of the UK singles charts.
2. The orchestral arrangement of “A Day in the Life”
Is there any more iconic orchestral moment in a Beatles song than the demented, dissonant surge in the middle of “A Day in the Life”? Though the orchestra was encouraged to improvise here, Martin did plan out the basic musical event and lay down some ground rules. He also conducted the orchestra, and played the harmonium on the song’s iconic final hits. To put it simply, this song would not be represent the heights of the Beatles’ ambition without Martin’s tempestuous score.
1. The arrangement and production of “Strawberry Fields Forever”
The 1967 classic, arguably their single greatest masterpiece in terms of musical innovation, is known for having one of the most difficult gestation periods of all Beatles song. Martin wrote at least two separate chamber orchestral arrangements, and ultimately was ordered to patch together two very different recordings of the song — in two different keys — into one master version. This involved some complex tape splicing, including pitch shifting Lennon’s voice. The otherworldly, hazy atmosphere of the finished record is all thanks to Martin’s ingenuity.