Working with the Beatles, solo Paul McCartney and others, he notched 23 No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 – more than any other producer. As we look back on his influence in the wake of his death, we’re looking at ten songs from the Beatles that wouldn’t have been the same without Martin’s input. Some were huge hits, others are essential album tracks, and all bear Martin’s impact.
When people talk about George Martin’s impact on the Beatles’ recorded catalog, this song is the most commonly cited example. There’s a reason for that – this (endlessly covered) meditation on loss is just Paul McCartney with an acoustic guitar backed by George Martin’s tastefully understated string arrangement. Whereas another producer might have overdone it (see what Phil Spector did to “The Long and Winding Road”), Martin allowed perfection in simplicity to shine on “Yesterday.”
While Martin’s orchestration on “Yesterday” was an exercise in beautiful restraint, his Bernard Herrmann-esque string octet orchestration for “Eleanor Rigby” is almost as essential to the song as its enigmatic lyrics. Martin’s staccato string section in the chorus is one of the most recognizable orchestral segments in all pop music.
“Love Me Do”
Although Ringo Starr and George Martin would go on to have a good working relationship, Martin’s impact on the Beatles’ first hit is something Starr would probably like to forget. Amid contentious back and forth on what song the Beatles should release as their debut single, Martin decided “Love Me Do” would do – only if they re-recorded it with a drummer other than Starr on the kit. Session musician Andy White drummed on the band’s first No. 1, and Ringo later admitted he was “devastated” at the time.
“Please Please Me”
Unlike “Love Me Do,” this is a much happier example of Martin’s influence on the Beatles’ first album. The titular track was originally a much slower composition, with John Lennon intending it as his version of a weepy Roy Orbison song. Depending on whose account you’re listening to, Martin insisted or suggested they speed up the tempo, and the peppy pop song that resulted gave them their second big hit in Britain.
“In My Life”
When John Lennon dipped his toes into the sentimental, backward-looking territory McCartney previously mined to great success, he naturally got “Yesterday” arranger George Martin in on the action to add a Baroque touch to the tune. The harpsichord bridge Martin composed and performed for the Rubber Soul ballad is one of the loveliest moments in the band’s catalog.
“A Day In the Life”
McCartney and Martin co-conducted the cataclysmic orchestral climax that brings “A Day In the Life” and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to an end. The orchestra was Paul’s idea, but this mind-blowing moment of ‘60s psychedelica wouldn’t have been the same without Martin’s formal music education. McCartney’s concept for an orchestral improvised section proved confusing for many of the classical musicians working on the track, so Martin helped give them a vague framework for the orchestral glissandos. Instructing them to go from their lowest possible note to their highest note in 24 bars, he told them “roughly what note they should have reached during each bar,” according to his autobiography All You Need Is Ears. “Of course, they all looked at me as though I were completely mad.”
“Strawberry Fields Forever”
One of Martin’s most difficult jobs for the Beatles was “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon recorded two versions and Martin created a different score for each. When Lennon decided he wanted the score for one version married to the score for the other, even though they were in different keys and recorded at different speeds, Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick were forced to physically cut up the tapes and speed-adjust the two recordings in order that they would work together.
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
Lennon charged Martin with the task of providing a psychedelic collage of circus sounds for his Sgt. Pepper’s song. Martin played an assortment of instruments on this one – harmonium, various organs, piano, glockenspiel – and constructed a random assortment of tape loops that provide the carnival-esque atmosphere.
“I Am the Walrus”
To match the mind-bending mental imagery Lennon created on “I Am the Walrus,” Martin spent weeks arranging and recording an orchestral accompaniment that included violins, cello, horns, a clarinet and the 16-voice choir Mike Sammes Singers. That’s commitment for a song he wasn’t initially sold on – according to Geoff Emerick’s book, Martin didn’t like the song the first time he heard it.
While the Beatles took over some of the production responsibilities on their self-titled double LP, Martin returned to his wheelhouse to create the warm, comforting strings that lull the listener to sleep and bring the 1968 masterpiece to a close.
Sources: The Beatles: The Biography (Bob Spitz), All You Need Is Ears (George Martin), Here, There and Everywhere (Geoff Emerick), The Beatles Anthology (2000), The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Write (Steve Turner).