Each week, The MBW Review gives our take on some of the biggest news stories of the previous seven days. This time, we react to the sad news that Sir George Martin, Parlophone veteran and the world famous producer of The Beatles, has died aged 90. The MBW Review is supported by Believe Digital. (The views in these articles are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by Believe.)
“I don’t like your tie, for a start.”
The music business owes these eight words – a flippant gag, lightly dipped in caustic lacquer – a deep gratitude.
This was the cute response to Sir George Martin from namesake Harrison when, after The Beatles’ underwhelming June 1962 Abbey Road audition, the producer asked if there was anything the group didn’t like about the studio.
The quip, compounded by some trademark Lennon horseplay, gave Martin an inkling that this was no ordinary band.
That inkling led to the most important A&R commitment in pop history.
At this point, every other significant record label had turned The Beatles down. Having heard ten tracks including Like Dreamers Do and Money (That’s What I Want), Decca famously opined that “The Beatles have no future in show business”.
George Martin disagreed. Not, primarily, because of The Beatles’ sound or instrumental ability, nor because he had devised a clever path to commercial triumph, but because he saw a gang in which he immediately wanted to be a member.
A gang in which any of us would want to be a member.
It surely helped that Martin, a classically-trained musician, had recently become attuned to a different mellifluent noise.
EMI’s resident in-house comedy master, Martin’s work with the likes of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan in the 1950s had given him a makeshift doctorate in audio wit; from the orchestration of a precise comedic set-up to the balanced relief of the punch-line – and the power of sparsely-administered absurdity.
In The Beatles, Martin recognised a spark of likability and badinage that was not rehearsed or fearful, but natural and rebellious. He fell hard for it.
(For the record, Martin also rather took to Lennon and McCartney’s vocals. He wasn’t blown away by their songs, nor drummer Pete Best. Enter Ringo…)
In the days since Martin’s passing there have been, and will continue to be, tributes paid to his majestic contribution to The Beatles’ records: his nudging of Paul in the direction of classical flourishes for Yesterday; his fearless embrace of the aggressive proto-heavy rock of Helter Skelter; his determination to retain essential intimacy in John’s double-tracked vocals; his patience and invention when faced with stoned/madcap ‘why not?’ technological requests during Sgt. Pepper.
To honour these remarkable feats is, of course, is only right. (Nigel Godrich nailed Martin’s sublime production legacy with the line: ‘He did it all first… and best.’)
“What matters, what’s always mattered, isn’t whether artists are capable of ‘winning’ – but whether we actually want them to.”
Perhaps, though, the music business can pay greater tribute to George Martin in the coming years than deferential words.
It is fascinating to consider that a band now so revered for their boundary-pushing musical endeavors were chiefly sprung towards fame and fortune by their ability to make someone laugh. It’s not a glib observation.
The Beatles’ combination of amiable humour, combined with their hard-edged refusal to be anybody’s fool, played an invaluable role in their success.
John, Paul, George and Ringo offered bags of character while remaining themselves. They charmed without artifice. They had overwhelming force of personality.
Looking around today’s pop landscape, it’s tough to spot many artists who display anything like this abundance of magnetism.
Perhaps, I’m guessing, that’s because so few are being signed on anything like the same basis as The Beatles.
In a world where a social media slip-up can unleash a torrent of phony outrage, fueling headlines and sealing reputations, perhaps a more muted set of star dispositions is inevitable.
Yet aside from Adele and Kanye West, do we feel like we really know any of the figures around blockbuster pop’s top table?
These days, the public and the music business have become depressingly accustomed to judging stars as if they were Olympic ice-skaters, executing pirouettes.
Yet what matters, what’s always mattered, isn’t whether artists are capable of ‘winning’ – but whether we actually want them to.
This isn’t about snatching notoriety for the sake of it – see Gallagher acolytes parroting diatribes about “real music”, or the flimsy tabloid controversy of Bieber’s police mugshot / papped appendage.
It’s about A&Rs asking an important question of their prospective signings, before musical ability is even considered: Why would anybody want to be in your gang?
The Beatles had it all. Great songs, impeccable production, exquisite delivery. But, underneath everything else, their personalities connected.
George Martin never took this for granted.
He recognised that whatever you do in the recording booth, however your image can be manipulated for public consumption, when it comes to attracting fans, it’s who you are that really counts.
In the litany of tributes paid to Sir George this week, Gary Barlow offered an especially apt one: “Let’s face it – we’re all still copying his work.”
I can’t help but wish that were as true in A&R departments as it remains in the studio.
The MBW Review is supported by Believe Digital, a leading independent digital distributor and services provider for artists & labels worldwide. Believe empowers artists and labels to maximize the value of their music with a full suite of services. Championing innovation and transparency throughout its ten-year history, Believe prides itself on providing tailor-made services for each label and artist. Visit believedigital.com for more details.Music Business Worldwide