The Sound of George Martin

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George Martin, 1965


Yesterday’s string quartet and the ambitious, skewed arrangement of I am the Walrus might be held up as among the pinnacles of George Martin’s contributions to The Beatles’ sound.

But I think it’s in the smallest of his additions that his presence is perhaps most keenly felt, the way he introduces a particular instrument at a particular point for a particular purpose.

Immaculate precision

The half-speed piano of In My Life and For No One’s French horn solo are good examples.  Each shows imagination, economy and immaculate precision, a combination which is characteristically his, applied with the same skill as an artist might select a specific hue and use it just so, subtly at this point, so as to assist the entire painting but without drawing attention to itself.  Both clavichord-like piano and French horn arrive, say what they have to say and leave.  Both show deference, a quality in short supply in pop and rock.

George’s contributions are as integral to both songs as the voices of Lennon and McCartney themselves, his instrumental solos so ideally realised as to be the placement of another voice.  The solos very much stand alone – it’s not hard to imagine piano and French horn silenced for the duration – yet the songs are incomprehensible without them.

Discreet flamboyance

Often George Martin’s inspirations were classical, unsurprising given his background.   Whilst he added a ‘trained’ element, his ideas were not overly refined.  That he was able to introduce classical elements without them seeming at all grafted or imposed is testament to his great skill.  Of course he was fortunate to have as George Martinhis framework the consummate songwriting of Lennon-McCartney.  Martin’s choices are surprising, daring even but are always (just like Ringo’s drumming) in service of the song.

Yet both the examples I mentioned above work against the overall tenor of the songs; the discreetly flamboyant clavichord of In My Life is almost jaunty* amidst such ‘sighing introspection’ (as Iain MacDonald so perfectly puts it) whilst For No One’s French horn seems removed from the unfolding chamber tragedy.

This is also what makes George Martin’s contributions so great, not merely their understated elegance but their refusal to add an overt emotionalism which would have been out of keeping with the anti-romanticism of The Beatles.  He steadfastly avoided both the obvious and the lush (Something comes closest but remains adept, apt and justified).

Is Sir George’s influence still heard in music today?  I leave that for others to comment upon.

*though it does, to my ears, suggest a kind of rapid flick through life’s back pages or an old film reel spinning by in under twenty seconds.

Sir George Martin:  3rd January 1926 – 8th March 2016.


Take Three Songs… by Cilla Black


With a Little Help from Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker’s death just before Christmas gave a new lease of life to his indefatigable cover of With a Little Help From My FriendsThis set me thinking about cover versions especially those which, as with Joe Cocker’s, are light years away from the original.

Joe’s blistering ‘soul-anthem’ (Paul McCartney’s moniker) stretches ‘With a Little Help…’  to its outer limits and beyond.  Dispensing with The Beatles’ boppy neatness, he refashions the song into a full blooded, rasping assault on the listener’s ears, nerves and heart (though not necessarily in that order).

When you read that song title, is it the Joe Cocker version that you hear in your head?  Does Joe’s Sheffield steel eclipse The Beatles’ charming original – or at least dent it a little?  The Fab Four’s take seems really rather polite, almost effete in comparison to Cocker’s manly barn-stormer.  But does sheer force of impact necessarily make for a better version?

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Hey Joe

Let’s look at this a little differently…   If With a Little Help From My Friends never made it onto Sergeant Pepper, in fact if it had never been recorded by The Beatles but had been given away by them from the start, how would we feel about the song now with Joe Cocker’s becoming the definitive version?  Or do we need the blueprint of a straight and narrow melodic original to fully appreciate the extended radical re-take?

It helps to know what is being subverted.  The Sex Pistols’ My Way is a far more amusing experience having heard the Sinatra original.  Similarly, an early encounter with The Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help…’ makes Joe’s all the more impressive, that anyone could extract so much intensity from ‘a work song for Ringo’ (McCartney again).  But when you listen closer to The Beatles’ version, there is just as much feeling in Ringo’s dry, stoical vocal as there is in Joe Cocker’s rip-roaring one.

Perhaps a song has no definitive blueprint.  It’s often down to which version you hear first and for many that will have been Joe Cocker’s 1968 Number One.  But I wouldn’t want anyone to launch straight into Vanilla Fudge’s eight minute Eleanor Rigby without having at least considered George Martin’s elegant string quartet.

All sides covered

It’s harder to imagine the cover process in reverse, how a rip-it-to-shreds hair raiser might be backwardly distilled into a three minute perfect pop song.  Does it ever happen that way round?   It would be like putting the genie back into the bottle, surely.  Or trying to make a silk purse….

So if pristine pop turning into free radical tour de force is the natural order of things, the renegades and the rebels rely more on the tunesmiths to come up with the goods than the other way round.  Interpreters take the raw material, beat it up and put it back together into something looser, freer, elongated, barely recognisable even but it all comes out of that essential germ of an original.

Boasting a title like that, With a Little Help From My Friends was always crying out to be covered.  Actually I always preferred Joe’s Delta Lady.

Joe Cocker – 20th May 1944 – 22nd December 2014