‘Produced by George Martin': Inside his legendary collaborations with the Beatles, and beyond

It’s nearly two and half minutes into this film — during a friendly game of pool with son Giles — before you notice the hearing aid in George Martin’s ear. It’s a devastating reality for music lovers of every kind.

Martin, who gave us so many great sounds, can scarcely hear them anymore. Ever curious, ever involved, the legendary producer used to sit in the room with bands like the Beatles when they played — eyes closed, drinking in the sound, but forever damaging his hearing. “It was,” he tells Ringo Starr at one point, “a kind of drug.”

Produced by George Martin, a new documentary from Eagle Vision, makes clear how important the music, and only the music, was to Martin. Take the year 1963, when Martin-produced sides from the likes of Billy J. Kramer, Cilla Black and of course the Beatles spent some 37 straight weeks on the charts: “It was a treadmill, but it was a very nice one — a golden tread mill, you might say,” says Martin. Well, for EMI, anyway: He estimates that he was only making $2,000 a year. Martin says he didn’t even receive a Christmas bonus. In fact, he made precious little money during his most celebrated period, but it never dampened Martin’s enthusiasm for the work. “Would you say,” Giles offers at one point, “you were the Simon Cowell of the 1960s?” The great producer replies, quickly: “Oh, I do hope not!”

Everything changed, for the Beatles and for Martin, when the group decided to leave the road in 1966. Very quickly, the relationship deepened. “You were building,” Martin says, “a picture in sound.” They began toying with convention, as with the reversed vocal toward the end of Lennon’s song “Rain.” (“From that moment, he wanted everything backwards,” Martin says. “They all did.”) As Starr sits with Martin, listening to a playback of his titanic performance on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” played amidst flocks of tape-looped sounds, he enthuses: “This is the good reason we stopped touring and came into the studio.”

From the syncopated strings of “Eleanor Rigby,” to the brilliant dissonance of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” to the smooth orchestral fluidity behind “Something,” Martin’s studio expertise became another instrument for the Beatles. “They were eternally curious,” Martin says of the foursome — though he just as well could have been talking about himself. “They wanted to find new ways of doing what they were doing — new harmonies, new endings to songs. They would always want to look beyond the horizon, not just at it.”

When, late into the 1960s, the Beatles began to lose that sense of adventure, to turn inward, the results were smaller for it. Let It Be, an album project that began with Lennon telling Martin to take a more hands-off approach, was eventually handed over to the eccentric producer Phil Spector. Even today, Martin describes it as “a betrayal, really.” When presented with the finished product, Martin said he suggested that the sleeve read: “‘Produced by George Martin; overproduced by Phil Spector.’ But they didn’t seem to go for that.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Even the Beatles sometimes, well, sucked. Join us as we count down the times where the Fab Four took a bad song ... and made it worse.]

Martin didn’t think they would ever work together again, and “I didn’t really want to.” But the quintet did, in fact, return to the studio — and to their previous glory, on 1969’s Abbey Road. That wasn’t the end of the story for Martin, even though the Beatles would soon go their separate ways. “I, on the other hand,” he says, with a chuckle, “was liberated.”

Freed of having to chase hits, having already been to the very top of the mountain again and again, Martin branched out into the outer edges of his own imagination and then back again — working with both the fusion jazz band Mahavishnu Orchestra and the mainstream country rockers America, both Jimmy Webb and Jeff Beck. He built a studio in the Caribbean — since destroyed by Hurricane Hugo — where the Police, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Dire Straits and McCartney recorded in the 1980s.

“Everything is like that, though, isn’t it?” Martin says, walking around the ruins in Montserrat. “Everything has a period. You bring something out of nothing. But it always goes back to nothing again.”

Not everything, no. The records, those sounds — whether Martin can hear them unaided anymore, or not — will remain, forever.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.