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The Fifth Beatle

Back in the mid-sixties, when the Beatles were hot, it seemed everyone was claiming to be "The Fifth Beatle"; in New York City, a popular DJ named Murray the K, said it so often Beatles' management threatened a lawsuit if he didn't stop. In the late 'sixties, when a gifted keyboard player from Texas named Billy Preston, sat in on the Beatles' "Get Back" sessions, the English press couldn't resist calling him "The Fifth Beatle".

However, there's only one person with a right to the title, and that's the one record executive in all of England who saw their potential and signed them to a contract, when no one else would, and that's George Martin.

Unlike many American record producers, Martin was not a cynical, street smart hustler who got his start grooming talentless white kids for stardom, but an articulate, button-down Englishman known for recording classical music, and for making household names of such comedy acts as Peter Sellers, and Dudley Moore. Ironically, he didn't understand the first thing about rock 'n' roll, nor did he at first appreciate the Beatles' songwriting ability. What he did have was the knowledge and experience on how to utilize the experimental aspects of the modern recording studio, something that would prove valuable when the Beatles entered into their psychedelic phase, in the later half of the decade.

Martin took a chance on the Beatles because they adored his comedy albums, and because he enjoyed their company.

While Martin did not understand or even appreciate rock 'n' roll music, he understood in his gut that the key to selling pop records was to capture the listener's attention within the first ten seconds, and that required a hook--an instantly recognizable sound or chorus.

Because they insisted on writing their own songs, Martin let them record "Love Me Do" as their debut single. The record broke into the vaunted top forty, mainly on the strength of their fanatic fans back home in Liverpool. Still, when John and Paul presented Martin with their latest song--a ballad, entitled "Please, Please Me"--as a follow-up, he rejected it. "The song needs a hook," Martin told them, and insisted they record "How Do You Do It" instead. "It's a number-one hit," Martin said.

The Beatles reluctantly recorded the song that afternoon, but that night completely retooled "Please, Please Me", adding Lennon's harmonica as the opening hook, and speeding up the tempo, thereby transforming the ballad into an uptempo rocker. The following day, Martin was so knocked out with the changes, that he sent the boys back into the studio to record it as their next release.

"Please, Please Me" became the first of the Beatles' twenty number-one hits.

(Martin was right about "How Do You Do It" which became a number hit for another pop group from Liverpool, Gerry and the Pacemakers).

In the early years, while the Beatles were still finding their way in the studio, Martin called all the shots. For example, with "She Loves You", Martin decreed that the song begin with the chorus ("She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah") rather than with the first verse ("You think you've lost your love . . . ") as Lennon-McCartney had written it. Not only did the song go number one in a big way, but the chorus refrain, "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" defined their musical brand for a generation of record buyers.

For the next six years--until their breakup in 1970--the Beatles could do no wrong; every single they released went number one. Still, Martin would lay awake nights worrying about how to further enhance the Beatles' sound, and was continuously experimenting with new recording ideas, such as altering acoustics, reverse echo, and backward recording techniques. In 1964, at the height of Beatlemania, Martin slowed the tape of "A Hard Day's Night" to half speed, then doubled George Harrison's guitar solo on piano. Played at normal speeds the instruments combined into a "hybridized electronic instrument," that beguiled the ear, and that no other producer had a clue as how to duplicate.

When Lennon stumbled upon the controlled guitar feedback that opens "I Feel Fine," Martin embraced the unique sound as a yet another hook to sell their records.

Martin also composed arresting arrangements, such as the string quartet on "Yesterday", and the double string quartet on "Eleanore Rigby". On Lennon's exquisite "In My Life" Martin played the harpsichord on the bridge. In this sense, Martin had moved beyond being the band's producer, to the more creative role of song arranger, which would become particularly evident with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" and "Magical Mystery Tour".

In 1966, the Beatles were clearly in a mood for something different, and turned to George Martin to revolutionize their sound world, particularly while making their next album, "Revolver". The result was their first step into psychedelic music, where guitars sounded like keyboards (and vice versa), and drums sounded like echos from an alternate universe.

After that the Beatles were poised to make what many consider to be their masterpiece--"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band", in which the quartet moved beyond their usual guitar-bass-drums sound, and advanced into a new sound world of 100-piece orchestras, cello, keyboard, and horn accompaniments, heightened by Martin's inventive use of studio electronics. It seemed no request made by Lennon-McCartney, however outlandish, was beyond his ability.

Having revolutionized pop music, the Beatles took time off, and retreated to India to take part in a Transcendental Meditation training course. Away from the studio, with only their acoustic guitars to play, they wrote a number of very simple songs that would become the basis of their next album, the eponymous "The Beatles" a.k.a. "The White Album". After the extravagance of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band", and the psychedelic anthems, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am The Walrus", the relative simplicity and quietude of "The White Album" came as something of a shock to the pop music world. Fans of the Beatles, however, embraced "The White Album" as yet another example of their range and genius.

Believing they could do no wrong, the Beatles dismissed Martin ("we don't want your studio rubbish", Lennon bluntly told him) and decided to self-produce their next album, "Get Back", which would be recorded live for a feature film. At some point they realized what they were recording was weak tea. It was then they called back George Martin to see if he could somehow breath life into the stillborn sessions. As it turned out, he could not.

By this time, a hard-nosed New York attorney named Allan Klein had replaced the late Brian Epstein as their manager. To rescue what everyone agreed had been a disaster, he called in American producer Phil Spector to work his magic. Taking a page from George Martin's playbook, Spector overdubbed string and horn arrangements on some tracks, and remixed and revised the rest with various studio enhancements, and, with Klein's blessing, turned the finished tapes over to the record plant for release as an album.

Paul McCartney, for one, hated what Spector had done to his--and the Beatles'-- music. As great as Spector was, he was no George Martin. The Beatles needed Martin, particularly now, when they were on the verge of breaking up. McCartney called the other Beatles together, and strongly suggested they return to the studio, put George Martin back in charge, make a complete new album, and thereby finish on a high note.

The result was the impeccable, "Abbey Road", which many critics have cited as the Beatles' greatest album. Nicole Pensiero of PopMatters called it "an amazingly cohesive piece of music, innovative and timeless", while Neil McCormick of London's The Daily Telegraph dubbed it the Beatles' "last love letter to the world" and praised its "big, modern sound", calling it "lush, rich, smooth, epic, emotional and utterly gorgeous."


The digital age has been particularly kind to the Beatles. While George Martin was able to work miracles in the recording studio, something was lost in the transfer of analogue recordings onto vinyl. Listening to today's digital remastering, for example, of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band", is to hear their music with new ears. The sound of the cello, for example, was often lost or muddied in the transfer to record. Not any more. Digital remastering, similar to what's being to done to restore renaissance art to its former glory, and thereby reveal the brightness of its original colors, has with the Beatles' recorded output revealed a sound world that heretofore had not been heard since the day it was recorded by George Martin. While all the Beatles' albums have been re-released in remastered digital form, you can hear the highlights in one 90-minute CD, entitled "Love", an arresting medley compiled by George Martin, and his son Giles.

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