Goodbye To Sir George

630305_01Sir George Martin died on Tuesday at age 90.  Though he had a long and accomplished career in music, he will forever be remembered as the Beatles’ producer — and therefore as a giant in the history of popular culture.

Martin’s first interactions with the Beatles are the stuff of music legend.  The Beatles, fresh from long stints in Hamburg clubs, had just experienced the departure of Stu Sutcliffe and had replaced Pete Best with Ringo Starr; their first efforts to get a recording contract had ended in failure.  Martin, a classically trained musician who studied piano and oboe, was working as a producer for the struggling Parlophone label, which specialized in classical music.  When Martin first listened to the Beatles’ music, he was not impressed — but there was something there, and Parlophone was desperate to break into the rock music market, so the band was signed.

the-beatles-george-martin-the-beatles-33432395-400-400The rest, as they say, is history.  Martin struck up a good relationship with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, and he respected the wishes of McCartney and Lennon to become real songwriters, not just performers.  He listened to their songs, made crucial suggestions, and Martin and the Beatles quickly developed a relationship of collaborative creativity that produced some of the greatest popular music ever recorded.

Please Please Me, the first album the Beatles recorded with Martin, is a terrific rock and roll album that captured an almost live music feel and showed Martin’s technical recording skills.  Listen to the irresistible Twist and Shout, with the band’s tight, chunking rhythms, John Lennon’s hoarse vocals, McCartney’s soaring screams, and Ringo’s ashcan drumming at the end, and you’ll hear a masterful exercise in recording.  From there, it was a line of hits that steadily and inexorably stretched, and stretched, and stretched the boundaries of popular music, with Martin suggesting strings here and a sitar there, speeding up sections of songs, recording feedback and backward music, and eventually producing the ground-breaking Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.  But while others might focus on the lushly produced songs, like Yesterday or Strawberry Fields Forever, we shouldn’t forget that Martin was brilliant at the basics and knew when avoiding a cloying, over-produced sound was just as important.  A Hard Day’s Night, from the taut opening guitar chord of that song to the end of the album, still remains one of the greatest rock albums ever released.

I’ve written often about music generally and the Beatles specifically.  They were extraordinary talents, but it was people like George Martin who helped them to produce magic and beauty, songs that touch you deeply and songs that make you want to dance in a sweaty crowd and songs that make even the vocally challenged among us want to sing out loud.  Sir George Martin was part of something tremendous that will live on for years.  He will be celebrated in his passing, and justifiably so.

The Man Who Put The Beat In The Beatles

Today is Ringo Starr’s 70th birthday.  He is celebrating with a private event at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City, followed by a concert at Radio City Music Hall.

I always thought Ringo Starr was a vastly underrated rock drummer.  Because he was a character who became known for his “Ringoisms”  — like “a hard day’s night” — I think many people considered him to be less important musically than other members of the Beatles.  When Lorne Michaels offered some ludicrously small amount for the Beatles to reunite and play on Saturday Night Live, he specifically said that the other band members could give Ringo a lesser cut if they wanted to.  It was supposed to be funny, but it was a cruel joke.

Sure, Ringo didn’t write many songs or have many singing hits when he was with the Beatles.  (Ironically, for a few years after the Beatles split up, Ringo had the most post-Beatles hits of any ex-member of the band, with songs like It Don’t Come Easy and Photograph.)  Nevertheless, he was the man who put the beat in the Beatles.  He had rock ‘n roll in his soul and never let showmanship get in the way of keeping the beat.  Listen to the ferocious drumming on, say, Twist and Shout and you will know what I mean.  Anyone who likes to dance to the early Beatles tunes — songs like Dizzy Miss Lizzie or I Saw Her Standing There — should tip his cap to Ringo Starr because his excellent drumming made those songs easy to dance to.  Even on his one drum solo — at the end of side two of Abbey Road — Ringo seemed to focus mostly on the beat, and not on technical flourishes or showoff riffs that detracted from the rhythm.  Yet within that guiding framework, Ringo also was capable of inventiveness.  Rain and Come Together are two pretty good examples of that fact.

I think it is safe to say that the Beatles without Ringo would not have been the Beatles.  Happy Birthday, Ringo!  Let’s celebrate with this video of Rain: