The most important day of George Martin‘s career — the day he proved himself the only genius who could have produced the Beatles — was February 11th, 1963, when they recorded their debut album, Please Please Me, in one marathon 13-hour session. It was a radical gesture of faith on his part — he let these four nowhere boys from Liverpool sing their own songs, and select their own cover versions. He let them play their own instruments and keep their working-class Northern accents. No other producer in the business would have been insane enough to just put the Beatles in front of their amps and let them play live, straight to two-track. He didn’t even have the common sense to help himself to a slice of their writing credits. But everything Martin went on to achieve with the Beatles — all the moments when he’d bring their craziest ideas to life, inventing tricks other artists would spend careers trying to imitate, earning his name as rock’s most revered producer — stem from this moment.
When George Martin discovered the Beatles, he was the expert, the pro who knew the rules of how the music business worked. But when he heard the Beatles, he had the almost unfathomable wisdom to throw out all that hard-won expertise and let the Beatles make their own music — a decision with repercussions on how the rest of the world has heard music ever since. He was the one who trusted their ideas. (Much as Brian Epstein loved the lads, he would have kept them singing “Besame Mucho.”) Everything the Beatles ever achieved was because George Martin had the visionary belief they could get away with it.
As Ringo described him, George Martin was “pure 12-inch” — a classical LP man rather than some hack grinding out rock & roll singles. The Beatles called him “Mr. Martin” — or more cheekily, “The Duke of Edinburgh,” never suspecting he was a working-class lad from North London who ditched his Cockney accent in the service during World War Two. In the Sixties, while he was helping the Beatles revolutionize the world, he still dressed like a posh schoolmaster and steered clear of drugs. “I’m not a rock & roll person,” he once admitted. “I used to like polo neck sweaters. Still do. And I’m partial to the odd blazer. But there was a conscious effort on my part not to conform, by not joining them. I didn’t grow my hair long until after the Beatles were ended.”
Countless record labels had passed on the band’s demo tape before Martin plucked it out of the pile and heard promise in these Liverpool boys; indeed, the list of record labels who rejected the Beatles seemed to grow every time Brian Epstein told the story. The demo tape was tame stuff — biased toward their corniest material, à la “Besame Mucho,” in accordance with Epstein’s taste. But Martin called them in for an audition session at Parlophone on June 6th, 1962, where the lads did a few stabs at “Besame Mucho” before wisely pushing for “Love Me Do.” When he asked them to tell him if there was anything they didn’t like, George Harrison famously said, “Well, for a start, I don’t like your tie.”
When they cut the “Love Me Do” single that September, Martin hadn’t even planned on letting them record it. In custom with the time, he had a song picked out for them to sing — a piece of professional songwriting hackwork called “How Do You Do It?” The Beatles, who had a lot to lose in their first session, stubbornly held out for their own original song. When they played “How Do You Do It?” they sabotaged it, playing up its corniness so blatantly that it was unreleasable. (It became a hit for quintessential British Invasion twits Freddie and the Dreamers, whose best song was the would-be dance-craze “Do the Freddie.”)
Martin had already changed his mind about a lot of things, like picking which one of the band is going to be the frontman, the way Andrew Loog Oldham decided Mick Jagger was going to stand in front of Brian Jones. After giving it some thought, and spending some time with the lads, Martin decided it was okay to permit the band not to have a frontman. That was a bold move in itself — but in the “Love Me Do” session, Martin made the equally bold decision to stop pushing for “How Do You Do It?” and trust the band. “Love Me Do” was still in rough shape, even though the song was four years old at that point — it was Martin who added the harmonica fanfare, which we now naturally think of as the whole song. John had always done the solo “love me do” vocal hook, but now that he was switching off to the harmonica, Paul took it over — the first time he ever sang it was in the studio. A week later, Martin brought them back in to redo the song with a studio drummer — poor Ringo got demoted to banging a tambourine.
George Martin was a man who was often wrong. He was wrong thinking Ringo couldn’t drum. He was wrong thinking “How Do You Do It?” was the song they should record. He was wrong proposing the Beatles call their first album Off the Beatle Track. (A title he liked so much, he used it for his own album, featuring orchestral remakes of the lads’ songs). The really decisive element of Martin’s genius is how swiftly he changed his mind when he recognized he was wrong. In all these cases, Martin’s thinking was solidly in line with the realities of the music business. (“How Do You Do It?” was the hit he thought it was; just wrong for this band.) He had an amazingly agile ability to adapt his thinking to the Beatles’ skill set, which was beyond anything a producer could have been trained to expect, but also their increasing demands in the studio, when they began routinely asking him to create sounds that had never come out of any recording studio before.
Every record he made with the band was a document of his brilliance as well as theirs. But letting the Beatles write their own songs is the wisest decision George Martin ever made. (And without cutting himself in on the credits, which would have been standard practice at the time. The failure of George Martin to rip them off remains one of the inexplicable elements of their story.)
It’s all there in Please Please Me. You can hear that the Beatles have winter colds, but Martin calculates their voices should hold up for 10 hours. They spend the session sucking cough drops and chain-smoking. First thing in the morning, they do “There’s a Place” and “I Saw Her Standing There,” which they’re still calling “Seventeen.” At lunch time, the studio staff knocks off to the pub for a pie and a pint. But to their surprise, the Beatles don’t join them — they tell Mr. Martin they’d rather stay in the studio and rehearse, drinking milk. “We couldn’t believe it,” engineer Richard Langham says later. “We had never seen a group work right through their lunch break before.” There’s no time to waste — tomorrow it’s back to the road with two gigs in one night, one in Sheffield and another 40 miles away in Oldham. Ringo does the Shirelles “Boys” in one take — it’s the first time he’s ever sung in a recording studio in his life, but that’s the version on the album, complete with his “all right, George!” into the guitar solo.
The clock is nearing 10 — closing time, according to the strict rules at EMI Studios — but when everyone confers over coffee at the Abbey Road canteen, John reports he still has enough left in his voice for one song. He gargles with milk and takes his shirt off. The band rips into “Twist and Shout,” as John shreds what’s left of his vocal cords, one “come on” at a time. Mr. Martin makes them play it a second time, but John’s voice is gone. Everybody listens to the playback, then the Beatles surprise the staff by asking to hear it again, forcing them to stay past closing time. They have now made an album. It goes to the top of the U.K. charts and stays at Number One for 30 weeks. Then it gets replaced by With the Beatles, which stays at Number One for the next 22 weeks.
If a bulldozer had crashed through the Abbey Road wall at 11 a.m. and wiped out all four Beatles along with George Martin, leaving only the tape machine rolling, and “There’s a Place” had been the last song they committed to tape that day, it would still be an historic peak for rock & roll as a way of communicating, a way of feeling, a way of life. It would be astonishing that the Beatles even got this far. They already had a new sound, so enormous the world would have to bend and stretch to make room for it. George Martin was the only one in the music business who thought an album like this was possible. That’s why he’s the only producer who could have made it possible. And that’s why the world will always be grateful to George Martin.