Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams: the Death of George Martin

Fifth but by no means least … what a suitable ending

In some ways it seems entirely fitting that the death of Beatles producer, George Martin wasn’t accompanied by a burst of dramatic orchestration, a piccolo trumpet solo or a tumultuous crescendo of instruments followed by a dramatic final chord played on three different pianos. That’s because a really good producer is one you barely know is there. They sit quietly in the background as unassuming and supportive as the gentle whir of the tape as it purrs along to the music. Or at least they did until it all went digital.

Like all the slickest licks, fills and chops, good producers buried their best work deep into the mix. And it is on account of this burial that the gift of eternal life gets bestowed on those raw, unfinished ideas. Unless of course you’re talking about records by the Spin Doctors, Sheila B and the Devotion or Dean Friedman. None of which benefited from production at all. They were all dead on arrival, so to speak.

It seems peculiar now to think that we ever really doubted the identity of the Fifth Beatle. In a fashion that was as suspenseful and enigmatic as any Third Man or Cluedo spy thriller, Beatles fans the world over would furiously debate the worthiness of each candidate, nervously putting forward their merits, and just as nervously retracting them when it became apparent they were ridiculous. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Billy Preston, Jimmie Nicol. Just who was the Fifth Beatle?

Was it the cool but deeply dyspraxic Stuart Sutcliffe? A prodigious enough talent when it came to the canvas but a seriously unskilled musician, who as suave as he looked and as bohemian as he acted couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket. Or was it Pete Best (with a drumstick rather than a candlestick), the Beatles original drummer and the only drummer in the world to make Ringo look like Keith Moon.  Even the Beatles road manager, Mal Evans got a look in with the anorak crowd, but his resume, whilst enthusiastic, was fairly minimal on closer inspection. Mal clanged away at the anvil (roughly in time to the music) on ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, he played a single organ note on the final verse of ‘You Won’t See Me’, did handclaps on ‘Dear Prudence’ and shovelled gravel as part of the rhythm track for ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’.

As contributions to popular music went, Mal was hardly in the same league as Burt Bacharach or Phil Spector.

And though Brian Epstein might have shared the Fab Four’s passion for suits in the early days, it was difficult to imagine such an immaculate and sophisticated man doing the wild and uninhibited shakey-head thing in the ‘shake-it-up-baby-now’ bit on ‘Twist and Shout’. Neither twisting nor shaking would have been tolerated in the Epstein household, with the possible exception of the 80-year old Queenie Epstein who’d developed age-related Parkinsons Disease by the time Beatlemania came along.

But listen to the colour of your dreams
It is not leaving, it is not leaving — Tomorrow Never Knows

Let’s face it, as fun (and as criminally extended) as all those late night pub discussions were, the only credible candidate was mild mannered George Martin. In fact he was the only  option among them that you didn’t need five beers in your belly to get loud and expressive about. George was the man from EMI who contrary to the wishes of his bosses travelled to Liverpool to watch The Beatles run through their set at the Cavern. By his own admission they didn’t really have any decent songs of their own, but they had a charm and an energy that he knew he could work with. And work with it he did, much like a rain shower works with the light to produce a rainbow.

There’s nothing overly complex or mysterious when it comes to explaining the success of the pairing. The Beatles were literally bursting with sheer kinetic energy. A raw, intuitive grasp of harmony and composition and a kick-ass disregard for the rules was beautifully re-calibrated by Martin. Like the collarless jackets, the mop-top fringes and those rubbery Cuban heels it was a combination that should never have worked, not on paper, anyway. On the one hand you had the classically trained ex-Royal Navy Officer with a love of crisp, precise arrangements (who’d somehow got lumped with doing comedy records) and on the other you had four untethered scallies who didn’t know a treble clef from a goose egg. And this is why it worked; they deviated from the routes expected by each of their respective masters.

george martin fifth beatle

You can’t plan or predict for this kind of marriage: Martin knew little about Rock n Roll and The Beatles knew even less about the science of a good arrangement. One would benefit from a particular kind of mindset, and the other would benefit from a particular kind of skillset. It was quid pro quo; an exchange of goods and services based on mutual respect and a shared disregard for the rulebook. Put the five of them in the the small, confined space of Studio Two at Abbey Road and something magical would happen. A similar phenomenon occurs in your average internal combustion engine. Put just a tiny amount of high-energy fuel in a small, enclosed space and ignite it, and you release an incredible amount of energy. The resulting gas would expand in a none too spectacular fashion if it wasn’t for an intricate system of cylinders, valves and pistons — and this is what Martin brought to the table: a way of channeling that raw, unbridled energy.

And it’s not even taken two pints of lager to recognise such a quality.

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. Nothing ever is. Whilst the string-quartet on ‘Yesterday’ and the baroque-style doubling up of the piano on ‘In My Life’ made it clear that Martin was getting them to think very differently about rock music, the surrealism the band had brought to the studio with songs like  ‘A Day In The Life’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was quietly (and irrevocably) transforming Martin’s own understanding of arrangement and composition.

It’s said that it’s the mutual effects of certain hormones in the body that have the biggest impact on skeletal changes when we’re young. And this is how I view the partnership. The Sixties was adolescence and The Beatles were its growth spurt.

Inevitably this enduring whodunnit mystery didn’t lead us to Colonel Mustard with a spanner in the billiard room, it led us to a  softly-spoken gent called George in Studio Two of Abbey Road Studios with a pre-patent sonic screwdriver.

At the age of 90 it would be pretty disingenuous to describe his passing as a great loss – at least where music is concerned. The greatest loss came twenty years ago when hearing loss resulted in Martin handing the task of recording ‘Free As A Bird’ and ‘Real Love’ to Jeff Lynne (bless him). And when you leave this kind of legacy, you never really leave at all. As long as young minds are still dreaming and ears are still listening the tape rolls on.

Time gentlemen, please.

Tape rolling – The Things that Made George Martin the Fifth Beatle

For the Benefit of Mr Kite

Sgt Pepper marked a new found understanding between Martin and The Beatles. Until Pepper the maestro had been fairly selective (and rather cautious) in his suggestions: an instrument they’d never heard of here, an instrument they’d never heard of there. Now the gloves were off, so to speak, and the appetite of the Beatles (Paul in particular) to include new sounds and create new soundscapes was placing entirely new demands on the producer. ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!’ was mostly John’s idea and was based on a 19th-century circus poster he had in his home. John wanted a circus atmosphere. He wanted the sonic equivalent of the smell of sawdust on the floor. Martin’s response was to sit there splicing together dozens of recordings of fairground organs and calliope music, throwing them all up in the air and splicing them back together again at random to create a slightly discordant ‘hurdy gurdy’ affair.

Not A Second Time/Money

‘Not A Second Time’ on With The Beatles won plaudits from even less groovy classical spheres for its unexpected and deceptive ‘cadences’. Basically it was down to suggestions made by Martin to vary the chord sequences. The effect was to create a slightly tense and moody atmosphere. Martin also added the piano solo, which as simple and as straightforward as it is played gives the track a resonance and maturity that rock records weren’t entirely known for. The piano overdubs that Martin added the following track ‘Money’ give it that classic signature value.

A Day in the Life

The on-off musical partnership that John and Paul were enjoying by ’67 meant that most of the songs were arriving from completely separate mental and musical spaces. Whilst tossing each other scraps in the form of middle eights and bridges was nothing new (‘We Can Work It Out’ is a good example), the way in which ‘A Day In The Life’ was required to combine two vastly different ideas into one seamless musical sequence exposed Martin to new and significant challenges. Reacting to an original suggestion by Paul for an orchestral interlude, Martin’s response was to compose a loose score for the 24-bar missing section. Martin conducted the 40-piece orchestra, asking them to start off on the lowest note possible on their instrument and make their own way to the highest (or an atonal crescendo, if you prefer). The final piano you hear clanking away like a death knoll at the end of the track is actually Lennon, McCartney, Starr, and erstwhile sidekick Mal Evans hitting the same note on three different pianos, with Martin on the harmonium. Martin and the Beatles extended this mini-opera approach on the famous Abbey Road medley.

Yesterday/Eleanor Rigby/For No One

For a time Lennon must have felt Martin was muscling in on his man, such was the collusion between McCartney and Martin to flesh out arrangements that didn’t rely on the traditional rock combo. It was George Martin who thought up the idea to have a string quartet accompany a solo Paul on ‘Yesterday’ and Paul, clearly pleased with the result, revived much the same idea on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘For No One’, both on Revolver. Ringo is the only other member of The Beatles to appear on any of the three tracks. By the time it came to conceive Eleanor Rigby Paul had been tuned-in and turned on to Vivaldi.


The gentle lullaby sung by Ringo at the end of the White Album provided a soothing contrast to the unsettling Revolution No.9 where George Martin had done his best to replicate the cut and paste approach of people like John Cage (looping, reversing, chopping up, distorting, echoing, panning and the like). The gorgeously lush orchestral arrangement on ‘Goodnight’ demonstrates just how flexible Martin could be to their staggeringly high demands. Lennon may have intended it as a slightly ironic riposte to ‘Revolution No.9’ but there’s no denying that it is Martin’s sweeping string arrangement that transform it from crass, throwaway jingle into one of Lennon’s best cuts on the White Album.

In My Life

That mad piano solo you get in the second half of the song? That’s George Martin wearing his love of Bach very much on his ivories. He couldn’t play it at the tempo of the song so he slowed the tape down and played along. It was this that made it sound like an harpsichord when speeded up. Now THAT is creative science.

Yellow Submarine album

You know side two of the album Yellow Submarine? The one you never listened to? Well that whole side was scored and conducted by entirely by Martin with the help of a 41-piece orchestra. The other George was lucky to get two songs on an album. George Martin got a whole side to himself. If that alone doesn’t elevate him to the rank of Fifth Beatle, I don’t know what does.

About the author

The author graduated in Literature & Linguistics at Sheffield Hallam University in 1993 before making the unlikely transition to Information Systems a few years later. Editor at Crud Music Magazine from 2000 to 2012. Interests include signs, semiosis and other crazy phenomena that contribute to the mechanics of communication. Also likes baking.

Lives in the Central Highlands of Scotland with his wife and two daughters.



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