Reblog: Three things we can learn from Sir George Martin (1926-2016)

Advice & Tips

Legendary producer of The Beatles, Sir George Martin, passed away on this day, five years ago. The following day, I wrote this article on a now-defunct page. Reposting here to mark this sad anniversary:

Sir George Martin, most famous for acting as the producer of all but one of The Beatles’ albums, passed away yesterday, aged 90.

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966

Already, reports and obituaries have been published, quoting Martin and highlighting his amazing achievements with and without The Beatles. Though Martin was a producer for over a decade before meeting them, it is undoubtedly his work with this music-changing band, the very Zeitgeist  of musical development in the nineteen-sixties and beyond, for which he will be best remembered and discussed for years to come.

There’s been plenty of debate on whether or not The Beatles succeeded artistically because of suggestions made by Martin, or if he was simply very effective in channelling their natural talent. In reality, it was probably a mix of the two. That in itself is not a bad legacy to leave behind.

Though Martin now sadly has passed away, we can still learn something valuable from the work he left behind. Here are my three things which we can learn from the life and career of George Martin:

Have an open mind

I’ve mentioned this in several previous posts, but an open mind and a willing pair of ears is without a shadow of a doubt the most important tool for any artist. This is especially true for musicians and producers, and a sentiment to which Martin himself prescribed more than once, including in his own books.

It is well established in rock history canon that The Beatles were been turned down by several record companies prior to being signed by Martin to EMI. Think about this for a moment: every almost ‘industry expert’ had refused to take on another guitar band, believing them to be going out of fashion. Fair enough, it is called the music business for a reason. Money has to be made and trends will always be followed. This is as true today as it was in the nineteen fifties and sixties. However, ‘following the money’ is a great way to be a follower, but you are default already a follower from the start, and not a leader.

The best leaders, artists, teachers, and indeed the best in any profession listen first. In seeing the potential that The Beatles had, Martin was able to continue listening to them throughout their eight years working together making hit after hit, and classic album after classic album. This is especially noticeable when at the point mid-sixties where the band stopped performing live altogether, becoming a studio band only. The resulting works, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, The Beatles and Abbey Road, are unique in sounding very much of their time, but still fresh and exciting in 2016.

And it wasn’t just Martin doing all of the listening. The Beatles themselves were avid consumers of art and music. In being open to anything interesting, they brought elements of avant-garde, atonalism, looping, sampling and a whole world of musical styles to their music. By opening your ears, and combining the sounds you love, it is entirely possible to produce a new work, which speaks to the future while recognising that which has gone before.

Know your limits, and push them

Looping, you say? Sampling? In the nineteen-sixties?! It is worth noting that the vast majority of The Beatles’ recorded output was recorded on a four-track (or, at very best towards the seventies, eight-track) tape machine. This was state of the art back then, but lacking in the limitless options of the digital recording software in use everywhere. Leaving aside all the other technological innovations and improvisations Martin would conjure up to accommodate the visions of The Beatles in their songwriting, there is the question of the sheer number of instruments and sounds on some songs. The solution to squeezing so many different elements onto a four-track recorder? Multi-tracking.

Multi-tracking was first developed by guitarist Les Paul some decades before Martin made such effective use of the technique. Put simply, the process involves recording onto three of the available tracks, then ‘bouncing’ that mix onto the fourth track. The process can be repeated using tracks one and two, then bouncing to the third. Then it can (if needed) be taken even further by mixing tracks three & four onto one of the other tracks, meaning there are now three left to add on more parts (and here is where I start to go cross-eyed myself!).

The biggest issue with this method of recording is the physical degradation of the tape onto which the sound was being copied. By layering track upon track, the overall mix becomes more dense, and done incorrectly, can leave with a muddy sounding, uninspiring record. George Martin, however, seems to have been perfectly capable of getting clean, crisp recordings of individual mixes, which hold their brightness as they get ‘bounced’ and mixed into a deeper and more complicated arrangement. Even with Martin’s confident ‘know how’, there was still a limit to how many additions could me made. In these days of endless tracks and almost any possible sound available to laptops worldwide, I personally don’t see the same level of mechanical creativity. Sometimes working with what you have, pushing the limits, is better than having no limits at all…

Have a sense of humour

There’s a famous anecdote – which Martin was often fond of telling – detailing the first time The Beatles first met their producer (retold once more in the Washington Post’s obituary of George Martin today). After Martin had spoke at length about the recording process, he asked the Fab Four is there was anything they didn’t like. The response, from George Harrison, was “Well, I don’t like your tie for a start…”. From there, Martin knew that they would get along famously.

A sense of humour can not only ease any tensions rising in the studio, which can be high-pressure for some acts expected to produce hit after hit. It can also serve to bridge the gap between generations. In that respect, Martin must have impressed the Beatles from the start, having quite an extensive background in comedy and novelty recordings – some of which became unexpected hits – including John Lennon’s comedy heroes, The Goons. In quite a lot of interview footage from the early sixties, The Beatles were set apart from their questioners, an exclusive club with a shared sense of humour and in-jokes which created a barrier to those outside of the group. Martin, I believe, was very much inside their ‘circle of trust’, otherwise they would not have allowed him such authority in the studio. A shared sense of humour must have been a major in-road to gaining the trust of these young Liverpudlians.

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Final Thoughts

As a musician, producer and in some ways, mentor, Martin helped the Fab Four to realise the sounds they heard in their heads. His creative, yet critical thinking fuelled The Beatles’ insatiable appetite for art, and helped their music transcend to heights which otherwise may have remained untouched. Though I have spoken mostly about Martin’s work with the Fab Four, we should be no means overlook all of the other artists he worked with & film scores he wrote/arranged. Without Martin, popular music, and therefore the world we live in today, would be very different indeed…

R.I.P. Sir George Henry Martin (1926-2016).

Ten albums which helped shape me as a guitarist

Music

I was recently tagged in a Facebook challenge by my friend David, in which you post 10 albums which have informed your early musical tastes.

I find things like this almost impossible. It’s so personal, but based on hundreds of musical memories. How do you select just ten LPs from years of discovering & listening to new music? So I made my criteria a little more specific, and chose ten records which, as well as being ones I listened to frequently, also served as early influences on my guitar playing & songwriting.

Because I’m focusing on my earliest influences, this list looks rather narrow. I’d like to think that my guitar playing influences, as well as my music listening tastes, are much more eclectic than this list would imply. But then, these are my earliest influences, rather than the wider world of music that these albums (and countless others not in this list) opened up to me.

In some cases I chose a favourite album by artists who could have filled a ‘top ten’ list all by themselves. I also decided to omit quite a few 90s choices which were heavy-rotation at the time, but didn’t accompany my out of the 90s, so to speak…

And because I’m looking at albums, I’ve not included any classical or folk pieces. Although they were a huge part of what I was playing on the guitar back then, just as now, I learned these pieces individually, rather than via any one particular LP – perhaps that’s a separate list of its own for a future post…

Likewise, jazz was a genre I started digging deeper into in my very late teens, so they while it has certainly influenced my playing, it didn’t happen until later. As such, only one jazz record makes an appearance on this particular list.

So what you see below is perhaps better catogorised as ten rock & pop albums which had a lasting influence on my guitar playing. Also, because it was really tricky narrowing down to just 10 choices, I’ve included a few contenders which nearly made the cut.

Strangely, some significant guitar influences don’t appear in these picks, for various reasons – not least because 10 albums isn’t enough! I think it’s because I view some guitar player’s work over their whole career (or live performances), rather than limited to just one record.

Anyway, here they are. The list is (very loosely) organised by chronology of when I discovered them, where my memory makes that possible. Enjoy!

The Shadows – 20 Golden Greats (1977)

The album that started it all. I was six years old and going through the ‘tennis racket guitar’ phase. My Dad suggested I listen to some “proper guitar music” and player this album to me (on cassette, naturally). There was no turning back. That famous clean Stratocaster tone was under my skin.

As I reached my teenage years I soon learned that The Shadows & their legendary lead guitarist Hank Marvin were far from fashionable, and I expect many young players may never have even heard of them. But one way or another, the landscape of popular music would be very different without their influence.

The Moody Blues – In Search of the Lost Chord (1968)

My father is to blame for this one too. He has all seven of the ‘classic’ Moodies albums (from 1967-72), and any one of them could have been chosen for inclusion here. Why Lost Chord? It best represents the mix of influences on my playing, featuring both fantastic acoustic & electric guitar work, as well as an abundance of non-rock instrumentation like sitar, flute and some of the best played mellotron in the history of popular music (it was this band’s keyboard player, Mike Pinder, who introduced the instrument to The Beatles).

Another element I’ve always enjoyed in the music of The Moody Blues is that they were a five-piece band with four singers. They divided up lead vocal duties equally, and performed some beautiful harmony arrangements. Meanwhile, the drummer (the only non-vocalist) wrote poetry which the band performed as spoken word on each album. Sometimes a little dated, but very experimental & extremely fun.

Close contenders: ‘Days of Future Passed’ (1967), ‘On the Threshold of a Dream’ (1969), ‘To Our Children’s Children’s Children’ (1969), ‘Question of Balance’ (1970), ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ (1971) & ‘Seventh Sojourn’ (1972), all by The Moody Blues

The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)

Of course The Beatles feature on this list. I chose this LP above some of their other groundbreaking albums (particularly the studio-bound later records) for two reasons. Firstly, the suite of sings which takes up most of side two of the record. Secondly, it features two of George Harrison’s best songs, Something & Here Comes The Sun.

Close contenders: ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967) by The Beatles & ‘Pet Sounds’ (1966) by The Beach Boys

Blur – The Great Escape (1995)

Blur were always more than just a Britpop band. Their music had an air of adventure & experimentalism that simply wasn’t present in the work of their contemporaries. This album shows how observational pop songs could still have a grungy & left field edge to them. As well as this, guitarist Graham Coxon has left his mark on my approach to creating parts in a band with only one guitar player (and no keyboards for the most part) that go beyond the obvious but still fit the tunes perfectly.

Close contenders: Blur’s preceding album ‘Parklife’ (1994) & ‘Return to the Last Chance Saloon’ (1998) by The Bluetones

Deep Purple – Machine Head (1972)

This album’s most famous song (Smoke On The Water) tells the story of its own creation. It is also my least favourite track on this LP, most likely due to over-saturation (are you allowed to play it in guitar shops yet?) bit there’s riffs & solos aplenty on this gem. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore undoubtedly influenced my early soloing style. I loved how his tone was almost clean, unlike every guitar player who followed in his wake. His single-note slide playing has also had on effect on the melodic approach I try to employ in my lap steel playing.

Close contenders: Aerosmith‘s ‘Toys in the Attic’ (1975) & ‘Back in Black’ (1980) by AC/DC

Gomez – Liquid Skin (1999)

Their debut album Bring It On won Gomez that year’s Mercury Music Award. This was their follow up, released the following year. Both albums are of a similar vein (coming so close together). I chose this one because I think I ever so slightly prefer the songs on this one. Alternative, inventive, experimental, but still melodic. And like the Moody Blues and The Beatles, this group had several leas singers and performed some sublime vocal harmonies.

Close contenders: ‘Bring It On’ (1998) by Gomez & ‘K’ (1996) by Kula Shaker

Sam & Dave – The Best of Sam & Dave (1969)

Classic soul tunes from the legendary Stax Records label. As great as Sam & Dave were as singers and performers, it’s the backing band which brings me back to this record time and time again. The Stax House band were Brooker T & The MGs, featuring Steve Cropper on guitar. Every song is an masterclass in creating parts which serve the song. Many of my own chops come directly from Cropper, especially his use of sliding sixths in his lead playing & fills. Check this record out – in fact, check out any album released by Stax in the sixties and early seventies.

Close contender: Otis Redding’s posthumous greatest hits ‘The Dock of the Bay – The Definitive Collection’ (1987) is another great example from Stax Records and features more amazing arrangements by Brooker T & The MGs

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin I (1968)

Any Zep album could have ended up on this list, particularly their first four eponymous LPs (known as I, II, III & IV). But their debut record, recorded in just three days, was one I kept coming back to again and again as a teenager. The group were part of a wave of British acts turning the blues on it’s head, alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Cream. But unlike, Led Zeppelin felt more like a meeting of equally talented musicians, and (no offence to Hendrix or Jack Bruce) they certainly had the best singer in the then-unknown Robert Plant. Powerful, beautiful, but ultimately, accessible got a fledgling guitarist.

Close contenders: ‘Disraeli Gears’ by Cream (1967) & ‘Tres Hombres’ by ZZ Top (1973)

B. B. King – Live at the Regal (1965)

Unlike many live albums, which cherry-pick the best examples from numerous dates, this release was taken from a recording of one show at Chicago’s Regal Theater, on the 21st of November, 1964. It captures B.B. on top form, backed by a large band of superb musicians. This record provides a masterclass in phrasing, demonstrating King’s economical & tasteful playing, each note dripping with the blues. Highlights include Sweet Little Angel and Help The Poor.

Close contender: ‘In Session’ by Albert King & Stevie Ray Vaughan (1983)

Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue (1963)

This record is the epitome of cool jazz. It sounds like it was recorded in the wee small hours, and it probably was. I’ve dedicated a recent post entirely to Burrell, who’s playing has just enough blues to make this jazz record accessible to a novice such as I was in my teenage years.

Close contender: ‘Julie Is Her Name’ (1955) by Julie London

Special mentions should also go to Queen’s Greatest Hits (I & II), because my family sometimes had a car growing up, and these albums were standard issue with all cars back then…

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this list, as well as your own. Get in touch in the usual way! Until next time…