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).

In praise of The Animals

Music

I recently read about the passing of Hilton Valentine, the original guitarist for The Animals, who has died, aged 77.

Valentine’s simple arpeggiated riff in the band’s version of the traditional tune House of the Rising Sun remains one of the most recognisable guitar parts in the history of rock’n’roll.

Valentine’s passing caused me to reflect on the wider influence of The Animals. The original lineup split by 1966, but in that time they recorded some memorable songs, including the huge hits We Gotta Get Out of This Place and their uptempo cover of (Don’t let me be) Misunderstood, originally written for and recorded by Nina Simone.

The Animals were one of the British groups from the early 1960s who took the R&B of the (predominantly black) artists in the US and repackaged it in a form that brought the genre – and its original performers – to a larger audience. A number of groups were part of this ‘wave’, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds, to name but a few. While it might make one baulk to think that it took the playing of ‘black music’ by white performers to make the style palatable to white audiences in America (racial segregation still existed in some states in the early 1960s), it is worth remembering that these same audiences later turned to the original artists themselves. This created career-changing opportunities for artists such as BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and so many, many more.

Yet their influence on the artists who followed in their footsteps shouldn’t be underestimated. They were more than just local heroes in the north east of England; their activities after the breakup of the original group in 1966 led to a few significant ripples through the music world…

As well as the countless musicians who picked up a guitar to try and play House of the Rising Sun, or to start their own rhythm & blues outfit, The Animals also raised the profile of several well-known acts, one way or another.

Lead singer Eric Burdon became well respected for his soulful, yet gravelly, voice. After initially attempting to create a new version of The Animals (with only Burdon as the surviving founder member), he was soon teamed up with an up and coming R&B band. The resulting outfit – Eric Burdon and War – had success with the single Spill the Wine, and two albums together.

However, Burdon unexpectedly left the group halfway through a European tour. The band continued without Burdon, creating some very well-known hits in the 1979s, including Cisco Kid, Low Rider and Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Alan Price, keyboard player for the animals, had something if a dual career after the group disbanded. He worked with fellow 60s star George Fame for many years, while also writing film & theatre scores. He also released a few solo albums, and in his songs choices, became one of the first performers to bring the music of American songwriter Randy Newman (later famous for songs such as Short People and You’ve Got a Friend In Me) to a wider audience.

Meanwhile, Animals bassist Chad Chandler discovered a young Jimi Hendrix performing in Greenwich Village, New York, and became his manager. He set up the legendary guitar player with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding to form The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but used his connections to secure gigs in the UK for the group, and introduce him to contemporaries on the sixties music scene in London, such as The Beatles and Eric Clapton. In fact, the last time Hendrix performed live was onstage in London with Eric Burdon & War, the day before his tragic early death.

Chandler went on to manage the British glam-rock group Slade, who had several hits through the seventies (including one of the most well-known Christmas songs in pop music). His other business interests helped to build the Newcastle Arena, a sport and large capacity concert venue, which meant those of us in the region now got to see more of the bigger artists when they came around on tour!

I’m sure similar ‘family trees’ can be found throughout the history of rock’n’roll, and maybe it is the shared home region which fuels my fondness for them, but The Animals were much more than a few catchy songs and one incredibly famous guitar riff.

Rest in peace, Hilton Valentine (1943 – 2021). The music lives on.

Great Guitarists #10: Mary Osborne

Great Guitarists

In this, the tenth installment of my Great Guitarists series, I’m a little ashamed to say we have only looked at male guitar players so far. So, to round off my first ‘dectet’ of influential guitar players (and keeping in a jazz theme, like the previous installments), let me introduce to you Mary Osborne…

Picture Credit: Gretsch, 1959

Osborne was born into a musical family in North Dakota, 1921. Both her parents were musicians and her father’s barbershop was a known gathering place for local players. Already playing live by the time she was a teenager, Osborne was influenced by the playing of early jazz pioneers Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang. However, it was Charlie Christian who first captivated her, and mentored her for a while, fine tuning her great sense of swing.

Osborne’s career ranged from trios (her own, and the Winifred McDonnell Trio near the start of her professional career), as well as some work as a sideman (or sidewoman) for the likes of Buddy Rogers, Joe Venuti (whose act included vocalists Kay Starr and The Andrews Sisters), amog many others. In the first of two spells in New York, she was the guitarist in Minton’s house band, where bebop was invented during the jams the legends of jazz had there. Her career continued throughout her life, and she was still performing live up until her death in 1992, at the age of seventy.

Osborne (R), with Billie Holiday (L), 1958. Picture Credit: Nancy Miller Elliot

Equipment

Osborne purchased the same model of Gibson archtop that Charlie Christian played – the ES-150, an early version of the classic archtop ‘jazz boxes’ we know and love today. It came with a large spruce body and a single-coil pickup near the neck, itself containing a large magnet that helped deliver good definition and attack. She later played other guitars by Gibson, as well as models by Gretsch, such as the White Falcon. In the 1970’s, Osborne founded her own guitar company, Osborne Sound Laboratories, formed from the ashes of the Mosrite Guitar Company (whom her husband had worked for at the end of the 1960’s). Osborne Sound Laboratories made amplifiers personally tested by Mary herself, as well as a selection if interesting instruments (including funky looking solid bodies such as in the picture below). Sadly, they couldn’t penetrate the market due to the dominance of the big manufactures, such as Fender (despite their well-known quality issues in this decade) and the company folded in 1980.

Osborne Sound Laboratories guitars from the 1970’s. Picture Credit: VintageGuitar.com

Recommended listening

Osborne’s 1959 LP A Girl And Her Guitar (Warwick) stands testament to her talents in a golden era for jazz guitar. Her later record Now And Then (Stash, 1981) shows a player who survived longer than most of her contemporaries, and continued to play beautifully.

Also, check out The Mighty Two (1963, Roulette), an LP by the two legendary drummers Louis Bellson and Gene Krupa. Although this was conceived as an instructional album for budding drummers, several tracks feature six musicians accompanying both drummers through nine of the songs on the record. As well as featuring Osborne on guitar, you can hear Milt Hinton (bass), Joe Wilder and Joe Newman (trumpet), Phil Woods (alto sax), Dick Hymen (piano) and Tyree Glenn (trombone) – something of a who’s who in sidemen for the time. The ensemble playing is tight, and the entire LP is a unique artefact of jazz history.