On 6 April 1966, nearly 50 years ago, the Beatles entered Abbey Road Studios in London and began recording a musical masterpiece. Revolver would be released on 5 August of that year, and would mark the moment the Beatles leaped forward from a tight and professional rock band to, perhaps, the most influential studio artists in rock ‘n’ roll history.
Plenty of that should be credited to the Beatles’ long-time producer, George Martin, who died Tuesday at age 90.
Martin is the one most typically called “The Fifth Beatle”, and rightfully so: his expertise in classical music and meticulous production style fit perfectly with that of John, Paul, George and Ringo, who embraced all styles of music and were open to experimenting.
Revolver was the moment the Beatles took their experiments to a superbly high level. They had finally shed themselves of live performance, deciding instead to focus on recording perfect albums and singles. They wanted more control in the studio, and working intensely with Martin, they would produce a collection of songs unparalleled in the pop canon. Martin, in many ways, was the key.
Here are five songs from the Revolver recording sessions that are essential to understanding the Martin’s importance in pop music.
“Tomorrow Never Knows”
The final track on Revolver was the first song recorded in April 1966. Originally titled “Mark I”, it immediately challenged the limits the Beatles and Martin would approach in the studio. The rhythm track is fairly simple, but nearly everything is the result of furious studio tinkering and experimenting.
For one, at 1:07 into the song John Lennon’s vocals sound distant and raw—he’s singing through a speaker inside a Hammond organ, according to the book “The Beatles Recording Sessions” by Mark Lewisohn. Guitars are recorded and re-recorded repeatedly, then the recording tapes are looped on top of one another, resulting in shrill sounds. The result is that “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounds like an apocalypse.
These were completely new ideas in a recording studio in 1966. Typically, bands played the song straight through until they achieved a take sufficient enough for release. Bands started to overdub vocals and other instrumental parts by this point, but nobody else was brash enough to dismantle the tapes, put them back together, feed them in new ways, and come up with new sounds that weren’t “naturally” made.
Martin—with the help of new engineer Geoff Emerick, just 20 at the time—allowed the Beatles to do this.
No band also dared release anything that was recorded backwards. The Beatles did that.
In fact, “Rain”—the B-side to 1966 single “Paperback Writer”, which preceded Revolver but was recorded at the same time—is slowed down in the studio. The rhythm track and Lennon’s vocal were originally recorded at a faster speed, but Martin and the Beatles slowed it down in production, creating the trance-like sound that helped make the song famous.
Then there’s the backwards part. Before the song fades, Lennon can be heard singing gibberish, when it’s really a vocal that, in playback, was reversed and placed on the song.
“I was always playing around with tapes and I thought it might be fun to do something extra with John’s voice,” said Martin in Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, “So I lifted a bit of his main vocal off the four-track, put it on another spool, turned it around and then slid it back and forth until it fitted. John was out at the time but when he came back he was amazed. Again, it was backwards forever after that.”
B-sides were typically throwaway songs, rarely heard on the radio and by casual listeners. “Rain”, however, was anything but. It became one of the great B-sides—and Beatles songs—because the group dared to be different.
“For No One”
One of the very underrated songs in the Beatles canon, “For No One” is a sad and measured tale of heartache by Paul McCartney.
McCartney plays a piano and clavichord on the song; according to Lewisohn, Martin supplied the clavichord through his Associated Independent Recording company.
Still, the song needed a bit more, and for the Revolver sessions the Beatles had begun to look outside of the standard quartet for help. McCartney and Martin decided a French horn would be perfect for the song’s bridge.
“George Martin rang me up and said ‘We want a French horn obligato on a Beatles song, can you do it?’” remembered Alan Civil in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. Civil, a horn player in the Philharmonia Orchestra, came into the studio and performed a note-perfect solo for the bridge.
Martin, who worked in classical music recording before meeting the Beatles in 1962, was the perfect foil for the Fab Four, who cut their teeth working in raunchy rock ‘n’ roll settings to become a top studio group. Martin’s knowledge and contacts in classical music proved essential.
“Here, There and Everywhere”
Emerick, whose first engineering work with the Beatles was during the Revolver sessions, said in Lewisohn’s book that Martin’s greatest strength was understanding harmonies. “Here, There and Everywhere”, McCartney’s gorgeous love ballad, is defined by those three-part harmonies sung by McCartney, Lennon and George Harrison.
Martin called the harmonies “very simple”, but they wrap the delicate acoustic song in warmth. Compared to songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Yellow Submarine”, which utilized plenty of studio trickery, “Here, There and Everywhere” shows Martin and the Beatles at their finest restrained level.
Arguably the most groundbreaking Beatles recording, “Eleanor Rigby” features McCartney and eight string musicians, with a little background vocal work by Lennon and Harrison. Martin is credited as the song’s arranger.
“I was very much inspired by Bernard Herrmann, in particular a score he did for the Truffaut film ‘Fahrenheit 451,’” he told Lewisohn, “That really impressed me, especially the strident string writing.”
The sharp strings cut, necessary for a dark and sad pop song lasting just two minutes and six seconds. It’s the perfect accompaniment for McCartney’s morose narrative of a lonely old woman who “lives in a dream”, and all the lonely people everywhere.
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During those spring months of 1966, as the Beatles presented exceptional songs like “Eleanor Rigby”, “For No One” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, it was Martin who guided the work, resulting in an album that helped change the idea of pop music recording forever. Before the click track and the arrival of computers, Martin helped change how artists and producers constructed and interpreted the sounds of music. Music could be dismantled and put back together again, but in new and different forms. You can overdub ad infinitum. You can pull in all sorts of instruments and objects. You can play it backwards and slow things down.
George Martin’s brought us the idea that anything really is possible in music, and no barriers need to stand.
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