Godspeed, Mr. Martin: The 5th Beatle Retires

By Jeff Kallman

New York radio legend Murray Kaufman, known infamously as Murray the K, had the penchant, in those earliest days of Beatlemania, for referring to himself as the Fifth Beatle. To stop him required a lawsuit. But there was, in fact, a fifth Beatle, and he is stepping now into a well-earned, hopefully gratifying retirement.

George Martin was hardly the puppeteer who jiggled the appropriate strings to get the Beatles to produce their remarkable oeuvre, but neither were the Beatles the omnipotent demigods who crooked their mop-topped fingers, with Mr. Martin snapping to. In plain fact, the need for each other was mutual. If the Beatles needed George Martin's sense of space and time in order to place this or that part properly across their canvas, then George Martin, equivalently, needed such subjects as the Beatles in order to bring his largely improvised visions of pop grandeur to reality.

There could not have been a more fateful meeting in the entire history of popular song, nor a less likely one. The four Liverpudlian misfits -- undecided between the art and the street milieus, unwelcome in either but for the robust music they hammered out together -- and the benignly assured producer of some of England's most ground-breaking comedy. It was fodder for infinite trashy jokes from exhausted yet stubborn professional slip-fighters, until the teaming began delivering a product the like of which has never been equaled in popular song.

And the ground-breaking began far sooner than the mythologists ascribe. It began with two early singles, both of which jerked rock and roll out of its first major rut in the early 1960s and sent it irrevocably toward its young adulthood. Whether or not the adult has behaved in a manner worthy of its randy yet probing youth is yet to be declared for all time.

The first hint was "Please Please Me," originally a swooping ballad in the style of Roy Orbison which became, at Mr. Martin's suggestion, a rocker threefold, launched with the instantly enduring Lennon harmonica line. The second, of course, was "She Loves You," perhaps the quintessential rock and roll single. The Beatles insisted on keeping the conclusion intact, the five "yeahs" climaxing on an a cappella G9 vocal harmony, whereas Mr. Martin pleaded that such had gone out for a pack of cigarettes with Glenn Miller's plane crash. Wisely, Mr. Martin let the Beatles have their heads there, and the greatest rock and roll single of all time was nailed down with a flourish of affirmation that was, and is, unmistakably eternal.

From then it was nowhere but forward, to the studio experimentation on which the Beatles' musical reputation so largely sits to this day, musicians and producer working as a partnership of respect and unfettered feedback, until the moments when cooler heads were subsumed by bruised egos and the Beatles' days ended.

Not so Mr. Martin's; he did, of course, move on to produce some exquisite work, including and especially the two most consistent albums of Jeff Beck's long career, Blow By Blow and Wired; again, Mr. Martin shepherded prime stock, for those albums stand even now as textbook examples of what might have been for the otherwise lugubrious jazz-rock fusion movement, performed by a rock guitar legend otherwise notorious for ego-binging and inconsistency and produced by a man who knew only too much better how to keep the house in reasonable order.

And yet it would matter not at all had Mr. Martin done nothing else after John, Paul, George and Ringo called it a career together. There remain those who say Mr. Martin has worked, at best, inconsequentially since, wondering why he could never follow forth successfully on his magnificent work with the Beatles. Well, who could? He had nothing left to prove. He had done what perhaps no one else in the music world could do, as had his four proteges. Another artist in the same hands could not have done it -- and did not, in fact; Mr. Martin produced the lion's share of the Liverpool contingent among the British Invaders, and none of them was able to yield anything much more than one or two pleasant memories. In hand, you could say that perhaps the Beatles, being who and what they were, might yet have made enduring music with another producer's touch and guidance, but they might not have made it with the same overwhelming power.

Upon your retirement, Sir George Martin (he was knighted in 1996, in hand with Paul McCartney), the music world must surely wish you "Godspeed," even as it ought also to say a "thank you" which, admittedly, is insufficient return for the gift you brought about all those years ago.