Sir George Martin was one of the most respected record producers in history. Much more than “the fifth Beatle”, Sir George also produced landmark albums by Jeff Beck, America, Ultravox and Peter Sellers. His passing this week has saddened countless music fans and professionals who cite his productions as a major part of the soundtrack to their lives.
I’m not alone when I say that I modeled my producer skill set after his. George knew music inside and out, and could do anything from composing and arranging to playing multiple instruments and providing the voice of reason. Plus he brought out the best in his artists, inspiring them to constantly raise the bar.
I’m an industrial-strength Beatles fan. Have been since 1967, when I cut out the cardboard mustache, sergeant stripes, badges and other accessories from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album artwork. Not sure my parents appreciated my initiative or industriousness, but I had fun. And I’ll bet I looked pretty stylish for a wee tricyclist pedaling around the sidewalks of Farmingdale, New York. To this day I still have a soft spot for epaulets, although Jimi Hendrix’s affinity for “the look” may have contributed to my fondness.
A year after Pepper, I clearly remember the day that the band’s next album was released. In 1968, I was six years of age, sitting in the backseat of what was about to reveal itself as a getaway car. My mother’s boyfriend Frankie told Mom, my brother Eddie and me to wait in the car while he ran an errand with his buddy. Several minutes later, he bolted from a Macy’s department store shooting a handgun while disguising himself with a nylon stocking over his face. His buddy didn’t make it to the car.
Did I mention that the car, a brand new metallic gold Plymouth Barracuda, belonged to my father, who rode the train to work? Or that Frankie often stole my model airplane glue so that he could get high sniffing it from a paper bag? Or that he ran a red light, totaled the muscular fish, and sent six people to the hospital?
Frankie did have at least one redeeming quality: he too was a Beatles fan. Apparently more committed than I, because I would never consider armed robbery an appropriate method to procure a coveted new release. The Beatles, aka the White Album, was the crown jewel in Frankie’s sack of liberated loot.
I always loved The Beatles’ records. Their inventive arrangements, underlying lyrical themes of love, psychedelic sitars, gritty yet pretty guitars, and lush vocal harmonies emotionally resonate with me. Today, when I close my eyes, their music transports me to another realm. If there’s an underlying theme to my work as a producer, it’s to achieve a meaningful connection between the song and the listener, which the Beatles did so effectively. Thus, it should come as no surprise that George Martin’s work was so inspirational to me.
As much as I would have loved to work with The Beatles, it seemed like I was often just one degree of separation from the guys. My friends David Kahne and Gregg Bissonette work with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, respectively, and acquaintances Abe Laboriel, Jr. and Rusty Anderson are members of Macca’s touring band.
In 1998, I came as close as I ever would to meeting the guys. Irina (my wife) and I spent a day with George Martin. The experience still left me a degree removed from the Fab Four, but was just as gratifying for me!
Enter the talented drummer Peter Bunetta, who was known for producing the one-hit-wonder (“Break My Stride”) recording artist & multi-platinum (No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom) producer/songwriter Matthew Wilder. Peter and I had just met each other, and were having a great time hanging out at the EAT’M (Emerging Artists and Talent in Music) festival, where I was moderating the Producers Panel. Peter is a super nice guy, and he’s generous with his connections in the record business. So, when David Cassidy (who will forever be Keith Partridge in my mind) arrived, Peter said, “Let’s ask David to introduce us to George!”
“Uh, okay,” was all I could muster with my outside voice. Meanwhile, my unfiltered inside voice was screaming, “Oh my God, is this really happening? I’m going to meet George Martin!”
Keith–oops, I mean David–guided us past security, deep into the inner sanctum where we attained the presence of the master, who was also the keynote speaker of the event. I remember the moment with crystal clarity.
David: “George, meet Peter and Michael.”
Sir George: “With pleasure.” (Extends hand to shake ours.)
Peter: (Instantly transforms into giddy fanboy, and overzealously grabs the legend’s right hand with what I would characterize as…ramming speed!) “George, I can’t even begin to describe how much your work has influenced and inspired me! I know it’s creepy that I’m not letting go of your hand, but I promise I will as soon as I finish basking in the moment.”
Irina and I were amused and amazed that we were watching the legendary producer of Sgt. Pepper attempting to yank his hand free from Peter’s determined clutch! George had a slight expression of horror on his face. It was like the face of a celebrity who comes to the realization that he’s just become ensnared in the terrifying web of a stalker. Despite the awkwardness of the moment, I must admit that it was hilarious!
When Peter finally released George, it was my turn for a handshake. I’ve learned that you only have one chance to make a first impression, so I made a point of not blowing it.
Me: “It’s a pleasure to meet you George. Are you cool if we do a regular handshake instead of an extended one?”
Sir George: (Heartily laughs.) “I would very much appreciate that, Michael! And the pleasure is mine.”
The first thing I noticed about Sir George was his impeccable posture. He was tall, well groomed, and a true gentleman. He appeared to be well aware of his legendary achievements and celebrity status, but he was remarkably warm and welcoming. He made Peter, Irina and me feel like we were longtime friends.
Over the course of the day, we chatted about various subjects. Among them were his upcoming retirement, his genuine affection for “the boys” or “the lads” (John, Paul, George and Ringo), the adventurous creative spirit of Sgt. Pepper, and the desire of the boys to rise above their differences and make their swan song, Abbey Road, be a fitting high-note to the band’s legacy.
During Sir George’s keynote speech, he told a humorous story of being lectured by his bosses at Parlophone Records. They said, “Martin, we’ve reviewed a list of the records you made last year, and we’ve discovered that most of them lose money. Stop making those ones! From now on, only produce the ones that will be profitable.” If you’re in the record business, you’re well aware that Parlophone’s mandate was ridiculous because there is no way to accurately predict how well art will perform in a commercial marketplace.
The biggest takeaway from my day with George was to make records that I genuinely enjoy, and to make them with excellence. That makes a lot of sense because we artists and producers honestly don’t know whether a record is going to be a hit or a flop. What we do know, however, is that some other people have similar tastes in music to ours, and those folks will likely dig the same stuff we do. We owe it to ourselves to make records that we’ll enjoy forever, regardless of commercial success or failure. For that enlightenment and commitment to excellence, I thank you, Sir George Martin. May your soul rest in peace, and may your legacy shine a light on the world forever.