George Martin's other magical mystery tour

As a new collection of his work reveals, George Martin wasn't just The Man Behind The Beatles,
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The Independent Culture

Trivia time. What do the following have in common: Rolf Harris, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, "Nellie the Elephant", The Archers and "Revolution #9"? OK, that's too easy. How about "Robin Hood", Spike Milligan, Cilla Black, Goldfinger and The Highway Code?

The answer, of course, is George Martin, producer of all the above and the man largely responsible for transforming the drab austerity of the Fifties into the gaudy funfair that was the Swinging Sixties. And, as a new six-CD set chronicling Martin's half-century in the studio confirms, he's worked with virtually everyone.

Martin's influence on popular culture has been colossal – and not simply as The Man Behind The Beatles. Even before he'd stumbled across the Fab Four, he had served time in the trenches of Fifties' light music, and sowed the seeds that would determine the comedy landscape of the Sixties through his recordings of Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Beyond the Fringe. "Goodness Gracious Me"? That was George. Michael Bentine reading the football results? That was George, too. "Any Old Iron"? George. "Right Said Fred"? Yep, George.

No one was immune to his influence. While their parents hummed along with the theme to The Archers or tapped their toes to The Temperance Seven (both George's), the war babies of the Fifties could tune into Uncle Mac on a Saturday and be subjected to a barrage of George Martin records: "Nellie the Elephant", "The Hippopotamus Song" (aka "Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud"), "Robin Hood", "My Boomerang Won't Come Back", "My Brother" – just listing these brings back the sickly aftertaste of welfare orange juice and cod liver oil.

To cope with the sheer diversity of Martin's CV, the compilation is divided generically, with one disc of comedy, one of Sixties Merseybeat, one of his orchestral arrangements, one of his post-Beatles pop productions, and one featuring more recent work with such as Celine Dion, Larry Adler and Paul McCartney's duets with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.

By far the most interesting disc is the first, covering Martin's pre-Beatles productions. A bizarre mix of trad jazz, Scottish accordion music, silky crooners, emasculated doowop, the harmonicating excesses of Tommy Riley, and the first early probings of skiffle, it's a veritable Light Programme of musical variety, capped with the idiosyncratic genius of Rolf's "Sun Arise". It's impossible not to notice the stifling formality of even the most valiant attempts at fun here, and when skiffle came along to loosen the culture's stays, there was a desperate attempt to crush it into the prevailing MoR format courtesy of Ron Goodwin & The Concert Orchestra's none-too-groovy "Skiffling Strings", an oxymoron if ever there was one. And if there's any more powerful passion-killer than the Luton Girls Choir singing "Princess Elizabeth of England", it probably involves a painful surgical procedure.

Though his work with comedians hints at a partly-submerged anarchic side, George Martin's Fifties music productions reveal an odd combination of eclecticism, fastidiousness and innate conservatism which would prove the perfect foil for The Beatles' unvarnished gifts in the early Sixties, and make him the ideal executor of their more outlandish ideas later that decade. His selection of songs for the representative disc here, though, errs on the side of conservatism, with a mere four tracks ("Please Please Me", "I Want to Hold Your Hand", "Yesterday" and "In My Life") from The Beatles themselves – the same number allotted to Billy J Kramer and Gerry & The Pacemakers, and three less than Cilla Black – while 10 other Lennon-McCartney songs suffer the attentions of Bernard Cribbins, David & Jonathan, The Fourmost and Ella Fitzgerald.

The Beatles, of course, were the toughest act of them all to follow, and when they called it a day, Martin struggled to find artists of comparable talent. But he was never short of work, (by then he had established his own production company, AIR), and displayed a particular affinity for recording high-calibre guitarists such as John McLaughlin, John Williams, Ralph Towner and Jeff Beck, to each of whose records he added a lustrous clarity. But there's a paltriness about much of the Seventies disc that reflects poorly on Martin's own taste, prefiguring the slide into full-blown MoR on the final disc.

Then again, it would be asking an awful lot for one person to sustain for longer than a decade or two the intense catalytic presence he brought to bear on postwar British culture. He'll be forever remembered as The Man Behind The Beatles, but Martin's influence goes further than that: as much as anyone, he was the midwife of the Swinging Sixties.

 

'Produced By George Martin: 50 Years In Recording' is available from 2 July on EMI

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