George Martin: The 5th Performing Beatle

Fifth Beatle George Martin

There’s no question that the overall success of the Beatles was made possible through the contributions of Sir George Martin. He was responsible for many of the musical and technical innovations that appeared on their 12 studio albums recorded between 1962 and 1970.  He is often referred to as “The Fifth Beatle” because of his importance to the group.  Recently, David Bennett reviewed George Martin’s contributions in detail, specifically the parts where his performances appear on the recordings.

In various interviews, Martin stated that he initially wasn’t impressed with very early Beatles recordings, but appreciated the band’s dry wit (especially George Harrison’s), and – based on that – agreed to sign them.  He worked closely on their first releases, specifically “Love Me Do”, “P.S. I Love You”, and “Please Please Me”, often providing polish or music arrangement sensibility.  The latter song went on to reach #1.

Though his contributions initially involved listening and brainstorming suggestions for songs by Lennon and McCartney, he began contributing actual musical parts to some performances.  In many cases, he wrote, arranged, and conducted background movements.  In others, he’d perform certain parts either because Paul or John couldn’t play them well enough, or the band needed additional “hands.”

Some early songs in which George Martin contributed piano are “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “You Really Got A Hold On Me” – and on Hammond organ for “I Wanna Be Your Man.”

Other examples of his musical contributions include:

-For John Lennon’s “In My Life”, the group couldn’t decide how to handle the solo for the song. Early ideas involved a traditional guitar solo by George Harrison.  Instead, George Martin wrote a piano piece that was so complicated that he could not play it at the normal recording speed.  Instead, he used a technique called “wound-up piano,” where he performed the solo part at half-speed in a lower key. When played back at the normal rate of speed it would be in the correct key.  The result sounds more like a harpsichord than a piano.

-Martin also contributed the piano parts to “Hard Day’s Night”, “Penny Lane”, “No Reply”, and “Getting Better”, to name a few.  He performed the piano solo parts for “Good Day Sunshine”, “Rocky Racoon”, “Lovely Rita”, and “Getting Better.”

-In “Fixing a Hole”, he played an actual harpsichord for the intro, and an electronic version of a harpsichord on “Because.”

-Many Beatles songs included complicated arrangements for stringed and woodwind instruments. Martin used his experience as a classically trained musician to write and create the now-iconic backing tracks in “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Yesterday”, “I Am the Walrus”, and “Eleanor Rigby.”

-He played the Harmonium, a reed organ, on songs including “A Day in the Life”, “Cry Baby Cry”, and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”

In “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, Martin had intended to acquire various circus-related instruments and play them during the recording. When this proved impractical, he used archival recordings spliced together.

Part of the final “long chord” ending “A Day in the Life” includes the Beatles, George Martin, and others on five pianos and a harmonium striking the final E-chord all at once. The chord was held while slowly turning up the microphone, making it last upwards of 40 seconds. If you turn the volume waaaay up, you can hear papers being shuffled and chairs squeaking.

George Martin described his working relationships with John and Paul as being quite different. Paul would show up with precise thoughts about the sounds he wanted, instruments that should be used, and his intention for the parts that Martin could play.  John, on the other hand, would often start with ideas of the effects he wanted without really knowing what was possible.  Sometimes, based solely on Lennon trying to imitate a particular effect or instrument vocally, Martin would then track down and demonstrate options to Lennon to see if the instrument achieved what he was looking for.

While George Martin was a significant contributor to various Beatles works, he mostly did not receive royalties from this participation.  In the early days of music production, only band members were credited for their work; for cover songs, the original writer may have been noted.  This is unlike today where you’ll find releases by Miley Cyrus or Ariana Grande listing numerous contributors, each of whom receive part of the royalties.

But despite this, George Martin was not bitter given not receiving some royalties for his contributions. He had a successful career as a recording engineer that guaranteed a reasonably comfortable retirement before passing away in 2016 at age 90.

-Will Wills

Photo: George Martin with The Beatles (via Getty Images)

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Will Wills — a native-born Italian, raised in the US — does a killer impersonation of Mario (“a-letsa-go!”). Generally, you’ll find him frenetically bouncing between software development at a large US firm, leading a local dance/pop band, playing COD and watching MST3K. Yes, he’s sleep deprived, but you can follow his resulting incoherence at @WillrWills or his band at @WillsAndTheWays or his blog, "A Day in a Monkey's Life," if you’re suffering from insomnia, too.

11 comments on “George Martin: The 5th Performing Beatle

  1. Richard Cecil Short

    What a great talent he was. I still can’t understand why he got shafted out of writer’s credits for so many contributions but I’ve been told many times that I don’t know what I’m talking about and if he was okay with it that’s all that matters.

  2. Andru Reeve

    He was mainly known as a producer, not an engineer. Small correction, but an important distinction. And he deservedly is the 5th Beatle for all he contributed.

  3. John Smistad

    Man. These instrumental contributions go far beyond incidental. In many cases, they really make the song. Very enlightening article, Will.

  4. Barry Baddams

    I don’t know if George Martin was bitter or not about the royalty situation but it certainly influenced his decision to leave EMI and form his own independent AIR Studios (as a producer rather than an engineer, incidentally). Instead of working for EMI for a salary he began working for bands such as The Beatles and America that could pay a lot more and he retired as a “very comfortable” millionaire. And while I’m here, I’ll add Neil Aspinall’s response in a rare interview to a suggestion that he was the mythical “5th Beatle”. “Oh, I keep trying to lay that on George Martin. There is no fifth Beatle. I think if there was such a thing, it would be Pete Best (chronologically correct!) or Stu Sutcliffe, not some outsider who wasn’t in the band. A ridiculous suggestion.”

  5. Thanks, Will. Question. You say, “…he mostly did not receive royalties from this participation.” Can you tell us which songs he DID receive royalties from?

  6. Fifth Beatle or not, George Martin was the main reason that the group took off. No excuses, no bitterness, and no jealousy can change this fact!

  7. Your opinion!

  8. Dave Bartholome

    “Wazz” says George Martin is “the main reason that the group took off.” Well, it’s an unprovable assertion, obviously (we can’t possibly know how the Beatles would have fared with another producer), but if it makes “Wazz” happy, then God bless him, I say. Me, I’m just content to note that Paul really did say (after Martin died) that if anyone deserved the title of fifth Beatle, it was Martin.

    • Barry Baddams

      Paul, the populist and more P.R. savvy Beatle, has always been acutely aware of what Beatles fans like to see and hear. Realistically and chronologically, the only 5th Beatle was Peter Best. The other names bandied about are simply romantic mythology but if it gives Beatles fans something to fantasise about as their heroes fall of the twig, that’s no bad thing.

  9. Ah, a philosophical explanation! Thank you.

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