George Martin, who died “peacefully at home” in England, aged 90, on Tuesday, was the producer behind the greatest band that ever lived. Unlike his charges, he was not inclined to use drugs to enhance his creativity—but his creativity was a major factor in their success.
The Beatles’ ability to enthrall a generation (and future generations) was partly thanks to how they dramatically transformed their music and image, from the lovable mop-top-pop phase of the early ’60s to the kaleidoscopically attired purveyors of psychedelia they became towards the end of that decade. And an important element of that transformation was their relationship with drugs.
Martin saw plenty of drug use without partaking. Following the band’s introduction to marijuana via Bob Dylan in 1964, pot-smoking became common at studio sessions, where the foursome would return from the bathroom “grinning all over their faces,” as Martin put it. This sometimes spilled over into recordings, such as the Revolver track “And Your Bird Can Sing”—on the Anthology 2 version, John Lennon and Paul McCartney can be heard giggling hysterically.
But no drug is more closely associated with The Beatles’ work than LSD. Martin witnessed one Lennon trip, reportedly during the recording session for the Sergeant Pepper track “Getting Better,” as recounted in the book Lennon Remembers:
“I never took it in the studio. I did once accidentally. I thought I was taking some uppers, and I was not in a state of handling it. … I just noticed all of a sudden I got so scared on the mike. I said, ‘What was it?’ I thought I felt ill. I thought I was going cracked. Then I said, ‘I must get some air.’ They all took me upstairs on the roof, and George Martin was looking at me funny. And then it dawned on me, I must have taken acid.”
Protective of their legacy, various Beatles have at times downplayed Martin’s creative contribution, with Lennon in particular speaking unkindly of him post-breakup.
“The producer’s role is not to come up with ideas,” said McCartney, quoted in a 2001 Guardian article. “That is one misconception about people who worked with the Beatles, that they gave the ideas. Most of the ideas came from within the group. George assimilated it all. He accommodated us. I think a lesser producer might not have done.”
According to the same article, McCartney also “argues [that] because Martin didn’t take drugs he was unlikely to come up with the ideas they could.”
Martin disputed this assumed link between drugs and creativity. He said of Sergeant Pepper:
“I don’t think Pepper would have been any less good than it was without drugs. It is difficult for me to say, because I wasn’t on them. What I can say for sure is if I had been on drugs it wouldn’t have been the record it was. I think they were more brilliant than they realized and it would have happened without drugs.”
McCartney’s line may have more to do with Martin’s social separation from the band, with his lack of (illegal) drug use underlining that he was not “one of them.”
Martin was a serious-minded, conventionally dressed man with a “posh” accent, acquired through elocution lessons. He was no Beatle—in style or in fact—but his practical ability to order the chaos was important. And his creative contributions throughout the life of the band were immense.
He is credited, among many other highlights, with the decision to speed up their first No. 1 single, “Please Please Me.” He composed and played the middle piano section in the classic Rubber Soul song “In My Life.” On Revolver, he created the string arrangement for “Yesterday” and produced, in a studio, the disembodied sound of Lennon’s voice on “Tomorrow Never Knows” (Lennon had wanted to achieve this by going to Tibet to record it on a mountainside). He was responsible for the dramatic ending of Sergeant Pepper‘s “A Day in the Life,” the introduction of a choir to “I Am the Walrus,” and for much more wizardry besides, on all of the band’s most celebrated albums.
It is impossible to consider The Beatles’ work, and the work of many other artists, without acknowledging the major creative influence of drugs. It is equally impossible to deny that vast numbers of outstandingly creative people have not used drugs significantly. George Martin was one of them.