In the Beatles’ first ever studio meeting with the producer George Martin, in 1962, Martin asked the band whether they had any issues with the session. “Well, there's your tie, for a start,” George Harrison replied. That wisecrack, the story goes, kicked off a bantering, joking rapport between the young Liverpudlians and their record-label overseer—which in turn kicked off one of the most fruitful band/producer relationships in rock history.
That early anecdote says a lot about what’s so remarkable about George Martin—who died yesterday at the age of 90—and the Beatles. Martin was born in 1926, and had put in time working on classical, jazz, vocal pop, and comedy records before signing the band. For most of his years working with them, he served as the clean-cut elder adviser to the mop-top avatars of counterculture; tellingly, Martin always called them “the boys.” Though he’s often and justifiably called the Fifth Beatle, his outsider status was part of why he was important—the way he pushed the band to bridge their rock energy with wider, older traditions while pushing the possibilities of the studio.
Not that he wasn’t already forward-thinking before meeting the Beatles. His New York Times obituary quotes a 2003 interview where Martin said that when he first joined EMI, “the criterion by which recordings were judged was their faithfulness to the original. If you made a recording that was so good that you couldn’t tell the difference between the recording and the actual performance, that was the acme. And I questioned that. I thought, O.K., we’re all taking photographs of an existing event. But we don’t have to make a photograph; we can paint. And that prompted me to experiment.”