Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Beatles, George Martin and the Chicken/Egg Challenge

This past week saw the passing of George Martin at age 90. Martin was the producer behind most of the music and sound of the Beatles. And if you do not know who the Beatles were, well I might just as well go into crotchety old man mode and tell you young whippersnappers to get off of my lawn.  For everyone else with a broader view of music appreciation…

The thing that was cool about the collaboration between the Beatles and George Martin was that both sides of this equation brought something unique which created a whole that exceeded their respective contributions. George Martin had a background in classical music. The Beatles were just some lads from Liverpool looking to play rock music with all its attendant perks (money, women, fame, women, drugs and women). The pairing of Martin and the Beatles would seem like the proverbial oil and water pairing. And no, oil and water don’t mix but if you’ve ever seen the effect of oil in water and the unexpected quirks of shape and color that result, then oil and water was a perfect analysis of the George Martin/Beatles collaboration.

With the Beatles, George Martin did things that would’ve never come up if he focused on the fundamentals of classical music. As the Beatles producer, Martin would do things like play the recording tape at faster or slower speeds, or play them backward. In one famous experiment in producing, Martin and his engineer cut up strips of recorded tape, tossed them in the air and then reassembled those tape segments in whatever order they happened to land. Martin kept pushing the boundaries of what could be accomplished in a recording studio. The Beatles inspired George Martin to try different things and in turn, Martin frequently challenged the Beatles to expand their musical horizons as well.

At the core of the Beatles were Paul McCartney and John Lennon, the epitome of the ying-yang of evolving 1960’s music. Paul was the perfect pop composer with an uncanny gift for melody and John was the avant guarde genius pushing against the boundaries of pop music. But starting out, Paul and John were just a pair of rock ‘n’ rollers with little idea of how to go about expressing themselves. For all their real talent, McCartney and Lennon were raw and unfocused. George Martin pushed them to find out what they really wanted to do with their music, how to best express themselves. He guided them to be better musicians and better songwriters. He challenged their preconceived notions of what music should be. It was at George’s urging that string instruments were used on Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby, something made both songs instantly more powerful yet something the Beatles would not have thought of doing on their own.

And as the Beatles evolved, George Martin kept pushing the boundaries of what he could do with orchestral arrangements and studio recording technology.

The upshot here is a bit of the old “chicken vs. egg” challenge: the Beatles made George Martin even as George Martin made the Beatles. Both expanded on the individual talents of the other in new and different ways that they otherwise would not have explored without that collaborative process.

I covered all of that to express my concern that we’re too often isolated in our own interests and talents and perspectives and nowhere is that more obvious and damaging than in the political arena. Conservatives spend too much time preaching to each other with no regard for any viewpoint from the other side of the fence. And liberals do it too. The result is a polarization of political thought where there is no agreement and no action, just constant inertia and failure. Governance is less about getting things done and more about who wins and who loses. When two sides become recalcitrant, there is no collaboration. When it’s your way or my way, nothing gets done. We have to be able to find that third way, a way that’s part your way and part my way and, perhaps even more importantly, sometimes a completely new way that never could have been conceived if one was without the other.

Without the Beatles, would George Martin have been in a studio throwing pieces of recording tape in the air to create a new way to make music? Without George Martin, would the Beatles have ever considered adding a chamber orchestra to Yesterday or Eleanor Rigby? In the end, they made something that was still true to the Beatles, still true to George Martin and yet unique and amazing that went beyond themselves.

Challenge what you see, what you hear, what you know. And to do that, you need to work with others who do more than just say “yes” to everything you say. Agreement is easy but boring. Challenges are hard but can produce surprising and amazing results.

That’s that for today’s post. I’ll be back with another new post tomorrow. Until then, remember to be good to one another.


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