George Martin & The Greatest Song Ever Produced
by David Yearsley, March 16, 2016
The creativity and craft of George Martin, the celebrated Beatles producer who died this week at the age of 90, is to be heard nowhere more radically and radiantly than on the band’s 1967 single, “All You Need is Love.” Given the surfeit of ideas and their execution in Martin’s arrangement of the song, it is no coincidence that he drew on its title in christening his autobiography of 1994 All You Need is Ears—a rather smug, but nonetheless memorable phrase that captures this unseen-but-always-heard musician’s justified confidence in his abilities to give his abundant ideas brilliant sounding form.
The song was premiered on June 25, 1967 on Our World, the first live international television broadcast, a program that reached some 350 million global viewers. (Some estimates go as high as half a billion.) The Beatles had begun the work of recording only two weeks before; the single would be released soon after the Our World broadcast, duly rocketing to number one on the worldwide charts.
Although the archival replay of the full Beatles Our World performance is interdicted on YouTube by the copyright hounds at Apple Corps, the corporate tax haven the group formed in 1968, you can see almost all of the broadcast version of “All You Need Is Love” at:
Just before 9pm British time on that June 25th the live feed cut into the Abbey Road studio control booth. The sun was soon to set in one part of the former British Empire, rising in another: it was just before 8am in Australia, one of fourteen nations to receive the program.
The broadcast turned to London and the Beatles’ segment a few minutes earlier than planned and than Martin expected. We see him looking down at his left hand adjusting the levels on the mixer. Some of the assembled musicians as well as helium balloons of the earth and the yin and yang symbol are visible behind him through the soundproof glass of the booth’s window.
It was only fitting that the fifth Beatle so often out of frame should be the first member of the band to be introduced, if namelessly, to the live world audience. Martin comes off in this quick shot not only as debonair but also as sheepish, like a schoolboy caught in the act of mischief making. If you watch carefully you can see that his right hand tries surreptitiously to hide something in the pocket of his white suit jacket. To calm his nerves Martin had poured himself a glass of Scotch when the globe’s collective eye turned prematurely to him.
As the Our World camera leaves Martin for the orchestral forces arrayed in the studio beyond, a brass quartet, a pair of saxophones, an accordion, and a snare drum launch into the strains of the Marseilles. At this point the television image is still in black-and-white as we cut to the trumpets and trombonists wearing the traditional tuxedoed concert hall attire that would have made for a vibrant spectral contrast to the sequined shirts and groovy frock coats of the Beatles and their groupies sitting cross-legged at their feet.
Even in black-and-white this sartorial juxtaposition gives visual punch to the sonic dichotomy often held to be fundamental to the Beatles-Martin symbiosis, the producer’s classical inclinations and training vitally enriching the Lennon-McCartney (and Harrison) songbook.
The timing of the Our World broadcast and of what became the first live global pop hit was also significant. The solistice of the Summer of Love had just been marked. Two weeks earlier the Six-Day War had come to one of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict’s perpetually provisional conclusions. In the immediate aftermath the war, the Soviet bloc pulled out of its planned participation in the Our World transmission. Our-World-against-their-World would have been a more accurate description. Indeed, the global harmony prophesied by the feel-good millenarianism of “All You Need is Love” could only be illusory, whether boycotted by the communists or not. If the revolution of love heralded by the Beatles on that summer day and night in 1967 was a indeed tea party, the brew was to be sipped with a tab of acid on the tongue.
Yet there was undeniably something uplifting in the music that, even if it was unable in the short term to penetrate the Iron Curtain, appeared to bridge the yawning generational divide, the seemingly stuffy representatives of the orchestral old guard communing musically with the hippies. Martin may have worn a suit and tie, but he was tuned into the global zeitgeist even as he reflected it back to the world.
While the song’s opening salvo of the Marseilles summoned thoughts of liberté, egalité, fraternité it also echoed with irony—a disarming call to arms. After the mock bombast of the introduction, the military brass gave way to a stately parade that, in spite of the scoring for guitars, pre-recorded harpsichord, and close falsetto harmonies intoning the word “love,” evoked the trio of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. Soon after its birth, this Imperial warhorse had been saddled with the text, “Land of Hope and Glory”—a central hymn of the British colonial project being extinguished in the era of Our World. That same year of 1967 Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that the British would be withdrawing their military presence from what Kipling had called “East of Suez.”
After a few strides back in the Abbey Road studios it was clear that the Edwardian procession of “All You Need is Love” had a noticeable limp: it gets going with two bars in 7/4 then tries to return to lockstep for a measure in 8/4 only to falter again into 7/4, this scheme yielding a distinctly unregimented total of 29 beats.
The first stanza of “Hope and Glory” ends with the words, “Thine Empire Shall be Strong.” The “Great” Britain of 1967 was a lot smaller than that of 1902 when the lyric was penned—a gimpy weakling just starting to feel the acid kick in.
But a majesty, perhaps ironic or perhaps not, rises from the music, as Martin has the two cellists in full vibrato mode sing out the descending bass line (a literal inversion of the upward trajectory of Elgar’s march), unapologetically luxuriating in the simplicity of its anti-heroic grandeur.
With the arrival at the verse where the gum-chewing John Lennon sings “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done,” the Our World broadcast suddenly morphed into color, the groovy outfits of the Beatles and of the studio audience (which included the likes of Mick Jagger) glowing to life as if the distant viewers too were enjoying unanticipated psychedelic side-effects. Martins’ battery of strings lends its ardent support just before the chorus and the words “All you need is love,” which are interlaced with ribald chromatic guffaws from the brass.
However the diverse musical messages built into the song by Martin may have been received in 1967, or interpreted since, they are undeniably full of imagination and wit. This profusion achieves its greatest density in the cacophonous coda (the YouTube link cuts out before this material can be heard). Above the mantra “Love is all you need” trumpets cackle fragments of J. S. Bach’s two-part Invention in F Major (transposed up to the song’s home key of G Major); swinging saxophones break into Glen Miller’s “In the Mood”; and a bi-tonal Greensleeves emerges from the orgy of musical references like the rock of Olde England rising from the Channel before it is again is submerged by the Bachian contrapuntal waves rolling in from the continent. There are also strains of the Beatles’ own 1963 “She Loves You” as if to suggest that the group was not only engraving its name into a musical honor roll but was also foretelling its own exit into music history within a few years.
As Martin archly noted in his autobiography, he received “the princely sum” of 15 pounds for his virtuosic arrangement, a creation that continues to reverberate into our world and, I like to think, at the after party of the next. There the third member of the fab five to retire from the earthly studio now pours himself that richly deserved glass of whisky.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)