March 9, 2016
George Martin, the English Butler of Pop
I’m writing this listening to the 1964 album Off The Beatle Track in honour of Sir George Martin, who has died aged 90. His first solo album, it’s not exactly revered by Beatles fans, but I like it for the way its saccharine strings capture the ersatz sophistication of early 1960s Britain. To me, it’s the sound of gin and orange being drunk in a small Saturday night party in a suburban semi with a pale yellow Vauxhall Viva parked outside.
I have always thought George Martin must have had a role in making the Beatles palatable to older, middle-class audiences. He was reassuringly genteel, not upper-class but modestly competent in a way revered by the English – the sort of quiet technocrat-fixer gliding between social strata who is celebrated in popular fiction and media – M in the James Bond novels, John Jarndyce in Bleak House, even Miss Marple to an extent. Carson in Downton Abbey is a recent example, and telling one because the qualities of the type are more or less those of the English butler, one of the most influential archetypes of the 20th century.
Of course Martin was a creative figure in his own right, but in the big Beatles story that was so important to post-war British history, he also played an essential part that might well have ensured his place in our affections even if he hadn’t made such great contributions to the actual music.