A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Beatles (George Martin)

If anyone gets to be the Fifth Beatle & it’s not Stuart Sutcliffe, Pete Best or Neil Aspinall then I guess that it’s George Martin. From the first auditions in 1962, attempting to get the group to record other people’s songs, to “Abbey Road” in 1969 his name was on all the records except “Let It Be” as producer. Martin’s classical background & arranging skills undoubtedly provided the Beatles with an expansive musical palette to serve their ambitious, imaginative development. As the tour became more magical & mysterious he may have been just the guy who sat in the Abbey Road booth waiting for the group to work it out for themselves but that booth was his office & had been for some time before the Fab Four came down from Liverpool.


Born in 1926 George Martin served in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II before resuming his musical studies & then, in 1950, joining Electrical & Musical Industries, E.M.I., as assistant to the head of Parlophone Records. Five years later he inherited the label, an incongruous mix of  classical, original cast & novelty recordings. Martin, like many of his generation, was a fan of The Goon Show, a cutting edge comedy radio programme whose irreverent, anarchic humour, forged in barrack rooms across the Empire, reflecting a growing British lack of deference & respect for convention, was very funny stuff. Comedy records became the thing that George Martin did in the late 1950s.


Peter Sellers was very busy in 1959. The year was topped & tailed by the 9th & 10th series of The Goon Show. As a shape-shifting character actor he starred in 4 British feature films. “I’m All Right Jack”, a cuspate satire on industrial relations, was the most popular movie of the year. Sellers’ nuanced portrayal of shop steward Fred Kite  is a candidate for a Top 3 of his cinema performances, a field that was to become more crowded over the years. He also found the time to record the George Martin produced “Songs For Swingin’ Sellers”, an hour of inspired lunacy, more gentle than his Goonery. The LP has continuity, music hall influences & even a sitar on “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely”, so has “Sergeant Pepper’s…, too much…probably.


Sellers had his eye on bigger & better things & though “The Millionairess” is no “Dr Strangelove” or “The Pink Panther” the film matched him with Sophia Loren. Martin commissioned the writing of “Goodness Gracious Me” as a duet for the pair.The song wasn’t used in the film but Martin devised “Peter & Sophia”, a whole LP of songs & skits. “Bangers & Mash”, an Italo/Cockney culture clash, was written by the same team as “Goodness…”. Peter was, understandably, infatuated with his co-star & I’m sure he was enthusiastic about spending time with her in a recording studio.



“Songs For Swingin’ Sellers” & “Peter & Sophia” were both Top 10 hits in the UK then, in 1961, Martin produced a #1 hit record. The Temperance Seven had been founded in 1904 at the Pasadena Cocoa Rooms on the Balls Pond Rd (or not !). Their slick, arch take on 1920s jazz was appealing for a while & “You’re Driving Me Crazy” was a super smash. George Martin used the increased cash & influence to make more comedy records. There was a Goon album, George had become a very good friend of writer Spike Milligan. “The Bridge Over the River Wye” had a title change after threat of legal action by the producers of a current film. The diminutive Charlie Drake had UK hit covers of US hits before recording “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back”, a song about an Aborigine boy who lacked skills. It was funny when I was a kid but the more politically correct grown up I have become finds the offhand stereotyping less so. It didn’t seem to bother the Australians & it was a #1 hit Down Under.


Bernard Cribbins was part of the same comedy/cabaret revue circuit by which actor-comedians made their living after the demise of the music halls. In 1962 he & Martin made 3 chart singles. “The Hole in the Ground”, a cracking story of a workman & a bureaucrat, was chosen as a Desert Island Disc by Noel Coward, a master of wit & economy. “Right Said Fred” is about the struggles of 3 shifters with an unspecified awkward object. The guys dismantle the object, knock down a wall & drink plenty of tea before giving up & going home…been there. I had not seen this animated clip since children’s TV in ancient times. It is, of course, fantastic !


For many of these records Martin provided imaginative arrangements & sound effects. For other acts he had little more to do than point some microphones. “Beyond the Fringe”, a blend of talents from the Cambridge Footlights & the Oxford Revue, debuted in Edinburgh in 196o, By February 1963 UK comedy had gotten all satirical, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook & Dudley Moore were the toast of Broadway & JFK was in the audience. The transfer to vinyl of this phenomenal success was handled by George Martin.While the quartet was in New York the satire boom was brought to the masses (12 million of them) by way of the “That Was the Week That Was” TV programme. Once again when TW3 made an LP it was the go to guy that they went to.



Michael Flanders & Donald Swann were a different cup of Earl Grey altogether. Friends from schooldays they were the best dinner guests at Gosford Park ever, needing only a piano to sing their quirky, erudite songs for their suppers. Their revue “At the Drop of a Hat”, just the two of them, ran for 800 performances in that London before transferring, in 1959, to Broadway for another 200 plus. The pair were posh, educated & literary but the elements of silliness & social commentary made them very popular. Both had experienced run-ins with the Establishment, Swann was a conscientious objector in World War II, Flanders was refused permission to resume his studies at Oxford after a bout of polio left him reliant on a wheelchair ! Flanders & Swann may seem a little anachronistic, a genteel kind of cabaret.The bottom line of any comedy is to be funny & that they were. There was further success with “At the Drop of Another Hat”, both best-selling recordings of these shows were produced by…you know.


Ringo and Spike

Well, that’s a parade of the hierarchy of British comedy in the early 1960s  passing through Abbey Road. George Martin was looking to gain an entry into rock & roll for his label & when the Beatles showed up they knew who he was. John Lennon was a massive fan of Spike Milligan & The Goons, his book of nonsense “A Spaniard in the Works” being heavy on the Milliganisms. Did he know that this was a band that would change popular music ?Not a chance but by the end of 1963 Martin was too busy to make the funny records. The Mersey Beat was taking over, Brian Epstein’s boys, The Beatles, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer & the Dakotas, were monopolising the #1 spot on the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. All 3 acts made records “produced by George Martin”. This was the big time…only bigger.