How George Martin and The Beatles made Strawberry Fields Forever | Virgin Media
How George Martin and The Beatles made Strawberry Fields Forever

How George Martin and The Beatles made Strawberry Fields Forever



Even The Beatles needed a mentor. Four staggeringly creative young men still required a fifth wheel to keep them on track, to show them what was possible, what wasn't (not much), and to realise their increasingly wild flights of fancy. From the moment he met them, George Martin, who died yesterday (8 March) aged 90, knew what to do with The Beatles and they learned how to exploit that to everyone's advantage. He was never a face on a record sleeve, but his name underlined them all.

The head of Parlophone, Martin was the guy who signed The Beatles when Decca made their most basic error, who suggested they didn't quite have the right drummer, who let them take control of their career as pop puppets swung around them. Most importantly, as a producer of classical and comedy records, he had the kind of open mind that allowed his charges to explore what they could do with their sound.

It would take The Beatles years to truly appreciate what they had at their disposal. The treadmill of recording hits, releasing new records while they were still hot, playing punishing schedules of live shows to screaming fans, it all led to a dizzying momentum that barely gave them time to think.

When 1966 came around, there was a sea-change and the records benefited, Revolver in particular showing what they could do. The new songs were lifted by more complex arrangements, but it soon became clear the band couldn't adequately reproduce them live. Certainly not in the seething, squealing cauldrons that found The Beatles unable to hear what they were even playing, and caused George Harrison to announce to manager Brian Epstein that he was quitting.

The Beatles – Tomorrow Never Knows

A decision to stop playing live and devote more time to the music saw a creative flowering, and a natural sense of relief. Revolver had revealed the sonic possibilities at their fingertips, the tape loops on Tomorrow Never Knows alone minting that old cliché of the studio as an instrument in its own right. Now, with time to reflect and experiment, they set their minds to their nostalgic masterpiece, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But first up was Strawberry Fields Forever, perhaps the most astonishing studio creation of the 1960s, the exemplar of what Martin and The Beatles achieved together. John Lennon had started work on it in Spain in September 1996 while filming the movie How I Won The War, basing its lyric on the outlook of an imagined orphan girl at an actual reform school called Strawberry Field, near where he grew up. When he returned to his home in Weybridge he worked up the mid-November demo that appears on Anthology 2. It sounds like a field recording, miles from where it would end up.

Hear John Lennon's Strawberry Fields Forever demos

Switching to their second home, London's Abbey Road studios, Martin and The Beatles began gluing together the full collage on 24 November. The whole process would take 55 hours – unheard of at the time – with the final product only emerging on 22 December. Initial takes were no more of a hint of what it would become than Lennon's home demo, but on returning to the studio a week into December, they came at it from another angle.

This time, Martin added trumpets and cello, to bring the first inklings of its weird majesty. Still Lennon wasn't quite getting what was in his head, and his suggestion that the producer combine the original acoustic passage with the later augmented takes is proof of what Martin's gradual, maybe incidental coaching had achieved. Even though the separate pieces were at different speeds, by a stroke of luck – as Ian MacDonald tells it in Revolution In The Head, his peerless study of The Beatles' studio recordings – the different keys could be transposed and the mix was attainable. Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick did the rest, perfecting one of pop's great, and early, epics.

It's not all Lennon, Martin and Emerick – Paul McCartney's mellotron (most obvious on the intro) is a signature element, but so are Ringo Starr's reversed sucker-drums and vast panoply of percussion, and Harrison's Indian harp is a typical Eastern flourish – but the pioneering production matched to the heat-haze visions of the song conjure an atmosphere that, on its release in February 1967, had no equal at the time. Once more, they'd changed the game.

As The Beatles sang later in 1967 on All You Need Is Love, "There's nothing you can do that can't be done". George Martin helped them understand that. Pop wouldn't sound the same without him.

The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever