Why was George Martin ‘unimpressed’ by The Beatles?
Producer initially more charmed by the Beatles manager than their music.
Despite their local success in Liverpool and Hamburg — and Brian Epstein’s tireless efforts — The Beatles struggled to get their first recording deal.
Columbia, HMV, Pye, Philips, and Oriole all turned them down. Dick Rowe at Decca signed Brian Poole and the Tremeloes in preference, famously added insult to injury ‘Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr Epstein’.
After the failure of the Decca audition, Brian Epstein was running out of options. Early in 1962 he managed to get a meeting with George Martin, the manager of Parlophone Records, an eclectic label owned by EMI.
At this meeting, Martin was more charmed by the Beatles manager than their music. “I wasn’t too impressed with the tape Brian Epstein had played me,” Martin told Desert Island Discs in 1996. “There was something there but I couldn’t find out whether it was worthwhile or not.”
Still doubtful, Martin invited The Beatles for an audition at Abbey Road Studios on June 6, 1962. Though the band was in residency in Hamburg at this point, Brian Epstein summonsed them to return in a telegram announcing a ‘secured contract’ to Germany. This wild overstatement was also passed on to the editor of Mersey Beat.
The Beatles did not need to see the small print. They duly rushed back to England, arriving at Abbey Road in time for their afternoon session with, their battered equipment in tow.
The first reality check came came at the sound check. “I got nothing out of The Beatles’ equipment except for a load of noise, hum and goodness-knows-what,” engineer Norman Smith later told Sound On Sound. Paul McCartney’s amp was distorting so badly that it had to be replaced.
This problem resolved they played their first session. This consisted of a cover (Besame Mucho) and, in a bold move, three original compositions: Love Me Do, P.S. I Love You and Ask Me Why.
Again, George Martin was unconvinced by what he heard. “I thought their music was rubbish,” he told the BBC’s Arena in 2011. Earlier remarks suggest that his response was more nuanced.
I couldn’t really make out for myself what I was listening for — because I was so conditioned to [hearing] a solo singer with a backing group. But here I had four people who were all doing all sorts of things.
At the end of the session, The Beatles were called in for feedback. It proved an uncomfortable experience for them, essentially a long lecture on their shortcomings, particularly their lack of professionalism.
Finally, he gave The Beatles the chance to respond. “Is there anything you don’t like?”
“Well, for a start,” replied George Harrison, “I don’t like your tie.”
This remark is a now celebrated feature of The Beatles origin myth. It is also the moment their recording career came close to blowing up on the launch pad. The man with their future in his hands was already lukewarm about their music. He was also irritated by their amateurish approach. Now they were giving him backchat.
The eruption of spontaneous laughter instantly transformed atmosphere. In that moment Martin seemed to recognise that whatever their musical rough edges. The Beatles had something ill-defined but distinctive, something he could work with.
…he wasn’t sure about some of their songs, shaggy hair, Liverpool accents, the name, their beat-up gear, studio professionalism, or their drummer source
Martin’s first analytical response had been to focus on The Beatles obvious technical shortcomings — none could read music, the drummer could not keep a beat, there was a ramshackle feel to their performance. The sharing of lead vocal also confused him
There was, however, something pleasing and distinctive about their close harmonies. And he immediately picked up on the charismatic energy that would captivate millions in the years to come.
Decades later he admitted “I fell in love with them. It’s as simple as that.”