What did it take for The Beatles to make a masterpiece? It depended on the song and situation. With the epic “A Day in the Life,” John Lennon came in with the idea, Paul McCartney contributed his part, and longtime producer George Martin found a way to realize John’s complete vision.
On the classic “Yesterday,” Paul said the music came to him in a dream. From there, he struggled to find the right lyrics but eventually nailed down one of his signature songs. Again, Martin made the song come to life — and, for the first time, without the participation of the other Beatles.
Other brilliant tracks took innovative recording techniques to make the root of John’s ideas blossom. On one occasion, he asked for his voice to sound “like the Dalai Lama on a mountaintop.” After some scrambling and experimentation, another classic went on record.
But when John came to the studio with “I Am the Walrus,” Martin could not see a masterpiece about to be born. Quite the contrary, in fact — he seemed to hate the song and the controversy it might bring.
Martin couldn’t see John’s vision beyond the simple melody.
Working on “A Day in the Life” with John was a magical moment in time for Martin. He spoke of the shiver that ran down his spine when he first heard John sing, “I read the news today, oh boy.” Soon enough, they constructed one of the Beatles’ most celebrated tracks.
When John introduced “I Am the Walrus” (just after the death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein), Martin wasn’t impressed in the slightest. “Well, John, to be honest, I have only one question: What the hell do you expect me to do with that?” Martin said.
Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ chief engineer in those sessions, told the story in Here, There and Everywhere. He called Martin’s comment “out of line,” a rare slip from his longtime boss. However, the basic song simply came off as too simple to the great producer (whom many call “the fifth Beatle”).
The song runs on a two-note melody — a far cry from the symphonic suite that listeners eventually got on Magical Mystery Tour. And on top of the musical limitations, Martin was concerned with potential censorship issues with John’s lyrics.
The ‘Walrus’ lyrics provoked fear of another headache from BBC censors.
In his book, Emerick wrote about Martin’s instant distaste for the lyrical content of “I Am the Walrus.” While John ran through lines about “a naughty girl” letting “her knickers down,” the straight-laced producer began foreseeing another problem with BBC censors.
“George turned to me and whispered, ‘What did he just say?’” Emerick wrote. “He couldn’t believe his ears.” Still, Emerick saw real potential for the song, especially after he’d solved John’s request of making his voice sound like it had been transmitted from the moon.
They continued working on it and, sure enough, it got banned by the BBC after its completion. But Martin’s arrangements sparkle on the song, as of course do John’s vocals and stunning lyrics. It may be (in John’s words) “nonsense,” but the track stands as one of his most unlikely masterpieces.