Nearly every music recording includes credits for a “producer.” But what, exactly, does that person do? As the music producers featured in this lesson make evident, the role is malleable, with possibilities defined by that person’s skillset as well as his or her relationship with the recording artist, studio technology and the companies funding the recording. At various times producers may act as arrangers, song selectors, engineers, psychologists, referees between band members, or nearly any other role one could associate with recording music. The producer can play the part of a trusted friend, an assistant, or wield the power of a head coach or a dictator. However, within this vast range of possibilities, one constant emerges: the producer is responsible for the final product and oversees the transitional process through which songs become recordings.
In the case of George Martin, who helped The Beatles transform themselves from a successful nightclub act into international recording stars, the producer’s role was defined by trust, a collaborative spirit and thoughtful guidance. Martin knew the recording studio in ways The Beatles did not, at least during the making of the group’s first albums. Martin listened to The Beatles as performers and people, made suggestions, occasionally added arrangements and provided additional instrumental parts to their music where they all agreed it was beneficial, but, as he told Melody Maker’s Richard Williams in 1971, “It would have been silly to [try to] change them, because it would have destroyed their spirit.” Martin’s sound as a producer was transparent; one would not necessarily recognize a recording as “his.” Martin’s goal was to find and highlight the strengths of his artists to help them achieve their maximum potential. What he wanted listeners to hear was The Beatles, not George Martin.
Phil Spector, whose most celebrated work was released roughly around the same time as that of George Martin, approached production from a position of notable dominance. He used the recording studio, and anyone he could fit into it, to record the music he heard in his head. Recording what he referred to as “Wagnerian” Rock and Roll and “little symphonies for the kids,” Spector created what some have described as a sense of “heightened emotion” by constructing densely layered arrangements with dozens of musicians playing at the same time. Though the singles were released with the names of the artists, many of whom were “Girl Groups” such as The Ronettes and The Crystals, Spector was the star. In this way, he was a very different producer than George Martin. In the following lesson, students experience the recording and production techniques of George Martin and Phil Spector through clips from Soundbreaking Episode One, historically-related archival journalism, and handouts, finally contrasting the two producers by way of a think-pair-share activity.
Phil Spector and George Martin both created defining sounds of the 1960s, but, inevitably, as music and culture changed, so too did some musicians’ ideas about allowing producers to exert control over their music. Some of the Singer-Songwriters of the early 1970s, such as Joni Mitchell, accepted little or no input from producers, focusing on the clarity and directness of the lyrics with sometimes minimal musical accompaniment. In the latter part of this lesson, students use a handout with information about both Betty Friedan’s seminal The Feminine Mystique and events in 1960s Second-Wave Feminism as a backdrop by which to consider Joni Mitchell’s decision to “self-produce” in the early 1970s.