A piece of rock'n'roll history: 75 years of Abbey Road
The Beatles recorded there, yeah, yeah, yeah, but the most famous recording studios in the world also played host to Edward Elgar and Fred Astaire, among others. Terry Kirby reports
Thursday 09 November 2006
It is a solid Georgian house, almost anonymous, in an unremarkable but busy north London road. A few cars are always parked on the frontage. Otherwise, its significance is only indicated by the daily gaggle of tourists, photographing each other on the nearby zebra crossing and adding their names to the graffiti on the wall.
But to go inside the doors of No 3, once you have passed underneath the small black sign that says Abbey Road, is to enter a place that is somehow more than just a crucial part of the history of popular music. Abbey Road proudly proclaims itself to be quite simply the most famous recording studio in the world. And for once, the hype may well be justified.
Here, inside these walls, which have heard and absorbed so many sounds, so many emotions, so many notes, is where, in 1931, an ageing Sir Edward Elgar recorded "Land of Hope and Glory"; where, on September 16 1944, the band leader Glenn Miller performed in a studio for the last time, just weeks before his plane went missing over the English Channel (the tapes remained unheard for 50 years); and, where, one June evening in 1962, George Martin, then head of EMI's Parlophone records, met four young men from Liverpool. He thought them "pretty awful", but, as they say, the rest is history, right up to and past That Album, the one with the cover.
And history it unquestionably is. This is also where, several years before the Fab Four, Cliff Richard recorded "Move It", his first single and arguably the first British rock'n'roll record; where Pink Floyd re-invented their career with the mega-successful Dark Side of the Moon; where the punks and pub bands of the late 1970s embraced the rock establishment; where the sound of Britpop was created and where Sporty, Scary, Ginger and the rest once again brought the massed media and screaming fans to St John's Wood. As David Holley, the managing director of EMI Studios, said yesterday: "Whenever I walk through the door, I sense the ghosts all around me - Elgar, John Lennon, Syd Barrett - and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. This morning Sir George Martin was in reception when I came in and we had a little chat. You don't get that in many jobs."
Tonight, Abbey Road celebrates its 75th anniversary, with a party attended by many of the stars who have recorded there over the decades as well as present and former staff.
Built as an elegant townhouse in the 1830s, 3 Abbey Road was bought by what was then known as the Gramophone Company in 1929 from a man jailed for selling bogus peerages and titles. It was converted into studios, utilising the large garden at the rear. The intention was always to aim high and its opening on 12 November 1931 was celebrated with Elgar, then the most famous living British composer, who conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a recording of "Land of Hope and Glory". He returned several times to record at Abbey Road before his death in 1934; ill health prevented him from attending his final session, which he supervised instead over the telephone.
In the decades since, Abbey Road - or EMI Studios as it was known formally until the 1970s, when it bowed to the inevitable - played host to almost every major name in classical and popular music. Elgar was followed by the pianist Artur Schnabel and soprano Elisabeth Scwarzkopf. During the 1930s and 1940s artists who recorded at Abbey Road included Joe Loss, Paul Robeson, Gertrude Lawrence and Fred Astaire, as well as the ill-fated Miller.
Since 1980, the vast Studio 1, the biggest recording studio in the world, has been regularly used by orchestras to score some of the big screen's most successful films, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, several Star Wars films, two of the Harry Potter films and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But popular music remains its most celebrated achievement - from Cliff Richard in 1958 to U2 and Green Day in the past few weeks. "I can't tell you who is in here at the moment," said Mr Holley. "We have a policy on that to avoid getting the fans camped outside."
The fans camped outside were, of course, a problem during the late Sixties when the Fab Four recorded most of their singles and albums in Studio 2, still known and revered as the "Beatles Studio".
George Martin, a classically trained musician and producer, who had most recently come up a series of comedy records with people such as Peter Sellers and Rolf Harris, was looking for a group to enter the new pop market. Martin's expertise was the perfect complement to the raw talent and energy of the Beatles and, as they became increasingly successful, went about reinventing and developing pop music into an art form. At Abbey Road, Martin broke the barriers of the conventional three-minute single, adding strings, backwards recording, double-tracking and feedback. The results included "Hey Jude", "Let It Be", "Penny Lane" and "Eleanor Rigby" as well as the innovative Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. And, of course, Abbey Road itself, the one whose name and cover enshrined the studios as a place of pilgrimage.
Martin, who went on to found his own AIR studios, created a tradition of technical innovation and experimentation that survives today in a field which has been subject to enormous technical shifts during the past few decades. The studio currently houses the world's biggest analogue mixing desk and the world's biggest digital desk and is pioneering ways of managing digital music products.
The history of innovation at Abbey Road sits side by side with a peculiarly British atmosphere, however. "It's a bit like the BBC. And you have to remember, it was created at about the same time - in the 1930s - and shares that same spirit," said Mr Holley. "Underneath that orderliness, that surface normality, there's a real radical, adventurous spirit at work. People are fiddling around, being creative."
But according to artists who have worked there, while Abbey Road may be part of the history of rock'n'roll, it has never been very rock'n'roll in spirit.
"I remember a very traditional atmosphere," said Steve Harley, founder of Cockney Rebel, who "practically lived there" during the late 1970s when he recorded several singles and albums, including "Come Up and See Me (Make Me Smile)", still one of the biggest-selling singles of all time.
He said: "It was full of all these people who wore brown overalls and there was a tea lady called Dolly - people I would describe as real old-fashioned London types. For young blokes like us who had been travelling the world being rock stars it sort of brought you back to earth."
For recreation between sessions there was a pool table or the canteen. Harley remembers plenty of booze, but not much in the way of drugs. He has fond memories: "I've recorded in 50 different studios around the world and most of them are the same - but there's nowhere like Abbey Road."
Two decades later, Alex James found a similar atmosphere when he recorded there with Blur in the mid-1990s, but views it with far less affection: "I did think it was like the BBC. It certainly wasn't the hippest place; there was no cute receptionist or video games to play on.
"There was this terrible reverential atmosphere - 'this was the mike that Ringo used', that sort of thing. And if you wanted to use something you usually had to fill in three different pieces of paper. You couldn't break stuff or make a mess and I don't think that is very good for creativity. That's why people are recording in barns or garages these days."
But despite his reservations, for many aspiring or even established artists, a session at Abbey Road remains a rock'n'roll rite of passage. As Steve Harley puts it: "Everyone wants to say, 'We did that one at Abbey Road'."
Just for the record, decade by decade
EMI Studios opened on 12 November 1931 with the aim of providing a recording home for the world's biggest classical artists. The pianist Artur Schnabel became virtually a resident when he recorded all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and five concertos. The 15 volumes made up of 100 records took more than a decade to complete.
Joe Loss, one of Britain's most popular bandleaders of the ballroom era, made his debut at Abbey Road in 1934. Other regular visitors during the early years were Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Thomas Beecham, Noel Coward, Paul Robeson, Gertrude Lawrence and Fred Astaire.
During the Second World War, Abbey Road remained open, making propaganda recordings for the Government and radio broadcasts for the BBC. Artists who contributed to the war effort included Gracie Fields and George Formby.
On 16 September 1944, American bandleader Glenn Miller made a number of recordings with singer Dinah Shore in Studio 1 - his last, as it turned out. A few weeks later, Miller's plane was reported lost over the English Channel with no survivors. Extraordinarily, the recordings remained unreleased until the expiry of their copyright in 1994.
The decade began with the arrival of George Martin who began by recording "anything out of the ordinary", working with comic actors such as Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Peter Ustinov, and recording plays and musical numbers that required complex sound effects.
Singer Eddie Calvert holds the distinction of becoming the first British artist to record a No 1 hit single in Abbey Road, when his recording of "Oh Mein Papa" topped the charts for nine weeks. Cliff Richard and the Drifters (later to become the Shadows) recorded several songs, among them "Move It", released in 1958.
By now, hit records were being regularly produced at the studios. Shirley Bassey arrived from Cardiff to begin a career that continues today and Danny Williams recorded a version of "Moon River" which shot to No 1 in 1961. Schoolgirl sensation Helen Shapiro produced 11 hits records at Abbey Road, including "Walking Back To Happiness" and "You Don't Know". In the summer of 1962 George Martin met the Beatles and three months later they were recording at Abbey Road. "Love Me Do" became the first of many hits on Martin's Parlophone label. Other artists recording at Abbey Road at the time included Manfred Mann, Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Seekers and the Hollies.
On 3 January 1970 the final Beatles recording, of "I Me Mine", took place at Abbey Road, although the individual Beatles would return as solo artists. Abbey Road by now was synonymous with the British rock scene and bands such as Pink Floyd exploited its technical abilities on albums such as Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.
By now the list of artists who made some or all of a recording in Abbey Road included names as diverse as Spandau Ballet, Simple Minds, Boney M, Kiki Dee, XTC, Mike Oldfield, Jeff Beck, Magazine, Tom Robinson and Kirsty MacColl.
The recording of film scores for both Hollywood blockbusters, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and home-grown films, such as Room With a View began a lucrative sideline that continues today. The arrival of the CD revitalised record sales, creating new demand for back catalogues and classical recordings. Abbey Road opened facilities equipped for remastering original tapes and for reducing hiss and crackle on old recordings. Among rock and pop artists recording there were Kate Bush and Sting.
The 1990s saw a return to bands recording live in the studio as the advent of what would be known as Britpop created a whole new generation of artists. Bands including Radiohead, Spiritualized, Manic Street Preachers, Texas, Gomez, Travis and Blur all used Abbey Road to either record, mix, master their records. Many artists, such as Nick Cave and Sade, used the studios to record string arrangements, and to overdub choirs or orchestras.
When the Spice Girls recorded Spice World in Studio Three, bringing their fans and the world's media to camp outside, it was almost like the Sixties again.
Abbey Road remains a major centre for recording music with artists such as Muse, Starsailor, Embrace and Groove Armada all using the studios. Channel 4 is about to launch a new series, Live From Abbey Road, with a similar format to Jools Holland's BBC2 show, Later. And yesterday, Sir George Martin returned to the scene of his greatest triumph, to promote his LOVE album, released later this month, an experimental mix of Beatles songs, using many of the original master tapes.
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