Our resident muso, Dave Newbury, gets properly geeky inside the most famous recording studios in the world.
Review: The Abbey Road Studios Talk
Even for those with only the scantest interest in music, Abbey Road Studios is an icon. The photo of The Beatles strolling over a zebra crossing is a rock image matched only by The Dark Side of the Moon cover or Nipper the HMV dog next to a gramophone. But for those who have spent a lifetime religiously memorising the names of albums' producers and engineers — and occasionally catalogue numbers — Abbey Road is pop music’s stable, carefully birthing the 20th Century’s most important revolution.
So when an opportunity to enter the hallowed studios arose as part of its 80th birthday celebrations, it was feverishly grabbed, prompting a personal rediscovery of the EMI, Parlophone and Columbia back catalogues.
My previous experience of recording studios had been as a drummer in sweat-box cubicles playing to a click track, cigarette burns in utilitarian carpets and the reek of failure, whilst a trip to Maida Vale was more of a canteen and gig experience. Abbey Road, however, offered an opportunity to get up close and personal with vintage recording equipment and unique instruments.
The visit was one of 12 sessions in whch the public are invited into Studio 2 — where The Beatles recorded — to soak up the atmosphere, see the ancient technology and attend a 90 minute lecture on the studios’ history. Under strict security, guests are shepherded through the residential door, under the iconic sign, through winding corridors and into the studio with its legendary staircase up to the control room.
On first impressions the room, built on the building’s former garden, is smaller than expected, but, as is later explained, Studio 2 is about two thirds of the size of Studio 1 where orchestras record movie soundtracks. The first thing to do is walk up the staircase which gives a perfect view of the corner where the fab four sat for all their recordings — John Lennon in particular always singing from one spot. Today this area is filled with different pianos including the same Schiedmayer Celeste used on The Beatles Good Night and Pink Floyd’s Time, and Mrs Mills’ Steinway Vertegrand. During the lecture three attendees are invited to play on these, a pianist's dream.
It gets even geekier in the opposite corner where all the recording equipment is proudly displayed. There are BTR-2 and BTR- 3 tape recorders, Struder JS7 four-track recorders, microphone, a mixing desk called a TG12345 mk 2, and lots of other combinations of letters and numbers which are completely beyond me. But they are fascinating; clunky technology which seems straight from a cold war bunker, but was cutting edge and used on your favourite records.
We take our seats for the lecture on Abbey Road's famous red chairs, used during recordings because they don’t squeak, and our hosts — Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan authors of the book Recording The Beatles — give what is basically a Powerpoint presentation. The slides, however, contain some of the most mesmerising musical history it’s possible to experience. There are never before seen photographs of the first recordings by His Masters Voice in Covent Garden, footage of the sprawling HMV complex at Hayes and audio clips of early recordings; musicians playing live into a funnel while it's mechanically carved into wax.
As the focus shifts on to Abbey Road itself photos of the 1828 building pre-studio and original layout plans showing how it took over neighbouring gardens are brought out. Later on we see 1970s designs proposing to change Studio 1 into a car park — plans which were thankfully disregarded. We are also shown how the building itself developed, was redesigned and was itself used as an effect with addition of echo chambers
Although the lecture chronologically covers the history, much of this is Google-able. What makes it so special is the archive footage which has never been seen by the public. We are shown film clips of the very first recording in the studio — a performance of Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory, audio pioneer Alan Blumlein’s first ever stereo recording — Walking and Talking, band Leader Jack Hylton, and fascinating home footage of The Hollies in the studio.
The amount of musical history presented is relentless, and I won’t divulge any more spoilers, but it’s truly fascinating. Ok, it may have a niche appeal, and the £75 ticket price tag will put many off, but for those with a deep passion for music, how it’s made and those clever enough to produce it, it’s will be worth every penny.
London’s music is the best in the world and Abbey Road has been at the centre of it since the start. It has led the way, pioneered and inspired, and this tour proves how pivotal Abbey Road Studios are to the music we love, and London's heritage.
All photography by David Newbury with kind permission of Abbey Road Studios.
Last Updated 17 March 2012