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Miscellaneous - April 2012

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 13 / 3 / 2012

Miscellaneous - April 2012


In his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column, Ben Howarth, after a tour of the Abbey Road Studios, examines its lengthy history

Made famous by the Beatles album of the same name, Abbey Road must feature in every London guidebook. Tourists flock here every day, perhaps to be photographed walking barefoot over the famous zebra crossing, or perhaps to add their own lines to the mass of graffiti covering the studio gates. Fewer get to go inside. Abbey Road remains, after all, a working studio. The pianos on which the Beatles recorded their hits are still there, still in working order and still used. Nimble fingered visitors to the studios might even have the chance to tinkle the famous ivories themselves. No self respecting institution, however, misses the chance to tie in an anniversary with a money making venture, and Abbey Road Studios is no exception. It is eighty years old this year, and so I find myself queuing up outside at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, waiting to be admitted to Studio Two. An event aimed squarely at tourists, as you can see from the ludicrously high admission fee, but of most interest to Beatle-geeks, we get to mosey around the studio, where a mini-exhibition has been set up, showing us the remarkable technological leaps made in recording technology between 1922 and 1960. Then we take our seats on the surprisingly comfortable red chairs (more about them later) to learn about the history of the world’s most famous recording studios. Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, authors of ‘Recording The Beatles’, gave their ‘lecture’ informally, with an everyman tone and plenty of witty asides. But they offered genuine insight – and a wholly fresh perspective on the development of popular music through the 20th century. Instead of seeing the pop music of the 1960s as a revolution that swept the old guard away, this history places the Beatles within a wider context of astounding audio invention, mostly carried out by techies in shirts, ties and white lab coats. It all began when the boringly named Gramophone Company bought a painting of a dog, Nipper, peering into his master’s phonograph, trying to work out where the voice was coming from. The fledging company now had a logo, and a name for its soon-to-be-launched record label (His Master’s Voice, the initials of which you may recognise). By 1931 the Gramophone Company had merged with Columbia (and its subsidiary Parlophone) to form Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) and was about to move in to a purpose built studio, occupying the oldest building in wealthy, residential St John’s Wood, just round the corner from Lord’s Cricket Ground. Sir Edward Elgar opened the studio, conducting an orchestral recital of his most famous composition, 'Land of Hope and Glory'. It is Elgar (not the Beatles, Pink Floyd or Kate Bush) whose name you will find on a plaque outside the front door. Although the grand Studio One was designed to be both a recording venue and a performing space, only three people were in the audience for this little piece of history. One of them was George Bernard Shaw. By this time, EMI had revolutionised music recording. No more did performers have to cluster around a giant horn to be heard on the recording, as EMI developed electrical audio. Instead engineers in white coats danced wildly around huge desks, twiddling knobs in time with the music. Eventually, faders were invented, and by the 1960s, so were four tracks. The grand Studio One was stripped of its décor, as conductors complained that the room didn’t have any echo. Classical music dominated the British music industry in the 1950s. Its customers were wealthier, and their stereos were superior. EMI began issuing stereo records in 1958, but only on the HMV label, which only released classical recordings. HMV occupied the cavernous Studio One. Its rival Columbia used Studio Two for dance bands, while George Martin’s Parlophone label had the tiny Studio Three, for an odd combination of popular tunes and comedy records. On the other side of the continent, American technology was greatly advanced – but the engineers in Abbey Road were forced to improvise and experiment. Tape allowed the engineers to chop up recordings, and edit the best takes together. George Martin recorded the likes of Peter Sellers and Morecambe and Wise, learning how to add bells and whistles to his mixes. A decade later, those same sound effects made the Beatles sound so unlike their contemporaries. When the Beatles arrived for their first session in 1962, George Martin didn’t even bother to show up. They’d already been turned down by EMI’s main rival, Decca, and didn’t merit the attention of Columbia (home to the Shadows). But they were the first band to take advantage of the engineering nous of EMI’s men in white coats (the technicians who set up their microphones when they cut ‘Love Me Do’ were literally wearing white coats). Indeed the Beatles were the first ever recording artists to mount the stairs and visit the control room, to see the technology used to make their records. Unable to replicate reverb in the studio, EMI’s engineers fitted up the studio’s World War Two air raid shelter with sewerage pipes, sending the sound in there and recording it twice to create the desired effect. Even in Studio One, the sole preserve of the classics, simple ingenuity was at hand. Squeaky chairs were replaced with odd looking red ones – which didn’t make a sound no matter how much you shuffled about. Paul McCartney sat on one of these when he recorded the solo take of 'Blackbird', and it might even have been the same chair I was sat on to listen to the lecture. In the 1960s, the Beatles were similarly inventive – be it plugging their guitars directly into the sound board for 'Revolution', recording 'Yer Blues' into a single mic. But they benefited from Abbey Road’s years of instinctive genius – the piano that was deliberately hardened and slightly out-of-key, to recreate a bar room effect, which gave McCartney his unique piano sound. The lecture was a little less interesting when it moved on past the Beatles. The studios officially renamed themselves Abbey Road Studios, capitalising on the fame offered by their most famous tenant’s farewell album. Pink Floyd and Kate Bush ensured that plenty more studio innovations happened there. But, with the clout to afford the best equipment in the world, the role of the engineers in the artist’s success became less significant. So the recent history of Abbey Road is slightly less exciting. Still the first three quarters of the lecture were more than interesting enough. There was also plenty of trivia, most of which I’d never heard before. Did you know that the first ever stereo recording took place at Abbey Road? It was designed for film, so that voices could follow characters around the cinema. We were shown a brilliant film of EMI engineers walking around the room counting, testing their new idea. Unfortunately, music was a buyer’s market and as few homes could afford stereo record players, Mono remained the dominant format until the mid 1960s. How about the two singles that were billed above ‘Love Me Do’ on Parlophone’s release schedule? Tthat’d be the King Brothers and Johnny Angel, of course. Despite being on every plan of the sudio layout as Abbey Road expended, it took decades for a lift to be installed. When Pink Floyd went up and down corridors searching for the right effects, Waters and Gilmour were lugging all their equipment up and down the stairs by hand. I certainly never knew that, in every decade since the studio was built, the neighbours have regularly complained about the noise. There’s something gloriously British about such a great institution being located in about the most unsuitable location possible. If you ever get the chance to visit, you should.

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