Abbey Road Studios are in a decidedly mellow neighbourhood of London. The former Georgian townhouse was converted into a studio by The Gramaphone Company in 1931, shortly before it merged to become EMI. The main purpose was to establish a place to record classical music and it's still the world's largest purpose built studio; capable of holding a 110 piece orchestra and a 100-piece choir at the same time. Studio 2 is smaller and where the majority of The Beatles' output was recorded, though can still accommodate up to 50 musicians. Studio 3 was created with an emphasis on natural acoustics and isolation booths. It's been used extensively by Pink Floyd, Coldplay and U2; amongst many, many others.
The Beatles EMI Audition at Abbey Road
When the Beatles first visited EMI studios, George Martin was head of EMI's Parlophone records - mainly concerned with classical and baroque recordings and comedy including The Goons and Peter Cook & Dudley Moore. After taking over from an incumbent, Martin was interested in raising the profile of Parlophone by signing a Rock & Roll group, so was on the lookout when the Beatles crossed his path. After an unsuccessful audition at Decca arranged by Brian Epstein ("... guitar groups are on the way out Mr Epstein..."), George Martin heard the Decca audition tapes and the Beatles travelled to London by van (driven by Apple's later Chief Executive, Neil Aspinall) at Martin's request, to record some tracks. The Beatles' profile in Liverpool had grown substantially after returning from their latest visit to Hamburg and there was a creeping feeling in the band, that they may just be on the verge of success. The recording was held in Studio 2, between 7-10 PM on 6 June 1962 and the mood was very much 'non-committal' at this stage. Producer: Ron Richards and Engineer: Norman Smith viewed the exercise as an 'audition', rather than any commitment by Parlophone to sign The Beatles.
George Martin was not initially present, but when Norman Smith heard 'Love Me Do' he was struck by its unique quality and asked tape operator - Chris Neal - to fetch Martin. Martin took over the session and afterwards the Beatles were invited into the control room for feedback. The following quote is by Chris Neal:
"We gave them a long lecture about their equipment and what would have to be done about it, if they were to become recording artists. They didn't say a word, not a word. They didn't even nod their heads in agreement. When he finished, George said 'Look, I've laid into you for quite a time, you haven't responded. Is there anything you don't like?' I remember they all looked at each other for a long while, shuffling their feet, then George Harrison took a long look at George and said 'Yeah, I don't like your tie!' That cracked the ice for us and for the next 15-20 minutes they were pure entertainment. When they left to go home George and I just sat there saying 'Phew! What do you think of that lot then?' I had tears running down my face."
The Abbey Road Album
The Beatles continued to record at Abbey Road for the duration of their career, right up to their final studio album "Abbey Road" which was released in 1969. After years of wrangling and bitterness between the members of the group, the spirit returned for this final recording and according to definitive accounts they were very happy tinkering and innovating their way through it. Perhaps safe in the knowledge that they wouldn't have to be 'Beatles' for much longer. Many techniques were pioneered at Abbey Road Studios (the name was changed from "EMI Studios" after the release of the album) - flanging, backwards recording, automatic double tracking (ADT - which became industry wide) and most were used on that final album. Ian Macmillan was brought in to produce the cover photo, showing the iconic zebra crossing on Abbey Road. Included is an out-take photo from that session, with Paul McCartney breaking stride.
Abbey Road Studios Today
The Abbey Road Studios have become a place of pilgrimage for Beatles fans. The graffiti daubed on the wall outside is painted over every month, but it's disappointing that more isn't done to cater for the interest. Although it's admirable that the studios continue to be a place of work (The Harry Potter score for the final film installments, was recorded here) - access is not permitted, so there's nothing to see. I'm not suggesting a tacky house full of Fab Four waxworks and tinny renditions of their tunes, but something up-to-date and interesting. Augmented reality gigs perhaps? The photo blogs of people traipsing the streets of St. John's Wood, having the time of their life are endearing; but an embarrassment. Extend the Beatles the level of respect they deserve and invest in somewhere for visitors to go. It's baffling when you consider the cultural impact they've had and I can't imagine another country passing on the opportunity.
At the end of 2009, the studios came under threat of sale to property developers, but received historic site status from the British government in 2010 to protect it indefinitely (probably a Beatles fan - rubber-stamping in the background). Victory - because we really needed a residential block of 'luxury 1&2 bed apartments' with 'historic views of a zebra crossing' called 'Fab Four Grove'. For this kind of humdrum development - it seems investment capital, springs eternal.
Abbey Road Studios, 3 Abbey Road, St. John's Wood, London NW8 9AY
Nearest Tube: St. John's Wood
Call: 020 7266 7000