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Sun October 21, 2012
Music Interviews

From Elgar To Beatles: Abbey Road Blazed A Trail

Originally published on Tue October 23, 2012 12:01 pm

In 1969, four moppy-haired musicians named John, Paul, George and Ringo walked single file on a London crosswalk and made one of the most iconic album covers of all time. Today, a steady stream of Beatles fans and London tourists are still eager to walk in the footsteps of the Fab Four on that famous stretch of asphalt.

"I think once I went up there about half past 10 on a Sunday night, and they were still doing it then," says British music journalist Alistair Lawrence. "It never ends."

Lawrence is the author of a new book called Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World, which tells the history of the place where The Beatles recorded many of their albums — including the one with which the studio shares its name.

"It was originally a nine-bedroom mansion, and it was bought and converted into the world's first-ever custom recording studio," Lawrence says of the studio that's located in north London's St. John's Wood neighborhood.

Before Beatlemania, Abbey Road Studios went by another name: EMI Studios, named after the major recording label that still owns it today. The studio opened its doors on Nov. 12., 1931. In its early days, the studio was known for recording classical pieces, including Edward Elgar's famous Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. It also played a historic role in recording King George VI's declaration of war against Germany in a 1939 radio broadcast (the story told in the Oscar-winning film The King's Speech).

After the war, British music producers looked across the pond and saw the rise of a more poppy sound in American music that was beginning to catch fire in the U.K.

"They decided that it wasn't enough to simply import and produce this music — they needed to have British rivals to it," Lawrence says. "They hired new producers and new A&R men — among them George Martin, obviously — and the focus shifted. ... British pop music came to dominate the airwaves and dominate a lot of what they did at Abbey Road."

Leading the British pop force out of Abbey Road was, of course, The Beatles.

"They were part of a number of bands that were scouted and EMI were considering signing," Lawrence explains. "So [The Beatles] came in one night to record a demo session, and it impressed them to the point where they signed them. The rest is quite momentous history, really."

Ken Scott, author of the memoir Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust, was a sound engineer at the studio, and worked with The Beatles on some of the band's final albums. Scott says engineering The Beatles' recording sessions at Abbey Road was a bit like experimenting in a sound lab.

"Let's say I was recording a piano," he says. "I could use completely the wrong mic, completely screw up the sound on it, and there was just as much likelihood of them coming up and saying, 'It sounds terrible — let's use it,' as there was anything else. So I was never particularly worried about it. It was amazing training."

Scott was just 16 when he started at Abbey Road. He remembers a day early in his time at the studio when he passed the two Georges — Martin and Harrison — in a hallway.

"There were hundreds of screaming young girls out front," Scott says. "I just wanted to scream like those little girls outside, but managed to sort of bite my tongue for a bit. I didn't let it out until I got upstairs and no one would really hear me."

The Beatles named the last album they recorded together after the address of their beloved studio — 3 Abbey Road — and the success of the record inspired EMI Studios to change its name. Scott says one of the things that makes Abbey Road stand out is the sheer variety of what was recorded there.

"In the morning, you could be working on a classical session in [studio] No. 1, in the afternoon you could be with a dance band, and then in the evening you could be with Pink Floyd," he says. "You got to see so many different styles of recording, and it all resonates."

"It blazed a trail," Lawrence adds. "I think that other recording studios would have happened eventually if it weren't for Abbey Road, but it pioneered that whole movement — it showed that it could be done.

"Even now, with the move away from using big recording studios to people producing music in their bedrooms or what have you, it's stayed relevant. [As] much as it's a living piece of history, it continues to push boundaries and be inventive like it always did."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME TOGETHER")

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 1969, four moppy-haired musicians named John, Paul, George and Ringo walked single file on a London crosswalk and they made one of the most iconic album covers of all time, "Abbey Road."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME TOGETHER")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Come together right now over me.

MARTIN: Today, a steady stream of Beatles fans and London tourists are still eager to walk in the footsteps of the Fab Four on that famous stretch of asphalt.

ALISTAIR LAWRENCE: I think once I went up there about half past 10 on a Sunday night, and they were still doing it then. So, you know, it never ends.

MARTIN: This is Alistair Lawrence.

LAWRENCE: I'm a British music journalist.

MARTIN: And he's written a new book on the history of Abbey Road Studios, the studio where The Beatles recorded many of their albums including "Abbey Road."

LAWRENCE: It's located in North London in an area called St. John's Wood, and it was originally a nine-bedroom mansion. And it was bought and converted into the world's first-ever custom recording studio. And it opened its doors on the 12th of November 1931.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE MARCH NO. 1")

MARTIN: Before Beatlemania, Abbey Road Studios went by another name: EMI Studios, named after the major recording label that still owns it today. In its early days, the studio was known for recording classical pieces, like what you're hearing now. This is "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 Opus 39" by Edward Elgar.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Abbey Road Studios also played an historic role in recording "The King's Speech." Yes, "The King's Speech," the real one depicted in the recent film when King George VI's declared war against Germany in a 1939 radio broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED ANNOUNCEMENT)

KING GEORGE VI: In this grave hour, perhaps the most faithful in our history...

LAWRENCE: He had to do it live and it was an incredibly tense situation for a speaker who was bound to be nervous. So they took advantage of the technology at Abbey Road to use a telephone line connection and record it at the studio for posterity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED ANNOUNCEMENT)

VI: For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war.

MARTIN: After the war, British music producers looked across the pond and saw the rise of a more poppy sound in American music that was beginning to catch fire in the UK.

LAWRENCE: And they decided that it wasn't enough to simply import and produce this music, they needed to have British rivals to it - a British equivalence, maybe a better expression.

(LAUGHTER)

LAWRENCE: Yeah. And they hired new producers and new A&R men and among them, you know, George Martin, obviously. And the focus shifted. So it was going to be throughout, you know, the late '40s and then into the '50s and then obviously the '60s where British pop music came to dominate the airwaves and dominate a lot of what they did at Abbey Road.

MARTIN: And leading the British pop force out of Abbey Road was, of course, The Beatles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ME DO")

BEATLES: (Singing) Love, love me do. You know I love you. I'll...

LAWRENCE: They were part of, you know, a number of bands that I think were scouted and EMI were considering signing. So they came in one night to record a demo session, and it impressed them to the point where they signed them and the rest is quite momentous history, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAWBERRY FIELDS")

BEATLES: (Singing) Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields...

KEN SCOTT: The first thing I ever engineered was starting on "Magical Mystery Tour."

MARTIN: This is Ken Scott. He was a sound engineer at Abbey Road Studios and he worked with The Beatles on some of their final albums. Scott says engineering The Beatles recording sessions at Abbey Road was a bit like experimenting in a sound lab.

SCOTT: Let's say I was recording a piano. I could use completely the wrong mic, completely screw up the sound on it, and there was just as much likelihood of them coming up and saying, it sounds terrible, let's use it...

(LAUGHTER)

SCOTT: ...as there was anything else. So I was never particularly worried about it and it was amazing training.

MARTIN: You were young when you started at Abbey Road, right?

SCOTT: I started at the age of 16, yes. And within, I think it was a week of starting there, I had in my hands the master tape of "Can't Buy Me Love." A couple of weeks later, I was walking along the corridor carrying some tapes. There were hundreds of screaming young girls out front. And walking towards me came the two Georges, Martin and Harrison, and I just wanted to scream like those little girls outside.

(LAUGHTER)

SCOTT: But managed to sort of bite my tongue for a bit and didn't let it out until I got upstairs and no one would really hear me.

MARTIN: The Beatles named the last album they recorded together after the address of their beloved studio, 3 Abbey Road, and the success of "Abbey Road" the album inspired EMI Studios to change its name. Music engineer Ken Scott says one of the things that makes Abbey Road stand out is...

SCOTT: The variety of stuff that was recorded there. In the morning, you could be working on a classical session in Number One. In the afternoon you could be with a dance band, and then in the evening you could be with Pink Floyd. And so, you got to see so many different styles of recording and it all resonates. And it's amazing.

MARTIN: Alistair, you have claimed though, as the subtitle of your book, "Abbey Road," that it is or was "The Best Studio in the World." Why?

LAWRENCE: Well, it blazed a trail. I mean I think that other recording studios would have happened eventually if it weren't for Abbey Road, but it pioneered that whole movement. It showed that it could be done. And even now, with the move away from using big recording studios to people producing music in their bedrooms with computers or what have you, it's stayed relevant. And much as it's of a living piece of history, it continues to push boundaries and be inventive like it always did.

MARTIN: Alistair Lawrence is the author of "Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World." He joined us from the BBC studios in London. And Ken Scott is a former sound engineer and producer at Abbey Road Studios. His memoir is called "Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust." And he joined us from our studio at NPR West.

Thanks to both of you so much. It's been a pleasure.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

SCOTT: For me, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHINE ON YOU CRAZY DIAMOND")

PINK FLOYD: (Playing)

MARTIN: And you can see archive photos of The Beatles, Kate Bush, Stevie Wonder, and other musicians working at Abbey Road Studios. Go to our website, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHINE ON YOU CRAZY DIAMOND")

FLOYD: (Playing) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.