“Abbey Road” by David Hepworth (published by Penguin Books)

Classical and pop: across the great divide

Having a stroll in Nagykovacsi village recently, I walked past a house with a replica “Abbey Road” street sign on the front fence. A souvenir of a nice little trip to London, no doubt, and surely the homeowner/s took the Tube to St John’s Wood, NW8, to see the famed recording studios. Wouldn’t you bet a penny to a pound that they have a goofy photo of themselves on the world’s most famous zebra crossing?
29. July 2023 7:15

It was Friday, August 8, 1969 when a policeman held up the traffic as freelance photographer Iain Macmillan, a friend to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, stood on a stepladder in the middle of the north London suburban road for what would turn out to be one of the most famous photo-shoots in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Lennon first in white, then Ringo Starr in black, Paul McCartney in grey, barefoot, holding a ciggie, and at the back, a denim-clad George Harrison walked over the crossing next to Abbey Road studios where they were in the throes of recording together for the last time. Six clicks of the shutter: three frames walking from left to right, three right to left. The same order in each. Macmillan had only a short time to nail it, so the shoot had been carefully planned, with a hand-drawn sketch of the intended result. He reportedly spent less than 15 minutes up the ladder, as they had to give way to traffic.

The fifth shot was the perfect one, and “Abbey Road” became the first British Beatles LP without the name of the band or the title on the front. It was released in the UK on September 26, 1969 and debuted at number 1. Rolling Stone magazine has it at number 5 of the top 500 albums of all time (if you disagree, we don’t want to hear from you).

Go there now, to NW8, decades on, and you can be guaranteed at least a couple of dozen fans of various nationalities clowning around photographing each other (and holding up the traffic, luckily light) as they recreate the enduring cover image.

Lest we forget, as Paul McCartney points out in his short preface to David Hepworth’s history of the studios, which opened in 1931: “Long before and long after the Beatles some of the best music in the world was born in those rooms, and they are still carrying on as one of the best studios in the world”. The book is subtitled “The Inside Story of the World’s Most Famous Recording Studio”.

McCartney adds that it’s the only studio he’s “ever known in the world where you have one grand piano, one super grand, one medium grand… everything, just there in the studio for normal use”. With incredible engineers inventing new ways to record on incredible gear.

How many other studios can we name? Well, Sun in Memphis with early Elvis and the “Million Dollar Quartet”, Chess in Chicago where the blues greats congregated, Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin made known briefly by David Bowie and U2, Electric Lady in New York City immortalised by Jimi Hendrix, Motown in Detroit which is now a museum, some of the Los Angeles ones perhaps, Muscle Shoals in Alabama…

And how many artists in your music collection recorded at Abbey Road? Many famous feet have crossed the same road since 1931: Edward Elgar, Paul Robeson, Yehudi Menuhin, Peter Sellers, Ravi Shankar, Gracie Fields, Pink Floyd, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Sophia Loren, Luciano Pavarotti, Eartha Kitt, Al Bowlly,  Noel Coward, Amy Winehouse, John Barry, Kate Bush, Jacqueline du Pré…

Then there are the not-so-revered: Pinky and Perky, the Temperance Seven, Ken Dodd, Bernard Cribbins, Russ Conway, Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, Freddie and the Dreamers, Bucks Fizz, the Mike Sammes Singers, Mrs Mills, Manuel and the Music of the Mountains… Somewhere in the middle are Cliff and The Shadows, Cilla Black, Gerry Marsden, Billy J., Fela Kuti, Nile Rodgers…

Hepworth takes us to the beginnings. The first proper recording studio in London was set up in the smoking room of the old Coburn Hotel on Maiden Lane in Covent Garden. This was a world before radio when the only music the overwhelming majority of people had ever heard was live or via the barrel organ.

As the market for records slowly developed, one of the two major English recording companies, Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI), set eyes on a solid Victorian family villa at 3 Abbey Road in 1929 for a building dedicated to recording. This was the age of a new electrical recording process and the wind-up gramophone. Sir Edward Elgar opened  Abbey Road, billed by EMI as “London’s Latest Wonder”, on November 12, 1931, by conducting a live orchestra through his “Land of Hope and Glory”. George Bernard Shaw attended.

There were three studios and they lured performers with the promise of immortality while torturing them with a level of scrutiny that was entirely new. Singers and musicians were nervous about being recorded and thus putting  themselves up for judgement. The advent of the electrical microphone ushered in an age of crooners such as Al Bowlly, who seemed to be singing directly into people’s ears.

A division of labour that was established in the 1930s was still observed pretty much into the 1960s, with the musicians rarely invited to listen to what they had done. A playback was none of their business, and the production staff ruled. Also, Abbey Road saw a wide gulf between the lowly pop practitioners and the “proper” work, which was classical.

The Beatles, for instance, often worked out arrangements of their compositions in Studio Two with the help of producer George Martin, but it took a while for them to gradually move up the stairs into the onlooking control room, where they learned that it was where the true record-making power lay.

The book has some nice photos: Fats Waller recording part of his “London Suite” on the Compton Organ, at the time a fixture in Studio One, in 1938; Gracie Fields who “was one of the musicians cum weapons of war ascending the famous steps during Britain’s finest hour”; band leader Glenn Miller with singer Dinah Shore recording in 1944 one week before his aircraft disappeared over the English Channel, and so on.

Hepworth has a solid history: recording to disc then magnetic tape; four-track, eight-track and beyond; 33, 45 and 78 revolutions per minute; singles and long-players; mono and stereo; shellac and vinyl; Moog synthesisers and Fairlights; “Sergeant Pepper” and “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

He has analysis and anecdotes, with old and new stories. Old: John Lennon feeling queasy and taken to the flat rooftop for some air by George Martin, who didn’t realise the Beatle had taken acid and might decide to fly. New (perhaps): The in-studio transformation of Cockney Rebel’s “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” from a bitter dirge to a joyous Number One. Funny: “The Bridge on the River Wye” and the shiny toilet paper.

The author often uses a light sardonic touch and he is subjective, for instance opining that Roy Harper’s “When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease”, made with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, is one of the dozen greatest records ever made at Abbey Road. Really?

But all in all it’s a good read. Hollies drummer Bobbie Elliot observes: “We were in awe because it was like going into a cathedral… You might be rubbing shoulders with Malcolm Sargent and John Barbirolli. I was queing up in the canteen one day to pay for my tea and rock bun and on one side of me was John Barry, on the other was André Previn , and just over there was Hank Marvin.”

And supposing the Beatles had stuck to their working title of “Everest” for their swansong? This was an inside joke about the brand of cigarettes smoked by engineer Geoff Emerick. In opting for the more practical, photo-wise, “Abbey Road”, the most famous band in the world unwittingly ensured that the recording studios and zebra crossing would achieve a lasting fame to almost equal their own, in little Nagykovacsi, Hungary, and far beyond.

Leave a Reply