NOTE: A version of this piece ran on Yahoo! Music this week, heavily edited by myself — the original was waaaaay too long. So I’m running the full text here, in five parts stretched over the next few days.
Music freaks breathed a skeptical sigh of relief Sunday when EMI announced that no, its famous Abbey Road Studios, where everyone from The Beatles to Radiohead unlocked a note or two, weren’t up for sale. The claim ends a week of panicked speculation that the firm’s financial woes had spurred them toward the unthinkable. In fact, the company asserted in a press release, it’s seeking partners for a revitalization campaign. (UPDATE: On Tuesday the site was granted protected status.)
EMI purchased the property at 3 Abbey Road in St. John’s Wood for ₤100,000 in 1929. Originally a posh home with 16 rooms, it was transformed over the next two years into a state-of-the-art recording studio and opened on November 12, 1931, with Sir Edward Elgar conducting an orchestra through “Land of Hope and Glory” in the spacious Studio One.
For the last seven decades, it’s hosted scores of prestigious artists from all eras and genres. Cliff Richard and The Shadows cut tons of sides there, together and apart, over a 20-year period. On June 6, 1962, a gaggle of lads from Liverpool strode through the doors to record a commercial test for in-house producer Ken Townshend. It would prove to be very commercial indeed: The Beatles would record most of their output there and put the location on music-fan lips with the Abbey Road LP and its now-iconic shot of the Fabs padding down the familiar zebra crossing near the studio.
The site boasts three main rooms for recording. The first is described rather proudly on the studio’s official Web site as the “world’s largest purpose-built recording studio,” spacious enough to comfortably hold a “110-piece orchestra and 100-piece choir simultaneously.” Ambitious bands can jam nearly 55 musicians into Studio Two and dine on the same ambiance that drove The Beatles. The smaller Studio Three still echoes with the magic of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Abbey Road also features a penthouse mixing facility and restaurant/bar called The Crossing, where artists may restore their flow over a menu while admiring an adjacent garden. Meanwhile, a live cam monitors the crossing itself 24 hours a day.
In celebration of Abbey Road’s auction-block reprieve, this week the Wrazz wrevisits five must-have slabs birthed behind its doors.
THE BEATLES, SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1967)
It was Paul McCartney who first envisioned a uniformed fleet of alter-egos, but it took a little help from his friends and one indulgent producer to flesh it out. Today, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is commonly regarded as the greatest pop tapestry of the rock era (unless you’re Richard Goldstein in The New York Times; then you never live your unpopular appraisal down).
The album was assembled over a four-month period, interrupting a once-annual two-record flow. It was an ambitious undertaking, to say the least, one that couldn’t be executed by a band enslaved by the road or the nagging need to constantly replenish shelves. The Beatles were free to plumb their imaginations in the studio, proactively using the long-player format as a long-form canvas. As producer George Martin observed, “Now we are working with pure sound. We are building sound pictures.”
Most of Pepper came together in Studio Two, although it wasn’t large enough to contain the inspiration bursting from the minds of Paul McCartney and John Lennon on “A Day in the Life.” So they jammed a 41-piece orchestra, built mostly from members of London’s New Philharmonia, into the vast Studio One and put them to work on the arresting coda that shivered many a spine in the Summer of Love. Shortly after the album’s release, McCartney explained to Time’s Christopher Porterfield how that session went down:
Once we’d written the main bit of the music, we thought, now, look, there’s a little gap there; and we said oh, how about an orchestra? Yes, that’ll be nice. And if we do have an orchestra, are we going to write them a pseudo-classical thing, which has been done better by people who know how to make it sound like that — or are we going to do it like we write songs? … So we said, right, what we’ll do to save all the arranging, we’ll take the whole orchestra as one instrument. And we just wrote it down like a cooking recipe: 24 bars; on the ninth bar, the orchestra will take off, and it will go from its lowest note to its highest note.
High notes were in abundance when Sgt. Pepper surfaced in June 1967 and shoveled some 2,500,000 copies before fall, well on its way to becoming a generational touchstone. Reflecting on its aftershocks some 37 years later, McCartney mused, “To us, it wasn’t so much that it was a great album musically. It was more that it was an anthem for our generation. It was an album that marked the times and summed up the times.” Yet with its mix of theatrical pomp and pop evolution that gathered elements from various styles and periods, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band defies time as well.