Abbey Road: 80 years of music making

By Jon Savage

It’s the world’s most famous studio and everyone from Pink Floyd to Ella Fitzgerald — and, of course, the Beatles — has made music there. Jon Savage looks back over 80 years of Abbey Road and its unique musical heritage.

London's Abbey Road is home to one of the world's most famous studios - and pedestrian crossings, pictured on the Beatles' album, named, fittingly, Abbey Road. Photo / Supplied
London's Abbey Road is home to one of the world's most famous studios - and pedestrian crossings, pictured on the Beatles' album, named, fittingly, Abbey Road. Photo / Supplied

Abbey Road would be unthinkable today. Just imagine building a custom-made facility with three separate studios on a prime slice of north central London real estate - no chance. It's indelibly associated with the Beatles, but Abbey Road is also a unique time capsule from a different musical era.

The studio was set up in 1931, the same year that EMI - Electric and Musical Industries - was formed in a merger that brought together three labels: His Master's Voice, Columbia and Parlophone. Each had its own studio in the large converted nine-bedroom Georgian town house.

Along with the pressing plant in Hayes in Middlesex, Abbey Road Studios closed the circle. EMI could develop artists, record them and then press their records. This was a powerful, integrated company that - along with its rival, Decca - dominated British music for at least 40 years.

Certainly, the list of talent that passed through the three studios is extraordinary. In the 1930s and 1940s, classical music took precedence, with Arthur Rubinstein and Beniamino Gigli.

On the jazz side, Fats Waller visited, as did Paul Robeson and Glenn Miller.

The 1950s saw a greater move into pop, with Max Bygraves and Ruby Murray. George Martin developed his comedy roster with Peter Sellers and Flanders and Swann. In the early 1960s, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Adam Faith and Helen Shapiro all became stars.

For a long time the conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent was the big figure at Abbey Road. In the mid-60s, his place was taken by the Beatles. Studio 2 figures large in their mythology.

As their fame grew, it became a refuge, a place to experiment and to keep control of their destiny.

This was where they auditioned, where they recorded almost all of their songs. This is where they did the Our World telecast (first live global television link) with All You Need Is Love - an over-dub session watched by an estimated 400 million people across five continents.

As the desks moved from four to eight and then 16 tracks, the Merseybeat groups were replaced by Deep Purple, Roy Harper and Pink Floyd - who recorded Dark Side Of The Moon, one of the best-selling albums ever, with 50 million sales - and rising.

Today Abbey Road Studios remains a totemic location for artists wanting a bit of classicism: hence the successful Live from Abbey Road television series, which airs in Britain. It also retains a well-trained technical staff, responsible for the successful upgrading of the entire Beatles' catalogue in 2009.

But the mainstream of groundbreaking music that once passed through its doors has gone elsewhere.

Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World is published by Bloomsbury on July 19.

- NZ Herald

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