Driving down Abbey Road one sunny morning last June we came up to the famous zebra crossing outside of the Abbey Road recording studios. As ever there were crowds of tourists crossing back and forth so that they could have their pictures taken on the very crossing that the Beatles used to illustrate their Abbey Road album cover. What amazed me was that they were shepherded across the road by Disney tour-guides. To think that this humble black and white painted section of Abbey Road has become a destination for the mighty Disney Corporation! What many people don’t know is that this isn’t the original crossing point trodden by the feet of the immortal Beatles. Its position was moved by the council as a traffic management measure over 30 years ago and nothing of the original remains.
Back in 1963 just before Beatlemainia took off I arrived at 3 Abbey Road, a Georgian town house which, since it was purchased by EMI in 1931, was the facade behind which had been built what became the largest and most famous recording studio in the world.
I was completing a five year apprenticeship with EMI Electronics when I was offered the opportunity to work at EMI’s studios, and so I arrived as a very, very junior engineer not knowing quite what to expect.
The first surprise was the Tardis effect of Abbey Road Studios. When stepping through the doors the interior was a far greater space than I expected, housing studios, control rooms, master cutting rooms and all the necessary facilities used for recording in the pre-digital age. In those days recordings were originated on tape and then the master discs were produced in the cutting rooms at the studios, before being sent to EMI’s factories in Hayes where the records were ultimately pressed.
In those days EMI was the largest recording organisation in the world with labels including HMV, Columbia, Parlophone along with Capitol and Mercury in the USA. The recording studios were then perhaps best known as the place where the greatest classical musicians of their era recorded. Amongst whom were Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Thomas Beecham, Otto Klemperer, Yehudi Menuhin, Jaqueline Du Pres, and Igor Stravinsky.
I was part of a small team of engineers at Abbey Rd responsible for maintaining the recording studios and all the associated equipment and also working on location. I only managed to get to a theatre in the West-end, whereas my more senior colleagues travelled to locations all over Europe.
It was during a recording of the opera ‘The Rakes Progress’ overseen by its composer Igor Stravinsky that I had what was my greatest classical music moment. The recording took place in Studio 1, largest of the recording studios. It is a huge space easily able to contain the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and all of the opera chorus and performers. I was standing at the back of the control room feeling very conspicuous in the regulation white coat that EMI maintenance engineers had to wear at the time (the porters and cleaners had to wear brown coats – how times have changed). I’m not sure I should have been there, having completed my duties. Robert Kraft, Stravinsky’s assistant, beckoned me over and quietly asked me to show Mr Stravinsky to the toilet and to return with him to the control room adding that he wasn’t very well. I noticed enroute to the loo that the great man took one or two swigs from a hip flask. I learned later that it was his favourite Scotch Whisky. A moment to savour, for both of us!
Studio 2 was used for popular music and comedy act recording. Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Adam Faith, Helen Shapiro, the Goons and the like. Soon this studio was to be raised to iconic status by the arrival of the Beatles.
The Beatles and their almost equally famous manager Brian Epstein had arrived in London in search of a recording contract, only to be famously turned down by Decca Records. They were then signed up by George Martin, who had recently taken the helm of the Parlophone label.
I recall being present in Studio 2 for the recording of ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ which took place in October 1963 and ultimately reached No.1 in the hit parade. Similarly I remember the recording of ‘She Loves You’ ( ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ if you remember). This took place in July 1963 and reached No1 on both the UK and US charts. It was in September 1963 during a recording session for the album ‘With the Beatles’ that the picture of the Beatles surrounding their sound balance engineer Norman Smith with my young self resplendent in white coat looking on was taken.
These recording sessions were supervised by George Martin and usually with Brian Epstein a smartly dressed quietly spoken presence. Also present on occasions was the Beatles music publisher Dick James. He achieved earlier fame singing the theme tune for the television series Robin Hood. Jane Asher then Paul McCartney’s girlfriend also made an occasional appearance.
I think it was whilst the recording one of the tracks for the album ‘A Hard Days Night’ in February 1964 that my Mum asked me to get a birthday card signed by the Beatles for my young cousin who was a great Beatles fan.
My mum had bought a card which had a cartoon illustration of the Beatles titled the ‘Mop Heads’ on the front. My cousin of course kept the card and recently we both went to Bonhams Art Auctioneers to get it valued. The valuation was £3,000. Not bad for a birthday card.
EMI no longer exists as an independent giant in the world of electronics and music; but Abbey Rd Studios are still there, recording music and being visited by tourists from all over the world.
I left the studios in August 1964 to follow my ambition of joining the BBC, which thanks to my experience and training with EMI I was able to achieve.