Beatles' not the only footprints on Abbey Road

Email|Print| Text size + By Nick Walker
Globe Corresondent / February 20, 2005

It's wonderful to be here, It's certainly a thrill'"Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"1967

LONDON -- The Abbey Road Studios, made famous by the Beatles, is making history again by opening to the public for the first time. It may have been 35 years since the release of the seminal "Abbey Road" album, but the occasion being celebrated next month is actually the 25th anniversary of Abbey Road's first film-scoring endeavor, "Raiders of the Lost Ark." After composer John Williams netted a Grammy and an Oscar nomination for the theme to Steven Spielberg's retro-flavored epic, the studios went on to become a premier recording venue for movie-scoring for productions from both sides of the Atlantic.

A quarter century of movie work here is being marked by a two-week film season, with the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" kicking off the proceedings. Over following days, some of the most famous pictures ever made -- all scored here -- will be shown in Studio One, including of course "Raiders," as well as "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and "The Last Emperor."

Inevitably, many ticket holders will be Beatles fans taking advantage of an unprecedented opportunity to enter the recording-studio complex itself. Who can blame them? Abbey Road Studios, unlike Memphis, Tennessee's similarly famous Sun Studio, has always kept its doors shut. According to a spokesman, "Abbey Road's focus has always been fully on professional recording activities. London has no shortage of other tourist sights. The film season will open the doors briefly. Then it's back to business as usual."

However, the studios' best-known aspect is always open to the public -- the "zebra crossing" (owned by the City of Westminster) that lies just outside, and which is featured on one of the most famous album covers of all time. Rain or shine, tourists and fans are always there, camera-toting pilgrims (provincial Britons, Americans, Germans, and Japanese generally predominating). According to one of the city's "Beatles' London" tour guides, as many as 180,000 such visitors come here yearly, some from as far as Brazil and New Zealand.

The crossing draws all sorts. Tour groups. Solo researchers and assorted nowhere men, clutching Nikons and notebooks. Day-trippers and paperback writers paying homage. Nostalgia-tripping baby boomers. Twentysomethings who first heard the Fab Four on CD, and are pretty sure the Beatles were Paul McCartney's band before Wings. Countless fans have made their way to this locale, and countless more will follow, all with the same goal: to be photographed crossing the road, in the footsteps of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

The "Abbey Road" album is reckoned by many Beatles fans to be the group's best. It is certainly their most technologically accomplished, and contains such gems as John Lennon's "Come Together" and George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something." Even drummer Ringo Starr's contribution, "Octopus's Garden," is one of the album's most memorable tunes.

As a curious historical footnote, the Beatles originally had intended the album to be called "Everest," inspired by one of their recording engineer's Everest brand cigarettes, but plans for a photo shoot in the Himalayas were aborted when Lennon lost interest.

Since the Beatles, Abbey Road Studios has hosted recording sessions for the likes of Coldplay, Depeche Mode, Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Queen, Radiohead, and Wings. In addition, the studios are a venue of global renown for classical music recordings.

Number 3 Abbey Road is in North London's posh St John's Wood. The area has a leafy suburban feel, with elegant low-rise Georgian, Victorian, and 1930s architecture. Red double-decker buses, black Hackney cabs, and expensive cars clog the streets. A couple of churches serve the community's faithful, and a few traditional-style pubs have places here, too, filled nightly with well-heeled locals quaffing Fuller's London Pride and other foamy British ales.

The anonymity of the place suits its many celebrity residents, who include among their number supermodel Kate Moss, actor Ewan McGregor, and -- would you believe -- an actual Beatle. Paul McCartney sensibly bought a house at Number 7 Cavendish Place in the 1960s, a short walk from the studios.

Many believe the Abbey Road Studios story began with the Beatles, but in fact it started about three decades earlier. The record label EMI bought the huge house at Number 3 in 1929 and created three studios of varying sizes within its walls to accommodate various acoustic requirements.

The studios opened in stately fashion on Nov. 12, 1931, with Sir Edward Elgar, by then one of Britain's most distinguished composers, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a historic recording of "Land of Hope and Glory.". Many other eminent classical composers and musicians followed. In the 1930s and '40s, the studios also drew artists from across the Atlantic, including silver-screen legend Fred Astaire, who recorded here in 1933, and Duke Ellington, who cut his final recording here.

World War II and Hitler's high-altitude bombers naturally curtailed proceedings. But in the 1950s, the studios became a hive of activity again. In September 1962, the Beatles began recording here, and over the next seven years almost everything they ever released had been put on tape (reel-to-reel in those days) in the studios.

A key moment in Beatles history came in June 1967 when the group performed "All You Need Is Love" in front of an audience of an estimated 350 million viewers. The one-song set was beamed out to the world from Abbey Road's Studio One by satellite as part of a global TV special.

In April 1969, after months of internal acrimony, the Beatles reconvened to record their final album as a group. After "Abbey Road" was released, an era ended. But what a way to go.

In the 1970s, several Abbey Road bands came close to matching some of the Beatles' achievements, notably Pink Floyd ("Dark Side of the Moon," 35 million sales to date, was recorded here) and Queen, but none would enjoy the influence, and popular and critical acclaim, of the four lads from Liverpool.

In the 1980s, Abbey Road Studios moved into the world of movie-scoring, an increasingly lucrative field in the wake of blockbusters like "Star Wars" (1977) and "Superman" (1978). The first production to be scored was "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Other productions followed, including "Brazil," "A Room With a View," and "The Last Emperor."

Today, Abbey Road Studios is as busy as ever, with all three studios inevitably fully booked for months to come. Just as inevitably, a bunch of tourists will be hovering around the crossing outside on any day of the year. They've been coming for 35 years. All they need is love -- and an iconic album cover.

Nick Walker is a freelance writer in London.

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