Wednesday, February 9, 2011

4 Abbey Road Vignettes

   3 Abbey Road, London NW8

I.                    Artur Schnabel, the world famous pianist, was almost a resident at Abbey Road during the 30s when he recorded all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and five concertos.  But it was apparent when he first walked into the studio to find the orchestra set up and his piano in place that his stay was not to be a happy one.  He paced around the studio, stopping in the middle of the room and declaring,  ‘I play here’.  Hastily his piano was moved and work began.  But still the recording did not go smoothly and on one occasion 29 waxes were required for a single record because Schnabel continually slammed down his piano lid or kicked his stool and muttered, ‘Impossible, impossible’, as things went from bad to worse.  Recording the 15 volumes, made up of 100 records, took more than a decade to complete.

It was the classical artists who dominated Abbey Road during those early years and fortunately all of them were not as difficult as Schnabel.  Pablo Casals, the world famous cellist, had a much calmer approach.  During the recording of a Brahms concerto the D string on his cello snapped and he calmly tied it together with a sailor’s knot and continued playing.  Fritz Kreisler took no chances when he recorded with his violin in Abbey Road.  He changed into carpet slippers (to avoid any inadvertent squeak from his shoes) when he arrived at the studio which was always a good hour or so before anyone else.  Armed with a small meter for reading the humidity of the studio, he would decide which violin to use – his Stradivarius or the Guarnerius.  Once decided, he would toss the other violin away casually and it would be left lying about in a corner during the recording.

Fritz Kreisler

II.                  One unique piece of equipment which was used at Abbey Road throughout the 30s was a huge Compton organ, installed in Studio 1 in order that the popular cinema and theater organ recitals, which were a feature of the day, could be recorded more precisely and more comfortably.  Reginald Dixon, who recently celebrated 50 years of recording and announced his retirement due to ill health, remembers the great Abbey Road organ.  ‘I was a corporal in the RAF when I first went there and recorded on this huge instrument.  I remember that when we finished a session I would often stay on and play until the early hours of the morning, fortified only by a bottle or two of Bass beer.  To be totally honest, though I never said anything at the time, I never really liked the Compton, but because of the problems recording in cinemas, theaters or even at Blackpool, I had no choice but to use it.

Fats Waller at the Compton organ, Abbey Road Studios

A visitor from America who used to play the Compton organ regularly, but again always after hours, was Fats Waller.  In 1938 he recorded an album called Fats Waller in London and, as an admirer of pipe organs, he couldn’t resist the temptation to play around in the wee small hours.  With the aid of a bottle of whisky, Waller put the staid old instrument through its paces and extracted sounds which had never been heard before.

Bruce Welch (l), Hank B. Marvin (r) -- Shadows

III.                Bruce Welch, along with the Shadows and Cliff Richard, had become, however, a firm fan of Studio 2 by this time.  ‘It was the pop studio – Move It was done there and so was Apache and then the Beatles went in there.  Before Cliff and ourselves went there and began making hits nobody  had really established the studio but by the time we’d finished, along with Helen Shapiro and Frank Ifield, then everybody wanted to move in.  It’s strange to hear people talking about the studio as the place where the Beatles recorded all their hits because before that they used to say, ‘This is the place where Cliff and the Shadows recorded all their hit records’.

Cliff Richard and The Shadows  (left to right: Bruce Welch, Cliff Richard, Hank B. Marvin, Jet Harris, Tony Meehan)

With four years experience in the business, Bruce was interested to see the latest pop phenomenon  which had taken the country by storm.  ‘I remember the Beatles coming in and as the “old pros” we went to get to know them.  It was obvious they were going to be enormous; their talent was obvious.  They not only wrote great songs but they had that Liverpool front – a lot of confidence and four very distinct personalities.  What they wrote and recorded in there was totally fresh and was like a bombshell to everybody that heard it, including us.  Then they began calling the tune in the studio as they became more and more successful, they changed everything and ended up virtually running the studio. We used to get calls asking us to move out of number 2 studio because the Beatles wanted it but we never moved, we just carried on until we’d finished.

John Lennon, Abbey Road, 1964

IV.                During the hectic days of the early 60s, life for the Beatles become one round of live dates, press and radio interviews, television appearances and recording sessions, the latter taking place in Abbey Road where the most famous group in the history of pop music began to seek some respite from the pressures of the outside world.

The Beatles, Abbey Road, 1964

‘I think to some degree it was a refuge for us,’ explains Paul, ‘but to be honest it was the place where we recorded; we had to come here anyway whether it was a refuge or not.  It was a nice place to come to; the reason wasn’t that it was such a great place to be in that we stayed here through the night, it was actually just the workers taking over the tools of their trade.   All that kind of thing was being mooted anyway, and we would be working on a thing quite late and we would kinda say, “What time can we go on to tonight?” and we eventually started to sort of stretch it, you know?’

 Studio 2

The Beatles’ ability to work long hours undisturbed is a legend in Abbey Road.  Endless cups of tea, fish and chips, and Chinese takeaways were ordered as they worked night and day to finish the records that brought them more and more success, increased pressures, and ultimately, greater control of their destiny.

From:  Brian Southall, Abbey Road:  The Story of the world’s most famous recording studios, Wellingborough (UK), Patrick Stephens, 1982

November 12, 1931:  Opening of EMI Studios, Abbey Road by Sir Edward Elgar (Press link to play Pomp and Circumstance)

The Beatles with George Martin, Studio 2

Cliff Richard and The Shadows, Studio 2, with producer Norrie Paramor (Click on photo to enlarge).

Reginald Dixon playing the Blackpool Tower organ (early 1930s) (press link to play)

George Martin (l) recording Peter Sellers (r)(Press link to play: Balham - Gateway to the South)


  1. Very cool indeed.

    I wish someone would make a 20-hour documentary about the Beatles recordings. The Beatles Anthology (why is it called that?) film, great as it is, does not devote nearly enough time to the recording studio.

    Paul and Ringo and George Martin listening to the recordings and talking, that's what I want.

  2. When I was at CBS/FOX, we bid on the Beatles Anthology film project, mainly because our president was a big fan and he got to go to London and hang out with Neil Aspinall at Apple, see the "Beatles' London" (to the extent possible), etc. We and every other bidder were simply stalking horses to get EMI/Capitol to sweeten the deal for Apple. He had a ball and I got to draft pointless deal memos with romantic (to me and a lot of other people) sounding names and song titles in them. Brian Southall’s book, which I don't think was ever widely commercially available, was a gift from the author, who was Caroline's publicity colleague then at EMI-UK. He did a splendid job and the pictures are fabulous. The book was commissioned to celebrate the studio's 50th anniversary, which was celebrated grandly. (There was still a booming record business in those days and the CD era was aborning.) I'm interested also in Bruce Welch's remarks and the whole idea (to the extent one can imagine it) of a "non-Beatles Abbey Road" focusing on some of the studio’s other signature acts, e.g., Cliff and The Shadows, The Hollies, Pink Floyd , etc. The book allows you to imagine that too. That being said, Kevin Ayers, who recorded some of his best records there, said that he liked the place a lot, in large part because of the Beatles' presence and aura. But he would have felt very strongly about The Shadows also. And Peter Sellers, if he were still coming around. Curtis

  3. Roddy: I've taken the time to add a few more enjoyable links to the post. Curtis

  4. Great Blog and wonderful Abbey Rd post Curtis.

    The shot of John sitting on his Vox AC50 playing his 58' Ric 325 was taken at the Deauville Hotel in Miami on Friday 14 February 1964 during a series of rehearsals for The Beatles' second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on the following Sunday.

  5. Thanks. Your note lifted my spirits late on a very wearying Friday. I'm glad you liked this. Thank you for identifying the John shot, which is indeed a great one. Please visit again. I try to vary things to keep it interesting. Regards, Curtis