Having just celebrated its 75th anniversary, Abbey Road is the world’s oldest — and most famous — recording studio. And while it never closes, it’s rarely open to the public. So let us take you inside.
• Photographs by Anna Schori
STUDIO ONE AT London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios is reminiscent of an enormous airplane hangar. My first thought as I step inside is of the old TV broadcast of the Beatles in this room, singing “All You Need Is Love.” In this same space, composer Sir Edward Elgar christened the studio’s opening in 1931 by conducting an orchestral version of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
Standing in the room is a moment to be savored, as you think of all that it has seen and heard over the years — from Elgar, with his tuxedo and mustache, conducting the melody played at every graduation ceremony, to a roomful of hippies in paisley singing about love. Or, more recently, Kanye West, Iron Maiden, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and soundtrack recordings for the Star Wars and Harry Potter films. If these walls could talk, the stories they would tell.
This is the world’s most famous recording studio, and it sits tucked away in a nondescript mansion in north London’s posh St. John’s Wood neighborhood. Most everyone recognizes the name through the Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road, which has the iconic cover photo of the band strolling across the road’s crosswalk.
Beatles trivia runs deep here. Geeks already know that the album was renamed Abbey Road at the last minute (the original title was Everest), that the photo shoot took just 10 minutes, and that Paul McCartney was supposed to be dead because he was depicted in bare feet (that’s only one of many “clues” on the cover). If a fan makes the pilgrimage to the studio, it’s pretty much required that he or she scrawl some Beatles lyrics on the wall in front of the building.
In the Abbey Road timeline, though, Beatles mythology makes up only a small portion. It has a long tradition of recording all types of music, comedy, and theater. The original name, EMI Studios, was officially changed to Abbey Road only after the Beatles’ album became so popular.
The facility remains open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It doesn’t need to advertise, and it’s not open to the public. Just a few months ago, the studio celebrated 75 years of business. This month, the Sundance Channel is debuting a new music television show, Live from Abbey Road, taped on the premises. And because of this upcoming show, David Holley, the studio’s managing director, and Michael Gleason, the show’s producer, have graciously agreed to give me a short tour, a rarity for the studio.
I mention to Holley that I’d heard that U2 had recently recorded here. “It’s a policy of the studio going back 75 years that we never tell people who’s here,” he answers with a smile. “Because you end up with funny people standing outside trying to get in. We’re doing four films [right now] — no rock and roll today.”
There is a rumor, however, that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin are in fact here, in another studio, behind the red light. They could just be sipping tea and flipping through magazines, but it doesn’t matter. I’m in the same building with the band I used to play air guitar to in high school.
Holley opens a door and shows me Studio One’s futuristic, glass-walled control room, bristling with knobs and switches and lights — and the staple of every studio, a black leather sofa. This is where engineers mix sound for, say, the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings.