“It was [also] used on the U2 sessions,” Holley concedes.
Holley begins to break down the various elements of the complex for me. Because the industry makes fewer classical records these days, Studio One has been repurposed for recording and mixing film soundtracks. Studio Two, where Zeppelin is supposedly hiding today, is the most requested room by rock bands, and it’s where the Beatles made nearly all their records. Studio Three, slightly smaller and the birthplace of most of Pink Floyd’s albums, is also occupied at the moment. The Penthouse Studio was built in 1980 and utilized by punk/new-wave bands like the Buzzcocks and the Cure. It’s now primarily used for digital mixing in films.
Another 17 rooms are dedicated to mixing and mastering records and digital remastering from analog sources. A video department was recently added — and Holley notes with pride that the very first commercially available DVD in the UK was made here at Abbey Road.
Beatles folklore has it that after particularly grueling marathon recording sessions, Abbey Road engineers often left and headed to a nearby pub to decompress. Holley says that’s no longer necessary, and he walks me down a flight of stairs to the in-house restaurant.
“We’ve pulled the pub to us!” he exclaims. “This is where people tend to decompress, a bit too much for my liking at times! Artists will come and have a drink, [and] orchestra players …
“It’s one of my favorite rooms,” he adds. “You see all sorts of people in the same place whom you don’t see together [normally].”
Holley remembers one particular day at the studio when the unlikeliest group of clients was wandering in and out of the cafeteria: British rock band Starsailor, teenybopper boy band McFly, Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, and operatic tenor Plácido Domingo. “That was one of the most bizarre days,” he recalls.
Technology has advanced so much, though, that it’s now common for musicians to never leave their house to create a high-quality recording. So, then, why is a studio still necessary?
“There are different ways you can make things,” Holley explains. “If you want a performance-based record, then you need a space that sounds good, [and] we’ve got a few of those.
“I actually think, whatever business you’re in, that it’s that walking-down-a-corridor moment — where you work with someone,” he emphasizes. “Something comes out of a cup of coffee around a machine. When you work together, two brains are more than twice the value of one brain. I think coming together to work in a community, and coming to a place where there are traditions of working together, with people who are used to doing that, I think you get far more than just working on your own.”
During World War II, the studio remained open for BBC radio broadcasts and hosted wartime entertainers like Gracie Fields and George Formby. In 1944, Glenn Miller made several recordings with Dinah Shore, which ended up being his last-ever sessions: He died in an accident a few weeks later.
It’s also worth noting that Richard’s first hit came from Abbey Road — especially considering that the studio wasn’t exactly a rock-and-roll environment. At the time, it was among the most strict and buttoned-down of all the London studios, with a precise apprenticeship structure and a rigid dress code. Balance engineers wore white shirts and neckties and sat in the control room. The maintenance engineers wore white lab coats and were the only ones allowed to set up microphones and other equipment. The “brown coats” were janitorial staff. Plus, because of a strong musicians’ union, normal recording hours were fixed: 10 a.m. to one p.m., lunch break, 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., and then seven to 10 p.m. Musicians would enter the studio on time, engineers would quickly set up the equipment, and within 10 minutes the session had started.
By the early 1960s, Abbey Road was regularly producing hit records for everyone from Shirley Bassey to Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Manfred Mann, and the Hollies, including Cilla Black’s version of “Alfie” with Burt Bacharach. The Beatles made their first record, “Love Me Do,” at the studio in 1962, and for the next seven years, they would make nearly all their records at Abbey Road.
The studio changed forever in 1966, though, when the Beatles vowed to stop touring live because the screaming fans kept drowning out their instruments onstage. The band planned to make only records, with the idea they would tour an album rather than tour live.