According to the memoir of Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, one of the highlights was a recording session in Studio One for the Sgt. Pepper album song “A Day in the Life.” With the basic song finished, it still needed some strings to fill in a 24-bar portion — one long, loud ascending chord. The Beatles commissioned a 40-piece orchestra to come in, and, as an afterthought, they decided to make the session into a “happening.”
As the orchestra members arrived, in their evening tuxedos, they were handed either a funny hat, a clown nose, or gorilla paws. Wine was flowing, and celebrities like Donovan and the Rolling Stones were hanging about. Emerick recalled studio managers Robert E. Beckett and Edward H. Fowler, two proper men in their 60s, standing at the rear of the room in pinstripe suits and starched white shirts, watching classically trained musicians attempt to play their parts while surrounded by balloons and drunken hippies — and sadly shaking their heads. Emerick thought to himself, This really is a passing of the torch.
Another milestone for Abbey Road was the 1973 Pink Floyd concept album Dark Side of the Moon. At the time, the band was at a crossroads. They were moderately successful, but their singular brand of hippie experimental psychedelia was old news. Their new album needed to change course, or they were finished.
Taking a cue from the Beatles, Pink Floyd pushed the studio’s boundaries to the limit, raiding the Abbey Road sound-effects library and splicing tape loops around the control room. They programmed keyboard sequences and experimented with ambient sounds of chiming clocks, clanging coins, and cash registers. No rock record had ever sounded like that before.
The album took seven months to complete. In the final days, chief songwriter Roger Waters decided to layer some human speaking voices in and out of the record, to give it some texture. He gathered a handful of people hanging around the building to ask them questions about topics like death and insanity. Among the group were Pink Floyd roadies, Abbey Road staff members, and Paul McCartney, who happened to be recording with his band Wings.
An older, “brown coat” Irish gentleman named Gerry O’Driscoll, an Abbey Road doorman at the time, proved to be one of the session’s stars. His voice was immortalized on the record: “I’ve always been mad. I know I’ve been mad like most of us have. Very hard to explain why you were mad, even if you’re not mad.”
Since its release, Dark Side has been on the charts for more than 28 years, spending an incredible 591 consecutive weeks on the Billboard 200 — a feat equaled by no other record in history. It’s estimated that one in every 14 Americans under the age of 50 has owned a copy of this album.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Abbey Road branched out into the recording of film scores while keeping a hand in the emerging Britpop scene. Bands such as Radiohead, Gomez, Blur, and Manic Street Preachers all used the studio. When the Spice Girls held sessions in Studio Three, fans and media from all over the world camped outside Abbey Road’s entrance. And the Beatles’ legacy came full circle in late 2006, when Sir George Martin and his son Giles raided the group’s Abbey Road archives to create the revolutionary mash-up album Love.
Outside David Holley’s office window, tourists are taking photos of one another on the famous crosswalk. Holley and Michael Gleason sip cups of tea as they explain the origins of their new TV show, Live from Abbey Road. With the cancellation of the UK’s long-running Top of the Pops, and with MTV rarely airing music videos, there’s not much actual music television anymore. This show is designed to fill the void.
Other than the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” broadcast and a few other programs over the years, Abbey Road has rarely opened its doors to a television or film crew. This upcoming series will be revolutionary for a few reasons.
Each segment features three artists performing live in Abbey Road. There is no live audience and no host or presenter. The focus is solely on the music. Performers range from Dr. John and Wynton Marsalis to Norah Jones, Snow Patrol, Gnarls Barkley, Muse, the Kooks, and Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice.
“You get an actual raw performance,” says show producer Gleason, a Texas-born investor and a former director of MGM Studios. “You feel like they’re performing for you. The building is the host of the show. Dave Matthews came in — he loved being in that room. Jay Kay from Jamiroquai, he just went on and on about how he loved the vibe of the room. Because it’s a cool place. There are other recording studios around, but the magic is here. It’s just got that special sense.”
“In the studio, you see the masks slip a little bit,” adds Holley. “You get to see them relaxed; you get to see them playing rather than performing. You get to see a little closer. Simplicity really works. Because you’ve got time to really let it breathe and to enjoy it.”
The show’s segments are beautifully shot in high-definition video with several cameras, and some pieces are reminiscent of photo essays, with close-ups on a drum hi-hat, or fingers on a keyboard. It’s almost as if the show is set up to prove a point — that songs don’t have to be created to climb the charts or to sell sneakers. Music should be appreciated for what it is. Live from Abbey Road is for the purists, an MTV Unplugged that has grown up.
“Each of the artists performs in different ways,” says Holley. “It’s lit differently, shot differently. Massive Attack looks iconic, almost like something from the Newport Jazz Festival in the ’60s. Then you’ve got the Killers, which is much more intimate. You’ve got Corinne Bailey Rae; she’s like a ’40s movie star. It’s so interesting. It doesn’t feel like the same show each month.”
Holley later reflects, “Seventy-five years ago, you literally went to the one microphone, and you stood exactly where you were told — the artist was very much secondary to the technical engineers. You performed when we told you to. Now, it’s all twisted the other way — and anybody can make anything.”
The very nature of the music industry has changed the way Abbey Road does business. More people are creating music, and more people are consuming it in a variety of ways — from iPods to ringtones and interactive websites.
“[Today] the process is speeding up,” Holley continues. “People are like magpies; they take what they need — digital, analog, locations, working at home, using different people for different tracks, and then using different people to mix different tracks. I think the palette is wider. What we’re trying to [do] is offer a place where people can come together to try things.”
Gleason points over to a beat-up Steinway upright piano and gestures for Holley to show it to me.
“Oh, yes,” exclaims Holley. “This is the piano that ‘Lady Madonna’ was played on.”