Most folks know Abbey Road as the title of a Beatles LP. Fans of the band know it as the magic laboratory where the group cooked up their innovative and durable tunes.
But as Paul McCartney notes in his introduction to David Hepworth's detailed history of EMI's famed recording studio, "Long before and long after the Beatles, some of the best music in the world was born in those rooms and they are still carrying on as one of the best studios in the world."
Hepworth charts those days before, after, and during the Beatles time at Abbey Road from day one, which fell on Nov. 12, 1931. This was the day EMI hosted the inaugural recording session in the new facility it had created in a former mansion in the St. John's Wood neighborhood of London. Composer/conductor Sir Edward Elgar was set to pick up his baton and lead the London Symphony Orchestra through his "Falstaff Suite."
A news release issued to publicize the occasion bragged that the new studio was built to host up to 1,000 musicians and vocalists and was "the largest and most scientific" recording facility in the world. Not that there was much competition at the time. Rooms build especially for making records were relatively rare at that time, but in a move that would remain a characteristic through the company's history, EMI was determined to create the best one, and keep it at the top.
In addition to the big room, Studio 1, which was built to accommodate large orchestras, the facilities at Abbey Road also included the smaller Studio 2, meant for dance bands and popular music (and where the Beatles did most of their work), and Studio 3, the smallest, which was intended for use by classical solo vocalists and small ensembles, such as string quartets.
With wit and style, Hepworth takes us from that initial recording by Elgar and his orchestra up through the post-war and pre-Beatles pop era, through the glory days of the Sixties and the album-oriented 1970s, and into more challenging times for Abbey Road, when the facility fell out of favor with acts interested in hipper spaces, or in recording in studios (and later on computers) in their own homes. The later chapters detail the studios' revival, thanks largely to updates that made it the premier spot for recording movie soundtracks, including those for the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Star Wars" movies.
Along the way, we learn about the dozens of famous names who recorded at Abbey Road before the Beatles arrived — including Paul Robeson, cellist Pablo Casals, Peter Sellers (in comedy sessions produced by George Martin) and Cliff Richard and the Shadows —and after the Fabs group, such as Pink Floyd (who made Dark Side of the Moon there), Kate Bush, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Lady Gaga and Adele.
And while this book is an "official" history of the studios sanctioned by EMI, Hepworth doesn't hesitate to level criticism and poke fun at the company's conservatism and corporate mindset. Time after time, when other studios and recording engineers innovated new equipment and techniques, such as bringing up the electric bass in the mix or using 8- or 24-track recording desks, EMI held back, preferring to carefully test out new techniques for fear of damaging their equipment, or in order to create their own advanced mixing desks rather than buy one from an outside manufacturer. This was the sort of thing that drove Beatles crazy and many times it took their pushing to make EMI and its engineers relent and try new things.
I think Beatles fans will enjoy the greater context this book provides and likely will enjoy checking out some of the other music recorded in this legendary and still-active studio. A good place to start is the playlist Hepworth helpfully included in the back.