What's really happening at Abbey Road

What's really happening at Abbey Road


norman lebrecht

February 17, 2010

There was a removals van outside Abbey Road studios this morning, but I think it was for the house next door. This is not an overnight sale, nor is it the first time the studios have been floated on the market

Sir Paul McCartney’s suggestion on BBC Newsnight that a ‘solution’ might be found does not necessarily means that Abbey Road will continue as a recording venue. Those days are gone, probably forever.

What Abbey Road could become is what London lacks – a museum of music in all its forms, a place to house the visual archives of Decca and EMI, the V&A’s unwanted instrument collection, an occasional live concert and a rotating exhibition of all that was weird and wonderful in the annals of the recording century.

Abbey Road is already a vibrant tourist magnet. With a modest admission charge, the site could pay its way under enlightened ownership.

Whatever its fate, the memories will remain – and mine are rich and varied. I can’t forget the fat soprano who broke a toilet seat during an Abbey Roand session (as it were) and blamed the offence on her weeping assistant. Or the famous early music conductor who kept coming into the control room to check that the producer and engineers were using the same ‘authentic’ score as he was – ‘he can’t hear the difference,’ giggled the recording team.

Or Yehudi Menuhin, who often seemed to be there on some business or other when I was around. He had been there in 1931 with Edward Elgar, recording his violin concerto, and with his teacher Georges Enesco doing the Bach double concerto, during the studio’s first year of operation. And he was there again on the 50th anniversary in 1981, recording the Bach double with a 12 year-old Chinese scholarship student at his school, a boy called Jin Li.  

The record came out and vanished, never to be reissued on CD. Jin Li went on to make a good career as concertmaster in Singapore and soloist with many of the Asian orchestras. I asked him a while back what he remembered of that jubilee session. Here’s what he wrote:

I was very young at that time and did not know how great the occasion was. Before that,I also did not know that Mr Menuhin and his teacher Enesco recorded the same concerto fifty years earlier in the same studio. It’s only after I had done it I realized how meaningful that was.
      I remember there were lots of people in the recording session (all London Symphony Orchestra players), that caused me to feel excited and quickly I became involved in the music. At that tender age,I neither felt nervous nor being pressured. At the end of the second movement,Mr Menuhin came up to me and said :”That was  beautiful”,I was so happy when I heard that,having the praise and approval of Mr Menuhin,for me it’s a incomparable honour.
      From a very young age,I was already not a talkative person,and only knew to practice the violin and express my feeling through music, did not think about things outside music. I remember Mr Menuhin changed some bowings in the third movement to bring out the clarity from the music.The recording is made in one go and form a coherent whole.
     Now that I have grown, and read some of Mr Menuhin’s books, I have discovered that the recording he did with me was an event of profound and lasting meaning,it came down in one continous culture line, can be traced to the same origin. I hope fifty years later,I can play the same piece again with my student.
I quote Jin Li’s letter at length because it signifies what needs to be preserved of Abbey Road – not the recording facilities, which have become obsolescent, but the performing space of Studio One and the continuity of transmission, the passing of a tradition from one generation to the next. That was Abbey Road’s great achievement.   


  • Tommy says:

    Norman, the recording facilities have in no way become ‘obsolescent’. You are only – and bizarrely – judging it on your own well-known perception of the classical music recording business. Abbey Road is mainly used – and continues to be busy with – the recording of pop/rock music and film scores, as well as mixing and mastering a huge array of different music recordings. The place is full of world-class talent as well as history.
    Losing the recording studios would be a disaster for the UK industry – and give overseas (particularly American) producers and artists even less reason to record here, leaving only one large recording facility for film scoring in London (and therefore the UK) at Air-Lyndhurst. EMI just wants to make some quick dosh from the sale – that doesn’t mean Abbey Road is a failed business.
    Encouraging Abbey Road to become a museum is VERY unhelpful.
    There’s a lot more out there than just classical music, Norman, and you know it. We have to stop cash-mean producers going to Eastern Europe. Keeping a world-class facility running is one way of doing it. How about a campaign to try and save the studios – for everyone that relies on it, like producers, engineers, composers, musicians, copyists, technicians and countless industry staff who trained there?
    NL replies: Tommy, Living in the neighbourhood I pass the studios twice a day and am in a good position to note the decline in business. This is not a recent phenomenon nor one totally connected to the decline of the music industry. George Martin led the Beatles out of there and off his Caribbean haunt four decades ago. The mixing facilities are available elsewhere, often cheaper and in greater privacy. Abbey Road has to upgrade its obsolescent equipment every couple of years and can no longer afford to do so.
    I’m always happy to cheerlead any campaign for saveable assets, as I have done repeatedly for London’s orchestras and opera houses. But Abbey Road is a failing business and its owners have the right to do with it as they please. I shall be sorry to see it go, and am keen to preserve its heritage. But, classics apart, do get real about the state of the broader music economy. Most film music is recorded and mixed, with state subsidies, in Munich and Prague. Abbey Road has been abandoned by many of its best customers.

  • Stu Kennedy says:

    As a composer; I think this description of Abbey Road as just an iconic British monument is grossly underestimating the effect this recording facility has in giving the UK a significant presence in the world movie industry!
    Many of the world’s greatest film composers have had their scores recorded there!
    Movies such as 5 of the Star Wars Films, The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, The Harry Potter films and many more big-budget world-famous movies were recorded there! This is not a ‘has-been’ studio, many movies are still using these facilities! Taking away this choice for movie post-production will have a devastating effect on the UK film industry, UK musicians, engineers and other services who benefit from Abbey Road being a major player here. The proposal to convert it to a museum for the sake of £30M is frankly absurd and ridiculously short-sighted! It’s time someone stood up to preserve Abbey Road for function rather than for sentimentality!

  • Tommy says:

    Sorry Norman, but I have to pick you up on a few things here:
    – I’m trying to figure out how passing the studios twice a day puts you ‘in a good position to note the decline in business’. That’s completely bizarre. Do you pop in every day and ask them? Do you look inside to see who’s using the studios? Since when did the number of vehicles outside somewhere determine the success of a business?!!I have been to AR many, many times to film/watch a full 100-piece orchestra recording – and you’d never know they were there from the outside.
    – If AR has what you call ‘obsolescent’ equipment, why do so many of the finest musicians and producers still use the place? It is wrong to suggest that people aren’t using AR any more. Talk to the Hollywood-based composers who use it constantly (John Debney was in Studio 1 for a week recording Iron Man 2 last week). It would seem odd for multi-million dollar productions to choose ‘obsolescent’ equipment, don’t you think?
    – You say that ‘most film music is recorded and mixed in Munich and Prague.’ This is simply not true (remember that place called Hollywood?). It’s true to say that a lot is recorded in eastern europe now – they offer far inferior results for much less money – but what evidence do you have for saying ‘MOST film music’ is recorded there? Who gives you these statistics?
    – It’s worth noting that the LSO recorded in Abbey Road 36 times in 2009, which is not insignificant. That was for film scores, commercial sessions and many classical recordings (many of which are paid for privately or by the soloists themselves).
    – You tell me to ‘get real’ about the state of the broader music economy. I just see what I see from actually working inside that industry, and whilst the industry – like many – has its problems, I simply don’t recognise many of the pictures you paint about it. I’m sure there are many others involved in this industry who would agree with me.
    NL replies: Tommy, I have some of the statistics you ask for and will produce them as and when. I sympathise with your need to defend what has been an important institution in the British music industry. But iAbbey Road is obviously not producing the yield that Terra Firma expect, which is why it is – visibly, statistically, financially, whichever way you care to shout the odds – for the chop. And there’s nothing you or I can do about it.
    So let’s be positive, Tommy, think alternatives and move on. The music isn’t going away. It will just find another home, or homes.

  • Haydn Bendall says:

    How on earth can you say the facilities are obsolescent? You are absolutely ill-informed to say that most film music is recorded abroad. The orchestras that are used abroad are used because they are cheaper; they are not nearly as good. You won’t find one professional composer, producer or engineer that will say they prefer the orchestras available in Prague or other Eastern Europe venues over our own London based fabulous musicians.
    As I’m a professional please tell me what facilities that are available elsewhere compare with those of Abbey Road. Abbey Road is in danger not because of obsolescence or lack of use but because an idiotic, greedy company needs to raise money quickly to keep afloat. The car park use is not indicative of how well the place is doing. I often record and mix there and people do use the tube and bus you know! I actually walk there. Abbey Road’s best customers are the ones that are there. The place hasn’t been abandoned by anybody apart from its present owners.

  • Martin Appleby says:

    I think your comments about obsolete equipment at Abbey Road misses the point entirely Norman, with all due respect; although I do wonder to what extent your argument puts you in the position of Devil’s Advocate. As you well know, the secret of great music of all genres, whether it be pop, classical, world music, jazz, or film soundtrack, is not equipment; it’s all about people. I suspect that most of your favourite records were made on such obsolescence.
    What we need is for our government to get real and see the worth of the arts. The music and associated film industry is responding to financial realpolitik by moving to Eastern Europe where it can tap into cheaper musicians and state subsidised facilities. If the film and music industries got the appropriate tax breaks they would soon return to London – if only because we speak the international language of entertainment and media.
    Abbey Road run well and subsidised appropriately will always attract the world’s greatest musicians, engineers and producers because of its history and its iconic reputation as a world-class recording space. It is true that today’s musicians can choose to record largely where they wish; and they do, as the digital revolution makes equipment smaller and more portable. But what you can never replicate – and this is lost on the money-men who simply look at this iconic building as a capital asset – is the space in which music is made and monitored. An engineer can make very nice recordings in a church with a tin roof, or in a clearing in the jungle, but walking into the studio spaces at Abbey Road is like walking onto the golfing greens at Royal St George’s, or the tennis courts at Wimbledon. It raises your game, and it marks you out as a small cog in a continuum of greats; in the context of Abbey Road those greats include Edward Elgar, Yehudi Menuhin, the LSO, Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney.
    I have to say I do agree with you that a museum with a world class working studio attached may well be a stunning asset to London, again with the appropriate management: and the asset strippers currently in charge at EMI have shown that they are far from appropriate. It has worked with iconic studios in the US, and it would certainly be a better option than losing it to a property developer. But I certainly don’t share your pessimism for the industry as a whole; it may not revolve around pieces of plastic any more, but enthusiasts – like you yourself of course, and indeed me – will always seek out great recordings, and great recordings will always demand inspired performers and great technicians working in great and historic spaces. ‘Recorded at Abbey Road’ will always be a greater draw for me than ‘recorded on Protools in my brother’s bedroom,’ or ‘recorded on an industrial estate in Prague’.
    What we have here is cause and effect. EMI, and the music industry as a whole, is not in crisis because interest in music is inherently any less relevant today than it was in the sixties and seventies. It’s in crisis because the cheapskates running today’s record business are trying to palm us off with second rate product for higher and higher prices. They encourage immature artists to make cheap digital recordings in inferior spaces in the belief that computerised post-production will allow them to cut costs and make it all sound marvellous, and then they expect us to download an MP4 of it – which may or may not work on our telephones – rather than selling us a solid piece of quality workmanship with exquisite artwork to put on a shelf and enjoy throughout our lives. And funnily enough the public have seen right through it. The future of music is as bright as we want to make it, and a grasp of music’s history and a belief in the quality of it as a product is ultimately the foundation on which we will build. Abbey Road represents that quality and its potential loss to the recording industry is little short of a tragedy.
    Once it’s gone it is lost for ever.

  • Tony Platt says:

    I must agree with those taking you to task on your comments Norman.
    The current situation was the inevitable result of the greed and stupidity of speculators who had no understanding or desire for understanding of the complexities of the music industry. Hopefully they will go off and bottom feed somewhere else but frankly it was never a matter of whether but more a matter of when Abbey Road would be put up for sale. However it is most definitely the case that out of the various components of EMI, Abbey Road Studios was probably the most viable alongside the Publishing division. The record company is what has dragged it down and Mr Hands had no idea at all how to confront this – he has (ironically) got his fingers burnt and deservedly so.
    I think that Abbey Road can be saved and continue as a valuable and viable studio facility but only if, importantly, any rescue package focuses on incorporating Abbey Road into a modern music industry. You see it is not the equipment that is obsolete or obsolescent – it is the way it has been managed for some time now – Terra Firma just made matters worse by increasing the fear factor amongst the highly talented staff.
    I think it is both possible and desirable that Abbey Road can be saved but please,please let it be done realistically and please not by Simon Cowell!

  • Dale Nixon says:

    The “owners” in this case are a leveraged buyout firm looking to sell everything, up to and including the kitchen sink and the toilet, to pay of the massive debt they assumed when they took control (notice how I managed to avoid the word “bought” which would imply they somehow paid for their purchase) of the EMI group. Which they managed to completely run into the ground in “record” time, even by music industry standards.
    As for the idea of a museum, it’s a wonderful concept, but given the current economic climate I’m sure the going rate of purchase will soon place the Abbey Road Hard Rock Casino or Abbey Road House of Blues pub at your disposal.

  • Peter says:

    “George Martin led the Beatles out of there and off his Caribbean haunt four decades ago.”
    The Beatles left Abbey Road of their own accord in 1969 when they decided to buld their own studio. When that studio wasn’t up to scratch yet they returned to EMI to record “Abbey Road,” the building subsequently being renamed as a result. They had also recorded in other studios in London, Olympic and Trident for two.
    McCartney continued to record in Abbey Road and many other studios over the years. There was no mass exodus when George Martin founded AIR studios. Indeed George Martin has returned there himself many times.

  • Jennifer Harris says:

    I find it near to impossible to believe, much less accept, that Abbey Road’s value is limited to the land on which it sits.
    I pray there are more out there who feel as I do….who see it as something more than a shelter for obsolete equipment and ghosts of sessions past.
    Where there is a will, there is a way…

  • Rianne says:

    definitely still a vibrant tourist spot that people want to see. I sure do one day or would like to get closer to it via TV media, what have you.
    cheers Rianne