On 30th May 2022, I walked up the fabled steps of Abbey Road Studios, guitar in hand, heart in mouth. I was there to record with my band, The Stylus Method, for our second album, The Imaginary Costume Party. Anyone who has made the pilgrimage to St. John’s Wood will be familiar with the magic feeling the place conjures, despite its understated external appearance and sleepy surroundings. Entering the rabbit-warren of connecting corridors, stairways and secret passages adorned with the faces of musical and cinematic greats, I felt honoured to be contributing to the rich seam of sound recorded here. I hoped to mine some of those jewels during my own musical journey there.
Mary McCartney’s new documentary If These Walls Could Sing, celebrating the 90th anniversary of Abbey Road Studios, re-creates that feeling in its opening sequence. As narrator, she even makes the same point: ‘every time I walk through these corridors it feels magical’. Some flashing glimpses of a young George Harrison with his 12-string Rickenbacker and Wings-era Paul and Linda standing on Studio 2’s parquet floor help to set the scene for what follows.
90 minutes for 90 years is barely enough time to scratch the surface and it must have been a difficult task to narrow down the shortlist of contributors. However, the stories and interviews selected are rather hard to argue with. The film begins in 1931 with the black and white genesis of Abbey Road, its inaugural recording/performance of Sir Edward Elgar conducting a live orchestra through his ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, cut straight to a 78rpm disc. McCartney then traces the transition from classical to pop and back again. Cliff & The Shadows, Cilla Black, Gerry Marsden, Pink Floyd, Fela Kuti, Nile Rodgers, Kate Bush, Oasis and Celeste are bookended by performances of Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85′ by Jacqueline du Pré in 1967 and Sheku Kanneh-Mason in 2022, demonstrating the expanse of genres to flourish at Abbey Road, still the place to be to record the world’s greatest music.
Sir Elton John and Jimmy Page recall their days as young session players. The reverence with which they talk of Abbey Road and the musicians with whom they worked in those days is genuinely humbling and shows the power of music in bringing together and inspiring a community of like-minded creatives.
Perhaps the most interesting section of the film is the studios’ survival story, through the drought of bookings in the late 1970s & early 1980s when Studio 1 was relegated to a staff badminton court (and nearly converted into a car park) before being rescued by the tireless work of its staff and a renaissance in film music. Legendary composer John Williams of Star Wars fame provides some delightful insights, including his memories of the studio canteen (which I can confirm from experience serves extremely good roast potatoes). Rather perfectly, the London premiere of If These Walls Could Sing was the first ever to be hosted in Studio 1.
While the coverage of the Fabs’ time at Abbey Road is substantial, the film’s focus is not on the Beatles themselves or their music; it’s on the people at Abbey Road who made it happen (and continue to reinvent it) or, as Paul describes them, the ‘really cool boffins’. From the great George Martin – Ringo putting it eloquently, that ‘George was incredible and we were buskers’ – the tireless work of Ken Townsend, starting out as a trainee engineer in 1950 to retiring as studio chairman in 1995, faithful veteran technician Lester Smith and insights from current studio manager Colette Barber, the commitment to Abbey Road transcends simply what these people do for work; it is love.
It’s always spine-tingling to hear the surviving Beatles talk about ‘The Beatles’ and there’s plenty of that to enjoy. Paul seems genuinely excited to be there, in Studio 2, giving us a rollicking rendition of ‘Lady Madonna’ on the Mrs Mills piano and proclaiming the essence of what Abbey Road meant to the 1960s cultural revolution: ‘here you were in London, which was on fire’.
There are also some choice quotes (and drumming) from Ringo, who is looking fabulous, revealing his favourite song is ‘Yer Blues’. On Paul, he says, ‘if it hadn’t’ve been for him we’d have made like three albums’ and, on The Beatles, ‘it worked out pretty well for us’. You could say that Ringo.
The film includes archive clips we’ve all seen before, like the December 1966 interviews of the newly moustachioed Fabs arriving to work on the Sgt. Pepper sessions or the discussion of John’s ethereal vocal in ‘A Day In The Life’ (from the Anthology series). However, the words from Giles Martin are rather touching, picking up where his dad left off in similar no-nonsense terms that ‘it’s the four of them in a room making a sound together’ which is, perhaps, the most valuable asset of any great recording studio: a space in which people can create music together.
What Mary McCartney does with this film is to illustrate the cultural (or countercultural) significance of Abbey Road. A contemporaneous poetic critique of Sgt. Pepper from Allen Ginsberg gives credence to Roger Waters’ comment that this music gave musicians ‘permission to write songs about real things’ and ‘the courage to accept your feelings’. For, in this building, an entire artistic movement was born, not just a musical one but something much greater and enduring, spanning continents and lasting generations.
In that pursuit, we’re treated to some lovely archive clips such as Paul conducting the orchestra for ‘A Day In The Life’ (complete with clown noses and bald wigs) and a voice-over from George Harrison on the ‘All You Need Is Love’ filmed performance in Studio 1, its technicolour contrasting with the earlier Elgar scene in the same room. In one of the film’s finest moments, we’re shown a clip of Blackbird from the White Album sessions in 1968 (the year before Mary was born) kept in time by the tapping of Paul’s yellow and red shoes. Then, 56 years later, he plays a snippet of the song for his daughter’s camera. Reference to the unstructured Get Back/Let It Be project and a return to Abbey Road for the album of the same name provides a clever dramatic irony for the 2023 audience. The chaos of the former rectified by the latter which, in turn, now officially gives its name to the studios themselves.
Shown working on new music in Studio 3, Nile Rodgers observes that ‘so many massive rock and roll records were made here, people don’t believe that it was just done by accident’. The inherent superstition of musicians will mean that we’ll never know. However, despite the ‘smell of fear’ one might experience upon entering this hallowed ground to commit recorded sound to the history books, If These Walls Could Sing reminds us that Abbey Road is not a pretentious place.
The mark of a good documentary, Mary McCartney rarely emerges from behind the camera, instead seeking to capture the magic of Abbey Road which, for all its history and legend, is not just surviving on past glories, in fact, quite the opposite. It’s more than the name, the zebra crossing or the album cover. This is the most unlikely underdog story of what is still a working studio, and probably the best one in the world.
The studio hasn’t been made over or even tidied up for the documentary. Equipment isn’t pushed to one side to make room for better camera angles. The interviews in Studio 2, particularly those with Paul and Ringo, show cables, baffles and ‘sleeping bag’ dampers in the background and, from the door to the echo chamber to the stairs and god-like control room window, it looks just the same as it did in 1963 for the Please Please Me full-day album session culminating in, as Giles Martin puts it, ‘John’s ripped vocal’ in ‘Twist And Shout’.
For a British institution like Abbey Road, it’s rather frustrating that our American friends were able to watch If These Walls Could Sing two weeks before us, but it was well worth the wait (and a Disney subscription). Fittingly, this film stresses the eccentric Britishness of it all. Noel Gallagher describes the spirituality of the place akin to record shops, pubs, and football stadiums, while Giles Martin analogises that you’re never meant to clean out a teapot: ‘you walk down into Studio 2 and you feel as though the walls are saturated with great music’.
Why is Abbey Road still the greatest place on Earth to record? For all its mysticism, maybe the simple answer lies in the following two quotes:
– ‘People want to come here, they want the sound of Abbey Road’ (Sir Elton John).
– ‘All the microphones work’ (Sir Paul McCartney) – something which will resonate with musicians everywhere who have ever paid for studio time.
The Beatles Handbook rating: 4 stars
Review written by Jordan Frazer. Follow him on Twitter at @TheStylusMethod and find out more about the band at Bandcamp