A trip to Abbey Road
To allude to the famous opening sentence of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Abbey Road.’ Except it wasn’t a dream.
I was in attendance for a Mojo magazine press launch of the new vinyl box-set of the remastered Beatles in mono, thanks to the kindness of a Dutch friend (thank you Arjan!). The 14-LP box-set is released on Sept 9. It includes the band’s first 10 albums and a three-record set of non-LP singles and B-sides entitled ‘Mono Masters’. It includes a 108-page hardback book.
Having arrived at Baker Street in the late afternoon, I walked north toward St John’s Wood, passing the Beatles and the Rock and Roll memorabilia shops (they’re opposite each other on north Baker Street) which are worth a visit if you’re in the area. Inside the latter my eye was caught by a platinum disc and LP cover for T.Rex’s 1972 album The Slider hanging on the wall. Five seconds later, still looking at The Slider, I heard Roger Daltrey on the shop’s sound system sing the line ‘But I drink myself blind to the sound of old T Rex’ – how’s that for a synchronicity!
Arriving at one end of Abbey Road you see the famous zebra crossing. People halt the traffic repeatedly all day and everyday, having their photos taken imitating the Abbey Road album sleeve photo (this bit of London was a lot quieter in 1969). Others sit on various walls on both sides of the street. Abbey Road Studios is a surprisingly small detached building from the outside, set back from the road with a small car park. The entire length of its front wall is covered in multi-coloured Beatles graffiti.
At 6.15pm I’m walking up the steps into Abbey Road. In my mind’s eye I think of the many photos I’ve seen of members of the Beatles standing on these steps. There’s a warm yellow light in the entrance foyer, turning right into reception. On the walls are many black and white photos of famous artists who recorded here, both popular and classical (on the staircase down to the lower floor I spot Sir John Barbirolli and Herbert von Karajan). There are black-suited security men about every 12 feet along each corridor of the route we’re directed along. It seems remarkably small. Downstairs I enter a large room with a high ceiling and a dim red light. It is hot and brimming with people, many of whom are already sitting on the 100 or so chairs that have been crammed in. I didn’t see any identification on the door coming in, but looking around it becomes clear to me that I’m sitting in Studio 2, the room where the Beatles did so much of their recording. To my right is the staircase that runs along the wall up to the glass-fronted control room on the back wall behind and above.
At 6.30 the playback session starts, chaired by Mark Ellen, who interviews a panel of four, including Ken Scott who engineered sessions for the Beatles. The conversation is punctuated by playback from the new vinyl mono masters on a sound system which is said to be worth over a quarter of a million. Since the tracks are mono it doesn’t matter where you sit in relation to the speaker arrays. In the course of the event we hear mono versions of ‘You Can’t Do That’, ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Sgt Pepper Reprise / Day in the Life’, ‘Boys’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Love Me Do’, and ‘Norwegian Wood’. At times it’s too loud, and at times the mix is off (‘Norwegian Wood’ was ruined by the bass being far too loud). I also feel that sometimes the expensive equipment and the remastering expose the roughness of some of the original recordings (I wonder what a good symphony orchestra recording from the 1960s would sound like with this set-up). As for mono, while I accept the historical argument (this is how the Beatles wanted to be heard up to 1968) and also the fact that some of the mono mixes have different musical content to the stereo, I’m not personally persuaded that I need them. And I don’t have a functioning turntable at present, sadly.
However, hearing the Beatles at high volume in their home studio was a powerful reminder that they could be more of a rock band – even in the early years – than one might think. If you are used to hearing them at low levels without the bass and drums coming out properly, it is easy to not feel the vibrant energy which was theirs and helped them become so successful in the early 1960s. As the slinky beat of ‘You Can’t Do That’ throbbed in Studio 2, I found myself thinking how intoxicating and exciting this must have sounded in 1964. The other highlight for me was hearing ‘Love Me Do’ which it was pointed out had been recorded on September 4, 1962 – i.e. 52 years ago to the day in this very space. I tried to empty the room of everyone else and picture the Fab Four standing on the wooden floor, with amps on chairs, mikes, baffles, clustered round a microphone, the primitive two-chord vamp of their first hit bouncing off the walls, soon to escape into the world. I thought of how year after year they spent hours and hours in this space, tuning guitars, getting hoarse, bounding up and down the stairs to the control room to hear a take, songs taking shape and then being committed to tape, and then through radios and vinyl becoming part of the memories, feelings, lives of millions of people. That’s magic.
By 8.00pm I was walking down the steps, leaving one of the magical places of recorded music, remembering the graffiti at the bus stop in Oxford that afternoon, where someone had carved the phrase ‘Mean Mr Mustard’.
More information on the mono remasters and the event at this links: