I arrived in London with my eldest son after an overnight flight. Bleary eyed, it was too early to check into our flat, so we ditched our bags and decided to hop on the Tube to the northwest London borough of Camden for a couple of hours. As many know, therein lies the St. John’s Wood neighborhood, a well to do quiet neighborhood with a well known street that runs through it, Abbey Road. Housing the most famous recording studio in musical history in this locale is about as incongruous as the most popular music group in history hailing from the port town of Liverpool. But, of course, both statements are true.
We walked together down a few brick home lined blocks before coming upon a crowd. I have been there a few times before, but I had not seen so many people crowding around Abbey Road Studios before. Weeks before our arrival, I had combed the internet and trades for music events in London that I could share with my son, who was old enough that we could venture into clubs as well. Somehow I missed this event.
Covering the typical low lying white surrounding walls of the studio grounds covered with emotional odes of graffiti, were long banners announcing a Film Festival. Abbey Road Studios has become known, with great success, as a movie scoring facility and they were hosting an open house to view a selection of these movies to the public. There were three days of the festival, this being the last day, and naturally all showings of Indiana Jones, Braveheart and especially the Beatles movies, Yellow Submarine, Help! and Hard Day’s Night were hopelessly sold out.
I apologized profusely to my son about missing this opportunity, but I was just as dismayed myself. Undaunted, I approached a Bobby who upon a closer look, resembled a punk, with his dyed spiky hair poking from the traditional tall hat, facial piercings and neck crawling tattoos. I asked him what the hell was going on! He cokneyed his way with excitement how this event marked the first time Abbey Road Studios had been opened to the public – ever. And that movie ticket holders had 45 minutes prior to the showing to visit the two studio rooms. Studio A is where the movies were being shown and this was the larger space that was once used for orchestras recording the popular music of its day as EMI Studios. It is probably best known for the first live global television link, where The Beatles’ and friend’s live performance of All You Need is Love was watched by 400 million in 26 countries, via satellite. Studio B is where nearly all Beatles songs, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Radiohead’s OK Computer were recorded, as well as other culturally significant records.
The Bobby could see my bewilderment and that I wasn’t yet walking away, so he added, “You know, mate, that little booth next to the red carpet leading to the studio entrance sometimes gets an extra ticket or two just before a showing, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall is about to let its people in. Go on, have a go, and maybe you’ll get lucky!” My son and I bounced through the guarded wall opening with the Bobby watching our cover, and we were at the booth window in short order. As soon as I asked about any tickets for the next showing, a person from outside the back of the booth, reached in and handed the ticket seller some tickets. “Are those tickets for The Wall?”, I said. She replied, “Yes.” Moviegoers for The Wall were making their way down the red carpet and we simply joined in, not feeling tired anymore and grinning all the way!
Once inside the hallowed walls, we set out straight for Studio B. It was like a festival with people in there, the studio itself, surprisingly understated. Not a particularly big room, although two-stories high, wider at the entrance, straight walls, but narrowing some towards the back of the room. No hi-tech studio baffles or ambiance, rather off -white walls with a 3-4 foot tall ribbon of layered fabric wrapped around the room. There was a staircase from the studio floor on the far right side, as you entered the room. The sound booth was oddly removed from the room to the extent that it was behind the usual glass, but above the studio entrance, atop of the stairs – far from any direct contact from the musicians below.
Probably for the public visit, on the walls were The Beatles album covers and some guitars used for the recording sessions, most of them signed. On the side near the entrance were some keyboards used for specific records, Billy Preston’s B-3 for the Let It Be sessions and an upright piano for songs like Lady Madonna and my personal favorite, A Day in the Life, which I believe my son was aware of. There were a few official looking Abbey Road Studios security types, but they looked more like employees called for a duty they weren’t too comfortable with, dealing with the general public. In the free spirit feeling of the day, my son reached over the hardly secure velvet rope barrier between us and the piano, and promptly spread all ten fingers and banged out a representation of the final polychord of A Day in the Life! A studio security employee, along with most everyone else stopped and stared as if to say, “Can he do that!” Well, he just did!
From there we went to the small commissary for a snack and sat in a lone booth with others, where we imagined The Beatles had to literally live while they were recording, since the Apple scruffs hangers on, as they were affectionately called, camped outside the studio doors, stalking their prey.
We figured since we were there we would stay at least for the start of the movie and feel the vibe of Studio A. Not much to feel here, since it was transformed with bleacher seats, but we did manage to keep our eyelids open for Pink Floyd’s The Wall movie.
All the pre planning couldn’t have prepared us for the improvised U.K. landing me and son experienced that day. It was a great musical start to our time in London and a treasured stop of our journey on the long and winding road.