The story behind

"The Abbey Road Story:
The Documentary"

By Elizabeth Cline

We thank Elizabeth for sending us this essay.

Related item: "Beatles Walk Seen On Abbey Road TV Documentary"

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Abbey Road Studios in lights during the filming of the documentary

Most of us think of Abbey Road as that place where the Beatles recorded an amazing album or 10. Or we think of the zebra crossing in St. John's Wood, where the lads were photographed during that oh-so-amazing timepiece in the chronology of the '60s music puzzle. But EMI/Abbey Road is a lot more than where the Fab Four hung out and recorded. True, they made history by setting up shop there into the wee hours during those magic years, and thus etched the place forever into our collective consciousness. The Beatles also forever altered the way the Abbey Road ship was run - they were constantly pushing the envelope of technological advancement, and dragging their amazing engineers along in the process.

Even though they were perhaps the most visible artists to the world at large, the Beatles were only some of an amazing assortment of talents to call Abbey Road Studios a creative home over the past 60 years. As we're about to find out from a new film about that famous place, those hallowed walls have played host to the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Glenn Miller, Burt Bacharach, Jascha Heifetz, Elton John, Sir Edward Elgar, The Hollies, and even (who'd have thunk it!) Darth Vader, bless his big black soul.

The movie "The Abbey Road Story: The Documentary" is a groundbreaking film about the history and magic of the EMI/Abbey Road Studios. But don't let that dry word "documentary" fool you. This film represents quite a stylistic departure from your usual documentary. It is scheduled for worldwide release in mid-November by EPL Pictures, and will be available on cable channels in the U.S.

The director and executive producer, Scotty Meade, was kind enough to answer questions and wax philosophic about his latest creative project and the exciting hurricane it quickly became. Oh yeah...there might be a couple Beatles related surprises as well, as if anyone would be interested in that.

Like many creative ventures, this film was birthed out of an idea that went awry. But don't most great ideas get started that way? As he tells it, Meade was over in London doing some presentations for Sony Music in 1993. Corporate jingle guy, musician. In other words, he ain't John Landis (who's also worked there, by the way....or was that John Williams? Aha! It was both!). Scott went to Abbey Road to make some cassettes, and got acquainted with the engineer folk there. After a time, his new friends wondered aloud to him why Abbey Road wasn't getting more U.S. clients. Scott shared his thoughts, and an idea was born.

"I told them I thought the reason that was happening was because Abbey Road was a mecca...you know, you talk about Abbey Road, you actually don't go there to record." So he said "you know, you guys ought to make a film about it." They asked, 'who do you think could do it?'" And the next thing he knew, he was pitching the idea to the likes of Alan Parsons, Geoff Emerick, and eventually George Martin.

Cut to spring of 1995. Scott's a Beatles fan, just like the rest of us. So he and his cohorts went in to do the research on the history of the place, without really knowing what they were getting into.

We've all heard of Abbey Road because of the Beatles, right? Isn't that why it's famous? But what they discovered was that this studio was home to more innovations, artists, hits, and history, than any other studio in the world. Of course, classical audiences and people in the "recording biz" have known this for years! Did you know stereo was invented there? Did you know John Williams recorded most of his Oscar winning soundtracks there? I sure didn't. Did you know Paul McCartney recorded his new orchestral arrangement for "Standing Stone" there?

The guys also discovered during their historical treasure hunt that Abbey Road was the 65-year-old brainchild of a man named Osmund Williams. Ol' Osmund came up with the idea of a home studio in St. John's Wood, London, around 1928. Unfortunately, he died before it actually opened, so he never got to see his idea come to fruition.

As Scotty describes it, "The place was designed by a guy whom we fondly nicknamed Ozzie. And Ozzie used to stay up late nights you know, in 1927, 1928, thinking about, 'Boy wouldn't it be fun to have a home recording studio?' Problem was, there was no such thing. So this guy was the visionary of building a facility in a residence, in a quiet northwest suburb of London. And so he built this place, with the dream of building the finest studio on earth. And he made it happen."

Since 1931, this studio has been producing hit after hit after hit. At first it was mostly classical, and later on, with the invasion of pop, it became home to both, though the factions were often at odds with each other. And of course one mustn't forget Spike Milligan, the Goons, Peter Sellers and the other Parlophone comedy artists, for it was their producer who first saw the promise of the lads from Liverpool on that fateful day in June of 1962. And the lads fondness for the Goons that made the stodgy producer okay in their eyes. But I digress...

Overall, the cinematic journey takes us through wonderful events and sessions in time. And you really do feel like you're there in the studio with the artists. "What we chose to do," Meade said, "was, after living here and working with the people, and getting to know them, we picked out what we thought would be the best way for the average Joe to walk away from this film and go,'holy cow! This thing, this Abbey Road is much bigger, much more wonderful than I'd ever imagined!'"

The film is a moving, dynamic tapestry of "songs," composed of archival recording sessions beautifully edited, in their proper original audio context, and present-day footage -- all linked together with movie-like production techniques. In fact, the links between the musical and historical places that we visit in the film use aerial views of Abbey Road at night, via helicopter, and are more than a little elaborate. Or, to say it quite another way, "We had more lights on Abbey Road that night than Pink Floyd had at Wembley Stadium. They had to change the landing pattern at Heathrow!"

He's not lying. It's not your ordinary run-of-the-mill documentary, in other words. The one-hour film has been chosen to be the cinematic centerpiece for EMI's 1997- 1998 Centenary Celebration. But this is only fitting, because this isn't your run-of-the- mill recording studio complex, either. Nothing ordinary about it, in fact. After all, how many recording complexes are built in 19th Century homes around a huge English garden? (Sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun?)

I was regaled with stories of occasional visitors being brought in simply to observe their facial expressions. People are often told to leave their "ohmigod!" faces behind the front desk. Alan Parsons passes you in the hallway. Rostropovich is having tea. (If you don't know who he is, look him up!). The Spice Girls hang around with no makeup on.

I began to understand what they were talking about after a while. I can just hear the verbal instructions now. "Just make sure you leave your emotions at the door, don't drop your passport ("ka-CHUNK!"), and try not to dribble Coke out of your open mouth when you see McCartney and George Martin chatting in line waiting for a fruit cup."

It seems to operate almost as an understated private home to many of the world's greatest artists. "The place is like that," said Meade. "It's a haven for these people. And they've done it so gorgeously; private gardens, the place is beautiful."

It's very nearly hallowed ground, to hear those that live and work there tell about it. And this comes through very clearly in the film. In fact, we get an amazing sense of the reverence that the filmmakers hold for the place the Beatles called home for so long. Its energy. Its vibe. An essence all its own -- very much like the Beatles are an essence, an independent identity.

During the making of the film, the filmmakers organized an event they dubbed, "The Gathering," an EMI/Abbey Road reunion of sorts. "As part of the film, we threw a party called The Gathering. The press that were interviewing me about what was going on -- there were four or five of 'em -- they were all asking the same questions. I said, 'Listen, you know what you guys ought to do? Drop your microphones, take off your cameras, walk into Studio 2, I'll shut the door. If you don't feel what I feel, then, you know, leave!' "

Think I'm exaggerating? Nope. The place obviously has its own invisible power generator. Another great comment on the energy and presence at Abbey Road is provided by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd in two of many present-day segments in the film "It's not just John Lennon. It's all the artists who have been here. The events rub off on the bricks and mortar".

Of course, the essence and history of Abbey Road is also a result of the unique qualities of the place as a studio. There are lots of studios in the world, but few have a waiting list like this one. To book a recording session with full orchestra for a soundtrack can require roughly a year's wait. And this has a lot to do with who performs there and works there, and what it sounds like. Abbey Road was not always technologically at the top of the heap, however. Because it was the first real permanent recording studio, it had an advantage in the early part of this century. But by the early '50s, the studio was a bit behind the U.S. industry, technologically speaking.

Enter George Martin, new head of Parlophone, courtesy of Sir Joe Lockwood.

"In about 1958, that started to change when George Martin went over to EMI owned Capitol Studios and saw what the Americans were doing, and brought back some gear. And that's when things began to change. Tape machines, numbers of tracks. Abbey Road had been building their own machines, their own consoles, these guys were crazy. So it was tough for them to give up building things, and hand the reins over to somebody else. And then it was tough for EMI to want to put up the money, because they'd been having it built in house for so long, so it took a couple of years for that to filter itself through".

I also asked Scott what distinguishes Abbey Road from other studios today in the technical arena. Does it have its own sound? It didn't take him long to answer. "Each studio has its own thing. Studio 1 is world renowned for its 2 1/2 second reverb time, and so on. Things that the classical music engineers can sit back and hear, for example. Studio 2, the Beatles. Other studios have done big names and big numbers, but the difference between those recordings and what was done at Abbey Road is that the music that was done at Abbey Road was music that touched your heart. And changed the world, by the way."

Clearly, the technical aspects of the studios are inseparable from the history for those who hold the place dear. Kinda makes one want to visit the place, you know? Too bad they don't give tours for the public. But you can sign the wall out front. And everyone does.

What kind of footage is in the film, you might be asking? All kinds, and plenty of it. Dear Derek Taylor, God rest his soul. Parties. Events. Prime Ministers. Other surprises I don't want to give away. Meade stated, "In some segments, we've got 60%, 70% archival [footage], and then other segments have much more recent production".

And Beatles footage? There is Beatles footage that we've seen before, but some surprises in its presentation. As with all the other beautifully assembled studio footage, it is meticulously edited and presented in its original audio context. No production corners cut here. And, there may be a clip or two that you've never seen before. Maybe.

The Beatles were an important part of Abbey Road. They made necessary many of the technological changes that occurred during their tenure there. Their insatiable curiosity and creativity demanded it. Their engineers, and their translator and pioneering mentor George Martin, helped them realize it. In the process they made the studio a household word.....not to mention changed the rules by which it ran! The changes started with the big upright column amplifiers they brought into the studio during their sessions for their first album. And with George Martin's tie, which George Harrison didn't like. They became an important and visible part of the history of Abbey Road Studios.

But though the Beatles were an integral force at Abbey Road, this is not primarily a Beatles film. It's a film first and foremost about the magic that is Abbey Road Studios. Its people, its essence, its place in history.

Scott summed up his pet "hurricane" quite nicely: "With that subject matter, and some really creative ideas, you end up with something either chaotic as hell, or really, really wonderful. And in our case, we got lucky, and it's the latter. It's really really wonderful."

It's the magic feeling you get standing in Studio 2, where the Beatles hung out. The magic feeling you get knowing that the greatest composers and classical musicians in the world have stood where you're standing in the expansive space of Studio 1. What happens when you see the wall in front of the place for the first time.

For this alone, the film is worth watching. It's a beaut. A real beaut.

Note: The film is scheduled to be shown in England Jan. 4, with a longer version to be released on video. It aired Oct. 9 on the Canadian feed for Much Music Television. No. U.S. airdates are scheduled at present.


EPL Pictures presents: The Abbey Road Story: The Documentary.


Copyright 1997 Elizabeth Cline/Cline Enterprises. You can contact the author at PHDSKI@aol.com.
[Article also published in Beatles Video Digest, October , 1997]

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This page was created October 17, 1997.