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A Magical Mystery Tour

Beatles Fans Get Rare Chance to Go Inside Abbey Road

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page A13

LONDON, March 23

The four long-haired young men from Liverpool were a half-hour late when they poured into Studio Two at EMI Records on Abbey Road on June 6, 1962. They raced nervously through a ragged set of songs, while a producer named George Martin listened to the audition from the control booth upstairs. Afterward, he delivered an hour-long lecture on what they needed to do to make a professional record.

The rest, as they say, is history. Despite his initial misgivings, Martin signed the Beatles to a recording contract, albeit for a rock-bottom rate. The group came back three months later to record their first single, "Love Me Do." It peaked at No. 17 on the British charts. But their next attempt, "Please Please Me," launched a run of 12 No. 1 singles in a row and a dozen gold albums, and the most successful pop music group in history started down the long and winding road to fame, fortune and Yoko Ono.

The Beatles crossed Abbey Road, location of the legendary London studio, for the cover of the last LP they recorded. (File Photo)

Ever since, the Abbey Road Studios, most especially Studio Two, have been part of the legend -- the place where, by EMI's count, 192 of the Beatles' 202 songs were recorded. Its significance was enshrined when the Beatles named the last LP that they recorded "Abbey Road," complete with iconic album cover of the four band members crossing the street the studio complex is named after. ("Let It Be," recorded earlier, was the last album released.)

For years, pilgrims, fanatics and the mildly curious have traversed the crosswalk and stood outside the gates of the studios -- by EMI's informal count, between 100,000 and 120,000 walk past each year. But except for a brief stretch in 1982, its doors have remained closed to the public.

Until now. Last Saturday, Abbey Road's owners opened its gates for a film festival honoring the 25th anniversary of the studio's work as one of the world's largest producers of movie music. Nearly two dozen films are being shown over 16 days in Studio One, the cavernous, auditorium-like room where the movie scores are performed and recorded. But for many, the main attraction is just across the hall: Studio Two is also open for festival-goers.

EMI veterans say the studio looks much the way it did when the Beatles worked there between 1962 and 1969. A soundproof iron door that looks like it could have done service on a German U-boat still guards the entrance. Inside, white paint is peeling from parts of the acoustic panels on the walls, and the parquet floor is scuffed from hundreds of amplifiers and instruments that have been hauled over it. There are a half-dozen sets of multicolored lights that were installed at the demand of the Beatles, who felt it gave the room a warmer, more psychedelic ambience.

"You can feel the ghosts when you're in here, and you can sense the atmosphere as well," said David Holley, EMI's managing director. "It's almost as if everyone who's ever worked here has left a sound behind."

Located in posh, leafy St. John's Wood in north London, Abbey Road began life in the 1830s as an elegant, nine-bedroom estate house with a long, lush garden in the back. EMI bought it in the late 1920s and turned it into one of the world's first recording studios.

Musical history was made here long before the Beatles arrived. Edward Elgar, one of Britain's most distinguished composers and conductors, inaugurated the studio in 1931 with a historic recording of "Land of Hope and Glory," Britain's unofficial national anthem, by the London Symphony Orchestra. Violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin, then 16, came to record the next year, followed by cellist Pablo Casals, violinist Jascha Heifetz and pianist Artur Schnabel.

Hundreds of actors, musicians, singers and songwriters made their way to Abbey Road: Fred Astaire, Noel Coward, Paul Robeson, Glenn Miller, Dinah Shore, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Peter Ustinov, Bette Davis, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey, Dirk Bogarde, Burt Bacharach and Ravi Shankar. And, lest we forget, Herman's Hermits, Cilla Black and Olivia Newton-John. Plus an entire generation of British comedians, including Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore and the various casts of "The Goon Show," "Beyond the Fringe" and "That Was the Week That Was."

Since 1980, the movies have come to dominate. The first blockbuster to be scored here was Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Its composer, John Williams, came back to do "Return of the Jedi" in 1983 and all of the films in the new "Star Wars" trilogy. Williams and filmmaker George Lucas finished up work on the latest film a few weeks ago.

Music for the three parts of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was recorded in Studio One, as were the soundtracks for director Anthony Minghella's three major films: the Oscar-winning "The English Patient," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Cold Mountain" -- all of the music composed by Gabriel Yared. The remake of "Alfie" and the Bobby Darin biopic "Beyond the Sea" are among the latest soundtracks to be recorded here.

But the Beatles are still Abbey Road's defining faces. In the early days they were considered just another musical act that needed to abide by the studio's strict code of conduct. They wore coats and ties when they came to record, and the sessions were conducted in three-hour blocks, with long breaks for tea and lunch.

Gradually, as the hits came and the money started to flow, the Beatles took over. The coats and ties came off, and the band started pulling legendary all-nighters. With Beatlemania exploding just outside the studio gates, band members saw Abbey Road as a refuge where they could work uninterrupted, sleep when they needed to, then work some more.

The drugs flowed at times, too. In his 1979 memoir "All You Need Is Ears," Martin recalls John Lennon freaking out and collapsing one evening in 1967 while making "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Martin helped him to the roof to get some fresh air, then feared Lennon might fall off. Martin stayed with Lennon until the crisis subsided.

The first couple of Beatles albums were each recorded in one long sprint, never taking more than a few days. But "Sgt. Pepper" took several months. The climax came with "A Day in the Life," the album's concluding song, when Lennon and Paul McCartney commandeered Studio One, hired 39 classical musicians and requested that they all come formally attired. McCartney provided funny hats for each player and a bright red nose for the conductor.

After the Beatles broke down and broke up in 1970, Pink Floyd took over as Studio Two's unofficial house band. In recent years Radiohead, Ozzy Osborne, the Spice Girls and a host of other acts have made the studio their home. McCartney was back last year with the slick, powerful band he has performed with in concert in recent years to lay down a series of tracks for an album due later this year.

"None of this stuff was supposed to have lasted," novelist Nick Hornby, a pop music aficionado, writes in his introduction to the film festival guide. "The three-minute pop songs and the one-line jokes were intended for immediate consumption, but it didn't happen like that." Instead, the story of Abbey Road "must also be the story of 20th and 21st century popular culture, pretty much all of which is dependent on recorded sound."

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