From Elgar To Beatles: Abbey Road Blazed A Trail

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In 1969, four moppy-haired musicians named John, Paul, George and Ringo walked single file on a London crosswalk and made one of the most iconic album covers of all time. Today, a steady stream of Beatles fans and London tourists are still eager to walk in the footsteps of the Fab Four on that famous stretch of asphalt.

"I think once I went up there about half past 10 on a Sunday night, and they were still doing it then," says British music journalist Alistair Lawrence. "It never ends."

Lawrence is the author of a new book called Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World, which tells the history of the place where The Beatles recorded many of their albums — including the one with which the studio shares its name.

"It was originally a nine-bedroom mansion, and it was bought and converted into the world's first-ever custom recording studio," Lawrence says of the studio that's located in north London's St. John's Wood neighborhood.

Before Beatlemania, Abbey Road Studios went by another name: EMI Studios, named after the major recording label that still owns it today. The studio opened its doors on Nov. 12., 1931. In its early days, the studio was known for recording classical pieces, including Edward Elgar's famous Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. It also played a historic role in recording King George VI's declaration of war against Germany in a 1939 radio broadcast (the story told in the Oscar-winning film The King's Speech).

After the war, British music producers looked across the pond and saw the rise of a more poppy sound in American music that was beginning to catch fire in the U.K.

"They decided that it wasn't enough to simply import and produce this music — they needed to have British rivals to it," Lawrence says. "They hired new producers and new A&R men — among them George Martin, obviously — and the focus shifted. ... British pop music came to dominate the airwaves and dominate a lot of what they did at Abbey Road."

Leading the British pop force out of Abbey Road was, of course, The Beatles.

"They were part of a number of bands that were scouted and EMI were considering signing," Lawrence explains. "So [The Beatles] came in one night to record a demo session, and it impressed them to the point where they signed them. The rest is quite momentous history, really."

Ken Scott, author of the memoir Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust, was a sound engineer at the studio, and worked with The Beatles on some of the band's final albums. Scott says engineering The Beatles' recording sessions at Abbey Road was a bit like experimenting in a sound lab.

"Let's say I was recording a piano," he says. "I could use completely the wrong mic, completely screw up the sound on it, and there was just as much likelihood of them coming up and saying, 'It sounds terrible — let's use it,' as there was anything else. So I was never particularly worried about it. It was amazing training."

Scott was just 16 when he started at Abbey Road. He remembers a day early in his time at the studio when he passed the two Georges — Martin and Harrison — in a hallway.

"There were hundreds of screaming young girls out front," Scott says. "I just wanted to scream like those little girls outside, but managed to sort of bite my tongue for a bit. I didn't let it out until I got upstairs and no one would really hear me."

The Beatles named the last album they recorded together after the address of their beloved studio — 3 Abbey Road — and the success of the record inspired EMI Studios to change its name. Scott says one of the things that makes Abbey Road stand out is the sheer variety of what was recorded there.

"In the morning, you could be working on a classical session in [studio] No. 1, in the afternoon you could be with a dance band, and then in the evening you could be with Pink Floyd," he says. "You got to see so many different styles of recording, and it all resonates."

"It blazed a trail," Lawrence adds. "I think that other recording studios would have happened eventually if it weren't for Abbey Road, but it pioneered that whole movement — it showed that it could be done.

"Even now, with the move away from using big recording studios to people producing music in their bedrooms or what have you, it's stayed relevant. [As] much as it's a living piece of history, it continues to push boundaries and be inventive like it always did."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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