Magical Mystery Tour (Enter the castle)

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I was barely six years old when The Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. I hadn’t heard of them before that performance, but by the time the last notes of She Loves You had faded, I felt as though the world was suddenly an interesting place, and that I had a purpose; a reason for being. I wasn’t really sure what or how, but I immediately knew that I would have to be a part of…  this.

After two years of begging, my parents finally gave in and bought my first guitar for Christmas in 1965. 

Christmas Guitar 1965
I have no idea what I’m doing yet, but I’m sure I’ll eventually figure it out.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2000 when a work-related trip took me to London.  We tacked on two extra days so that I could visit many of the Beatles-related sites around the city. The highlight for me, of course, was taking the tube to St. John’s Wood and trekking up to Abbey Road to walk across the legendary crosswalk, peer through the fence at the studio’s famed front steps and wooden doors, and soak up the general atmosphere of the site. I had hoped to get a peek inside, but it’s a busy, active studio, and they don’t give tours. Only those with official business can enter the gates and access the building.

In the years since that time, two enterprising gentlemen wrote the definitive book on  EMI/Abbey Road. It’s a 9-pound, 550-page tome, with exquisite photographs, including history, blueprints, and thorough documentation of every room, instrument, mixing desk, microphone, and piece of outboard gear in the building. There were detailed specifics on everything, including frequency response curves for filter modules and information on then-unique effects that were created by the in-house engineering team. Needless to say, I devoured this book (in brief sittings; my legs would go to sleep from the weight of it!)

Well, in May of 2018, I learned that the authors of the book were going to deliver a series of lectures on the book and the studio. At Abbey Road Studios. In Studio 2.

To say that this opportunity was a dream come true for me would be a massive understatement. It’s not really the sort of thing that one could even wish for. Imagine having “Visit the International Space Station” on your bucket list. Right; dream on, buddy. But suddenly, it seemed as though entering the hallowed halls of Abbey Road Studios was something that could actually take place.  Amazingly, I was able to score two tickets.  We booked flights and hotel, leaving a few days on each side of the event so we could relax and enjoy the visit.

Then, of course, I held my breath for three months. I couldn’t believe that a trip like this would ever be possible, and I didn’t tell anyone because I was afraid I would jinx it somehow. It was like waiting for Christmas when I was six years old, except that this time it felt as though Christmas might be unexpectedly cancelled at any moment. I was terrified that something would go wrong to spoil it all. Agony. Somehow, though, the time crawled by and then at long last we were on the plane, in the taxi, at the hotel, and finally counting down the hours.

We queued up early (imagine that!) on the sidewalk out front, watching visitors clog traffic to recreate their own version of the album cover photo in the crosswalk.

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Precisely at the appointed hour, two of the staff unlocked the gate, checked our tickets, and gave us our laminated passes. I crossed the parking lot in a daze and climbed the front steps on shaky legs. I was aware of distant, underwater voices as the cheerful reception desk crew welcomed us, and I opened my mouth to reply but my throat hitched and no words came. I vaguely recall hearing my wife’s voice from somewhere behind me, telling them, “He can’t talk right now.” I floated down the hall, around the corner, and down the staircase, guided by more of the smiling, impeccably-dressed staff. Around another corner and down a short hallway, where another person was gesturing… and I saw those thick double doors. My heart pounded as I walked through the doors and into the room.

Into the room.

Into.

THE.

ROOM.

I actually made it about 10 feet inside the doors before I broke down. So much great music was captured here.  And not just The Beatles: Cliff Richard, The Hollies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Pink Floyd, Donovan, Badfinger, Peter & Gordon, The Raspberries, The Seekers, The Zombies, Stevie Wonder, Wings… all the way forward to Adele, and hundreds and hundreds in between. It was overwhelming.  I stood there, sobbing, nose running, blubbering like a fool and just trying to take it all in.

I later learned that nearly everybody else in the queue had stopped at the front steps of the building to take pictures. As a result, I was one of maybe 6 people in the whole studio at this point, most of whom were event staff. It gave me three or four badly-needed minutes to calm down, take a few deep breaths, and slowly gather myself back up. They were giving us an hour to explore before the lecture began, and I didn’t want to miss a second of it.

I started by climbing the steps to the control room. As you might imagine, the recording gear has evolved with technology; the iconic 8-channel REDD.37 board and 4-track Studer machines are long gone, replaced by a massive Neve 60-channel desk and a Pro Tools setup. I did take a few photos of the new gear, but mostly I wanted to gaze out of that window and take in the view of the entire room from that vantage point. From this reconnaissance, I was able to map out a logical path around the studio.

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I stopped on the way down to capture a few shots of the painted brick walls, the herringbone parquet flooring, and the brown sound-absorbing batts (originally stuffed with seaweed) that I had seen in so many photos.

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How many coats of paint?
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Who has stood here?
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The brown “Cabot’s Quilt” acoustic batts

The studio had produced an assortment of instruments and equipment and arranged them around the perimeter of the room, including vintage mixing consoles, microphones, and outboard gear. They had an early REDD.17 mixing desk and the TG12345 stereo desk like they had used to record and mix the Abbey Road LP, McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” and Harrison’s All Things Must Pass LP. There was a Studer J-37 4-track tape recorder (Sgt. Pepper,) and a very early EMI-built mastering tape deck.

They had also laid out some keyboard instruments that have been a part of the studio’s arsenal for decades. They had the Steinway Vertegrand upright (AKA the “Mrs. Mills” piano,) the Challen upright, which they had modified to allow brass strips to be lowered between the hammers and strings for a percussive effect (the intro to Ob La Di, Ob La Da, for instance), and the Steinway grand piano, along with the Hammond RT-3 organ and Leslie cabinet, and the Scheidmayer Celeste that was used on Dark Side of The Moon. They also had the same red vinyl chairs that they have used throughout the years, which were apparently originally selected because they didn’t squeak.

Pianos

The hour flew by, and soon they were asking us to take our seats. The two authors did a masterful job with their presentation, covering lots of ground while managing to keep it compelling for both diehard fans as well as those who weren’t as well-informed about the studio and its history. They shared historic photos, video and audio, and plenty of good humor, and kept us all at rapt attention the whole time.

The talk included some live instrument demonstrations. One of the fellows told the story of the “Mrs. Mills” Steinway and how its lacquered hammers and slightly-detuned strings produced a bright and jangly tone. He said, “You’ll probably recognize this,” and sat down and played the piano part from Penny Lane.   Goosebumps.   Then he walked over to the Challen piano (tack strip disabled) and played one chord, and it was instantly Fool On The Hill.  Ohhh…

And then…

He brought up 4 volunteers from the audience and positioned them around the three pianos. Green tape on the keys showed which notes to press. They held the sustain pedals down, and he counted it off, and they all came down on the keys hard… and it was the final chord from A Day In The Life. On the same pianos. In the same room. And my head exploded. I’m welling up just typing about it. It was majestic.

The lecture lasted just a bit more than 90 minutes, and we expected it to be over at that point, but there was an added bonus that day. As it happened, Ken Townsend was visiting the studio with his granddaughter. Ken was a tape operator during the first Parlophone Records audition session for The Beatles in 1962, and he rose through the ranks at EMI, eventually becoming general manager of the facility and retiring after 42 years with the company. He was awarded the MBE in the early 1990s by Queen Elizabeth. So just when we thought it was all done, Ken (sorry: Sir Ken) came up on stage and regaled us with stories for another 30 minutes or so.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Townsend

Then they brought the lights up and we had a bit more time to explore before the polite voice on the P.A. announced that it was time to go. So all in all we got to spend more than 3 hours in that room. And I did stop on the front steps on the way out to capture a final memory of the experience.

As I write this, three weeks later, it all seems a bit surreal. This is a site that has taken on almost mythical proportions in my world, steadily growing in importance since that Sunday evening in February of 1964. I thought that a stroll across the crosswalk was the best that I could hope for, and never dreamed that I’d have even a moment’s access to the building, let alone that room.

Record producer Sir George Martin once said, “If you believe, as I do, that a house has atmosphere, and is capable of absorbing the personalities and emotions of its inhabitants, you will have no difficulty in appreciating the unique quality of Abbey Road.”

There is magic and history inside those four walls, and yes, Sir George, I believe.

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