'Abbey Road: The Best Studio in the World'
by Alistair Lawrence is published by Bloomsbury in the UK today, July 19th 2012, (and in North America on September 25th). This first photographic celebration of the most famous recording studio in the world is published to coincide with the studio's 80th anniversary, the 50th
anniversary of the first Beatles recording at Abbey Road and the 40th anniversary of the recording of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon.
Abbey Road Studios has been at the heart of the music industry for 80 years and is an iconic symbol of British music. With its unique blend of vintage equipment and cutting-edge technology, it remains one of the most technically advanced recording, mixing and mastering facilities in
the world. From the original bill of sale for the property and classic landmark recordings to today's sessions, 'Abbey Road' takes the reader through the studio's illustrious history through interviews with key figures and a wealth of rare and never-before-seen photos collected from the studios' own private archive.
As with most things that bear Abbey Road's name, the book is very well produced, and hefty - not just in weight, but also in terms of the breadth of scope, information, and pictures, within its 304 large-format pages.
Alistair Lawrence's book has involved many of the people heavily involved with the studios, from their early days through to present day. The foreward is by the one man most would consider sums up Abbey Road - Sir George Martin, and he gives his blessing to the book, calling the story of "the greatest studio in the world" both "terrific, and captivating". Is Martin right, or is his loyalty to the building and its people clouding his view of the book? We thought we'd find out for ourselves...
Abbey Road was set up in 1931 as the newly formed EMI (an amalgam of three existing, related companies) realised a need for a state-of-the-art recording studio. Recorded sound was bouyant at the time, partly as a result of the advances in vinyl recordings (invented in 1888, and soon replacing metal and wax cylinders) and the appetite for on-demand music in the home.
The book puts the creation and development of EMI Studios (as it was known initially) into context, including the initial resistance of musicians who were more used to the recording equipment coming to them, rather than the other way around. It was composer Edward Elgar's inaugural recording session which changed the views of many, and it eventually became the most prestigious studios in the world.
Their rise to prominence was helped by the technology available there, and the technicians too - many of who were the inventors of same. Indeed, Abbey Road boffins invented things such as Pink Floyd's Azimuth Co-ordinator, used to control quadrophonic effects in their early concerts. Sadly, there is no coverage of this particular equipment in the book, but then I guess it was a bit of a side project for the lab-coat wearing engineers (the lab-coats were pretty much mandatory, as were a collar and tie, for many years).
Over the years, Abbey Road has maintained much of the varied and esoteric equipment it has acquired and developed, and the book talks about how the real thing is much preferred to the various software plug-ins available these days in the digital domain. They are also now one of the few places in the world which still has a vinyl cutting lathe - demand for vinyl is now so small that lathes are no longer manufactured and are hard to get fixed.
A major change in the focus and clientelle of the studio came after the Second World War, where attempts to beat the post-war slump by meeting the rising interest in "popular" music saw younger artists - and crucially, technicians - enlisted. A key person in this major shift was George Martin, and the book covers how he managed this.
Martin's twin areas of focus were the booming, popular area of comedy recordings, and the equally commercial sphere of pop music - the likes of The Shadows, Adam Faith, and The Beatles. There are some wonderful pictures of the Fab Four in action at Abbey Road, and a detailed narrative of their time there is given without overwhelming in detail.
With the decline of Merseybeat and what was known as the British Invasion loomed, EMI looked to new talent and new directions. Pink Floyd were the signature band of their efforts, and amongst the familiar shots of the Floyd at EMI are some wonderful, unseen pictures of them recording The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn at Abbey Road.
Early material included production by EMI's Norman Smith (who also drummed on Remember A Day) but this came to an end due to what the book describes as his "growing increasingly frustrated at the band's desire to record ever longer songs". This transitional period is discussed in the book, with the band undertaking a variety of soundtrack works along with the studio disc of Ummagumma - which did see a return to the mixing desk for the Floyd by Smith.
The focus of the book then snaps to "The 1970s and concept albums", marking a "decade of change". The newly formed Harvest Records, an offshoot of Parlophone, was the ideal home for the Floyd in EMI's eyes, and gave a huge boost to that imprint. Producer John Leckie started at Abbey Road in 1970 as a tape operator, and as he relates to the book's author, he "took any opportunity to work with Pink Floyd". He also noted how he worked with Syd Barrett on his solo material, and The Pretty Things- "all top-notch psychedelic music".
Accompanied with pictures of the band in Studio Two in the early 70s is discussion of the multi-track equipment they used. It notes how the band briefly relocated to other studios whilst multi-track recorders were updated at Abbey Road. Shots of the band in action, and in the Studio Two control room, give insight into the recording sessions, but sadly, as the narrative reaches The Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here (the last album they recorded there) studio shots are replaced with an admitted quite nice selection of live pictures.
The Floyd get a decent amount of coverage in the book, on a par with how much The Beatles are featured, which we're naturally quite pleased with.
The 1980s saw increasing competition bring not just new artists such as Kate Bush arrive, but a shift in focus to producing soundtracks for films and musicals. The second and third parts of the original Star Wars trilogy were recorded there, with John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra having many subsequent collaborations at Abbey Road, we discover.
The studios became THE place for film soundtracks, but in the 1990s faced stiff competition with guitar bands, who, as the book details, flocked there. Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Oasis and the Manic Street Preachers all used the studios' facilities, and eventually, to mark the diverse talents who'd recorded there, the TV series Live From Abbey Road was born. Key artists - most of which were previous visitors to the studios - returned to record performances and interviews. Amongst these, of course, was David Gilmour and his band from the On An Island tour. The book covers the series in good detail, with some striking pictures of the many artists who took part in the show.
The final sections of the book cover some of the technical and physical aspects of the Studios and their operation. The first of these takes the reader "Inside The Studios", looking at the development of each of the facilities, with some impressive pictures (including a nice one in Studio One, showing David Gilmour with Richard Wright behind him on keyboards). This section gives a fascinating look at the technical design of the different rooms.
"Experimentation and Invention" assesses how their technical teams created ground-breaking solutions to issues and ideas, and "Behind The Scenes" looks at what the book calls 'unsung heroes': the staff at Abbey Road from the canteen and reception staff, up to the most experienced technicians and engineers.
Finally, a timeline and a guide to key personnel conclude the book, in a fairly complete but rather dry manner. Key dates seem a little arbitrary at times based on focus earlier in the book. But then, we guess a degree of variation here is better than simple repetition.
So, this book offers an absolute wealth of information and insight, and whilst some will want more information on certain bands (the Floyd, The Beatles, for example) this book is about the place itself and for us, it perfectly pitches the coverage of the various performers over its pages. The historical context is well paced, and whilst some of those who have recorded there will mean little to those outside the UK, enough detail and explanation of the significance of these artists is there to warrant their inclusion.
Few studios have the history or importance of Abbey Road, and this is typified by the magnetic nature of the place to tourists, many of whom leave their mark on the wall (a representative sampling of this is seen on the cover). A book like this is entirely fitting to mark its contribution to the world of music, and we heartily recommend it to music fans everywhere.
The rather lavish book is priced at £50, but you can currently get up to
39% discount by ordering the book now through the various Amazon stores
through these special links: Amazon UK, Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon France, and Amazon Germany.