London’s EMI/Abbey Road Studios were a microcosm of musical evolution in the 20th century. So, it makes sense that the connecting thread through a lot of that development is the most innovative band ever to exist in a year with a 19 in front of it. The monolithic discography The Beatles created at 3 Abbey Road both benefited from and inspired loads of other classic records made within those hallowed walls.
The elaborate three-studio setup built at that august address by EMI opened for business in 1931. The first client at what was then called EMI Studios was Sir Edward Elgar, the British composer most famous for writing Pomp and Circumstance. He led the London Symphony Orchestra through that perennial graduation march to cut the ribbon on the place.
Up through the 1950s, classical recordings were the studios’ bread and butter. In 1934 Igor Stravinsky himself conducted an assemblage there, including the BBC Chorus on his ballet Les Noces. Over the years, a parade of classical giants worked there, from storied pianist Artur Schnabel to legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
The studios were ideal for capturing orchestral grandeur, big enough to accommodate an orchestra but not so capacious as to drown symphonic recordings in natural reverb. When The Beatles began expanding beyond guitars-and-drums basics (often with the encouragement and assistance of producer/arranger George Martin), the studios’ classical pedigree came in handy. Witness the mournful string quartet that colors “Yesterday,” the rising tide of chaos bringing “A Day in the Life” to its climax with an entire orchestra going from their lowest notes to their highest, or the grand gang of brass and strings enhancing the epic drama of the medley on the career-closing album appropriately titled Abbey Road.
Cliff Richard and The Shadows
The English rock ‘n’ roll scene was a couple of steps behind that of the U.S., but Abbey Road was where British rock’s Big Bang occurred. On July 24, 1958, Cliff Richard & The Drifters came to the studio to record “Move It,” a fire-breathing tune proving Brits could lay their claim to the raucous sound altering pop music’s DNA. In the 2022 documentary about the studio, If These Walls Could Sing, Richard reckons, “Abbey Road gave [U.K.] rock ‘n’ roll its life…it was in the forefront of one of the biggest musical changes.”
A teenage Paul McCartney was wowed by “Move It,” allegedly running over to show John Lennon when he mastered the track’s opening guitar riff. Richard would later claim that Lennon once said, “Before Cliff Richard and ‘Move It,’ there was nothing worth listening to in England.’”
Cliff’s Drifters soon evolved into The Shadows, who had a separate career as an instrumental band, in addition to backing Richard. In June of 1960, they did some innovating of their own at Abbey Road by recording “Apache.” Lead guitarist Hank Marvin achieved a transfixing new sound with a combination of a tape echo device and masterful manipulation of his tremolo bar – a haunting tone halfway between The Ventures (whose first hit had only just debuted), and Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti Western soundtracks, which were still years away.
The Beatles debut at Abbey Road
Hank Marvin was a guitar hero for every British rocker of the 60s, but The Shadows’ sound was a very direct wallop for The Beatles. The Liverpudlians adopted “Apache” for their repertoire during their early days in Hamburg clubs and even recorded their own Shadows homage, “Cry for a Shadow.” In 1987, George Harrison told Guitar Player, “John and I were just bull*****ing one day, and he had this new little Rickenbacker with a funny kind of wobble bar on it. And he started playing that off, and I just came in, and we made it up right on the spot.”
One reason The Beatles got signed after many rounds of refusals from other labels because EMI was eager to nab the next Cliff Richard & The Shadows. With George Martin producing, they cut much of their first album, Please Please Me, at Abbey Road in just under 12 hours, with only two-track technology.
You know what happened next. But one of the many knock-on effects of The Beatles’ success was an influx of other U.K. groups coming into EMI Studios to capture the same magic. In the mid-’60s, 3 Abbey Road was home to everything from the R&B/jazz-inflected rock ‘n’ roll of Manfred Mann to the airy, harmony-heavy folk-pop of The Seekers.
Feedback and backward tapes
The Beatles’ Abbey Road sessions brought about a slew of innovations changing the way records were made. The groundbreaking began as early as October 1964, when the opening drone of “I Feel Fine” pioneered the use of feedback on record. It began as an accident when John’s guitar picked up Paul’s bass note and fed it back through John’s amplifier. The band liked the effect so much, they reproduced it for the intro. Lennon later declared, “I defy anybody to find a [previous] record – unless it’s some old blues record in 1922 – that uses feedback that way.”
Pink Floyd were among those embracing these developments, with Beatles engineer Norman Smith producing the Abbey Road session for their 1967 single “Apples and Oranges.” But the feedback frenzy reached far and wide, ultimately involving The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and nearly every psychedelic rocker you can name.
Depending on whose account you accept, either John Lennon or George Martin had the idea of playing tapes backward at Abbey Road. But in April of 1966, “Rain” became the first record to employ the technique, running Lennon’s reversed vocal at the end.
Before long, tapes of voices, guitars, and anything else imaginable were being reversed on trippy tracks everywhere, be it in London or Los Angeles. One of the more unusual examples, the nightmarish “Butcher’s Tale” from The Zombies’ magnum opus Odessey and Oracle, was cut in July 1967 at EMI Studios, with eerie, atmospheric washes achieved by playing a Pierre Boulez recording backward at the wrong speed. The trend would continue for generations to come, on Abbey Road sessions for everything from Doctors of Madness’s visionary 1976 punk/prog merger Figments of Emancipation to Daniel Pemberton’s score for the 2019 movie Motherless Brooklyn.
Flanging and ADT
Flanging and ADT (automatic double tracking) were invented during the 1966 Revolver sessions too. Engineer Ken Townsend dreamed up a way to allow Lennon to double-track vocals without singing them twice. The psychedelic sound of flanging was a fascinating byproduct first added to “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
In due course, flanging became ubiquitous, popping up on the likes of The Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park” and Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” Much later, when pedals were perfected to accomplish what Townsend had done by hand, flangers proved indispensable to artists as far-flung as Rush and The Police.
Bringing things full circle, Alan Parsons (who would find fame fronting the Alan Parsons Project) was a humble engineering assistant for The Beatles at EMI Studios, but as producer of Pink Floyd’s 1973 Abbey Road-recorded milestone Dark Side of the Moon, he found nuanced applications of the technique, such as subverting the sound of the female choir on “Time.”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles’ most unfettered period of experimentation came in 1967, after they’d abandoned live performance and begun to feel the strain of Beatlemania. “They needed to either split or go to a bunker,” said George Martin’s son Giles in If These Walls Could Sing, “and that bunker was Abbey Road.” With state-of-the-art technology, unprecedented artistic ambition, and a contract guaranteeing limitless recording time, they made the studio their laboratory/playground.
There they set to work on rock’s first concept album, splicing tapes of calliope music for the dizzying circus scenes of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and blending brass instruments and animal noises on “Good Morning Good Morning.” On the aforementioned “A Day in the Life,” after Paul’s request for an “orchestral orgasm” at the coda was satisfied, each Beatle manned a different grand piano for the dramatic, eight-handed final chord.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band blew minds worldwide, even those of England’s most forward-thinking musicians. During its making, Pink Floyd was at Abbey Road working on their debut album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. With Norman Smith producing, they conjured a psychedelic storm arguably even trippier than the one being summoned in the studio next door. But they had the benefit of witnessing some of Sgt. Pepper’s construction and using tricks previously perfected by Abbey Road engineers for The Beatles, like the ADT effects for frontman Syd Barrett’s vocals.
Psychedelic concept albums started coming hard and fast, not least at Abbey Road, where The Pretty Things began making their cult classic S.F. Sorrow with Smith overseeing, six months after Sgt. Pepper’s release. Late ‘60s bands eager to emulate the symphonic heft of “A Day in the Life” were thick on the ground too, whether at EMI Studios (Procol Harum’s sweeping, cinematic title track to A Salty Dog) or elsewhere (The Moody Blues’ orchestrated, conceptual Days of Future Passed).
By the time the studio’s name was officially changed from EMI to Abbey Road in 1976, The Beatles were a blissful memory, and the styles of the 60s already seemed a world away. But prog, new wave, and a whole heap of sounds yet to arrive would be affected by what John, Paul, Ringo, and both Georges dreamed up in that crucible of creativity with a little help from their tech-savvy friends.