First Steps – Abbey Road | Sunny with Occasional Rain
The first time I walked into Abbey Road Studios I was a nervous 16 year old entering a temple of music, because although the immortal Abbey Road album had not yet been recorded, the studios were already firmly established in the annals of music as a birthplace of creativity. If you were entering there to record, this meant you were already either an established artist or someone who had signed a contract with EMI (most likely, as the studios were then known as EMI studios and catered primarily for artists signed to that company). It had a strangely formal side at that time, with union rules applying all over the place. Heaven forbid you moved a chair yourself, you were risking upsetting a union member whose job was to move that chair, and therefore you were potentially inciting a walk out by union members. It was strange to have this juxtaposition of rules and rock rebelliousness. But it was incredible to be entering this place that later would create the album that boasted its name and to feel that one day maybe, just maybe, I might enter in a different capacity.
I had been given the opportunity to attend an afternoon session in the legendary Studio 2, which would keep adding perennial classics to its already existing hall of fame. I didn’t know what I would be experiencing or who might be recording, only that I was to sit quietly, not interfere, observe and maybe learn something. So when in walked the Pretty Things, I was shocked and at the same time nervous in the company of already famous ( and infamous) rock musicians. They were really friendly guys who made me feel ok being in the studio , but I was struck by how thin they looked, tired and sallow. Touring, partying, all night recording sessions or gigs and too many cigarettes clearly are not remedies for great health. They were working with Norman Smith, a legendary producer who had worked with many artists including the Beatles and who would later become Hurricane Smith, a chart topping artists in his own right. The band were working on a new single and this was possibly my first experience of a professional recording environment. The day I was there, the drummer was having trouble trying to interpret a fill that the other guys were trying to get him to play, ‘just go digada, digada, digada dosh’ shouted the singer in his broad west country accent after endless takes that weren’t working too well. The band was getting more heated and Norman was trying to keep the situation calm. Eventually though after dozens of takes and a lot of irascibility, the track came together and sounded pretty good to me, raw and aggressive with plenty of ‘up yours’ in it. Vocals were going to be done the next day so I missed that part. Later, thanking the guys for allowing me to attend their session and for giving me a great insight into how a recording session might work, I got ready to leave. ‘So’ said Norman, ‘you sure you want to be in this business?’ I cant remember my exact reply but I was so fired up by the recording process with all its naked exposure of feelings, ideas, complexities and angst that it would have been something along the line of ‘ yeah, more than ever’.
A recording studio is an extraordinary environment. Like a casino, there are no windows to take you away from the absolute focus of what you are doing. The recording medium – microphone, tape ( back then), digital (now) is brutal in its exposure of bad performance or feel. But ironically, sometimes mistakes become key components of a finished track and end up as a feature or ‘hook’ of a song. How does one know when the track or song is working and has got the ‘thing’ the extra something that is the indefinable success opportunity factor. You just know when (or maybe you believe you know although often what sounds good one day, sounds terrible the next. ) Then you have to go again or chuck the idea into the bin. Being honest with yourself and ready to own up if something is wrong or just not gelling is key. Experiencing the Pretties that day was the beginning of a life lived in studios with all the frustrations and joys that creating music would bring.
I went back several times to Abbey Road as my career evolved. I remember the first time I returned, the same guy who warned me about union rules was still there, controlling the positioning of chairs. Yet Abbey Road is eternal, swimming in echoes of emotion,struggle and light. Artists come and go, tourists today flock to take photos of the famous zebra crossing, but for me it will always represent my first encounter with the intimate world of recording, the place of infinite possibilities, a landmark in my life’s journey with music.
Interactive Virtual Tour of Abbey Road
Google has teamed up with Abbey Road to present an in-depth guided tour of the studios by combining the engines of Google Maps with YouTube videos. Click here to check it out
Sunny with Occasional Rain
Sunny with Occasional Rain is a blog series written by BKP Media Group CEO, Barry Kirsch, highlighting moments from his intriguing career.