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It was just over 40 years ago – Jan. 3, 1970 – that the last official Beatles recording session took place at London's EMI Studios, commonly known as Abbey Road, after its address. With the group on the verge of breaking up, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr gathered to complete “I Me Mine” (John Lennon was in Denmark, according to “The Beatles Recording Sessions”).
Harrison’s song about selfishness and greed presaged what would become the “Me Decade” of the 1970s. The cut also is worth a listen today as Abbey Road’s fate is suddenly uncertain: the studio has been put up for sale by EMI, amid debt woes, the Financial Times reports.
There’s too much history in the building and too much music yet to be made for Abbey Road to go the way of the LP. It’s time for the music industry and perhaps even the British government to team and save Abbey Road.
The 19th Century townhouse at No. 3 Abbey Road was bought by EMI in 1929 and converted into recording studios. The space initially served classical orchestras, later branching out into Big Band (Glenn Miller recorded there), comedy (Peter Sellers and “The Goons” – surreal “Monty Python” forefathers – made records there) and, of course, rock and roll (the biggest selling album to come out of Abbey Road was Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”).
It was at Abbey Road where the Beatles convinced producer George Martin they were worth taking a chance on – even if they initially wowed him more with their personalities than their music.
Amid the stodgy atmosphere – technicians wore lab coats and there was a formal pecking order – the group made Studio No. 2, blessed with an amazing echo, a laboratory for transforming music. The Beatles, Martin and engineers like Geoff Emerick were studio innovators – creating effects like flanging, cleverly using feedback, mixing in backwards loops and introducing classical instruments to rock and roll.
In seven years, the Fab Four went from “Please Please Me” to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” to “Abbey Road,” their final album, named for the one place where they were left in relative peace to make music magic.
The studio is a shrine for fans who scrawl their names and messages on the wall outside, and cross the street as the Beatles did on the iconic “Abbey Road” album cover, much to the annoyance of motorists plying the busy thoroughfare.
But Abbey Road is a lot more than a tourist attraction and a history piece. The studio is actively used to record everything from movie scores (The “Harry Potter” soundtracks) to acts such as Regina Spektor, Radiohead and Oasis.
It’s also the setting for the Sundance Channel’s great “Live From Abbey Road” show, which features an inter-generational lineup of performers like Gnarls Barkley, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Suzanne Vega and Brian Wilson, all drawn by the studio’s mystique – and acoustics.
Abbey Road’s continuing vitality says a lot in an era where anyone with Garage Band and a laptop commands a far more sophisticated setup than when the Beatles recorded “Sgt. Pepper” using a four-track system.
So the best-case scenario here is that Abbey Road is purchased and preserved as a recording studio. Worst case, it’s leveled for upscale housing.
There could, with a little creativity, be an opportunity to save Abbey Road as a working studio, with a museum element. That could be lucrative, especially considering the Beatles' continued popularity and a growing overall greater appreciation for rock history.
Sun Studios in Memphis, where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash got their start, gives tours. John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s boyhood homes in Liverpool have been preserved by Britain’s National Trust and are open to the public.
Abbey Road, though, is in posh St. John’s Wood, far from modest Liverpool. This is prime London property, which might be out of reach for the National Trust alone. Thankfully, there are the beginnings of a movement in the music community to keep Abbey Road going – an effort that’s drawn McCartney's support.
"It still is a great studio," he told the BBC's Newsnight. "It would be lovely if somebody could get a thing together to save it."
Or, to paraphrase Lennon on the opening cut of “Abbey Road”: Come together – right now – and save Abbey Road.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.