Our Excellent Adventure at Abbey Road
The trip to merrie olde England almost ended before it began. Due to unexpected traffic delays, Swanwick and I almost missed the Saturday evening flight. We were told when we arrived at Kennedy Airport that we might have to wait until 5:00 the following afternoon to depart, if we departed at all. Volcanic ash from Iceland was threatening to close every airport in Britain - which actually happened the following day for a few hours. This put brother Pete's proposed trip across the pond in a very precarious position. He wasn't scheduled to fly out of Toronto until Monday night. For a time it looked like wouldn't be able to make the trip. Owing to the fact that it was he who made the entire thing possible, that would have been an irony compounded by a factor of ten. Due to a simple twist of fate, we all managed to get there. You know how lucky we Irish are.
I am totally ashamed of my behavior on the plane during the flight across the Atlantic. I'm sorry to tell you that I engaged in an inexcusable moment of racial profiling. Behind me were a group of seven or eight men whose attire and demeanor had me very suspicious. As things turned out, their behavior en route was exemplary and I had nothing to fear. Given all that has happened in recent years however, and taking into consideration that it is their kind who are trying to destroy America, I had every reason to be worried. I'm sorry but seeing a group of bloated, middle-aged white guys in business suits tends to make me just a tad paranoid.
For the two days leading up to our tour of Abbey Road, Kevin and I cavorted around London, tearing up the town and making a general nuisance of ourselves. You've really got to hand it to the English people. They have always had an exceedingly high threshold for antisocial behavior; much more so than their colonial cousins. Their tolerance is truly impressive. After having experienced the terror from the night sky that was inflicted on them by Hitler's Luftwaffe seventy years ago, I suppose the prospect of enduring Swanwick and Degan for a few days wasn't that much of a challenge come to think about it.
Pete finally blew into town late Monday evening and checked into his hotel room. After a restless night's sleep (all of two hours for me) we were off to the EMI/Abbey Road Studios, arriving early Tuesday morning at a quarter to eight - forty-five minutes early just to be safe. Accompanying us on the journey within those sound-proof walls would be Mr. John Beaumont, an old mate of Kevin's and a new one of mine and Pete's. John is a British subject. Subject to what, he never made quite clear.
It's hard to describe my feelings upon entering the place. I have always, from my earliest boyhood, been fascinated with the art and technology of recorded sound. That plus the fact that it was in this setting that the Beatles recorded their wondrous music between the years 1962 and 1970, it would only be natural that the building would inspire an undeniable awe in someone like me. This was gonna be really cool!
The story of Abbey Road does not begin with the Beatles walking through the door for their audition recording on June 6, 1962. The idea was conceived in the spring of 1927 by a bloke named Captain Osmond Williams - "Ozzie" as they affectionately refer to him today. Sadly, by the time the first recording session commenced on November 11, 1931, Williams had died at the age of forty-five. Abbey Road is his legacy. It is also the oldest recording studio in the world and the first facility dedicated exclusively to making records.
Its long, pre-1962 history aside, this is the place where for eight incredible years something wonderful and magical happened. The sounds that emanated from inside this structure changed our lives forever. Let me take you down....
How this all came about was that a few months ago, Brother Pete bid on a charity auction that would benefit cancer research in the United Kingdom. The winner would receive a guided tour for six of EMI Recording Studios. Much to everyone's surprise (including his, I'm sure) he won. After a few communications back and forth across the ocean, the date of May eighteenth was settled upon.
We were greeted in the reception area by a lovely woman named Colette Barber. She organized our visit and was there the whole time to make sure that none of us got out of line (and none of us did - Honest!) After a few minutes she introduced us to Giles Martin. It was he (in collaboration with his father George Martin) who was behind the brilliant collage of Beatles tracks that was released a couple of years ago titled, simply, "Love". I've met a few geniuses in my time but never one half as humble as this guy. Oh! And he's very polite. Did I mention that? Just like his dear old dad, a real gentleman to the manor born. George and Judy, you raised your kid well. Be proud.
It was quite a treat to walk inside Studio Number Two. We had seen thousands of photographs over the years of the lads at work inside this very room, but to actually be there is something else again. There were the familiar stairs that wondered up into the control room; there was the upright piano next to the entrance that Paul McCartney used on Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da and Lady Madonna - among other recordings too numerous to mention. Just to stand there and imagine all that went on in this room brings to mind an outpouring of mental images. The place literally reeks with history.
One of the unsung heroes of Abbey Road is a man by the name of Lester Smith (photo on the left). Colette and Giles escorted us into his windowless office deep within the building's interior. Mr. Smith, a very kind and intriguing man, is the keeper and guardian of EMI's massive collection of microphones - modern and vintage - some of which go back to the company's founding in 1931! In addition to some easily recognizable mics that were used by John, Paul, George and Ringo during their tenure, he showed us one that was used by Glenn Miller during the final recording session of his life in 1944. His wonderful office is almost like a museum. Here's to you, Lester!
Giles Martin, unlike his wide-eyed charges on this day, does not live with the Beatles. What I mean is that he doesn't bring them home at night, so to speak. This is not meant to imply that he does not love and respect their artistry. He does - very much so. It's simply that the music of the Fab Four is such a huge part of his working life these days, he prefers to give them the day off when in the sanctuary of his home, spending time with his wife and two children. I can relate. On more than a few occasions I have attended the Beatlefest at the Meadowlands Hilton in New Jersey: Two solid days of Beatles - Beatles for breakfast; Beatles for lunch; Beatles in the morning; Beatles in the evening; Beatles at suppertime; Beatles in my dreams; Beatles to the left of me; Beatles to the right of me; Beatles in front of me; Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of the Beatles....After forty-eight hours of nonstop absorption, I would find myself needing a break for a week or so. The fact that the phenomenon of the Beatles has not totally consumed him is a testament to Giles Martin's psychological makeup. And it shows, too. He seems genuinely grounded and at ease with himself. As a result, he effortlessly put his visitors on this day at ease as well.
At one point I informed him that I had a message for Paul McCartney that I have been waiting to give to him since the autumn of 1962. "Would you give it to him for me, Giles?"
"If I can", he replied, "What's the message?"
"Tell him I said congratulations on Love Me Do getting into the top twenty! It's a nice little song. It has a lot of promise. But I've got to tell you, that middle eight ('Someone to love/Somebody new....') needs a little work. Don't get me wrong; it's good. It's very good! It's just that it could be better. But other than that, I think it's a fine little tune!"
Ain't I a scream?
After this little bit of foolishness on my part, he gently escorted us into Studio Three where he switched on the master recording of John Lennon's Imagine in Surround Sound. The four of us might as well have been listening to this track for the very first time - it sounded that good. The audio experience was almost overwhelming.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world
After it was over, Pete asked him if he would mind playing it for us again, this time with Lennon's vocal removed from the mix, with only his piano and the strings audible. He kindly obliged. When it was over, there was a somber quiet in the room. As undoubtedly beautiful as the arrangement was, hearing that song minus John's voice, was a sad reminder that that voice has been forever stilled; that he is no longer walking this earth - and the hideous manner in which he was taken from our midst on that horrible December evening thirty years ago. It's impossible not to dwell on all that was lost that night - on all that might have been - had John Lennon been allowed the gift of years. But for the murderous actions of one sick, misguided person with a gun....Don't get me started.
Happily for all concerned, Giles interrupted our grim contemplation by playing for us - again in Surround Sound - the entire Love LP which he and Father George produced in 2008. Like Imagine, although we have listened to it countless times since its initial release, this was a totally new experience for us. No doubt about it: I've got to invest in some Surround Sound equipment very soon. Otherwise it's never going to sound this good again. I hate to have to tell you this, folks, but stereo is the new mono. I'm adjusting. It's not easy.
Many things were discussed on this day including the evolution of recording technology. I asked Giles if the master tapes that the songs were originally recorded on even served any viable purpose any longer given the fact that they have all been remastered digitally. When he told me that they did, I responded "Too bad. I was going to ask you if I could take one home as a souvenir." I know, I'm shameless.
Another topic that came up was the eternal appeal that the Beatles seem to have for young people. I told him about the Sager kids - Brian, Meghan and Michael, the children of my friends Brian and Terri - the oldest of whom was born over thirteen years after John Lennon died. They recently discovered the music of the Beatles and were sold on them from the start. Giles' theory (on which we all agreed) is that the music possesses an indescribable appeal that defies the decades. Who could argue with that? Have you ever met a little kid who didn't adore Yellow Submarine?
It was a great day, one of those mountaintop moments that will stay with each of us for the rest of our lives. Everyone there was so nice that I almost felt guilty. At one point, Colette bought us up a tray of drinks while we listened to those incredible tracks in Studio Three. When the tour was over, both she and Giles walked downstairs with us to the ground-level canteen and joined us for a couple of pints. It opens onto a beautiful garden and we all hung out for about a half an hour, just chatting and relaxing. It was nicer than even I could have possibly anticipated. Despite my deepest, dark-valley moments, I really am having a good life.
As we said goodbye, we told Giles Martin to send his mom and dad our love. Pete and I met them both in 1999, so it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. Once outside, we posed for a few photographs and then made our way down Abbey Road toward the London underground. That night Kevin and I flew back to New York, Pete went on to Paris to see Brother Jeff, and John made his way back to his home in Reading. It was quite a day in the life.
And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love you make.
I'll drink to that!
NOTE: The photograph at the top of this page is of (left to right) John Beaumont, Kevin Swanwick, Giles Martin, Tom Degan and Peter Degan. Taken inside Studio Number Three, Abbey Road, May 18, 2010. Photo by Colette Barber.
All You Need Is Ears
By George Martin
With A Little Help From My Friends:
The Making of Sgt. Pepper
by George Martin(Giles' dad)
"Produced by George Martin" is a six CD set that encompasses Sir George's remarkable fifty-year career. It covers every musical genre you can possibly name: rock 'n' roll, pop, classical, opera, comedy - even a couple of records for children. Pick up a copy. It's more-that-worth the price of the ticket, I promise! Here's a link to purchase it on Amazon.com:
To view a Facebook photo gallery of our trip to Abbey Road, click on the link below:
We followed her down from a bridge by a fountain, and she led us to the doors of the Abbey Road Studios. A splendid time was guaranteed for all, and the nice folks there delivered - BIG TIME.
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"THE RANT" by TOM DEGAN
Nasty, LEFT WING propaganda. Cheerio! Pip! Pip!