London’s famous Abbey Road Studios is the focus of new film by Paul McCartney's daughter

‘If These Walls Could Sing’ tells the story of The Beatles and that zebra crossing, seminal film scores and its stature across the decades

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What do Edward Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the score from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way have in common?

They were all recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios.

Scroll through the gallery above for pictures of famous musicians who have recorded at Abbey Road Studios

The studio in St John’s Wood in north-west London is perhaps the most famous of its kind in the world, having seen the likes of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Oasis, John Williams, Kylie Minogue, Fela Kuti, Alanis Morrisette, Coldplay and Deep Purple pass through its hallowed corridors.

Another of the building's famous past visitors is photographer Mary McCartney. Inspired by an old black-and-white photo of herself as a baby laying on the carpet of Studio One as her father Paul recorded with The Beatles, she made the documentary If These Walls Could Sing. The feature, which explores the stories behind the music recorded there, recently had its debut at the Telluride Film Festival, Colorado, the US.

From townhouse to recording studio

Originally a nine-bedroom Georgian townhouse built in 1831, it was bought by the Gramophone Company in 1929, which set about transforming it into a recording studio.

EMI Recording Studios opened in November 1931 with English composer Edward Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra for a recording of Land of Hope and Glory.

For decades, classical musicians would record in the famed Studio One, including celebrated British cellist Jacqueline du Pre, whose short yet influential life was immortalised in the 1998 film Hilary and Jackie. American big band musician Glenn Miller recorded there during World War II.

Why is Abbey Road Studios so famous?

Left, Mary McCartney peels back the rich history of Abbey Road Studios in her documentary 'If These Walls Could Sing'; right, the album cover of The Beatles' 'Abbey Road' cemented the studios' place in pop culture. Photo: Apple Corps; Getty Images

The studio began to welcome rock and pop bands in the 1950s, who would record in Studio Two. However, as it was owned by EMI, it was mostly used by acts signed to the record label.

It was The Beatles' 1969 album Abbey Road which really put the studio on the map. The album cover showed John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Paul McCartney walking across the zebra crossing outside the studio, instantly turning both the crossing and the building into a place of pilgrimage for music fans around the world.

Capitalising on The Beatles’ legacy, EMI Recording Studios was officially renamed as the Abbey Road Studios in 1976, overseen by general manager and sound engineer, Ken Townsend, who would work on Rubber Soul, Revolver and more. He also invented artificial double tracking in a bid to appease John Lennon, who disliked doing second takes.

Classic rock tales

Another seminal album, Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, was recorded at the studios in 1970, while former Led Zeppelin members Robert Plant and Jimmy Page made their 1998 album Walking into Clarksdale there.

In McCartney’s documentary, guitarist Page recounts working as a session musician there when he was a teenager, playing on the James Bond theme Goldfinger, which was recorded by Shirley Bassey.

Another Abbey Road session musician alumni who went onto greater things is Elton John, who reveals in the documentary that he played piano on The Hollies track He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, and recounts bumping into Paul McCartney in the studio in the 60s, calling it the greatest moment in his life at that point.

“I feel like Abbey Road Studios helped formulate the Beatles’ sound, not only because of the space they were recording in, but because there were instruments lying around,” says Mary McCartney. “You do get a feeling when you walk into the space of coming home. It holds a lot of memories because they haven’t knocked down walls and changed it.”

Film scores: from 'Indiana Jones' to 'Aliens'

As well as some of the world’s most famous albums, many of cinema’s most recognisable scores have been recorded at Abbey Road.

In 1981, director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams hunkered down in Studio One to record the memorable music for the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Williams would return multiple times over the years to score the likes of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace among others, with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Other film soundtracks recorded at the studios include Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Brazil, Aliens and Amadeus.

“What I wanted from the interviews was to drill down into those musicians really feel about Abbey Road,” McCartney told Vanity Fair. “Do you really care about Abbey Road? It's a building and you recorded here, but whatever. Do you really care? And I think from the interviews, you can really see they are thinking fondly about it.

“I think ultimately there's a real love for the place. And I find that really interesting that people feel that way about a building still.”

Updated: September 09, 2022, 1:22 PM
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