A day at Abbey Road Studios
There is no happy ending to this story. Not many years from now — five? one? — the world will be reduced to an uninhabitable state in which no Beatles are alive.
Nor will this essay meet the dictates of feel-good pop psychology, wherein my visit to Abbey Road Studios in London this summer neatly caps, and thereby helps me to turn the corner on, my Fab obsession. Pilgrimage to Mecca did not free me of the quasi-religious fervor that seized me at seven and has led me to accumulate vast archives capturing virtually every sonic blip they ever recorded, released or unreleased, and virtually every published interview they ever gave. I remain pathetically in the grips of Beatlemania.
A physical sensation — a body-wide tingling, possession by electricity — struck during my first attempt at pilgrimage. It was February 2006 and I was covering Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s meetings with the Quartet, the cadre of foreign ministers gamely drafting a roadmap for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. (The session proved memorable only because former president Carter made a special appearance to lecture the Quartet on — what else? — Israel’s perfidy.) With New York and Washington still asleep and a bit of time to myself, I wandered the streets near my hotel in suit and tie, puffing a cigar and imagining myself, Murrow via Mitty, one of the great foreign correspondents.
Suddenly, it dawned on me: You fool! You should be using this time to visit Mecca! I milked an ATM, hailed a taxi, and barked: “Take me to the holiest of holy Mecca sites.” “Where’s that, mate?” “Abbey Road Studios,” I replied, and the driver nodded wearily: one of those.
Deposited alone, I couldn’t even stage the zebra-crosswalk photo. I just stood across the street, keenly surveying the pre-Victorian structure at 3 Abbey Road, St. John’s Wood. Mere sight of the place triggered the electricity that suddenly possessed me. More precisely, it was physical visitation: the reaching at last of the epicenter of All That, confirmation, as though any were needed, that the Beatles weren’t some grand media confection, a hoax of Capricorn One dimensions . . . It had all really happened.
Those steps: That’s where they jumped on each other for the Please Please Me–era photos, the outtakes from which first appeared in Mark Lewisohn’s 1988 reference volume, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962–1970 . . . The roof: That’s where George Martin took John, that night during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, when the Beatles’ founder was tripping hard and needed fresh air, and Paul, to erase the experiential gap with his best mate, resolved to take LSD with him . . . The only other spot on earth that had produced that same electric-possession sensation had been Tiananmen Square, with the giant painting of Mao staring down. All That had really happened, too.
I breached the wall perennially covered in Beatle-ffiti and climbed the steps to the front door, just as the lads once did in newsreel comings and goings, and addressed myself to the receptionist, a brunette who, in my memory, resembles Elizabeth Hurley (although Anglophilia may here have conquered cognition). I told her I was an American journalist traveling with the secretary of state, showed my official credentials, and asked if there was any way she could walk me past — not in, just past — Studio Two, where the Beatles recorded most of their canon. “No, I’m sorry, I Kant,” came the posh-accented reply; an instant later, I was back on my lonely street corner. Consolation came from an older gent carrying a tuba case. No, but he had played on one of Paul’s solo albums — what do you mean you don’t remember which one? — and his friend had played on “Eleanor Rigby.” “He got a day rate,” the man said wistfully.
This time the invitation came from a stranger. An assistant to a world-renowned classical pianist I’d never heard of — how would I have? — wrote me to say the musician was a fan of my work on Fox News and knew of my interest in the Beatles, and how would my family and I like to attend his next session at Abbey Road, in Studio Two with the London Symphony Orchestra, on July 13?
Before securing the time off or verifying that the pianist, Jan Mulder, existed, and this was not some elaborate extortion plot, I was booking travel.
Sara and I took our two boys, whose middle names are Lennon and McCartney, to London but not to Abbey Road; my one shot at Mecca would not be spent fretting over lost fidget spinners. Instead we invited along Sara’s cousin and her husband, affluent Londoners accustomed to elite rooms but still impressed by my ticket to ride to one of the most revered, yet least visited, sites in all of Great Britain.
Because Abbey Road remains one of the world’s most technologically sophisticated and solidly booked recording studios, only a handful of public tours have ever been conducted, and then only for small groups. This differentiates the studio from a heavily trafficked attraction such as, say, Buckingham Palace. For this reason, assuming flawless execution of Mission: Impossible–style diversionary tactics, one stands a better chance, mathematically, of rummaging the queen’s pajama drawer than of setting foot inside Studio Two — where, as well, Pink Floyd recorded Dark Side of the Moon.
This time, the receptionist — a different one — was expecting me. I signed the visitors’ log directly beneath two inked names: visitor Adam Sharp, whom I knew as the publicist for the late Sir George Martin, and Sharp’s host, Giles, who was of course Giles Martin, son of Sir George and inheritor of the solemn task of remixing all reissued Beatles recordings. Giles was here! Maybe we would bump into him and somehow win admission to the vaults — or relive that time, in 1991, when I’d accosted the Martin family during a layover at LaGuardia . . .
Gabriel Mulder, the pianist’s lanky 20-year-old son, introduced himself. He had assured me jackets were unnecessary but welcomed us in a black velvet jacket, black T-shirt, white slacks, and sneakers. It was Gabe, it turned out, who was the James Rosen fan who thought to invite me to his father’s fourth (or was it his fifth?) recording session at Abbey Road. “For us,” Gabe told me, grinning like a young Roger Waters, “Fox News is like the Beatles and you are like Paul McCartney.” I warned him never to repeat such heresies.
After an exchange of gifts — my latest book and the new Sgt. Pepper set (featuring outtakes recorded Right There!) for four Abbey Road coffee mugs Gabe had very thoughtfully procured from the gift shop — we toured the entire building, save one exception: The fabled roof, site of John’s LSD retreat, eluded us. Here was Studio One, red sign illuminated outside, a separate classical session under way inside, cavernous and eerie as one glimpsed, through control-room glass, a baton rising and falling in the hand of a white-haired conductor.
Here was the renovated cafeteria, adorned with black-and-whites of the ’62-era Beatles in That Spot. There was ’78-era Paul, sliding his tray down That Food Line. The shots of Gerry and the Pacemakers scarfing food with George Martin, or Cilla Black playfully pulling on the tie the famed producer always wore to work, now conjure eras as distant as the Civil War.
Every hallway featured long lines of framed, autographed movie posters, their soundtracks having been conducted or mixed there. Cluttering the industrial-carpeted walkways, awaiting disposal, were obsolete ’90s-era reel-to-reel machines, now shelter to the sparkling-water bottles stowed beneath them. An alcove housed a photocopier and tens of thousands of pages of yellowing sheet music: the print library. The idea of glimpsing, let alone sampling, the 400 hours of master tapes the Beatles filled between 1962 and 1970, a communion ritual afforded only to a privileged few historians, had been raised by me a few days earlier and summarily shot down by the three corporations whose permission is now necessary for all such demonstrations. And the master tapes are, in any event, housed offsite.
Finally, we visited the Studio Two control room. There we watched, through the glass and on mounted TV monitors, Jan Mulder massaging a Steinway while conducting 41 casually dressed LSO musicians. Forty-one, did you say? The exact number of classical musicians brought in, in formal dress, to record the mad crescendo on “A Day in the Life” 50 years ago in — This Very Spot! After an hour the cellists and violinists broke from the hymn they were rehearsing (“Come Thou Fount”) on this latest of Mulder’s Christian-themed albums, and the maestro joined us to say hello.
Dutch-born, tall and lanky like his son, Jan also sported a black T-shirt, along with a ’70s perm and the same aura of unflappable decency his son exuded. Several of his albums have gone gold and platinum, and the Mulders, it turns out, are residents of North Carolina — and Trump fans. From his breast pocket Gabe proudly produced a three-by-five of him and Dad posed with the president-elect, thumbs-up, after an inaugural rehearsal.
Also present was Geoff Foster, the Grammy-winning studio engineer best known for his work on Daniel Craig’s James Bond films. His eagerness to return to the console and the work at hand exposed him as the embodiment of John Cheever’s definition of a good host: He held in equilibrium the pleasure he took in his guests’ company and the pleasure he took in knowing they would all soon be gone.
A break in recording enabled Sara, our guests, and me to tread the famous steps that lead down from the control room to the floor of Studio Two: the white-walled, parquet-covered inner sanctum of British rock. Here possession posed a brief threat: As we looked down the staircase, I was overcome, briefly, with hot flashes and held my head in my hand. My wife poked me.
Once before, in October 2005, when Sir Paul plucked me from a small studio audience to play piano for him during the recording of the XM Artist Confidential program, a nudge from Sara had kept me from collapsing into tears, my default state at Paul’s concerts following the death, in late 2001, of George Harrison. The Beatles’ proximity to death is more than I can handle. A solitary trip to see last year’s excellent Ron Howard documentary, Eight Days a Week, had left me so distraught that my six-year-old asked why “the Beatles movie” made me so sad. “It’s just that they were so great,” I offered, “and it was so long ago.”
Jolted into propriety, I roved the large room, photographing every major and minor detail, marveling at how similar the chamber looks to its 1960s appearance. Who knew those famous white-metal sidings with the slits sit on wheels? And that filthy, bent grate — that had to have been there then! Look: the completed session agreement form for the cellist, Jennifer Brown! After a few more minutes spent grasping at communion, with our small party kindly but unnecessarily concerned for my emotional state, we repaired to the basement, and the Abbey Road Café, for a fine lunch of antipasto, arroz con pollo, sopa de lentejas, and York ham with cheddar.
Stepping outside, Gabriel brilliantly took our zebra-crossing photo. And then, with the same cruelty that was visited upon the pilgrims who filled the Ed Sullivan Theater and Shea Stadium, when the show was over and one’s brief, frenzied exposure to the Magical Ones had come to its end, we were disgorged back into Real Life.
“This next song,” Paul used to tell the fans, “will have to be our last one this evening . . .” And when the jet-engine screaming would erupt in protest — you can hear it before “Long Tall Sally” on the reissued version of Live at the Hollywood Bowl that Giles Martin recently superintended — Paul would adopt a mock-stern headmaster’s tone and say, “Oh, yes . . .”
But the screaming only grew louder and more determined, until no one, including the Beatles themselves, could hear anything at all.
– Mr. Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent of Fox News.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its publication to correct an error. It was not Paul McCartney who took John Lennon to the roof of Abbey Road Studios during the latter’s acid trip of March 21, 1967, as stated originally, but George Martin. However, Paul and George Harrison swiftly joined them there, and it was Paul who took John to Paul’s Cavendish home thereafter. The incident did not prompt Paul to take LSD for the first time — Paul had done that with friend Tara Browne the year before — but it did prompt him to take the drug with one of his fellow Beatles for the first time, an event that occurred later that night, at Cavendish.