BEATLES FANS WHO’VE MADE the pilgrimage to Abbey Road Studio 2 will attest to the experience of eerie communion with the mighty music captured there. Now there’s a new reason to set foot on hallowed ground with a series of events designed to shed light on the EMI facility’s storied recording history. The Sound Of Abbey Road Studios season begins later this month and offers a unique insight into the groundbreaking recordings made in situ. It’s hosted by Brian Kehew and Kevin Ryan, authors of the forensic and fascinating book, Recording The Beatles.
Joining them on the podium: legendary recording engineer and producer Ken Scott, whose sessions with the Beatles and others at Abbey Road set him up for a career recording the great and the good of pop, rock, prog and fusion, including a stellar stint co-producing David Bowie albums including Hunky Dory and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars.
From white coats to kaftans, and recording Yer Blues in a cupboard, Scott shares some of his Abbey Road memories with MOJO...
Tell us about your first day working at Abbey Road.
KS: I was petrified. My whole experience of getting the gig there took about nine days. I was fed up of school on the Friday, wrote about ten letters to places that I thought might need someone called a recording engineer. Abbey Road wrote back on the Tuesday, I had an interview with them on the Wednesday, was accepted on the Friday. I left school that day and started work on the Monday. I was 16. I'd never had a job and here I was in this huge place. Before long I had in my hands the master tape of Can’t Buy Me Love. This was the Beatles! The next day I'm walking down the corridor and coming the other way were George Martin and George Harrison. I wanted to scream, just like the girls outside.
“Before long I had in my hands the master tape of The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love.”
This was in the heyday of the men in the white coats?
KS: Well, the only people who wore white coats were the technical wizards, the electronics wizards, and that’s because they had to work with dirty cables, had to go into damp echo chambers, and they had to wear suit and tie. And they didn’t want their suits all dirty. Hence the white coats – it was perfectly logical.
How did your apprenticeship work?
KS: There were seven full-time engineers at the time, and we moved between all of them. These were three of the greatest classical music engineers of the day and four of the greatest pop recording engineers. So we got to learn from all of them, got to see how they miked different instruments, what mikes they used. One day I was working with George Martin and Stuart Eltham recording Peter Sellers. Next day it could be Daniel Barenboim. They wanted you to get a feel of how everyone worked.
All that set you in good stead for the Beatles, because they wanted to explore all the possibilities of recording...
KS: Absolutely. The first time I ever sat behind a board to engineer a session was with the Beatles. I had no idea what I was doing but there I was with the biggest band in the world. The training that I had already had with EMI was amazing but The Beatles... There were no time limitations, no sonic limitations. They wanted experimentation. I could record something completely wrongly, completely screw it up and there was just as much chance that they’d like it. There was an incredible freedom working with them.
What’s a good example of the recording challenges The Beatles posed?
KS: Well, you had to be careful what you said to them. For instance, right next to the control room of Number 2 studio there was this very small room that used to house just a single four-track machine. But we'd finally got to a point where the four-tracks had all been moved into the control rooms, so this room was empty. We were recording something and listening back and I said to John, The way you guys are going you’re gonna want to record in there next, pointing to this tiny room.
John just looked at me, didn’t say anything. Couple of days later he comes in and says, “We’re going to record a new song. It’s called Yer Blues and we're gonna record it in there.” I had to fit all four of them, and their equipment and the mics into this tiny room. If any one of them had swung round they’d have knocked someone's head off.
“As soon as you set foot in Abbey Road Studio 2 you feel the history of it.”
What made John want to record in there?
KS: Just because it would sound different. Up to halfway, or two-thirds through it’s a live vocal, no separation. But unfortunately John fluffed a lyric about halfway through and we had to punch in, so that’s where the sound changes. And John typically thought that if the sound's going to change anyway, we may as well make it sound completely different, and that’s where the sound completely changes.
They loved 'mistakes'. That was one of the incredible things about them. On Glass Onion, I erased a whole bunch of snares that had been overdubbed, and I thought, That’s it, I’m out on the street. But John listened to it, and said, “No-one would think to go to the smallest part of the song immediately after the biggest [you can hear the edit at 1.49]... I like it! We'll keep it!” And that enabled me to keep my job as well!
Were the White Album sessions as fractious as they’ve been painted?
KS: There’s a lot said about how the Beatles were at each other’s throats at the time, but that’s complete rubbish. Chris Thomas – who was George Martin’s assistant at the time – and John Smith who was my second engineer – would tell you the same. We had a blast. Yes, occasionally, there were blow-ups. Even on a two-week job, given the artistic temperaments, you expect an argument or two. If you spend six months on a project like that, it’s inevitable. But that’s all it was.
Sometimes it was boring! There was always that possibility. Because sometimes they might spend three days in Studio 2 just playing and playing and playing until they got a take that they thought was good. But you always knew it would be good in the end.
“Around early ’68 things started to loosen up – thanks to the Beatles.”
The culture at Abbey Road must have been changing rapidly. Was it getting less stuffy?
KS: Oh yes. Specifically around early ’68 things started to loosen up – thanks to the Beatles. The dress code had almost been eliminated. Recording hours had changed. The old regimented three-hour sessions were no longer adhered to. You could be recording through the night ’til 7 or 8 in the morning.
But also around this time there was a new studio manager. The old one had retired and for the first time they'd got someone in from the outside. He was a classical engineer, and he hated, loathed pop music and anyone connected with it. One night, he stopped by around 11 o'clock at night when Pink Floyd were recording, and switched off all the power for the entire studio.
Here we were in the era of psychedelia and here was this guy – Allen Stagg – trying to take it back to the middle ages. He actually tried to fire me. After the White Album I took two weeks off and when I came back he gave me this project. It was about cutting. We always complained that we couldn’t master as loud as the Americans. So he wanted me to spend two weeks in the cutting rooms to see if I could improve it. I thought this was a great idea.
But then he listened to one of my things, said it was disgusting! He said, “You shouldn’t listen to the producer or the artist – you work for us.” Then he fired me. It was a bit silly because I happened to have the Number 1 album around the world at that time, which was the White Album.
So I went to the head of EMI Records and told him the story. He gave me my job back and Mr Stagg had apologise to me in front of everyone. I felt very pretty good about that!
Returning to this Sound Of Abbey Road Studios project: what can “civilian” visitors to Abbey Road expect?
KS: First and foremost, as soon as you set foot in Abbey Road Studio 2 you feel the history of it. I have spent so many hours of my life in there but every time I go in there the hair on my neck stands up. There is a magic about that place.
On top of that, there’s lot of gear. We’ll be showing some of the effects that we used back then, and there’ll be a chance to compare it with the modern technology.
The talk covers the history of EMI Studios at Abbey Road – not just the Beatles, although of course they play an important part in the whole thing. The hosts, Brian and Kevin, know more about Abbey Road than half the people who worked there. They’ve got stuff I’ve never heard and bits of movies that no-one's seen before.
It’s something for the geeks and the fans. People have raved about previous ones and hopefully this will be even better. It’s just the morning session that I’m not looking forward to quite so much. I’m not a morning person. After all these years, I’m still on studio time!
The Sound Of Abbey Road Studios: event information and schedule
Friday 25th April Session 1: Doors 2pm/ event starts 3pm Session 2: Doors 7pm/ event starts 8pm
Saturday 26th April Session 1: Doors 10am/ event starts 11am Session 2: Doors 3pm/ event starts 4pm
Sunday 27th April Session 1: Doors 10am/ event starts 11am Session 2: Doors 3pm/ event starts 4pm
Friday 2nd May Session 1: Doors 2pm/ event starts 3pm Session 2: Doors 7pm/ event starts 8pm
Saturday 3rd May Session 1: Doors 10am/ event starts 11am Session 2: Doors 3pm/ event starts 4pm
Sunday 4th May Session 1: Doors 10am/ event starts 11am Session 2: Doors 3pm/ event starts 4pm
[Please note the events will take place in Studio Two only and do not involve a tour of Abbey Road Studios.]