The only time I’ve previously had the privilege of strolling over the most famous zebra crossing in the world and into the most famous studio in the world felt like walking into a museum: insofar as they even had the original, standing – up the sixties ashtrays set up in Studio Two. Ashtrays like John Lennon and Paul McCartney once – well, more than once – would have drained their Gauloises Bleus while recording with the Beatles.
“They want them here, but they’re not in the studio,” smiles Mary, the latter’s daughter, sitting in the Gatehouse Room of Abbey Road – the studio she’s made a documentary about – when I ask her if this is still the case. “They’re probably trying to discourage people from lighting up the studio these days.”
This is understandable because although it has been open since 1931 – having been built as a nine-bedroom Georgian townhouse in 1831 – Abbey Road remains a full-time studio. “So many people have come through here and made such meaningful pieces of music,” says singer Celeste, who walked through its famous doors for the first time last year, “and it encourages you to elevate your performance.”
This quote comes from one of the many exuberant interviews McCartney has squeezed into the 90 minutes of If These Walls Could Sing, which charts the history of Abbey Road. She’s also spoken to – deep breath – Elton John, Kate Bush, Liam and Noel Gallagher (not together, sadly), Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour (ditto), Cliff Richard, Kanye West (yes, we’ll get there), Jimmy Page, Ringo Starr and – of course – her dad, who even busts out some Blackbird on the acoustic guitar, his foot tapping a piece of cloth just as it did when he originally recorded it, archive footage that his daughter cuts to as he plays .
“I thought, ‘Look, your guitar is here, and I’m going to ask about Blackbird, and if you want, just pick it up and play it. But you don’t have to,” she says. “I had no guarantee that it was going to happen. It just goes to show: one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you say to the Beatles or my dad, ‘You can’t do anything,’ you get this twinkle in your eye theirs. You can see that’s why they were so innovative. They’re like, if you say we can’t do it, we’re definitely interested in doing it now.
I wonder if she’s as impressed as anyone would be to see a Beatle recreate such a famous Beatles moment, just like it was, just a few feet away from her, or if it’s just… Dad? “It’s funny, it’s kind of two things. Sometimes, like at home, it’s just more normal. But I have to say that people laugh at me because when I’ve seen him perform live, they’ll ask, ‘How was the concert?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that was amazing, he’s so amazing live,’ and I’m kind of removed. Like, “Wow, what a performer.”
McCartney herself has spent a lot of time at Abbey Road: as evidenced by the image of her as a baby crawling across the floor of Studio Two that appears in the opening minutes of her documentary. “I hadn’t seen that picture before,” she says. “Someone from my dad’s archive sent it and I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve really been here a long time.’
How long, exactly? When is the first time she can remember? “I imagine I was about five and I went away – because we lived nearby – and I came over when my mum and dad were recording in the Wings. But at that age… I was small and looked at things from a much lower perspective, so I remember Studio Two feeling quite big. And then go into the canteen and just eat as many snacks as I could.”
Given that they spent so much time there—and immortalized it in the title of the last album they recorded together—the Beatles feature heavily in the film. But McCartney was, she says, conscious not to “flood the documentary” with her father’s old band. And she has done a good job.
For example, she has different recollections from the Gallagher brothers about whether they were thrown out of the studio for bad behavior during their hedonistic pomp in the mid-Nineties (“I liked the fact that they contradict each other a bit. It seems like their relationship always going to challenge each other”); some pretty breathtaking footage of John Williams recording the Star Wars theme with a full orchestra (“Meeting him was a bit like the feeling of walking into Abbey Road: just this aura of magic and creativity around him”); Kate Bush actually speaks in public (‘It’s so great to hear her, isn’t it?’).
In fact, the only musician she wanted to get, but didn’t, was Frank Ocean. “He recorded Blonde here,” she says. “He sampled a Beatles track on it too, so I thought that would be a really nice addition. But I get it. He doesn’t really do interviews, so I didn’t expect him to.”
She did, however, bring in Kanye West, who has a lot to say in a section about his 2006 Late Orchestration live album that, for obvious reasons, now feels more than a little uncomfortable. I wonder if she considered editing him out? And if not, how does she feel about having him in the movie, posting anti-Semitic rants?
“Well, I’m upset about what he’s saying now, because I’m strongly against any kind of incitement to hatred or anti-Semitism or racism,” she says firmly. “It’s outrageous. When I made the documentary – because it was obviously locked and finished a while ago – he hadn’t started saying these things.
“I’ve thought about it a lot since then,” she continues, “and the interview that’s in the documentary is a lot of the time he was recording the album. There’s a lot of him talking eloquently about the studio and music and creativity. So I think it works. It shows the range of music that’s been recorded here. The interview is very much of a time in the past, and I think that really comes across to the viewer. It was important to include that at the time.”
It is true that the segment bridges the gap between the Abbey Road of the past, the Abbey Road of the present and – hopefully – the Abbey Road of the future. It may be staggering to hear that at some point in the eighties there were plans to demolish it and make way for a car park. But the truth is that in 2022 you can record studio-quality albums in your bedroom, and for many seemingly successful artists cashing checks from Spotify worth a penny, stepping into the hallowed confines of Studio Two for weeks at a time is probably an impossibility. .
Abbey Road is aware of this. The Gatehouse, where McCartney currently sits, is one of two ultra-modern, smaller studios that opened in 2017 and are aimed directly at younger musicians. And the director of If These Walls Could Sing, meanwhile, takes great comfort in the fact that “it was actually challenging for me to get the studio space booked.”
During all the interviews she did, she says, “ask, ‘Why is there room for a recording studio like Abbey Road?’ And it comes down to the fact that, yes, you can record anywhere with technology now – in your bedroom or wherever you want – but eventually getting somewhere, closing the door, shutting out the outside world and being in a studio where you can Just focus fully on creating, I think that’s why Abbey Road is so important.”
If These Walls Could Sing is on Disney+ from 6 January