The Beatles First
Abbey Road Session

Abbey Road Studios, LondonAt the very end of The Beatles’ very last live performance, an improvised concert on the roof of a building in January 1969, John Lennon jokingly stated, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.” This, of course, was met with laughter at the absurdity of the most popular band in the world having to pass an audition. But there was a time when the Beatles did audition on a regular basis (and didn’t always pass those auditions). The last real audition by the band was held less than seven years prior to that rooftop concert, and they were far from assured whether they would “pass” that one. It was held on June 6, 1962 at what would later be re-named Abbey Road Studios.

That was exactly a half century ago today. On that day, no one involved could have possibly imagined how historically connected this building in London and that shaggy rock band from Liverpool would become. Within 18 months, the Beatles would become the top rock band in the world, remain so until their breakup in 1970, and to this day remain the most popular act ever. This despite the fact that the band completely stopped touring midway through their career, relying solely on their studio recordings to maintain their fame, and these recordings have become legendary. And, with the exception of the Let It Be sessions, every one of the band’s singles, albums, and film soundtracks was recorded at this studio, with the band’s final studio album being a dedication which bore the name Abbey Road. Check out any major publication’s top whatever list of all-time albums and you’re likely to find multiple Beatles albums in the top ten, all of which were likely recorded at this studio.
(SIDE NOTE: Classic Rock Review does not make such lists, but we do extensively review each important album. The Beatles’ Revolver was reviewed last year, with Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour coming later this summer, while the rest will be scheduled during their respective anniversary years)

The Quarrymen in 1958The four band members arrived together at what was then known as EMI Studios at 3 Abbey Road, St John’s Wood, London in a beat-up white van. Although they were four, they weren’t quite yet the “fab four”. The core three members – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison – had been together since 1957 when they went by the name The Quarrymen. Each was a guitarist with vocal abilities and a passion for American rock n roll. The group went through several rotating members in the early years, the most notable being bass player Stuart Sutcliffe, who is credited by many for coming up with the name “Beatles” (although Lennon later contended it was his idea). In 1960, the band landed their first gigs in Hamburg, Germany, but the club owner specifically wanted a five-piece band so they hired drummer Pete Best. When the first Hamburg tour abruptly ended (three band members were deported), Sutcliffe decided to stay with his German girlfriend and attend art school in Hamburg. McCartney moved over to bass and The Beatles were now a quartet of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Best.

After the band unloaded their gear for the session scheduled for 6:00 pm, the studio engineers were dissatisfied with the quality and shape of the amplifiers, especially McCartney’s bass rig. So the session was delayed for about an hour while the crew went down to one of the studio’s famous echo chambers in the basement of the building to retrieve a suitable bass speaker and solder the appropriate inputs. The band members were directed to the building’s canteen where they nervously sipped tea and awaited the call to report to the sound stage. The building itself was already very old at that point. It was built in 1830 as a 9-bedroom townhouse along a footpath that lead to Kilburn Abbey. About a century later, in 1931, it was acquired by the Gramophone Company and converted into recording studios with the first recordings being of the London Symphony Orchestra. The company later amalgamated to form EMI (Electric and Musical Industries) an in 1957 it EMI acquired Capitol Records for distribution in American markets.

The Beatles at the Cavern, 1961Coming into 1962, it appeared to be a promising year for The Beatles. The previous year had seen ever greater success with further Hamburg gigs and a dedicated following back in Liverpool where they frequently headlined The Cavern Club. The band had backed up singer Tony Sheridan (as “The Beat Brothers”) for a single called “My Bonnie” which was making waves in Germany and caught the ear of a local Liverpool record store owner named Brian Epstein, who approached the band with an offer to manage them. Epstein got the band more money for gigs, better clothes, and their first real promise of landing a major record deal.

However, the early part of 1962 had been quite a bummer for the band thus far. They had performed their first major label studio audition for Decca in London on New Year’s Day, recording 15 tracks live. But by February, Decca had turned down the group because (in their infinite wisdom) they had concluded that “guitar music” was on the decline. Then in April the band received the tragic news that their former colleague Stuart Sutcliffe had died suddenly in Hamburg from a brain hemorrhage. All the while, Epstein was using the Decca audition tapes in an attempt to draw some interest from other major labels, but no one was biting. Finally, a producer and A&R man from EMI’s Parlophone label named George Martin gave the green light to audition the band in June.

Although Martin was the type of personality that wasn’t quick to dispose of any possibility, he did not sincerely believe that anything would come of this session. In fact, he had no intention of attending it personally, as he delegated production responsibilities to Ron Richards (the resident “rock n roll” guy). With Norman Smith as engineer, The Beatles started their first Abbey Road recording session at around 7:00 pm that evening.

John Lennon and Paul Mccartney at EMI Studios, 1962Now, this article may have thus far built up expectations that something truly magical happened on that day fifty years ago. But the truth is, this Beatles’ session was quite ordinary, even sub-par to the rejected Decca session recordings. In fact, the master tapes were soon destroyed when the record company determined there was nothing of commercial value from these sessions, so there was no “inferno” of musical genius or creativity. But there were several little “sparks” on that day which set the course of music history. The first of these came when the band first performed “Love Me Do”, which Smith recognized as a potential radio hit (in 1962, it was 100% about finding the next “radio hit”). He sent for George Martin down in the canteen and Martin came up to the control room and took over as producer for the rest of the session. The Beatles recorded four songs that night. Aside from “Love Me Do”, there were two more Lennon-McCartney originals; “P.S. I Love You” and “Ask Me Why”, and “Besame Mucho”, an old Latin crooner song that had been covered by The Coasters in 1960.

When the session wrapped up at around 10:00 pm, Martin called the band members into the control room and gave what was later described as a “lecture”. According to Smith;

…he gave them a long lecture about their equipment and what would have to be done about it if they were to become recording artists. They didn’t say a word, they didn’t even nod their heads in agreement. When he finished, George said ‘Look, I’ve laid into you for quite a time, you haven’t responded. Is there anything you don’t like?’ I remember they all looked at each other for a long while, shuffling their feet, then George Harrison took a long look at George and said ‘Yeah, I don’t like your tie!’ That cracked the ice for us…”

Martin, whose specialty to that point was comedy and entertainment, was struck by the personalities, humor, and wit of the band members and within 15 minutes of giving his lecture he had decided to sign the band. However, Martin did have some problems with Pete Best’s drumming and later made it clear to Epstein that he reserved the right to enlist a drummer of his choosing for any future sessions. This final point was another spark from that day which ignited the Beatles’ destiny, as Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison decided to pursue the drummer they wanted all along, Ringo Starr.

Richard Starkey was a bit of a Liverpool legend to the rest of the Beatles. He was a little older, and had actually made some money as the long-time drummer for Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Around 1960, it was fashionable for all musicians to have a stage name (Lennon was “Long John”, McCartney was “Paul Rabon”, and George became “Carl Harrison”) and “Ringo Starr” was one of the few who actually kept his permanently. During a time when both bands were playing in Hamburg, Starr actually sat in with The Beatles when Best could not make a couple of gigs. Also, Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, did a recording session with Starr at Akustik Studio in Hamburg in October 1960, backing up Hurricanes’ bassist Lu Walters on his cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. Until Martin’s comments, The Beatles were not bold enough to try and poach Starr from his longtime band, but they decided the time was right to make the move and Starr agreed to join the band so long as he could finish out his committed dates with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. In August 1962, Ringo Starr replaced Pete Best as the drummer of The Beatles and the true “fab four” were in place.

Fall 1962 Abbey Road sessions with Ringo StarrThe Beatles returned to Liverpool and resumed their regular gigs at the Cavern through the summer of 1962, not returning again to the Abbey Road studios until September. When they did return, there was a bit more turmoil as Martin had booked session drummer Alan White, not realizing that the group had replaced Best in the interim. So it was White who performed on Beatles’ first single “Love Me Do”, with Ringo Starr relegated to playing maracas and tambourine in order to receive pay for the sessions. However, the Beatles did assert themselves that future sessions include Ringo as a permanent member of the band. They also took a stand when Martin went to “Tin Pan Alley” to get them a “hit” song called “How Do You Do It?”. The band did record it, but refused to release it as a single saying they’d “never be able to show their face in Liverpool again”. Ironically, the song was later recorded by another Liverpool group, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and it did reach #1 on the U.K. charts.

Martin would not have to wait long for the Beatles to score their own #1 hit, “Please Please Me”, recorded in November and released in January, 1963. With this rapid success, EMI commissioned the production of the first Beatles’ album. On a single day – February 11, 1963 – the band recorded the bulk of what would become the Please Please Me album. The effect of this goliath session was best captured on the day’s final recording “Twist and Shout”, where Lennon’s voice is torn to shreds from the long day, giving it an unintended edge, which was one of the great happy accidents of rock history. The album was released by late March, and the rest as they say, is history.

Who knows what may have happened if The Beatles did not get that last “audition” on June 6, 1962? They were certainly a talented and determined band, and chances are we’d still be talking about them today anyway. But it is unlikely that the eternal marriage between The Beatles and Abbey Road would have come to be. Pete Best may have been a member of an alternate “fab four” and George Martin may have never realized his calling as rock’s greatest producer. Fortunately, things worked out in the way they were destined.

Also fortunate is the fact that one of the engineers secretly made mono copies of “Love Me Do” and “Besame Mucho” before the master tape from that session was destroyed, historically preserving some of the product of that historic day. This was not revealed until the 1980s, and these two tracks were finally released to the public on Anthology 1 in 1995, giving Pete Best his first ever royalties as a Beatle thirty-three years after the fact.

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Ric Albano

The Movie Soundtrack

Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982The movie soundtrack has become a great source for discovering music. Many dramatic scenes are fully augmented by appropriate audio, which in turn drives sales of the songs themselves. It is a nice cross-marketing scheme, but as far as top quality works of new original music by various artists. there are surprisingly few of these albums that actually hold up well over time.

We’ve decided to this feature while our regular reviews look at the year 1982, because that was the year when, in our opinion, the best of these movie soundtracks was released, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The soundtrack features songs of many of the eras quintessential rock artists, most of which were not released elsewhere on conventional artist album. Both this movie and album soundtrack ushered in a heyday for such movie soundtracks (as well as copycat movies) through the early and mid 1980s. But before we delve into the merits of this particular soundtrack, let’s look at some other important soundtracks throughout the years.

Easy Rider soundtrack, 1969A significant early soundtrack is that for the 1969 cult film Easy Rider, a film often remembered for its late 1960’s rock music. The album was a surprise chart hit, peaking at #6 on the Billboard album charts, and is most associate with a sub-genre known as “biker music”. Steppenwolf is featured most prominently, as “Born To Be Wild” is played during the opening scene and another song, “The Pusher” leads off the soundtrack itself. Other songs featured on Easy Rider include The Byrd‘s “Wasn’t Born to Follow”, “Don’t Bogart Me” by Fraternity of Man and If 6 Was 9″ by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The producers of this soundtrack also utilized a practice which is prominent to this day. When they encountered problems in licensing the original recording of “The Weight” by The Band, they commissioned the artist Smith to record a cover version for the soundtrack. A couple more covers of Bob Dylan were recorded by Roger McGuinn for the album.

Heavy Metal soundtrack, 1981Heavy Metal was a 1981 rotoscoping-animated film, which employs various science fiction and fantasy stories adapted from Heavy Metal magazine. Due to many legal wranglings involving the copyrights of some of the music, the film and soundtrack were unavailable, except through underground, pirated copies. It was finally released on CD and videocassette (along with a simultaneous re-release in theaters) in 1996. Although the film is called “heavy metal”, the music itself includes original music from various rock genres. This includes songs by Sammy Hagar, Blue Öyster Cult, Cheap Trick, Devo, Donald Fagen, Journey, Grand Funk Railroad, Cheap Trick, Don Felder, and Stevie Nicks. Probably the only true “heavy metal” band represented is Black Sabbath, whose song “The Mob Rules” is featured.

Vision Quest soundtrack, 1985The 1985 soundtrack to the movie Vision Quest includes a nice mixture of pop and rock tunes and featured some high charting hits. These include the Madonna ballad “Crazy for You” and the song “Only the Young” by Journey, the last release by that band’s classic lineup. Other highlights from this soundtrack are “Change” by John Waite, “Hungry for Heaven” by Dio, “Lunatic Fringe” by Red Rider and “I’ll Fall in Love Again” by Sammy Hagar, one his last solo releases before joining up with Van Halen.

Pretty In Pink soundtrack, 1986The 1980s were, by far, the heyday for soundtracks, many more then we could possibly cover here. A series of teen-oriented movies by director John Hughes including The Breakfast Club, and Pretty In Pink. The music from these focused primarily on new wave artists such as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Simple Minds, The Psychedelic Furs, New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen, and The Smiths. Several other 1980s soundtracks includes the songs by Kenny Loggins, a seventies folk singer who basically made a career out of movie soundtrack songs in the 1980s. Loggins wrote and performed “I’m Alright” from Caddyshack, the title song from Footloose, and “Danger Zone” from Top Gun, all of which were the most prominent songs from those respective films.

We’ve decided to use a rather narrow definition of this category which we’re focusing on for this profile. Basically, the main criteria is original music, recently produced, by various artists. Since this excludes, many fine soundtracks, we’ll look at some of the better which fall outside our criteria.

Artist Centric Soundtracks

Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour promoMovies which were built around the music of a specific artist have been around almost as long as there have been movies and recorded music. During the classic rock era, this was made most prominent by The Beatles, who made four movies with accompanying soundtracks of their original music. Of these, Magical Mystery Tour is the most interesting, primarily because the music is so excellent while the film itself is so terrible (later this year, we will do a regular review of this album).

Following in the Beatles footsteps were scores of these types of soundtracks for films at all different levels of production from major Hollywood worldwide productions to documentaries. Some of the best of these include David Bowie‘s 1973 Ziggy Stardust movie, Led Zeppelin 1976 rendition of The Song Remains the Same (something we’ve touched on during a previous special feature on The Live Album), The Bee Gees-centric soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, Prince‘s 1984 blockbuster Purple Rain, and U2‘s 1988 Rattle and Hum, another one where the music is far superior to the film.

Of course, tribute movies to specific artists will also fall in this category (as well as the next), and there have been several standouts here, from Oliver Stone’s The Doors to the Johnny Cash bio Walk the Line to the bio on Ray Charles. There are hundreds more of these films, television series, and documentaries.

A unique type of these are those films that feature fictional bands but still produce interesting music. Prominent among this category are Eddie and the Cruisers from the 1980s and Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do! from the 1990s, both of which focus on the early to mid 1960s era.

Soundtracks of Music from the Distant Past

Almost Famous, 2000Along with some of those mentioned above, there have also been some great movie soundtracks that include past music using various artists, usually due to the story itself being set sometime in the past. The best of these include Goodfellas, Forrest Gump, and Almost Famous. The latter is a film by Cameron Crowe and it profiles his own start as a rock journalist while he was still a teenager. In Crowe’s later life writing screenplays for films, music plays a strong role and the soundtracks are all all interesting. Other Crowe movies include 1989’s Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, and his 1982 debut film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which brings us back to the focus of this article.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack, 1982Several of the movie’s songs became hit singles, including Jackson Browne‘s “Somebody’s Baby”, which reached #7 on the Billboard chart. But the excellence of this album lies in the number of great songs by top-notch artists which (a the time) were not available anywhere else. Despite the comedic genre of the film and its suggestive title, many of these songs are great ballads such as “Love Rules” by Don Henley, “Love Is the Reason” by Graham Nash, and “Sleeping Angel” by Stevie Nicks. Other standouts were the title track by Sammy Hagar, “I Don’t Know (Spicoli’s Theme)” by Jimmy Buffett, “So Much in Love” by Timothy B. Schmit, “Never Surrender” by Don Felder, and “Waffle Stomp” by Joe Walsh (for those of you keeping score, that is four of the five members of The Eagles when they broke up a year earlier).

As this movie was oozing with rock n roll, several songs in the film itself, were not even included on the soundtrack. These include “We Got the Beat” by The Go Go’s, “Moving in Stereo” by The Cars, “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”, which plays after dialogue about “the second side of Zeppelin 4” (which does not include “Kashmir”). There is further dialogue in the film that talked about Pat Benatar, Cheap Trick, Earth Wind & Fire, and Debbie Harry of Blondie and, during the school dance scene, the band plays covers of “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Wooly Bully”. There may never again be movie which is not primarily about music, that contains so much great music.

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Ric Albano