Ticket to Ride
A backstage pass to the savoy and abbey road studios means living like a legend – at least for 24 hours.
By Brett Schaenfield
There are two signs that you’ve arrived at the most famous recording studio in the world, even before you’ve reached the main entrance. The first is “the shrine” – a wall covered in handwritten lyrics and love notes from fans eager to pay homage to England’s most renowned musical export, The Beatles. The second is the zebra street crossing. The one made so famous by four British lads in lockstep that, in 2010, it was designated a British heritage site, alongside the country’s castles and cathedrals. The one so popular it is available to view online via 24-hour webcam. The one I find myself striding across slowly, arms swinging, much to the delight of four giggling Japanese women on the opposite side of the road, all lined up and waiting for their turn to pose.
Any twinge of embarrassment is tempered by my inner music nerd’s exhilaration at stepping inside Abbey Road Studios, whose claim to fame goes well beyond its association with the Fab Four and their eponymous album. Name any of the most popular musical acts of the 20th and 21st centuries and there’s a good chance they’ve spent time in one of the three studios behind this white Georgian townhouse. Pink Floyd, U2, Oasis, Radiohead, Coldplay, Lady Gaga, Adele. Then there are the timeless film scores recorded here – John Williams’s soundtracks to all but one of the Star Wars movies and the Howard Shore-helmed Lord of the Rings trilogy – as well as the music for the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Suffice it to say, any self-respecting pop culture obsessive would see the opportunity to visit Abbey Road Studios as less a visit than a pilgrimage. English rocker Chris Rea summed it up best in the 1997 documentary The Abbey Road Story: “The honesty of it is, it’s a bit like St. Peter’s in Rome is to a Catholic.”
The biggest difference between the Basilica and Abbey Road? Not just anyone can get in to the studios.
Considering the fact that a simple tour is normally elusive to the average (and fervent) fan, Abbey Road Studios’ partnership with The Savoy – celebrating its 125th anniversary this year – becomes even more remarkable. Through the Abbey Road Studios package, visitors get a backstage pass and the chance to stay and play like a pop star: first by touring the studios, then unwinding in the lap of luxury at a second London landmark, The Savoy, A Fairmont Managed Hotel, like so many musicians have done before them, from Frank Sinatra to Rihanna.
“This might look familiar,” says Jonathan Smith, senior vice president of studio operations, as he leads me into the client lounge in Studio One. Anyone who has been to The Savoy’s legendary American Bar will appreciate the studio’s Fairmont-led redesign, including art deco touches like smoky glass tabletops and silver cocktail shakers.
Smith happily indulges all of my geekiest music questions, opens up the closet in which The Beatles laid down a track (“They liked the acoustics”) and even lets me test out a microphone that John Lennon once recorded with (“It’s still used today”).
Before I can tire Smith out, I’m ushered inside the hallowed space of Studio Two, the main recording studio used by The Beatles. I’m here to watch a group of corporate clients record their own ensemble version of “Help!” but before I know it I’m being handed a lyrics sheet and told I’ll be singing along. I practice my best Liverpudlian under my breath. This might be the closest thing to a big break I’m ever going to get.
After nibbling on canapés and sipping nerve-settling prosecco, we are directed to our respective chairs and headphones. The thumbs-up is given from the recording booth and vocal coach Kim Chandler talks us through some basic breathing exercises. She’s worked with everyone from Sarah Brightman to Ozzy Osbourne, so she’s nothing if not flexible.
There’s some nervous laughter as we attempt a first, slightly clumsy version of the legendary song – most of us barely need to refer to the lyrics – but Chandler keeps the mood light. As the track is broken up into chorus, verses and harmonies, our group gradually gains confidence. (A second glass of bubbly doesn’t hurt.)
Once our final segment is complete, there’s a round of applause and we are treated to a studio playback of our rousing performance. The evening ends on a happy note as professionally mixed copies of the track are provided to everyone as a reminder that there may still be time to get the old high school band back together.
While this experience in itself would be more than enough for most music fanatics, the pop idol lifestyle doesn’t end there. Upon arriving at The Savoy I find another refined, recondite museum of musical history. World famous artists might record at Abbey Road, but this is where they spend the night.
After checking into a suite with a picturesque view of the Thames (quite literally – Monet and Whistler painted similar vistas while in residence), I meet with Savoy archivist Susan Scott to get the lowdown on the hotel’s famous musical guest list. Although she is adamant about protecting the privacy of current clientele, Scott is happy to chat about illustrious former guests as she takes me on a private tour.
Our first stop is the gilded space of the new Beaufort Bar, located just off the Thames Foyer. A popular destination for the pre- and post-theater crowd, she informs me that the bar itself stands on the hotel’s former cabaret stage, which was graced in the 1920s by such luminaries as the Savoy Orpheans dance band and pianist Carroll Gibbons. (Fortunately for my guide, a quiet business meeting in a corner booth prevents me from breaking out into my best Lindy Hop.)
We make our way down to The Savoy’s restored Edwardian Lancaster Ballroom where, in 1925, the BBC aired the premiere British broadcast of Rhapsody in Blue – live. Unknown to most is that only a few minutes prior to the broadcast, George Gershwin was nowhere to be found.
“There was quite a bit of panic on the stage,” says Scott. “Imagine being the musician who would have to ‘wing’ playing Gershwin’s part on the piano during the broadcast!” Thankfully Gershwin, who’d simply been mingling in the crowd, made it to the stage moments before they went to air.
Sensing that I’m still a bit heady from my recording experience at Abbey Road (mainly because I won’t stop talking about it), Scott promises me the next stop on the tour will be a bit more rock and roll.
“This is where The Beatles visited Bob Dylan when he was in residence,” she explains as we step into… an alley behind the hotel. A bit less luxurious than the ornate ballroom I was expecting.
Then it hits me. My guide smiles and nods. This is the spot where Dylan and D.A. Pennebaker filmed what is widely considered the world’s first-ever music video.
I can see it before me in black and white: “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the opener to Don’t Look Back, a documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. There’s a 24-year-old Dylan in an unforgettable single-camera shot. He’s flipping through a series of handwritten cue cards, made with help from fellow hotel guest and girlfriend Joan Baez. All keywords from the song: basement, medicine, pavement... Amazing.
I notice that my host is slightly less enthusiastic about standing outside in the brisk morning air, and she politely asks if I might continue to be amazed inside.
Back in the Thames Foyer we sip our tea and nibble on shortbread, the genteel setting making for an interesting contrast to a list of some of the hotel’s more unusual musical “firsts”: first celebrity flood (Elton John, who went to make a phone call and left the bath tub running); first musical contract signed on the back of a Savoy menu (Richard Tauber, an Austrian opera singer); first pink-themed celebrity wedding (Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes’ 1984 marriage to Julie Anne Friedman).
“Duran Duran was here for two days in 2011 to film the video for their single ‘Girl Panic!’” says Scott, so I pull it up on my phone. The clip follows supermodels Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigová and Yasmin Le Bon as they parade around the hotel acting the parts of the band members, strutting in spots I visited barely an hour earlier. It makes the walk back to my room surreal, to say the least.
Sufficiently saturated with enough musical trivia to craft a pub quiz, I absent-mindedly start to sing a few lines from last night’s recording session while waiting for the lift. I look up to find one of The Savoy’s butlers walking toward me with a smile on his face.
“Not quite McCartney but not the worst we’ve heard around here, sir,” he quips with a wink.
I smile sheepishly. Sure, he’s being incredibly polite, but I decide to take him at his word and quietly hum a few more bars. Besides, what would rock and roll be without its critics?
Stay This year The Savoy, A Fairmont Managed Hotel, is celebrating its 125th
anniversary in style. Since opening, the famed address has played host to icons such as Maria Callas and Marilyn Monroe. After a multimillion-dollar restoration in 2010, London’s legendary luxury hotel is once again a home-away-from-home
for the stars (and anyone who wants star treatment). fairmont.com/savoy-london
Dine Afternoon Tea at the Thames Foyer is a must, with traditional homemade scones and an impressive selection of cakes.
Head to the American Bar for art deco design or try one of the Character Cocktails at the Beaufort Bar – four concoctions created as tributes to the hotel’s former famous guests: Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, Charlie Chaplin and Frank Sinatra. Each cocktail is garnished tableside and served in era-specific vintage glassware.
Do Inquire about the bespoke abbey road studios package in advance. You can also ask a hotel concierge about arranging
sightseeing tours, transfers to The O2 or charters to popular riverside attractions leaving from the hotel’s private Savoy Pier.
clockwise from top: a doorman at the entrance to abbey road studios; pop star jessie ware performs at a fairmont event; new studio lounges inspired by the savoy’s art deco style; see more photos at everyonesanoriginal.com/fairmont-magazine