New Documentary Puts The Beatles and Abbey Road Studios in Focus

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Now available on Disney+, If These Walls Could Sing is a loving documentary on one of the greatest musical achievements in modern history. Initially known as EMI studios, the world’s first custom-built recording studio was rechristened Abbey Road only after The Beatles named an album after what all the musicians who played there called it. Inaugurated with great pomp and circumstance on Nov. 12, 1931, Abbey Road Studios remains the gold standard for platinum selling recording, committed to capturing the sounds of timeless classics of all eras.

“It’s a national treasure, innit,” Oasis’ Liam Gallagher says in If These Walls Could Sing. The documentary was directed by Mary McCartney, no stranger to such company. She was one of the very few photographers to capture the late Queen Elizabeth II in a 2015 special sitting celebrating the “longest-reigning British monarch in more than 1,000 years.”

Mary is also the daughter of rock and roll royalty. Her mother, the late Linda McCartney, took some of the most iconic photographs of the rock era before joining Mary’s father, Paul McCartney, in matrimony, harmony vocals, assorted instruments, compositions, and animal-friendly activism. Prior to that, Paul was part of England’s largest export after tea, changing music and culture on a global level. They created all that noise at Abbey Road Studios.

Mary McCartney has a very special relationship with Abbey Road Studio. The introductory sequence of If These Walls Could Sing includes a photograph of her lying on a rug in Studio 2, she isn’t quite a year old. McCartney spoke with Den of Geek about history, music, Indiana Jones, John Williams, and why a pony is right at home at a zebra crossing. 

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Den of Geek: Had you not been approached by producer John Battsek, would you have naturally progressed into documentary filmmaking?

Mary McCartney: Yes. I was actually hanging with my husband [Simon Aboud], who’s also a writer/director, and we were having a chat where I said I really want to do a documentary. I was like, “What should I do?” I think, literally a week later, I had an email from John Battsek, who I respect a lot as a documentary producer. He said, “Have you thought of directing documentaries?” And I said “Yes, I have.”

Then he sent me the idea for the Abbey Road documentary, and I was like, “No, I can’t have that be my first documentary.” It’s sort of too close. Then I thought, hang on a minute, that’s the whole point to do it, you have to do a documentary on something that is personal to you.

As John reminded me, I actually said no. And then about four weeks later, he approached me again. We had a chat, and then I never looked back.

Did you spend a lot of time in the darkroom with your mother, and does that spark the same kind of excitement that Abbey Road Studio does for musicians?

I spent one moment in the dark room. My mother didn’t spend a lot of time in the dark room, and I don’t spend a lot of time in the darkroom. I inherited her style of going out exploring with the camera, meeting people, watching, and photographing. Then she would work with the printer. I have printers that I work with, specialists, I work closely with them.

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But there was one moment in particular, I must have been about eight, when my mum did take me to her darkroom, and it was the magic moment where photography became my passion. She put a piece of seemingly white paper into a tray of water and sort of tilted it around, and this image, this black and white image appeared before my eyes, magically, and that always stayed with me. I think subconsciously that was the moment I wanted to become a photographer. It took me a while longer to really get down to it. But that was the moment.

People have spent more time at Abbey Road than you, but that photograph of you in the early sequence shows you have a very unique relationship with the place. You saw it from ground level.

Yes, from floor level up.

George Carlin said if you go back to visit your childhood home, you should walk on your knees to really remember it.

I love that. That’s such a good point. Because everything seems smaller, doesn’t it, than you remember. But it’s because you’re looking at it from a different perspective. I’d sort of grown up there, just wandering in and out, going to visit people, and knowing the people that work there. So, when I was asked to do it, and I went for the first day for research, I knew a lot of the people that work there day to day. I think they were comfortable with me. I already knew the space, and I already had a passion for the space.

A big part of wanting to do this documentary was giving that to the viewer. I’d grown up near there, so I see people on the zebra crossing, making that pilgrimage. My angle for this documentary was to bring people in who maybe never get to travel to London and go into the studio. For them, by the end of the documentary, to feel like “I’ve been into the studio. I know the space. I know how people feel about it. I know about the family atmosphere and the chemistry between the people that collaborate together.” I think that was a big part of why I wanted to do it. I want to bring the viewer in.

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Now you’ve worked in the space. Does it live up to its reputation as an inspiration to work?

Well, it surpassed what I already knew about it. When I was a kid, it had on the walls, which it doesn’t have now, but in the reception, all the pictures of people who recorded there. That I remember always being really wowed, by Kate Bush and people like that. I didn’t know a fraction of the stories that I’ve managed to include in the documentary.

I didn’t know [British classical music composer Edward] Elgar opened it. I didn’t know it was 90 years. I loved Jacqueline Du Pre, the cellist, but I didn’t know that she had recorded at Abbey Road. I didn’t know that Fela Kuti came over from Nigeria to record albums there. I didn’t know Elton John and Jimmy Page did recordings as session musicians there. I didn’t know about the film schools. The list goes on. I was ignorant to a lot of what had been created there. I didn’t even know that Dark Side of the Moon had been recorded there.

I spent the first portion of the process, with my story producer, just learning the history and writing it down. I got a pad of paper and pens, and wrote down a timeline, all the people that had been there, and I literally stuck it all around the studio, and it went around all of the walls. I was like, “Wow, how are we going to do this? I want to include that, I want to include that, I want to include that.”

Partly, it worked itself out because the nature of a recording studio, which I hadn’t fully considered before going into the process, is that the etiquette is not to really take photographs and film. So certain stories I couldn’t really illustrate in the documentary because nobody was there taking pictures. Their process was to be in there just creating music, not being distracted by people taking pictures.

But it’s a wonderfully photogenic place. And it’s been used for music videos. How did your photographic eye choose to frame it?

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I was like “How am I going to, in an emotive way, tell the story of the 90 years, with touching on all of the different aspects of the recording studio, without it being too eclectic, and making it emotional, and be about creativity?” I had stories I wanted to tell. Then we knew we needed footage. What can we gather about Pink Floyd? What can we gather about Goldfinger?

Then, with my team, we found this incredible archive interview with Dame Shirley Bassey, who sang “Goldfinger,” and I thought “Okay, this is such a great interview.” It looked great. She looked great. She told the story so well. Then I was able to intercut that with my interview with Jimmy Page, who was a session musician in Abbey Road on that “Goldfinger” session. So, it told itself. At first, I’m overwhelmed, and what am I going to do? In the end, it fell into place quite naturally.

I had a two-and-a-half-hour documentary and then I had to slowly whittle it down to 90 minutes.

John Williams was particularly eloquent. Is there a difference between how American, or Nigerian jazz performers for that matter, feel about Abbey Road Studios than British artists?

I don’t think necessarily that, but because the way he writes is so very different to rock and pop. I mean, I’d never met John Williams before, and when I interviewed him, I was just awestruck by his talent. Also, I’m so pleased with how he talked about Abbey Road as a space, because it meant that I didn’t really have to narrate very much in the documentary. He told it so eloquently, and with such love. It was something that I really didn’t expect.

I think his interview is stunning. It tells you about Abbey Road, but you really get to know John Williams as a talent. You can tell he’s excited by the space. He probably technically understands most about the space from his experience. He knows about tone and bloom and the orchestral sound within that space. He was really able to describe it to us.

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Also, one of the incredible things is that I managed to get an audio interview with Kate Bush about recording in the space which, to me, was a big moment. Because I knew she doesn’t do interviews. But I managed to get in touch with her and say “Look, it’s very important for me to include you in this documentary because, as a female artist, just as any kind of artist, you produced yourself in this space, wrote here, created here.” Also, she directed her first music video in Studio 2, and choreographed it. I said “You’re really important for me to have in this, and I know you won’t do an on-camera interview. But if you would record your voice saying some things about what it means to you.” And she did.

Of all the subjects, whose perceptions of Abbey Road surprised you the most?

I don’t know if any of them, because the interviews were really well-researched before we sat down. I suppose I was surprised by Elton John’s interview, how emotional he was in it, that he really wanted to tell that story. He wanted to put that story onto film. I think it was nice to see how important it felt for him to tell that.

I love when he says “the smell of fear.”

Yeah, the smell of fear. I suppose that surprised me because he comes across as so relaxed, and so in control of what he does. It was great. I wasn’t hugely surprised about any one thing, but I definitely learned a lot. It was a gem when we realized that Jimmy Page and Elton John were session musicians there because I was able to tell the viewer about what a session musician is.

One of the bits I love is when we get that [Elton] is playing the piano on [The Hollies’] “He Ain’t Heavy,” and we were able to find the master recording and isolate the track. He says, “You can hear that’s me playing on there.” And I was like, “Oh my goodness.” When we were able to take down the rest, you can just hear him playing the piano. It’s like Elton John’s playing it now, but it was that back in the 60s. It was incredible.

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I’m sorry to keep coming back to photographic terms, but you get great contrast in your interviews with Liam and Noel Gallagher, and various Pink Floyd members. And then you get a very candid balance, such as when Ringo and your father, to this day, seem to finish each other’s sentences.

I love that. I love when you get interviews and you can intercut the stories. You never know until you start. I had references, and I knew what I wanted. You film that all, you get the most you can from the interviews, as much archive and texture to tell the story, but until you’re in the edit room, you don’t really know how it’s going to come together. So, it’s mildly terrifying and exciting.

How much more fun is it than dire, getting into the editing room?

It was way more fun. I had a great editor [Paul Carlin]. We worked together really well, and really saw eye to eye on a lot, so it was a joy to work with him. We’d have creative debates about how it should be, and then it was “oh my goodness, we know what we want it to be.” But we don’t know if it’s going to work until we start the process, and I’d filmed quite a lot before we went into the edit room.

He’s a drama documentary editor rather than a music documentary editor. I filmed a certain amount, and I waited for him to come off another documentary that he was working on, and then I carried on and filmed another set. The process was over a long period of time. We were so excited when it started to come together, how we’d imagined it. There were some challenges on how to do it, but I think it does exactly what I wanted it to be, which is good. I wanted it to feel emotional, and I wanted people to care about it, rather than just go “oh, that’s an interesting fact.” From seeing audiences watch it, we went to the Telluride Film Festival. They reacted in the way that I was hoping, so that was pleasing.

You open with the EMI studio’s inaugural “Pomp and Circumstance” recording in 1931, and I realized while watching, that’s the same room The Beatles recorded “A Day in the Life.”

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Studio 1, yes.

Even though EMI Studios had been around for 30 years by the time the Beatles played there, they seem like part of the architecture. How are they and George Martin still felt in the space?

The Beatles are incredible, because they did use every single nook and cranny of Abbey Road, which is something I didn’t realize. They’re famous for being in Studio 2. That’s the big famous studio for The Beatles. But then they hopped into Studio 1 when they were doing the orchestral. They were in Studio 3, they’d even record things in the hallways to get different drum sounds and things.

I made a conscious decision not to really get into all the more nerdy facts. I hope I’m not going to disappoint the audience that knows way more than I do about that kind of thing, and multi-tracking, or [affects an all-knowing voice] “stereo was invented at Abbey Road.” I just couldn’t fit everything in.  

I needed to show more of the artists that George Martin brought into the studio, and how he was put in charge of Polydor Records at 26. He was such a talented producer. My directing and my photography are about connecting with people and about getting their story.

I really wanted to honor George Martin in this documentary. He was the more technically trained one within the team. I think the documentary really shows how, when people have different talents and different skills coming together in a recording studio space, it can just elevate, and some historical music can be created there. Then it goes out into the world, and really touches people. A lot of that music that means a lot to everybody around the world was created at Abbey Road.

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It’s hard to believe Abbey Road studios had such a downfall that it was almost made into a car park, but you captured that transition into film score.

It was good, in a way, for me. It went off quite well, because you want dramatic points in a documentary. Studio 1 is this large space, which really lends itself to orchestral music. So, in 1931 Edward Elgar opened it with “Pomp and Circumstance,” which is sort of a British national anthem. It was for orchestras, and famous recordings were done there. But then by the ‘90s, most of the classical recordings had been done. There wasn’t really much more to be recorded. So, it fell into being quite quiet and quite empty, the people would put down tape and play badminton in there. It was just an empty space.

We’ve got a letter in the documentary which shows they were looking at making it into a car park or cutting it up into different smaller studios. Ken Townsend, a brilliant manager at the time, who had a real love, and deep affection for Abbey Road, managed to hear about a recording studio outside of London that was closing down. He was able to bring that contract for film scores to Abbey Road, literally at the same time that they were thinking of making it into a car park. One of the first films that came there, which hadn’t been released yet to the world, was Indiana Jones. So, John Williams, Spielberg.

They’d never recorded film [scores at Abbey Road], so they had to get a projector and put a screen in, because the orchestra records to watching the film. The film screens in the studio. So, it all happened on the fly. Now, they do Star Wars, they do all the Harry Potter movies, the Lord of the Rings, all of those historic films. It also meant that I had the opportunity to meet John Williams, which was incredible.

Was there anything you were surprised to learn about your father?

He was really helpful in this process. When I was commissioned to direct this documentary, I was hanging out with him, and said I’ve been asked to direct this documentary about the 90-year history of Abbey Road, and it’s gonna be called If These Walls Could Sing. First of all, he liked the title, which is helpful, because he references that in the interview. That was good for me as an edit point. But also, I’d see him a week later and he’d be like, “Oh, I’ve been thinking about the documentary,” and give me tips, tell me about things.

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We were able to talk about it enough that when it came to me actually interviewing him, I think it’s really one of the most personal interviews I’ve seen him do. I think it’s because he loves the space so much. We talked about it so much. There were points he wanted to make about Abbey Road, and the people that he loves that work there, and the stories that happened there. I think that came across in his interview, and he was very giving in that way in the process.

Did you get any naughty stories you had to put on the cutting room floor because it’s going on Disney+?

No, I didn’t get naughty stories. But there are things we’re not really allowed to show too much, like smoking and things like that, which is a bit of a challenge. Back in the day, everybody would smoke inside the session. So, things like that. But nothing too crazy.

A lot of the artists, like Cliff Richard, say Abbey Road became their home. But do you think that Pink Floyd or Oasis would have been allowed to bring a pony to the studio?

You know what? I think they probably would. It’s incredible. I was like, “Oh my God, did they get annoyed with that? Or did they chuck them out over this?” Well, no, because the people working at Abbey Road were really there to facilitate, and make it the best process for the musicians and artists that were there. I think that’s what they do to this day. They’re not there to give the artists a hard time, “I don’t think we should do that,” or “you shouldn’t record here,” because that’s just not good for the creative process. They’re clever. They understand that.

There were two reasons I really wanted to do this documentary. First, because I saw the picture that was at the beginning of a documentary, where I’m probably about three months old, literally on a blanket on the studio floor. That brought home how long they’ve been going there, and how much the space means to me. But then, also, I remember seeing in a book about Abbey Road, a picture of mum leading this pony, Jet, across the zebra crossing, and I was just like, “Oh my God, my mom was so genius. Who else would bring a horse to Abbey Road?” So when I was thinking about directing this, I’m a very visual person, that was one of the visuals in the forefront of my mind.

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If These Walls Could Sing premieres on Disney+ on Dec. 16

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