ABBEY ROAD: Some Good Memories

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September 5, 2010 · Posted in Commentary 

By LIONEL ROLFE

The Abbey Road EMI Studio in London, no doubt the most famous recording studio in the world, has been in the news a lot recently, so I thought I would wait for a few weeks to pass so I could tell my memories of the place without the contamination of trendiness.

I spent some time at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios in the early ’70s because my uncle, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, also known in England as Lord Yehudi Menuhin, was recording there. I’m sure he had been making recordings there probably since the ’30s. I think Yehudi by far had the biggest catalog in the EMI catalog, and many of them had been recorded there.

This time Yehudi was recording Bach with the Menuhin Players, his own chamber orchestra, composed of some of the best of of London’s musicians, including the late George Malcolm, the preeminent harpsichordist.

I’m sure for more of its history, mostly classical music had been recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road Studio. Classical musicians have a different attitude toward recording than popular music. I remember once when an engineer started telling my mom to do this and that as she was recording the Chopin Preludes, she said, “No, I make the music. You record it as well as you can. Period.”

The Menuhin Players were well rehearsed. They were all friends of Yehudi he had known for years, and knew exactly what he wanted. They hardly needed him to conduct.

Whereas in the early ’70s rock recordings took days and weeks to finish and depended on sophiticated multi-track recording equipment, at that time classical musicians didn’t take much more time to record than it took to play the music. The only time at this particular session a section of music had to be re-recorded was when George Malcolm’s harpsichord had to be returned half way through a movement.

Yehudi ushered Nigey Lennon (then my wife) and myself into the inner sanctum of the studio and with great pride walked into the room known as the Caruso Room.

It was the artist room.

Yehudi felt honored to be using the same artist room that the great Caruso had used. As I remember, there was some sort of sculpture of the great singer in the room.

Nigey later got into a long conversation with Yehudi about philosophical things, since she had studied sitar with Ravi Shankar, the great Indian musician with whom Yehudi made a series of famed East Meets West recordings. But at the moment she seemed intrigued not so much by the Caruso room but by the studio’s equipment. Nigey came out of the pop music tradition where recording is a complicated and highly technical profession, literally a part of the music making.

She was impressed by the fact that this was where the Beatles recorded most of their albums, including the famed Abbey Road album.

What struck Nigey (a musician who later played guitar on a tour with Frank Zappa) was how primitive the equipment was in the famed studio.

She stared at the simple Ampex two-track tape recorder which ran at only seven and a half inches per second being used to record the session – a tape recorder used by home recordists in the United States. The microphones were top of the line, but not the tape recorder.

She talked to the engineers, who admitted that their equipment, unlike that of say, Deutsche Grammophon studios in Germany, was relatively unsophisticated. But they said that with a certain noblesse oblige because, they dryly observed, it had been sufficient for recording a lot of the world’s greatest music.

Back in Caruso’s room, Yehudi was peeling an exotic fruit for us. The group included my mom, Nigey, myself and Princess Irene. He was showing us a Kiwi – once known as a Chinese Gooseberry – then primarily from New Zealand. Now Kiwis are common everywhere, and are grown many places other than New Zealand, from California to Italy.

We had been joined by Princess Irene, formerly of the Greek monarchy, who had just moved to London because her brother Constantin had been deposed in Greece.

I had little sympathy for Constantin. He walked into the studio along with Irene, and he struck  me as an arrogant asshole. I didn’t wish him ill, but the notion of a king had always struck me as a pretty ridiculous one. But then I am an American, born in the country that had the world’s first revolution that overthrew a monarch.

As much as I didn’t like Constantin – I didn’t like the way he walked, the arrogance he seemed surrounded by – I liked Irene.

She was related to the British royalty, and she spends considerable time with Yehudi in London. I felt some resentment towards her because, unlike my uncle, I have no patience with the basic assumptions behind royalty. Yehudi thinks royalty can add something to a society. I could just as well live without it.

My mother Yaltah, a pianist by trade, might have predisposed me to Irene, even though it was my mom who first made me appreciate Mark Twain, not only America’s greatest writer, but a strong opponent of monarchy.

Unlike her arrogant brother, I quickly felt that there was something sad and discarded about Irene, that there wasn’t an iota of bad intention in her, despite the fact that one couldn’t say the same thing about her mother, the former Queen Fredericka.

While Yehudi was out of the room, Irene asked me what the book I was writing about  Yehudi and my family was about. I explained that “The Menuhins” was the story of a Russian Jewish family descended from a long line of Hassidic holy men.

She told me she had learned of the Hassidic tradition through the writing of Martin Buber. That immediately commended her to me, for back in my room was a Buber work I was reading with great fascination.We naturally began talking of Yehudi, and his relationship to that tradition, and she confirmed my thoughts when she said, “Yehudi’s whole personality became clear to me and I understood who he was when I read Buber.” She had been struck by the uncanny similarity between the Hassidic wise men and the gurus of India. When she discovered that Yehudi was descended from generations of wise men, it was a revelation to her.

Sometimes Yehudi dismissed his Hassidic lineage in the many discussions we had for the book,  but he also confided to me on other occasions that when he recognized his long line of ancestors he began to understand himself, even though he has said he is not a person concerned with family trees. It is obvious even to Yehudi that much of his identity has come from his ancestors, despite the ambivalence with which he relates to that identity.

At the end of the recording session, Yehudi took Princess Irene in his Mercedes Benz limousine and asked if we wanted a ride.

I shot Nigey a look.

“No, we’ll take the tube.”

I wanted to walk out the Abbey Road Studio on Abbey Road and walk to the St. John’s Woods station to get home.

*

Lionel Rolfe is the author of “The Menuhins: A Family History,” “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather,” “Literary L.A.,” “Fat Man on the Left” and other volumes, available through this website.

 

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