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The Legacy of Abbey Road: Rebranding EMI Studios for the Ages with Ken Townsend

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The autumn 1969 release of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album proved to be a watershed moment in the history of popular music. Within just a few short years, the album would become nearly synonymous with the facilities at 3 Abbey Road in St. John’s Wood, London. Thanks to the vision of Ken Townsend, the studio’s innovative general manager, Abbey Road emerged as the most influential recording facility in the world.

Formerly known as EMI Recording Studios, the studio complex had been in operation since the 1930s. In many ways, Townsend exists as the studio’s keeper of the flame. Having begun his service at EMI Studios in 1954 as a recording engineer after a four-year apprenticeship at the company’s Hayes facility, Townsend witnessed the whole of the Beatles’ years as they unfolded at EMI Studios. He was there on that very first day—June 6, 1962—when he first heard the Beatles in the form of “a giant farting sound” that erupted when Paul McCartney’s road-worn bass amp cratered on the studio floor as the band was about to begin its inaugural session in that august setting. Wearing his white laboratory coat in adherence with EMI studio policy, Townsend traced the riotous noise to Studio 2, where he remedied the situation by hauling a “very large, very heavy” Tannoy speaker in from its place in the basement echo-chamber. And with that, McCartney could perform on the session—and eventually, with producer George Martin’s guidance, the Beatles would embark upon a musical career like no other.

Having begun his service at EMI Studios in 1954 as a recording engineer after a four-year apprenticeship at the company’s Hayes facility, Townsend witnessed the whole of the Beatles’ years as they unfolded at EMI Studios.

Later, during the production of the group’s Revolver LP, Townsend would create one of his most lasting innovations in an effort to satisfy the Beatles’ insatiable desires for pushing the limits of the recording studio. After hearing John Lennon complain about their arduous task of double-tracking his vocals during the spring of 1966, Townsend invented Artificial Double-Tracking (ADT) as an innovative means for not only saving valuable studio time, but also affording Martin with a dynamic capacity for manipulating the sounds that the group produced via their voices and instruments alike.

When he was promoted as the facility’s general manager in 1974, Townsend began the process of rebranding EMI Studios as Abbey Road Studios. Officialized in 1976, the rebranding proved to be a deft marketing move that has ensured the building’s much-deserved global fame. For Townsend, the rebranding effort made perfect business sense—not only did EMI benefit from the Beatles’ renown, but they also made the studio more palatable as a working destination for members of the recording industry.

After hearing John Lennon complain about their arduous task of double-tracking his vocals during the spring of 1966, Townsend invented Artificial Double-Tracking (ADT) as an innovative means for not only saving valuable studio time, but also affording Martin with a dynamic capacity for manipulating the sounds that the group produced via their voices and instruments alike.

As music historian Brian Southall has pointed out, “Throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, all of EMI’s UK-based acts were encouraged to use Abbey Road, and no artists signed to other labels were allowed to record there.” To Townsend’s mind, the long-term fiscal health of Abbey Road Studios depended on keeping the studios fully booked and operational. For Townsend, a professional recording studio should function as a collegial place where artists and staffers share ideas—not merely with each other, but with the whole of their industries. For many years, this perspective contravened studio practices. At one point, according to Howard Massey, “There was apparently a pact between the studio managers of Decca and EMI that no staff would be given a job at either of the other ones.” As Townsend later recalled, EMI and Decca personnel weren’t even allowed to speak to one another “because you had your own recording techniques and they were absolutely dead secret.”

“Throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, all of EMI’s UK-based acts were encouraged to use Abbey Road, and no artists signed to other labels were allowed to record there.”

For Townsend, altering the building’s name from EMI Studios to Abbey Road Studios acted as an explicit effort both to associate the facility with its most famous clients, as well as to disaggregate it from the EMI Group so that the facility wouldn’t be seen as a competitor by the other record giants of the day, but rather, as an esteemed recording venue for everyone. In order to market the name change, Townsend commissioned artist Alan Brown to create a logo for the newly minted Abbey Road Studios.

Townsend’s gambit succeeded magnificently on every front. In the present day, Abbey Road Studios draws its recording artists from across the world—and from a wide range of record labels. At Townsend’s direction, the studio also made a strategic effort to attract projects from the film industry. Since 1980, when Townsend established a partnership with Anvil Post-Production, Abbey Road Studios has been in high demand for film-scoring and soundtrack-production activities. Over the years, Studio 1 has hosted recordings for such blockbusters as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03), among a host of other landmark movies.


Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin. Womack is Dean of the Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University. His latest book, Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles, was published by Cornell University Press this week in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary. You can learn more about his work at kennethwomack.com.


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