There was something rather touching about the uproar that ensued in Britain when EMI announced that it was to sell the world famous Abbey Road Studios in London.
The Abbey Road to inspiration
Pop, by its very nature, is ephemeral, but there was something rather touching about the uproar that ensued in Britain when EMI announced that it was to sell the world famous Abbey Road Studios in London - and then performed one of the most spectacular U-turns of recent times by deciding it wouldn't flog it after all. The continuing importance of Abbey Road isn't just a by-product of The Beatles recording some of their most famous work there - Let It Be, Revolver and, of course, Abbey Road. It's remained something of a temperature test for pop music. Green Day, Florence and the Machine, Gnarls Barkley, Kanye West and, naturally, Oasis have all probably taken one look around the building that also echoed to the sounds of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and said to themselves: "We think we've made it now."
Is there something, then, about this white Georgian mansion in St John's Wood that encourages creativity? The Irish singer-songwriter Gemma Hayes thinks so: she mastered her Mercury Prize-nominated debut album, Night on My Side, there in 2003 and recorded another acoustic session at Abbey Road two years ago. "There's an aura when you walk in there, because it doesn't feel like it's changed that much," she says. "You know that the wooden floors are the originals, that they've kept some of the microphones. And because you know that some of the biggest legends of our time have used them, you can't help but feel the atmosphere straight away. It's in the air.
"Something happens when you walk in that studio. I just felt like I was feeding off the great quality music that has been made there over the years. I found it really inspiring, rather than nerve-racking. I loved it." Of course, where a record is cut shouldn't theoretically make any difference to how good the songs are. But it does. Hayes is currently recording her fourth album in a converted farmhouse in the French countryside called Black Box. She's sure the bucolic charm of the Loire Valley is making its mark on her music.
"As human beings, we're hugely affected by our environment," she says. "Being in the middle of nowhere in a 17th-century farmhouse with loads of analogue gear makes me up my game. I need to make sure what I sing is really good. It makes you want to sound different - raw and perhaps more real - but it quietens the mind down too. When you record in the city you get caught up with what that represents, and it can make your album sound more urban.
"It sounds hippy and trite, but I'm feeling a lot more connected to nature and that's definitely coming through in the songs. At Black Box, it's all about creating music. There's nothing else there - and that has a huge effect." And decamping to somewhere completely different can have spectacular results. Particularly if you decamp to Berlin. David Bowie's Low, Heroes and Lodger records were massively experimental, influenced by the electronic sounds coming out of the city from bands such as Kraftwerk. Iggy Pop's debut solo album, The Idiot, was a huge departure from the hard rock of The Stooges. And more recently, you have to wonder whether the hot young Manchester band Delphic's highly acclaimed indie album would have been so dance-floor friendly (and thus interesting) if they hadn't recorded it in the German city.
So in the same way that Berlin has made musical history for Germany, Abbey Road has been crucial for albums made in the United Kingdom. It would have been too much for the studios to be sold to a property developer and turned into flats in the same year that the iconic live music venue the London Astoria was also bulldozed. Indeed, days after EMI's about-turn, the British government made Abbey Road Studios a Grade II listed building, which means it would be very difficult to try such a thing in the future.
Hayes remembers being given a tour of Abbey Road, and one thing sticks in her mind: a small room with a window overlooking the studio. "George Martin and the engineers used to go in there with their suits on - because this was a proper, serious job to them - and record sessions using one microphone," she says. "The band had to have their song ready - no messing around - and get it finished by lunchtime. I just stood there and went: 'Wow.'"