x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

When it comes to recording music, never underestimate the power of place

While it's possible to mix albums in the comfort of home (or garage), recording studios still hold great appeal for some bands.

Abbey Road Studios in London.
Abbey Road Studios in London.

It's now possible to mix albums on iPads or laptops using downloaded software, but recording studios still have a special allure for bands, not just as places to work, but as fabled spots to hang out and soak up some of the creative atmosphere.

The Kinks frontman Ray Davies could tell a story or two about Konk, the studio in north London that the Kinks bought and used at the height of their fame, which may yet host a band or two. The site, which has played host to Thin Lizzy, Blur and the Bee Gees and later became the namesake of an album by The Kooks, was offered for £2 million (Dh12m) as a development property last year, but Davies is now reconsidering the sale.

He told the BBC that he's planning to record another album, and may hang on to the place that was originally bought as a place to rehearse in, but which evolved into a professional studio. Presumably we'll have to wait until after Meltdown finishes - the arts festival that Davies is curating in London this month - before he makes his final decision.

Konk isn't the only famous London recording studio that has come under threat: the legendary Abbey Road Studios was nearly sold to property developers in 2009, but ended up receiving historic site status from the British government to protect it the following year. And it's not just The Beatles who recorded there: everyone from Michael Jackson to Radiohead and Lady Gaga has laid down tracks in the building in St John's Wood.

When a studio attains its status as the birthplace of a genre, artists flock to work there. Chess Records in Chicago, Illinois, where Muddy Waters recorded alongside Etta James and Willie Dixon, was known in the 1960s as the home of the blues. So it's no surprise that the Rolling Stones recorded there, even releasing an EP with the Chess studios' address - 2120 South Michigan Avenue - as its title.

"Willie Dixon tried to pawn a song on us and Muddy Waters helped us in with the gear," Bill Wyman said, reminiscing about the experience in a 2002 interview with the music journalist Harvey Kubernik. Wyman said that the greatest thing about recording at Chess wasn't the music production itself, or being complimented in the flesh by Chuck Berry. It was, in Wyman's words: "Being told we could go down in the cellar and pick some albums if we wanted. Racks of Little Walter albums we had never seen. That was the magic of Chess for us."

Over on the west coast, the California sound was being nailed down at the Hollywood studio Sunset Sound Recorders, where The Doors cut their first two albums and the Beach Boys made Pet Sounds. Originally a little brick building over a car-repair shop, it was opened in 1959 and used to make recordings for Disney movies before it became associated with rock'n'roll, hosting artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Janis Joplin and Tom Waits.

These places all have their stories, but if there's one place they all owe a debt to, it's Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee: the place where what is sometimes called the first rock'n'roll single (Jackie Brenson's Rocket 88) was made, and where Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis made records throughout the 1950s.

Originally called Memphis Recording Service, it opened in January, 1950, with the slogan "We Record Anything, Anywhere, Anytime" - for a small fee, it was open to all. A few years later, after the studio had received some positive press, Elvis Presley walked into the office to pay for a few recordings - songs that he later said were meant to be a gift for his mother. He was spotted by Sun's owner, who got him a band and some songs that were intended to introduce the blues sound of the time to middle America.

When Elvis eventually jumped to a bigger label, the money from the buy-out was used to fund recordings from Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, and although Sun Records' last single was released in 1968, the Sun Studio site is still operating as a recording studio, with recent visitors including U2 and Def Leppard.

The story's a reminder that, although recording can be as easy as singing into a laptop's built-in mic, some studios provide a little extra magic - whether that comes from being discovered there in the first place, finding your favourite artists wandering the corridors or plundering the in-house record collection.

Let's hope Ray Davies holds on to Konk - it may be the site of another band's inspiration.