EMI is 100 years old this autumn. Four years ago, when the recording giant's executives started planning their centenary, they racked their brains to think of a commission that would celebrate both their great classical history and their rock and roll legends. The controversial solution was to call on former Beatle, Sir Paul McCartney, to compose a classical piece. The result is Standing Stone, a 'symphonic poem' recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra at EMI's famous studios, which will be performed live for the first time at the Royal Albert Hall in October. Andrew Collins, former editor of Q Magazine, talks to Sir Paul about Abbey Road and how he became a symphonic poet.
For 40 years, they were known as EMI Studios, London NW8. Then, in 1969, some regular tenants called the Beatles named an album after the red-brick building's location in Abbey Road and were hotographed on the zebra crossing outside. Seemingly overnight, it became the most famous recording complex in the world.
But the studio, in the heart of leafy St John's Wood, had seen more than a few famous musicians before The Beatles put it indelibly on the map. It was opened in 1931 by Sir Edward Elgar who, the following year, recorded his Violin Concerto there with Yehudi Menuhin and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Abbey Road continued to be the London base of the classical set for most of its early years. But then tastes and times changed and the likes of Vera Lynn, Glenn Miller, Ruby Murray and Cliff Richard moved in until the studio became best known for its pop output.
However, despite the wild things who often work within its walls, Abbey Road retains it reputation as a little old-fashioned, stuffy even. When The Beatles recorded Sgt Pepper there in 1967, four track anthnology was still the order of the day.
But, according to Paul McCartney, who is still a regular visitor, "We loved going there. And it's strangely unchanged. Studios One and Two are, anyway, although Three is modern. I think I saw Michael Nyman in Three last time I was there. But Two, well, they don't wanna change the room that "got" The Beatles!".
I was talking to McCartney - now Sir Paul McCartney - about his recent
musical output, including Standing Stone, his second major classical composition,
commissioned by EMI to celebrate the company's 100th Birthday. We
met in the photograph-lined living room above The Mill, McCartney's own
studio complex in
Rye, Sussex, and a mere 20 minute woodland drive from the farm he shares with his wife, Linda, and his family.
McCartney has done most of his own recording for the last 20 years at The Mill, out of both choice and convenience. "This is a popular venue for me. But I couldn't fit the whole of the LSO in here, so working with them on Standing Stone gave me a good excuse to go back up to Abbey Road."
Returning to St John's Wood to record his EMI centenary composition, 54 year old McCartney suddenly found that things had come full circle when his producer wound up working in the next studio to the Beatle-influenced "bad-lad" band, Oasis.
"EMI is like the Beeb. It has rules. And I guess younger bands aren't used to having rules," he says "In the Sixties, we used to make a lot of noise doing songs like Helter Skelter or some other loud track, and you'd always get the classical guy next door (in our time it was Daniel Barenboim's producer) going, bang, bang, bang ... "We're doing a quiet classical piece and we can hear you through the walls". And we'd be going, under our breath, "****ing classical, we subsidise them!" But we'd turn it down a little bit, pull out a bit of a sulk, put the acoustics on and live with it."
Standing Stone producer, John Fraser, working on the LSO's recording, found himself cast as the "classical guy" in the neighbouring studio to Oasis at Abbey Road when he politely attempted to address the problem of volume overlap from next door.
"John said, "Would you mind turning it down a bit". But Oasis have gone, "**** off! You ****ing b******s. We're ****ing leaving." And they've walked out," reports McCartney gleefully. "He's probably lost EMI an awful lot of money".
You'd be forgiven for calling Paul McCartney the most famous living pop composer in the world. The cleanest-living of all The Beatles, McCartney is, in the flesh, remarkably well-preserved. His brand of instant karma is as well-known as his trademark thumbs-aloft gesture, and his unfailing love for Linda, his wife of 28 years, has undoubtedly helped her win a recent battle with breast cancer.
Worth £540 million, signed to Capitol in America "for the rest of his recording career", and with Flaming Pie - his latest and 9th solo album - certified gold in the UK and entering at number two in the US Billboard charts, "Macca" is on top of the world.
However, who remembers the album he released in 1991 that only reached a lowly number 177 in the Billboard charts? To give it its full title, Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio, was the Fab One's first fully classical recorded work and, as such, was not really intended to gatecrash the higher echelons of anyone's mainstream hit parade.
A semi-autobiographical collaboration with composer and conductor Carl Davis, the 97 minute, eight movement work was relatively well-received on record despite the critical controversy surrounding its concert performance to celebrate the 150th birthday of the Liverpool Philharmonic.
The importance of the Davis "realisation" role also caused a degree of hoo-hah when McCartney - who cannot read or write music - claimed his billing above the title. "It's something I have had to learn to live with," remarked Davis, grumpily.
But, significantly, the Oratorio displaced the Three Tenors from the top of Billboard's classical chart after more than a year, providing McCartney's populist world view with a perfect moral victory. "The World Cup theme (Nessun Dorma), Swan Lake ... the really memorable stuff is pop classical," he commented at the time "Mozart was a pop star of his day. He he been around, he would probably have been in The Beatles on keyboard!".
Since wrestling with Barenboim in the Sixties, McCartney's love affair with classical music has been, let's say, off and on. In the early days of Beatlemania, when the boys were required to give witty soundbites at airports, John Lennon famously remarked that Beethoven was "a con, just like we are now. He was just knocking out a bit of work." The Beatles' musical development was astonishingly swift and their tastes fabulously catholic. McCartney now regards the string accompaniment for Eleanor Rigby (1966) and the trumpet obbligato for Penny Lane (1967) as his first classical endeavours.
The idea for the quasi-Baroque piccolo trumpet solo on Penny Lane occurred to McCartney after hearing Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No.2 on TV. As for the haunting Eleanor Rigby, "the only un-classical thing about it was my voice, which was double-tracked". Credit is due here to another of McCartney's musical colleagues, producer George Martin, for his skills as an arranger and translator of The Beatles' flights of imagination.
Though received wisdom has John Lennon marked down as the arty, experimental Beatle, it was McCartney who, in the late Sixties, was seeking out avant-garde, experimental composers.
His interest in audio effects led him to explore Karlheinz Stockhausen's electronic composition Gesang der Junglinge. He also leant his ears to the Italian serialist Luciano Berio and Gloucestershire-born Stock acolyte Cornelius Cardew.
"The difference was that I always used to feel that all of that was like my private life and I'd bring some of it into The Beatles," he says.
"By the time we got to Sgt Pepper, it started to emerge. I did get a bit p****d off that John became The Avant-Garde One, because two, three years before John got loose, I was going to a lot of concerts - he was living out in Weybridge, pipe and slippers time. I was doing lots of these little crazy loops, I did a loop symphony, and then the loops would find their way onto Tomorrow Never Knows. But the symphony was just for me and my mates getting stoned round the corner. I said to John "I've got all this stuff, and I'm thinking of putting it out as an album called "Paul McCartney goes too far".
Whether or not McCartney has gone too far with Standing Stone, his second classical composition, will be revealed on 14th October when the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform the work live at The Royal Albert Hall.
Film score maestro Richard Rodney Bennett, described by McCartney as "this slightly older classical/jazz guy", will be in charge of the orchestration and McCartney is armed with humour and ready for the critics' charge.
"It's not actually a symphony," he says, playing the mock know-all "it's a symphonic poem. I didn't know the difference either. Symphonies are in four parts, but they tend not to have a story. Once it has a story it tends to be called a tone-poem. But a lot of people I know would think it was just a poem if you called it a tone-poem, so symphonic poem suggests that there's some music in it."
It seems a modest enough claim. And if the classical critics bide their time until the premiere of Standing Stone by sharpening their pencils with razor blades, the, these days, McCartney chooses to be philosophical while admitting "You'd be a fool not to enjoy being famous AND acceptable".
He is not, after all, such a surprising choice as EMI's centenary composer. Of the 211 songs The Beatles recorded in their eventful career, 56 of those Paul McCartney co-wrote will simply live forever. And the company has every reason to be grateful to John, Paul, George and Ringo.
"There was a graph that I think The Sunday Times did a few years ago," says McCartney with a smile, "The success of EMI and the success of The Beatles are directly related. My brother-in-law, John Eastman, is a lawyer with Disney and they were trying to buy EMI not long ago, but it was around the same time that The Beatles' Anthology came out and so the price went up too much."
"He said, "Do you know how much you've cost me? Millions!"
I said, "Too bad ...."
Footnote to article:
Standing Stone will be released by EMI on 29th September and is performed at The Royal Albert Hall on 14th October.
END OF ARTICLE