Requiem for Olympic

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Fri Jan 2 14:10:10 UTC 2009

>From The Independent:

Legendary Olympic recording studio to burn outIt is the studio where scores of artists have recorded hits, from the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Queen to Madonna, Oasis, Goldfrapp and The Killers – so why is Olympic facing closure? Pierre Perrone reports

Olympic Studios in Barnes, West London, holds a special place in my heart. It's the first recording studio I visited in the late Seventies, only to find glam-rockers Slade – at a low career ebb – having a blazing row. It's where the Rolling Stones drifted into psychedelia in 1967 with their half-baked concept album Their Satanic Majesties Request, before going back to basics and staking their claim to the title of the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world with Beggars Banquet and Let it Bleed. It's where the Small Faces did much of Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake, their 1968 proto-Britpop No 1 album, the one with the round sleeve resembling a tin of tobacco.

It's also where Led Zeppelin recorded their debut in October 1968, prompting engineer and mixer Glyn Johns to call the album "a milestone. That was unbelievable, quite extraordinary. I think that's got to be one of the best rock'n'roll albums ever made, and I'm just grateful that I was there," he told John Tobler and Stuart Grundy in the Record Producers Radio 1 series. "I've never got off quite as much, and that record was made in nine days, which shows you. They'd rehearsed themselves very healthily before they got near the studio. I can't single out one track more than any other in my mind, but I remember that it was tremendously exciting to make that album.

"I'd never heard arrangements of that ilk before, nor had I ever heard a band play in that way before. It was just unbelievable, and when you're in a studio with something as creative as that, you can't help but feed off it. I think that's one of the best-sounding records I've ever done," said Johns whose association with guitarist Jimmy Page went back to their teens and took in many recordings involving Page as a session player. 

The Rolling Stones, Small Faces and Led Zeppelin are only the tip of a mighty iceberg. The roll call of acts that have used Olympic Studios over the last 40 years also includes Procol Harum, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Traffic, The Who, David Bowie, Barbra Streisand, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, Queen, 808 State, Morrissey, Björk, Oasis, the Spice Girls and Madonna. The Arctic Monkeys, Goldfrapp, the Kaiser Chiefs, Kasabian, The Killers and The Zutons have worked at Olympic Studios over the last couple of years. U2 were there in December, putting the finishing touches to No Line on the Horizon, their next album, which is due out in March.

Yet the word is that current owners EMI are likely to close Olympic in 2009 and concentrate all their efforts on the equally legendary Abbey Road, the historic home of Pink Floyd and, of course, The Beatles (who, by the way, ventured to Olympic for the recording of "All You Need Is Love" and "Baby You're a Rich Man" in 1967). EMI has entered into a consultationprocess with the 11 staff employed at Olympic and there seems little chance of a reprieve, even if a source at Guy Hands' company stated that "Olympic staff are highly professional and dedicated. We are sorry to be doing this. EMI remains committed to Abbey Road Studios and we are working through a long-term plan to develop that business."

In its heyday of the early Seventies, Olympic achieved a turnover of £4m, and was acquired by Richard Branson's Virgin company in 1987, subsequently becoming part of EMI's portfolio when the major acquired Virgin in 1992. Olympic stopped turning a profit a couple of years ago and, with the current downturn in the economy affecting the music industry in general, and EMI in particular, not to mention the increasing tendency for artists to record at home and use computers, London has too many studios chasing too few clients. "The fact is that the studios are not profitable, like many British studios," an EMI insider admitted. "You can't get as much business as you used to. Andthere's no sign of that situation improving."

First established in the late Fifties near Baker Street in central London, the original Olympic employed future Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon as a tea boy and was the place where the Yardbirds cut "For Your Love" and Millie Small recorded "My Boy Lollipop" in 1964. Two years later, Cliff Adams and Keith Grant bought Olympic from owner Angus McKenzie and moved to the current address at 117 Church Road in Barnes, south-west London. A former theatre built in 1906, the premises had already been converted into a film studio and, with a bit of acoustic tweaking by Grant and architectural work by Robertson Grant, easily adapted to become what was generally acknowledged as the best UK studio by its many clients.

Olympic kept its connections with the film and TV industries and the theatre and hosted sessions for the soundtracks to The Italian Job, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Joe 90 and the original album version of the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar featuring Ian Gillan of Deep Purple. The news of Olympic's likely end has prompted Lloyd Webber to comment: "I have fond memories of my first-ever recording session there when I was just 21. The closure of Olympic is the end of an era in rock'n'roll. I wonder whether the musicindustry has changed for ever." 

Traditionally, major labels such as EMI, Pye and Decca each had their dedicated studio but the pop explosion of the mid-Sixties, combined with the rise of the record producer and the development of the album as a format, created a demand for rooms with a vibe more in tune with the musicians' needs. Olympic was always a hipper place than Abbey Road, whose EMI employees rather resembled civil servants in their outlook and demeanour. Glyn Johns and his brother Andy in particular fitted in with the more dissolute lifestyles of the Stones while the state-of-the-art mixing desks built by Grant and Dick Swettenham were the envy of the competition.

Olympic still thrived in the age of residential studios like The Manor in Oxfordshire or Rockfield in Wales and when acts became tax-exiles and began recording in exotic locations such as Compass Point in Nassau, Air in Montserrat or Miraval in the South of France in the Eighties. Olympic Studios even survived the drastic redesign which followed their acquisition by Virgin but now they seem to have reached the end of the road. 

The British Music Experience – "a unique, permanent exhibition dedicated to the history of popular music in Britain" claims its website – is due to open at the O2 arena in spring 2009 on London's Greenwich peninsula, an area not exactly rich in music history compared to Olympic Studios. Of an equal standing to Abbey Road, Olympic is already a place of pilgrimage for many rock fans and deserves more than a blue plaque on the front. Maybe Hands will reconsider his decision and give the overseas acts who have often used Olympic the opportunityto take advantage of the weak pound and come and record in London again.


Small Faces
Lazy Sunday, 1967
Small Faces spent nearly a year working on 'Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake' at Pye and Trident as well as Olympic. 'Lazy Sunday' became their second biggest hit in April 1968 but the group broke up the following year. 

The Rolling Stones
Sympathy for the Devil, 1968 
The Rolling Stones were ensconced within the warm cocoon of Olympic Studios and recorded the dark 'Sympathy For The Devil' under 'Nouvelle Vague'director Jean-Luc Godard. 

The Eagles
Best of My Love, 1974 
The epitome of Californian soft rock, the Eagles recorded their eponymous debut album at Olympic in 1972 with Glyn Johns, who also produced the follow-up 'Desperado'. However, Johns produced only two tracks on their third album, 'On The Border'.

The Who
Who Are You, 1977 
Who vocalist Roger Daltrey chinned producer Glyn Johns, a veteran of sessions for The Who's 'Next' and 'Who By Numbers', during the recording of the 'Who Are You' album issued the following year. Pete Townshend's brother-in-law Jon Astley took over and the group moved toRamport and RAK studios.

Eric clapton
Wonderful Tonight, 1977 
Having already penned 'Layla' about Pattie Boyd, Eric Clapton (left) was now living with the estranged wife of George Harrison. He wrote 'Wonderful Tonight' while waiting for her to get ready to go out. He did ninetakes at Olympic before he was happy with the result.

"The sad list of recording studios faced with closure in recent years is huge," said Jamie Lane of Britannia Row studios in London. "Whitfield Street, Olympic, Marc Angelo and Eden have been forced to close within the last year alone. This is largely due to financial impossibilities. An average record company will not pay more than £800-a-day recording fees. A large studio has to charge at least £1,500 a day. This means the bigger studios are forced to survive on recording film scores. 

"Abbey Road, AIR and Angel are able to survive off these clients due to their top equipment and large recording space, but studios like Olympic, which charged as little as £800 for music recording, were accelerated to their end. The worry now is that the Government will stop film subsidies and film-makers will then turn to Prague and other cities for cheaper studios. This would be worrying for the future of even the biggest British studios."

But Olympic will not be taking its roster of former alumni with it – it is only a building. Jimi Hendrix, who recorded Are You Experienced in Barnes, is long gone. And the Spice Girls (two albums) and Led Zeppelin (their first album, plus later tracks) ought to be further gone than they appear to be. Ditto Roxy Music and Duran Duran.

The Rolling Stones made more use of Olympic than any other major act and they are, technically, still with us. All of the Stones' catalogue from Between the Buttons to parts of Exile on Main Street was recorded in Barnes between 1966 and 1971 (which means nearly all the really good stuff) and the Stones don't appear to be going anywhere very much. So we won't be losing any musicwhen Olympic goes, only a small part of music's historical hinterland.

Nevertheless, there is something unquestionably sad about the news. There is more to a great studio than machinery. There is what "the studio" means to musicians; what it means to the very sound of music; and what a studio brings to the story of music, as a component in a narrative shaped as much by myth as it is by reality. 

By Nick Coleman

 -Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!


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