A new documentary about the history of Abbey Road Studios called If These Walls Could Sing is out in the UK this week. Find all the details alongside an interview with director Mary McCartney below.
The documentary, which arrives in the UK on January 6 via Disney+, charts the long history of the iconic London studio, and includes interviews with The Beatles‘ Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, alongside Elton John, Nile Rodgers, Noel and Liam Gallagher, Roger Waters, Celeste, George Lucas and more.
Mary McCartney, photographer, director and the daughter of Paul and Linda McCartney, was first approached to helm the documentary by Oscar-nominated director and producer John Battsek (One Day in September, Searching for Sugar Man) to coincide with the studio’s 90th anniversary.
“I love music, and I grew up going to Abbey Road Studios. But I didn’t know any of the history,” McCartney told NME. “So when I found out that it was 90-years-old, I was really surprised – I had not realised it was opened in 1931. Then it just opened up a whole little world.”
In the film, one featured photo shows Mary McCartney as a baby on the studio floor, while another captures the moment her parents walked their Shetland pony, Jet, across the famous zebra crossing outside. “I think mum was going there when she was pregnant with me,” McCartney recalled. “So I literally have been going there since I was in my mum’s tummy.”
The documentary charts key moments throughout the studio’s musical history, from the classical performances of Edward Elgar and Jacqueline du Pré, the recording of classic albums like The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, to hosting Hollywood composers like John Williams who recorded the Indiana Jones: Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Star Wars scores at Abbey Road.
As daughter of the Beatles frontman, McCartney was uniquely qualified to dive into the history of Abbey Road Studios, though she explained to NME that many of the documentary’s revelations – including the ones that came directly from her dad – were new to her, too.
“Pretty much everything I learnt [for the first time]. We wouldn’t sit around as a family and talk about these Beatles stories,” she explained, but added that her parents’ Wings recording sessions are indeed “etched” into her mind.
The documentary combines archival footage and interviews shot within the studio, which McCartney said allowed her to bring a personal touch to the film.
“Even though it was moving from photography into directing, I felt like I could still have my style within it,” she said. “The way I like to do things is quite calm, relaxed and collaborative and conversational. My worst habit is talking over people. So I had to get over that quite quickly.”
She continued: “It’s quite a complicated documentary to put together, because it’s not about a person or a life story. It’s about a building.
“You can tell people really care about Abbey Road, but it’s like, ‘Why do they care about Abbey Road?’ And I think that’s the thing that I wanted to explore.”
Paul McCartney is a key talking head in the documentary, who recalls how the studio – the backdrop to some of the Beatles’ formative moments – became a fabled part of the band’s identity.
“It was really interesting getting the history from him, because I hadn’t spoken to him about it in that way,” McCartney said. “When it’s your family, you don’t sit down and interview them about things, so I learned so much through the process.”
She continued that her dad quickly began to offer “little tips” when he heard she would be making the documentary. “He would give me snippets,” she said. “So he kind of taught me how Abbey Road really was significant, not just being a recording studio, but [how] the character of the place has really worked its way onto quite a lot of the music there.”
However, the photographer also told NME that she was initially hesitant about whether to move forward with making the documentary. “Because of my surname, I almost shied away from doing the project, because sometimes I can overthink it and be like, ‘It’s too close’, and, ‘You need to just be independent’,” she explained.
But she was drawn to the film because of the “amazing calibre” of people involved and her confidence in producer Battsek. “I knew he wouldn’t ask me unless he really was doing it because of my career. He wouldn’t just say, ‘Let’s get Mary McCartney to do it’,” she added. “I took it very seriously and very professionally.”
Throughout the documentary, many musicians speak in-depth about their personal connection to the legendary studio and how it influenced their own records.
In one interview clip, Liam Gallagher praises the spiritual aura of Abbey Road, where it’s revealed that he was often the first to arrive and last to leave. “He was really interesting and insightful,” McCartney said. “And he was really respectful of the space. And when he says, ‘You’ve got to feel it’, and he’s like, ‘You’ve got to soak it up’, it was a real insight into him as an artist.”
McCartney explained that she was particularly moved by an audio submission from the famously private Kate Bush, who directed the music video for her 1981 single ‘Sat In Your Lap’, at Abbey Road. “I was so happy when Kate Bush agreed to contribute an audio piece,” McCartney said. “She was so pioneering at producing and writing within Abbey Road. And then when I found out she did that video there it just really made me smile.”
“It sort of surprised me literally how brimming with creativity she was. I knew she was, but to find artists that really utilised the space fully like that surprised me.”
McCartney concluded that the documentary’s key intention was to find out why Abbey Road has continued to resonate with recording artists until this day.
“It’s amazing that you can record anywhere. You can record in your bedroom, you can record in your bathroom, you can record in your car,” she said. “And that’s amazing. But why do people still come to Abbey Road? Why is a dedicated recording space significant? And is it still significant?
“The resounding answer was ‘yes’. Maybe not to the degree of the past. It’s cost prohibitive to spend months in a recording studio doing your album. But it’s still really important to be there, even if it’s for a day or two.”
She added: “It’s a space where you go with no distractions. You go into the studio, close the door, and you’re in a recording session. Long live the recording studio.”
If These Walls Could Sing is out in the UK January 6 on Disney+.