The story of how I found out one of the U.K.’s greatest recording studio’s best kept secrets; something any music tourist would probably prefer not know.
If you think the famous Abbey Road recording studio is the greatest the U.K. has ever had, you might want to think again if you’ve never heard of the Olympic Studios.
Due to copyright issues related to having ‘Olympic’ in the name, the studio was never marketed in the same way as that becoming the name of one of the most iconic albums of all time.
The studio’s location, Barnes; a leafy little corner of the Capital that feels completely removed from the rest of London.
Though there was a lot of property development taking place there in the late 90s and a quick look at a map online now shows shops where I don’t remember them.
The incomplete list of artists to have recorded there is so extensive, I managed to narrow the list on the studio’s Wikipedia page down to 35 ‘couldn’t not mentions’:
- Shirley Bassey
- David Bowie
- Nick Cave
- Elvis Costello
- The Cult
- The Cure
- Depeche Mode
- Duran Duran
- Marianne Faithfull
- Peter Frampton
- Peter Gabriel
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience
- Howlin’ Wolf
- Judas Priest
- The KLF
- Led Zeppelin
- Kirsty Maccoll
- Massive Attack
- Iggy Pop
- Procol Harum
- Suzi Quatro
- Roxy Music
- Sham 69
- The Stranglers
- Thin Lizzy
- The Who
- Stevie Wonder
I was there on a regular basis in the late 90s to carry out routine pest control visits. By that time it was called Virgin Studios, being owned by the label of the same name.
Whenever coming across the question ‘tell me a weird fact about yourself’ one of my favourite replies is singing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in the same studio the Rolling Stones recorded it in.
The first few times going there, the building manager would walk around with, while regaling me with little snippets of history about of the place.
That nugget stuck out, and when trusted to walk round on my own—an inevitably of most routine visits after a while—I was always sure to belt out the lyrics in the studio in question.
Not only is ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ a cracking song in off itself, much of its inspiration came from one of my favourite books, Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita.
If that wasn’t enough, Jean-Luc Godard director of one of my favourite films Breathless made a documentary capturing the creation and recording of the song: One Plus One
(Sympathy for the Devil)
To get to walk on such hallowed ground and be paid to do so, really was a pleasure.
My visits would occasionally clash with artists recording: to my surprise, I’d still be allowed to get on with my rounds, just with a ‘avoid studio… today’ thrown in as I set off.
When finishing, I’d sit in reception and have a chat with the receptionist while writing the report. I’d never ask who was recording; I’d learned what that sort of enthusiasm could lead to at the Brixton Academy (more details of that below).
But one day it was apparent when Jay from Jamiroquai walked through the front doors and said a cheery hello on his way to recording vocals for the bands third album Travelling Without Moving.
Just after, the building manager emerged to sign the report; while we stood having a chat about things in general, a coach pulled-up outside and a ton of tourists started to pile off.
What they were doing was beyond me. Did I mention that Barnes was a leafy little corner of London seemingly left on its own and not feeling all that much different to when it featured in H. G. Wells‘ Victorian-era The War of the Worlds?
At the time there was a row of about ten little shops opposite the studio; many were on my rounds. The place was so quiet, the convenience store had whacking great spaces on the shelves between items such was the low demand in the area.
“Where on Earth are they all going?” I asked, surprised.
“Here,” the building manager replied. “We get coach loads all the time.”
Generally, he explained, they were there due to a particular artist, and they alone, and a particular album they’d recorded there; not the studios or artists per se.
“You’re expecting them?”
“No, they just turn up whenever.”
Bizarre: it was clearly an organised coach trip, and now they were going to get disappointed, and no doubt ripped off by whoever had arranged things.
(least that’s how my history of working in government security looked at it – if your name’s not down, you’re not coming in, etc).
“Christ, what a pain having to constantly tell them, sorry, no.”
Actually, as I learned from the just mentioned security work, saying no to people can be tremendously enjoyable, but anyway:
“Oh, I’ll show them round,” he replied. “Give a tour.”
“Even when there’s someone in recording?”
“Yeah, though I won’t take them to studios in use.”
“But . . . if they’re here for a certain album in a certain studio?”
“I’ll take them to one of the others and tell them that’s it. It’s not like there’s any numbers on the doors, and it’s better than sending them home disappointed.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the key to entertainment.
It also explains why two people might claim to have been to the same famous studio when visiting London, U.K., while having completely different pictures of the place.
It’s also why I made a point of singing Sympathy… in every studio from that point on.
If you ever get the chance to visit in its current guise as a cinema, do – it’s a fantastic building, with incredible history.
- The current Olympic cinema
- Olympic Studios Wikipedia page
- The in-depth Sound-on-Sound interview with legendary engineer Keith Grant, who worked magic at the studios
- BBC article: Olympic Studios Reborn ‘a pictory’
Other Pest Control/Music related posts from me:
- Brixton Academy and Madonna
- Killing Joke and the Almost a Porn Star (also featuring Barnes)
- Ian Dury and the Ticket Man at Fulham Broadway Station
Thanks for reading 🙂
N. P. Ryan
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