You’d think that Mary McCartney — the eldest child of Paul and Linda McCartney, and the director the new Abbey Road Studios documentary If These Walls Could Sing — would bring up her father when asked about her earliest memories of the hallowed Abbey Road space. She instead brings up Kate Bush, another British pop icon she managed to convince to take part in the film, despite all odds.
“I think my first sort of memory [of Abbey Road] is walking into the reception area when I was a little kid, probably like 6 or 7,” Mary recalls. “The reception area there used to have photographs of all of the musicians that had been there before, this beautiful gallery of pictures. And there was Kate Bush… I Really remember seeing that picture.”
Mary reached out to Bush well before the reclusive songstress’s 37-year-old Hounds of Love single, “Running Up That Hill,” became a surprise 2022 hit thanks to Stranger Things. Mary already believed that Kate “was very important to include in the film, because she produced her own music there. She also directed her own music documentaryaries. She was an amazing talent who used Abbey Road so well.
“I texted her and said, ‘Would you mind… could I speak to you? I’m directing this documentary — could we speak?’ I was Very nervous,” Mary confesses. “And she was like, ‘Oh, thank you, but you know I don’t do interviews.’ … Well, I knew that she doesn’t do on-camera Interviews so I kind of kept in touch. … Eventually I just said, ‘Look, it’s so important to have you included. Could you just record it? [as audio only] and send it?’ And hat’s what she ended up doing. It was heard, and I received it. Chills. … I literally couldn’t believe my luck. It is one of my favorite things. The highlights of my life, getting to know Kate and being able to speak to her about her history there.”
Obviously, Bush’s fortuitous inclusion could not have been more timely. But as Mary set out to illustrate that Abbey Road Studios was more than just the Beatles’ sacred space, another artist’s “upsetting” appearance in If These Walls Could Sing It turned out that the timing was not so good. The film includes several minutes of archive footage from 2006 of Ye (then known as Kanye West), at Abbey Road with an all-female string quartet of 17 members, recording his live album. Late Orchestration. Mary insists that Ye did not interview her or film any new footage. egregious antisemitic commentsIt was too late to even consider editing the segment from the documentary.
“It’s upsetting, because any kind of antisemitism or racism is something that really is very upsetting to me, and to most everybody else. The interview [in the film] is a really vintage interview that was done at the time of him recording there a long time ago,” Mary sighs. “Including him that in the process, when I was making the documentary, was to include all the different range of artists that have been there utilizing that space. It was a wonderful album that he produced there. … But the documentary had already been locked. Then, a lot of his interviews with the press that he had been doing began to happen. It’s quite upsetting.”
Among the new interviews that Mary conducted for the film were Oasis’s Gallagher brothers — separately, of course. While she might have managed to convince Kate Bush to record original narration, getting Liam & Noel in the same space was always going to prove difficult. (“I can only do my best!” Mary laughs.) Her conversations with two rock legends were particularly instructive.
“I had no idea that Elton John and Jimmy Page had been session musicians there!” Mary marvels. “I had thought, ‘Let’s talk about session musicians and recording processes,’ and we went through the recording sheets that tell you who’s been there — and then one sheet read: ‘Jimmy Page’! … I think that was one of the big surprises for me, being able to talk to Elton and Jimmy about how — so It is best to start early, early in their careers — Abbey Road really influenced them, how they cut their teeth there and learned their craft at Abbey Road.”
Page, who played on Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” recording at Abbey Road, also shared a funny tale with Mary about that session. “It was a folklore story,” she chuckles. “I’d heard that when John Barry was producing ‘Goldfinger’ for Bond, Dame Shirley Bassey held the note for so long that she collapsed — but I didn’t know if it was a true story. And then we found this archive of her singing, and John Barry said, ‘You need to hold that final note until the end credits finish.’ And so she held it, held it, held it — and it wasn’t finishing! It took her so long to hold it, that she collapsed to the ground when it was over. It was great that Jimmy Page was playing his guitar during that session so he was able tell me what he saw. He just watching her, and she was so incredible and so dramatic.”
In the end, though, Abbey Road will always be mainly associated with Beatles, and Mary even learned new stories about them when she interviewed her father and Ringo Starr — like the fact that Paul had made a crude, pre-photo-shoot pencil drawing of the four Beatles single-file-strutting that famous crosswalk, an iconic image that eventually graced the Abbey Road Album cover as a live action shot. “I didn’t know about that!” she chuckles. “He told me that story and he was like, ‘When I sketched it out…’ And I was like, ‘Wait. Where’s This sketch? I Not required to put that in the documentary!’”
It could even be argued that Abbey Road became the much-debated “Fifth Beatle,” in a way, after the Beatles ceased touring and became more of a studio band. Abbey Road was so important to the Beatles’ sound that groundbreaking albums like Revolver And Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band might have sounded quite different if they’d been recorded in another space. One amazing moment in If These Walls Could Sing, for instance, is about how the Beatles created another famous long note — that droning, 42-second E-major chord on Sgt. Pepper’s side B, in “A Day in the Life” — with four pianos.
“It was hard to choose what songs to include in the documentary, but that one I was definite about from day one, because it’s one of my favorites. But also it’s got great stories within it,” says Mary. “I think the orchestra was a bit freaked-out, because they usually always read music and that’s how they create. It was a wonderful story that showed how the Beatles changed and pushed boundaries with great results.
Mary continues: “Abbey Road allowed the Beatles real freedom, and they really collaborated with the technicians and the engineers and obviously George Martin, all so high-caliber. It was a true collaborative effort. So, if they were like, ‘How do we get this creative sound?,’ an engineer might go, ‘Well, let’s take this tape and we’ll loop it around here.’ They were inventing new things all the time, which was really accelerated and exciting. Abbey Road was able to keep up with the Beatles’ creativity because they were all breaking boundaries, they were changing the rules, they were utilizing all of the space. They recorded in every room. They used pianos found in Abbey Road, which affected the sound. There were sound effects, because Abbey Road had comedy records recorded there in the ‘50s, so they could use that. Abbey Road was where they felt secure, safe, and looked after. They weren’t being hindered in any way.”
Mary — a first-time film director, but, like her late mother, a longtime professional photographer — admits that “one of the big challenges” in making If These Walls Could Sing was keeping an audience interested and invested in a film about a “90-year-old building.” So, she mostly avoided the “nerdy side of it,” explaining, “Within my photography and anything I do, it’s about people and emotion and connections. I chose to tell emotional stories that would draw the viewer in. … What I’m happy about in the documentary is the interviews feel quite personal. Everyone felt at ease, as if they were really there. Wanted To talk about the space. They’re reflective and inclusive of the audience. It’s almost like you’re at home there.
“I mean, I see people all the time on this zebra-crossing, making that pilgrimage to the space, because it really means so much to so many people. And so, by the end of watching the documentary, I hope you feel that you’ve been to the space, and that you understand why people are so passionate about it, and why people still are recording there to this day.”
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