The HMX Community Team has been in some pretty unbelievable spots lately. We’ve played Rock Band with artists featured in the game. We put on a show for Sting at the Sundance Film Festival. But few events have been as surreal as playing demos of The Beatles: Rock Band at Abbey Road Studios.
After seeing our presentation at Destination Playstation a few weeks ago, MTV Games and Apple Corp requested that we head out to join some of the MTV folks for a set of demos in London. At first we were a little apprehensive, considering that we were just wrapping up a weekend in Arizona and would only have a week or so of downtime before heading down to Austin, TX for SXSW. As soon as we found out the demos were taking place in Abbey Road Studio 2 we changed our tune pretty quickly.
HMXjohnd, HMXkat and I hit British soil late on Sunday night in early March, and after a long cab ride to our hotel from Heathrow we were more than a little bummed out to find that all the pubs in London had closed. I mean, what kind of city closes down at 11pm on a Sunday night? For the record, we’d be hard pressed to find a burger in Boston after 6pm on any given day of the week. We eventually settled on room service and crashed in HMXjohnd’s room and watched some outrageous British television (Nevermind the Buzzcocks FTW!) even though half the pop culture references didn’t really translate well.
Monday morning we grabbed our gear and took a cab over to Abbey Road. The studio is surrounded by a white concrete wall that is entirely covered with graffiti, illustrations, song lyrics, love notes, etc. Apparently the wall is such a popular destination for Beatles fans that the studio has to repaint the wall every month to allow for more notes. It’s pretty impressive. Once inside, the studio is fairly unassuming. From the lobby and the first few hallways, you’d be hard pressed to pick Abbey Road out from a line up of other offices or studios we’ve visited. But as soon as we started getting deeper into the studio, we began to notice photos on the wall, recording gear set out in the hallways, and framed posters for movies that were scored at Abbey Road. Serious chunks of history. We ended up arriving earlier than expected, so we hung out downstairs while we waited for MTVceline to meet up with us. While we were waiting we found out that the London Symphony Orchestra happened to be in house and were recording in the studio right next to us. Pretty cool, even if they almost trampled us when it was time for tea.
When MTVceline finally showed up, that’s when business really picked up. She told us that Giles Martin, producer at Abbey Road and the son of Sir George Martin, producer of nearly all the Beatles’ records, was wrapping up his interviews but we could hang out in Studio 2 while he was wrapping things up. Hang out in Studio 2, where The Beatles recorded some of the most important albums of all time? OKAY.
I fully expected Studio 2 to feel like a church, or some kind of shrine or monument to The Beatles, where everyone tip toed around and spoke in hushed reverential tones. But it was actually still a living, breathing recording studio. Bands still come in and record there, and it was amazing to see that after all these years the studio is still responsible for giving birth to new music. We met with some of the Abbey Road techs and a group of our MTV people, and got a crash course in the history of the room we were standing in. One of the MTV folks, while prepping for his presentation, was listening to a mix of Beatles songs and at one point someone came up to us and said “Just so you know, this song was recorded in this room on that piano you’re leaning against right now”. Abbey Road Studios: they leave history laying all over the place.
After walking around slack jawed and amazed for the first hour we started unpacking our gear. We had a little stage set up at the back of the studio and set seats out for the 85 guests we were expecting. While we had done demos for The Beatles: Rock Band at DPS two weeks prior, this was to be the first hands on game play for most of MTV UK, our EU partners at EA, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo as well as reps from Apple Corp, EMI Records, and Abbey Road. It was a pretty big crowd as far as demos go, and as guests started to file in you could tell that people were excited. Even though some of these people were hugely instrumental in making this game a reality, many of them had never seen game play or some of the more exciting (and still top secret) details.
MTVpaul opened up the presentation with a sweet slideshow outlining all sorts of businessy stuff like sales figures, ship dates, and a general overview of the Rock Band franchise. Fascinating for the suits in the crowd, but I’ll spare you the details. He ran through a few videos that got a tremendous response from the crowd and made an excellent joke at one point about bonding the US and EU teams by literally gluing us together. Then it was our time to take the stage. We took to our controllers (myself, HMXJohnD, HMXkat and MTVjeff) and just as we start getting ready to lead into the first song, MTVpaul thanks the Abbey Road crew for hosting us and gives special thanks to Jeff Jones, Giles Martin and Olivia Harrison for joining us. Great. We’re about to play a Beatles track that George Harrison wrote, and we’re playing it in front of his wife at Studio 2 in Abbey Road. No pressure.
So far the universal response to The Beatles: Rock Band demos has been “hushed awe”. This time, as soon as we finished the first song, the crowd went nuts. Wild applause. The next two songs in our demo went over even better. It was unbelievably gratifying getting such a positive response from the people who are so closely involved with the band’s legacy.
We stuck around after the demo for a short Q&A session and then did some hands on game play. Even though we only had three songs on the demo, nobody got tired of playing them. We cycled through the demo set list, traded off instruments and talked shop for a few hours before packing things up for the night. A bunch of the MTV and HMX people were invited out to dinner with folks from Apple Corp and Abbey Road, so we met down the road for a bite to eat. The HMX posse showed up a little late, thanks to the mildly inaccurate (ed note: he sent us in the opposite direction) directions provided by Mr. Giles Martin. After getting lost, we eventually turned back the way we came, and met up with Giles on the road who confessed “Sorry guys, I was giving you directions to a completely different restaurant. Don’t be bitter!” Funny guy.
HMXkat’s one wish on her first trip to London was to go to a pub for a pint, so after dinner we took a cab into SoHo and made it just in time for last call. We split a pack of crisps, finished our drinks as quickly (and as responsibly) as we could, and then took a short walk through Piccadilly Circus before calling it a night.
Tuesday’s demos were more of the same, but we had the benefit of a bit more downtime throughout the course of the day. And what do you do at Abbey Road when you have time to kill? Why, you get invited into all sorts of crazy rooms to see Beatles stuff that will melt your brain. One of the Abbey Road techs gave us a peek into the echo room where The Beatles recorded vocals. Another studio vet invited us into his office while he was sifting through the original raw vocal tracks to later Beatles recordings. Finally, shortly before we left, we got to poke around in the recording booth directly above Studio 2, where they still have the original mixing board that they used to record Beatles tracks over 40 years ago. It was epic.
We ended up wrapping demos much earlier than expected on Tuesday so we flagged a cab and headed downtown for lunch. I was determined to have fish and chips before I left, and HMXjohnd and I still wanted to show Kat some of the sights. Unfortunately we got stuck in a bit of traffic and along the way we found out that our flight was leaving about two hours earlier than we though. So our casual lunch and sight seeing turned into a 15 minute blur of tourism, where the three of us made fools out of ourselves running up and down the Thames River taking photos and shooting video of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, and anything else resembling an old timey and important building. Once we finished our mad dash we took a cab back to Abbey Road, packed our bags and said our goodbyes and rushed to Heathrow just in time to catch our flight. I had just enough spare time to fill my bag with delicious Cadbury candy to bring home, which is just as good as fish and chips in my book.
All in all we spent less than 48 hours in London, and all three of us were destroyed with jet leg when we got back to the offices on Wednesday, but it was certainly a trip for the record books. We’re already making plans to head back to Europe to do a string of demos as we get closer to the launch date of The Beatles: Rock Band on September 9th, 2009 (aka 9.9.09). Keep an eye out for us. Pretty soon the HMX house band will end up playing stadiums and clubs the world over!