Mike Rimmer spent a day at Abbey Road's famed recording studio watching the ONE VOICE single, in aid of the tsunami victims, being recorded. Photos taken by Andy Colthart and Hazel Thompson.
The phrase that's most often associated with Abbey Road Studios is the description "world famous". As I walk around the corner and into Abbey Road itself, you know you're in the right street because of the tourists having their photographs taken crossing THAT crossing. They're doing it wrong of course! To get the genuine Beatle photograph replication you have to stand on a step ladder in the middle of the road to snap your shots. Too much traffic for that! It's February 19th 2005 and there is certainly something thrilling about walking into the building. Even 35 years after The Beatles split up, fans are still scrawling graffiti on the wall outside and eyeballing me because I am heading inside.
Abbey Road is particularly crowded this day. Around 250 Christian singers from both gospel and CCM fields have joined together to record a single to raise money to help rebuild Thantri, an Indian fishing village destroyed by the tsunami on Boxing Day. The atmosphere is electric as old friends greet each other and the Abbey Road canteen is packed with people catching up on news and the buzz of conversations all agree that this is a very special day. Your correspondent is here to create a radio documentary and interview the participants and drink in the atmosphere. One of the biggest sounds on the single is the huge choir vocal and singers from a number of different choirs have gathered together in Studio 1 to record their part. The men behind the project, Lawrence Johnson and Les Moir, share their vision for the single with the choir and before recording begins, they pray.
Lawrence Johnson was the co-founder of the London Community Gospel Choir then a member of Nu Colours who in the first half of the '90s were one of the first acts to "crossover" to the pop mainstream. Disillusioned with life in the gospel music scene, for the past decade Lawrence has been working with mainstream pop artists. At Christmas he was visiting his parents in Florida and it was his father who got onto Lawrence about how he was using his musical talents. Johnson remembers, "The first thing my dad said was, 'What are you doing for God?' and I was like, 'Oh dad not now!' But he hit a soft spot and the thing I said to him was, 'I'm not interested in being involved in the gospel community. I don't mind going to church and I don't mind being a Christian but that's as far as it goes.' But my dad told me I couldn't do anything from outside. And that's when it started. So he prayed for me in his church and I promised God I would come back into the gospel music community and that the same enthusiasm I have to work in the secular arena, I would have double for the community."
Lawrence didn't expect that God would move quite as quickly as he did. A couple of days later, Lawrence was watching CNN and the scenes of devastation following the tsunami in Asia. He remembers, "I just felt God say that we should do a record." His first call was to track down Les Moir who is the label head for Survivor Records. It took Lawrence a couple of days to track him down but the pair chatted through the idea and Moir gave it the green light. Johnson admits it was amazing that it all happened so fast. "I knew God was waiting for me and I was fighting it for a long time. I knew God was waiting for me to make that decision. There's always a purpose in what he has for you in your life. And I realise now that God sent me out into the mainstream, not because I wanted to leave, but to go out there and learn a lot and bring it back into this community."
While Les and Lawrence are sharing the vision with the choir in the huge Studio 1, in the more intimate surroundings of Studio 2 the soloists who are going to perform on the single are limbering up. This is the studio where The Beatles recorded most of their material and I recognise it from films and photos. Today there's a totally different vibe as a gospel pianist plays a rhythm and the singers spread out and do physical exercises.
One of the exciting aspects of today's recording is the way in which black and white church have come together in unity to work together. As Stu G from Delirious? comments, "Just to come here and be working together with everyone is pretty cool. It feels like church actually!" And then he's swaying and stretching with the rest of them. Looking across the room, there's veterans like Paul Field, Graham Kendrick and Andy Piercy mixing with gospel pioneers like Dave Copeland and Doug Williams. Youngsters like Chris Gordon from Raymond & Co and independent artist Natalie Phillips rub shoulders with Freddie Kofi, Mal Pope, George Mhondera and Quin Delport, formerly of The Tribe, and they're all moving to the groove, clapping their hands and beginning to break a sweat. It's actually quite a sight seeing some of these unfit singers puffing and panting! If only The Beatles could have seen this!
For the rest of the day, Studio 2 is used as a quiet room for interviews and quiet conversations. It was Les Moir who negotiated to record here. He explains, "I've got to know the management team here and the managing director, David Holly, very kindly gave us a day. When I told him what we wanted to do he basically said, 'If the studio is free, you can use it.' It's been an incredible place to be. In a way, I've just felt honoured and privileged to be here." Under normal circumstances it would have cost more than £5000 to hire the two studios. Les Moir shares, "They've just been very generous and they wanted to give to the relief as well. I'm very grateful."
Back in the control room of Studio 1, the mixing desk looks like the control panel of a space shuttle with enough gleaming metal, flashing lights and faders. Producers Neil Costello and Linzlee Campbell are working with two Abbey Road engineers and song writers Tim Hughes and Mark Beswick wander in. Les Moir is wandering around greeting people and making introductions. The backing track is pumping out the speakers and through the glass I can see the choir learning the song "One Voice One Heart". Campbell is a respected gospel producer and was drafted in from the beginning, even showing up for the writing sessions when Mark Beswick and Tim Hughes wrote the song together at The Premises in Hackney. He says simply, "We were just in a little studio getting it together."
Tim Hughes remembers, "I'd been doing a lot of events with Mark Beswick recently. So it was really cool just to be up for it and see what happened. Met up with Mark and had a really great time. I've been wary about putting my songwriting in a box and I haven't really co-written too much before, so working with Mark was a fresh experience. It was great to just try and come up with something. Rather than writing a song on a guitar we were just singing out melodies. I think that was quite freeing and I guess opened up slightly different avenues and a different style. It's been a really enjoyable experience." There is always a challenge for songwriters writing charity singles after disasters. It's possible to come up with something worthy but the cheese factor can be very big too and songs can end up sounding like twee Coke commercials. Just listen to USA For Africa's "We Are The World" and you can see evidence of this process. In the case of "One Voice One Heart", Hughes was inspired by Scripture as he was thinking about the theme of the song. "There's a phrase that Paul uses in Corinthians, it says 'Sorrowful yet always rejoicing.' And it feels that this captures what this song is. In one sense, the reasons for writing it and some of the lyrics, it's expressing the sorrow and the pain of the world we live in. But for us as believers, we know that there's a better day to come and we know that there's a reason to be rejoicing; a hope. And actually together, a wonderful picture of all the different churches, different denominations, different colours, different flavours, coming together with one voice to declare 'there's someone who's going to shine light in the dark - there's a better way - the way is love.'"
The collaboration between black and white is a very important aspect of the day at Abbey Road with barriers between music communities and churches broken down. The sense of unity reflected in the song is tangible as I stand and look around the Abbey Road canteen and people are mixing and talking. This is only a reflection of relationships that have been developing in recent years. Song co-writer Mark Beswick explains, "Tim and I have been working together for the last couple of years on various different projects. When Lawrence Johnson approached me to collaborate with Tim to write a song for this occasion, it was just another outworking of that relationship. So it's something that came quite easily for us really. I think the idea of us being one voice and the collaboration really lends something to the whole occasion. Everybody coming together and just putting all their efforts together towards this great need in Asia."
He continues, "It has been great to see many different people from different denominations, different culture backgrounds, just melting together side by side, working together towards this song and making it work. I think that was exciting. It warmed my heart when I saw all those people gathered in the room." Tim Hughes and his wife are sitting on a black leather sofa in the control room of Studio 1 as the choir finish recording their vocals. The single appears to be produced by a committee. Les Moir and Lawrence Johnson sit at a table comparing notes, planning who will sing solo lines. Neil Costello and Linzlee Campbell work with the engineers to make sure that each take is correctly captured, listening again and again to the music as it's going down.
Hughes may have co-written the song but it's been Campbell's production skills that are transforming it. He remembers, "It's been pulled together in a very different way to what I'm used to. Mark and I came up with the melody and then Linzlee came up with his big, fat, beat-box machine! The first thing they do is just lay down the groove - the feel - which is not how I tend to do things! So then everyone's head is bopping." And so they are! As the track is revealed to singers who are going to do their parts everyone agrees that it's a winner. It was Moir and Johnson who pulled everyone together. Les admits there was some pressure, "The stress was really trying to invite everyone to be here. I had to make sure they could be here."
And they are here! If you watch the DVD filmed on this historic day, there's a great shot at the end where all the participants are squeezed together looking up to the cameras. I stood in the middle of that crowd of singers, artists, worship leaders and choir members and mused that if Abbey Road blew up at that moment, my mate Dan Smart who leads worship in my church could end up being the most experienced worship leader in the UK! Now it's time for the solo vocals to be recorded and a little production line develops in Studio 2. A singer arrives and is taught his/her line and then they go through to the vocal booth to do their stuff. Then another singer is lined up to record the next line. It's here that the production side feels like a committee with five pairs of ears listening to each take. Sitting watching the recording unfold, I'm told that it's all about blending voices together.
Chris Gordon from Raymond & Co takes his turn but it takes him a while to get a take that the producers like. Mark Beswick coaches and encourages and we listen again as he adds his voice to the song. He emerges from the booth and smiles sheepishly, "I think I'm in concert mode or something because we haven't been in the studio since we recorded our album. I got in there and I think I belted it a bit too loud! Singing in pockets and specific timing?" he sighs. "It's all seems a bit new to me again!" As afternoon progresses into evening Mal Pope is having a nap sitting in the canteen waiting to do his thing. Around him, some are watching the football on the big screen. Siani are in the corner laughing loudly with their producer Miss Cherokee. Back in the vocal booth, Martin Smith is singing his line in a number of different ways. He's trying for the right feel, listening to what the producers are saying and the committee in the booth are talking about blending together different parts of different attempts that he's made. In the end, his ethereal vocal is pure unmistakable Smith. He rushes off to catch his train home.
Wandering around in the corridors of Abbey Road, a heavily pregnant Cathy Burton stops for a chat accompanied by her producer husband Paul Burton. Diane Louise Jordan is full of enthusiasm and enjoying the day. Everywhere there is a sense of wonder about the day and what is being achieved. I button hole Graham Kendrick just as he's about to record his vocals. The breakdown of barriers between black and white church which is unfolding in front of our eyes at Abbey Road has its roots in the work done by pioneers on both sides of the gospel/CCM divide. Kendrick shares some of his own journey, "I took on a young guy, many years ago, called Steve Thompson. A very, very talented keyboard player and arranger. I got to know him, he brought in a few friends from the gospel community. And over the years, quite a lot of folks from the gospel background were part of my band. And it did influence the style. We had some great times with tours and with some events that we put on and which became quite influenced by gospel music. But I think the heart of it is just building friendships with people and getting to know people as people. I think today it's particularly encouraging to see some of those guys who have been through my band in the past, tell me that they 'caught' something. I was catching something from them as well and we're all grateful for it."
The blend of black and white continues as demonstrated by Soul In The City in London during the summer of 2004. Tim Hughes and Mark Beswick led worship together as did Matt Redman and Noel Robinson. Matt enjoyed the experience, "It's great because you get to sharpen each other. You've both got different ways of approaching things and just hanging out together, I found it really sharpening. One person would sort of take it for a while and then the other person would. I really loved it because there was a real security in knowing 'not everything is resting on one person.' Noel Robinson agrees, "I've worked with Graham Kendrick for such a long time and Noel Richards and various other people - I think that people see that it CAN work and this relationship thing is about us just being ourselves. It's not necessarily about our gifting. Our gifting will always be there. I know with Soul In The City, just getting to work with Matt was something really special for me. It touched me to the core, more than music, more than anything."
The single itself blends black and white voices beautifully although there were enough diva gospel singers to surely intimidate some of the worship leaders. Was Matt intimidated? He laughs, "Well it's always good to have a comedy moment on these things! I'm very glad the Lord looks at the heart and not the vocal performance! Those singers are fantastic and it is an interesting thing to me because I don't feel insecure about it. It's actually quite funny for me that I end up doing this full time! I'm just not a trained musician of any description. But I've found the best thing in life is to surround myself with people who are better than me and bluff my way through!" Back in Studio 2, there's a bit of a Birmingham takeover. Gospel singer Cie has done her take though she's feeling fragile having torn a ligament in her leg recently. She sits in the outer studio where a number of artists have gathered. For Birmingham rapper The Witness this is an exciting day for two reasons. He's here at Abbey Road and it's his birthday. As the evening moves on the energy levels begin to flag in the control room and people are working extra hard to concentrate on what's happening.
The energy levels lift as The Witness walks in. Confident and quick, he is a breath of fresh air and his vocal is recorded in a flash. He even manages to incorporate his signature "Are you ready?" into his part and off he goes into the London night to celebrate his birthday at a restaurant. Not a day he'll forget in a hurry. But that's the same for everybody who came along. Just before I leave the studios, I manage to have a quick chat with Les Moir. With all the excitement of the music and church communities coming together and the fact that it's an opportunity to make a difference and help people on the other side of the world, it is a special day and yet Les is sober as he sums it up.
"We've been working with Danny Smith of Jubilee Action and they've been working with a fishing colony in India, a place called Thantri where it was totally destroyed. So the money will go to help rebuild that. The fishermen have lost everything, lost their boats, lost their nets.everything. So we wanted to help rebuild that. The great thing is that we're going to have a week-to-week report on how the money is being spent." Les is also excited about what the day has done to break down barriers between black and white. "For over 20 years one thing has been on my heart and that is to see the black and white Christian scene merge into one. For some reason, there has just been this wall between the two scenes and I think today has been a major part in seeing that wall come down. This really has been the biggest venture that we've all done together. It's just been amazing to see so many people together. For me it's been one of the most fulfilling days of my life. I've dreamt about this one for a while!"The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.