So, this afternoon, I visited Sarm Studios on Basing Street, London. For so many, many years, I have dreamed of visiting there, recording there, being guided by the great Trevor Horn in creating my musical masterpiece. It’s a dream I have held to this day and, if truth be told, one I am reluctant to let go. But let go I must, because Sarm Studios on Basing Street is almost no more. Trevor has finally had to buckle to the pressure of redeveloping the site. It’s prime London real estate, with bills to match. The deconsecrated church, originally owned by Chris Blackwell of Island Records, simply can’t remain viable in an age where one can create magnificent recordings in a domestic bedroom on a laptop or tablet.
I get this. I mean, I’m as big of a proponent of that concept as anyone. Ever since the dawn of computer based music recording, I have championed it, embraced it, positively encouraged it. So, quite unnervingly, I represent much of what has caused Trevor to make this decision. That doesn’t sit easy with me. Even though I love the fact I can record an entire opus from the chair I am sitting in right now, I still believe that the professional recording studio has a place. especially one steeped in such history. Especially one of the finest sounding recording spaces ever built.
But, if Sarm is to still be here in another 30 years, it must change. The current Sarm building on Basing Street will eventually become luxury flats, offices and two studios will emerge in its basement. The team will relocate to a new “music village” just around the corner on Ladbroke Grove. Trevor will open Sarm South in Lymington on the southern English coast, and Sarm West in Los Angeles’ Bel-Air will remain.
However, it is the building on Basing Street that will always be remembered for being the point of creation for some of the world’s finest music over the last 40+ years. This is where Zeppelin recorded ‘Stariway to Heaven’, where Bob Marley recorded virtually all of his material, where Queen recorded ‘A Night at the Opera’, where Horn, Morley and Sinclair founded and forged the ZTT label and artist roster. Depeche Mode, The Rolling Stones, Pet Shop Boys, Madonna, McCartney, Grace Jones, Duran Duran, Iron Maiden, New Order, Radiohead, …. the list goes on. And of course, who could forget Band Aid, that fantastic achievement of Bob Geldof and Midge Ure. That was recorded in Sarm’s Studio One. And that is where I stood this afternoon, for the first and last time.
In clearing out the building, the Sarm team held a ‘yard sale’ in aid of charity and I decided to go along to not only see if I could pick up a bargain and a memento, but also to be able to say that I have stood in that vastly important place.
Upon entering the famous Blue Building that sits to the side of Studio One, I was directed up the spiral staircase and was at first surprised at the fact it looked smaller than I had imagined. Tables lined the edges of the main space, and upon these were stacked numerous pieces of studio outboard. The dim lighting meant you had to get up close to see exactly what was what and what there was, was definitely well used. I spied a ‘Tatu‘ modified unit of some description, plenty of amps, patch bays, recorders and lots of speakers. One of the isolation booth’s contained a lot of old tape, of which I suspect had been bulk wiped. There were old light fittings, Dolby processors, even a really old record player. Under one of the tables there were some old Mac towers. My first impression was that either I had missed a lot of the bargains as I had arrived about 30 minutes after the sale opened, or there was just nothing of any real interest there. Sure, any piece of equipment would be a piece of history of some kind, but I wasn’t prepared to lay out cash for a dusty, non-descript relic. There were a few very interesting pieces, such as some gear that had been ‘rebranded’ by the Frankie Goes to Hollywood boys and a white Fender bass guitar, both signed by Trevor, but these were only being sold to the highest bidder, and customers were invited to deposit their sealed bids with Trevor’s son Aaron, who was ably managing proceedings.
So, I circled one or two more times and happened across three items of interest. A Roland VS-880EX, a Native Instruments Kontrol Rig 1 and a Novation Launchpad. Nothing was priced as buyers were asked to make sensible offers. I hummed and ahh’d for a bit and went back to pick those three items up and try my luck. I had been a tad too slow for the Launchpad but the other two items were still there, so I grabbed them and joined the queue. When I finally reached Aaron, we had a little chat and I made him an offer for both items which he immediately accepted. Cash was handed over, a receipt was given and that was that.
I took a few more pictures, wandered around as much as I could without looking too suspicious and headed out, turning back for one final gaze upon the room of dreams, the room in which so much of the soundtrack to my youth had been created, born and honed to perfection in. Descending the stairs, I asked the receptionist if I could grab some photos of the pictures on the wall, to which she obliged. As I left, the incredibly large, but amazingly polite, security guard asked to check my receipt and with that, I walked out of Sarm.
My emotions were a bit all over the place, really. I had just been inside this desperately important building, the unachieved pinnacle of my musical ambition and the realisation that I’d never, ever get to fulfil that ambition hit me. I’m sure we’ve all had that moment where we realise that one of our dreams will never, ever happen because the subject, the focus of that dream no longer exists. It’s hard to take. I mean, realistically, I was probably never going to achieve it because I am bereft of the talent and funding to justify and afford a session there, but whilst the studio existed, there was always a chance, no matter how remote. But not anymore.
I wandered around for a few minutes, taking a few last pictures. I recorded my thoughts in an Audioboo, pretending I was making a phone call whilst I struggled to contain my emotion. A bit more wandering, a few more pictures and, like that moment you decide to be strong and leave an ex lover behind, I turned and walked down Lancaster Road, forcing myself to not look back and to remember Sarm as I had just seen it.
And so the future beckons for Sarm and its endeavours. I don’t doubt that it will continue to be the premier recording facility in the country, if not the world. I am certain many more classic pieces of musical creativity will gestate and be born within its confines, wherever they may be. But the vibe and spirit of Sarm on Basing Street is about to go, leaving behind a legacy upon which, I am sure, many hundreds of thousands of pounds in rent will be gleaned. Maybe one day, enough will be made to coincide with a reverse shift in music recording trends that may one day see Studio One resurrected, along with the vibe and spirit that is being squeezed out from it today.
Rest in ironic peace, Sarm Studio One. Long Live Sarm Music Village.
For those of you who are historically minded, here’s some interesting history around Basing Street as a community and a street.