Paul McCartney sets up an experimental studio in Ringo Starr’s flat

Mid 1965 to mid 1966 ?
Timeline More from year 1965
34, Montagu Square, London, UK

Related song

Eleanor Rigby

Officially appears on Revolver (UK Mono)

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In 1965, Ringo Starr leased an appartment at 34 Montagu Square, London, before marrying Maureen Cox. The couple lived there until July 1965, when Ringo bought Sunny Heights, a country house in St. Georges Hill, Weybridge, Surrey. He retained the lease of 34 Montagu Square and rented it to his friends.

In early 1966, Paul McCartney and Barry Miles decided to establish a small recording studio for avant-garde artists to record their work. Paul rented the Montagu Square premises in March 1966, as the location was close to the Abbey Road studios, where The Beatles recorded their songs, and Jane Asher’s parents’ house at 57 Wimpole Street, where Paul was living at the time.

Paul installed sound recording equipment in the premises with the help of Ian Somerville, an electronics technician, and computer programmer (and boyfriend of American novelist William Burroughs). They experimented with tape loops to create avant-garde sounds and recorded spoken word performances of poets, including William Burroughs. While at Montagu Square, Paul also worked on the composition of “Eleanor Rigby”.

Later that year, Paul moved out, and the place was left empty until December 1966 when Ringo sublet the property to Jimi Hendrix. In 1968, John Lennon and Yoko Ono rented the flat and took a photograph that became the cover of their “Two Virgins” album. However, after the police raided the premises looking for drugs, the landlord sought an injunction against Ringo to prevent it from being used for anything illegal. Eventually, Ringo sold the lease in February 1969.

In 1966, Paul McCartney, myself, Marianne Faithful and John Dunbar had the idea that we should bring out a monthly magazine in record form. There’d be somebody at all the good poetry readings, we’d have a few snatches of groups rehearsing, and I would be going out doing interviews for International Times and we could do bits of those on tape. As you can imagine, we smoked an enormous amount of dope and thought this was the greatest idea in the world. So we needed someone to operate the tape recorders and nobody knew anyone who could do this except me. Ian Sommerville knew a lot about tape recorders. We also needed a studio and Ringo had this old flat that he wasn’t using in Montagu Square, a ridiculous pad with green silk wallpaper, and he said we could have that. Ian actually moved in there. I don’t think he was supposed to, it was supposed to be the studio. Bill [William Burrough] never moved in, to my knowledge, although when you went to see Ian there, Bill was usually mucking about, but he kept out of the way because he definitely had the impression that this thing was somehow to do with the Beatles and he wasn’t supposed to be there.

Barry Miles – From “With William Burroughs : a report from the bunker” by Victor Bockris, 1996

It was kind of uneasy there… This was when the Beatles were just getting into the possibilities of overlaying, running backwards, the full technical possibilities of the tape recorder. And Ian was a brilliant technician along those lines. Ian met Paul McCartney and Paul put up the money for this flat which was at 54 Montagu Square. There were people like bodyguards and managers who didn’t like this at all and they were always threatening to come around and take the equipment away. I saw Paul several times. The three of us talked about the possibilities of the tape recorder. He’d just come in and work on his “Eleanor Rigby.” Ian recorded his rehearsals. I saw the song taking shape. Once again, not knowing much about music, I could see that he knew what he was doing. He was very pleasant and very prepossessing. Nice-looking young man, hardworking.

William S. Burroughs – From “With William Burroughs : a report from the bunker” by Victor Bockris, 1996

I recall one day when Peter Asher, Ian, and I were there. Bill [William Burrough] was there but sort of distant and not spending much time in the room, always doing things in other rooms. Paul arrived with the acetates for “Rubber Soul”. That was the first time anybody’d ever heard those; they’d just finished mixing them. We were talking about what direction rock music was going to go in, no doubt toward electronic music, but no one knew what they really meant. In those days digital technology didn’t really exist. We all knew that somehow there was going to be a combination of electronics and rock that would be really exciting and that music had gone beyond the barriers of just a bunch of guys playing instruments. Bill and Paul were talking about this.

Barry Miles – From “With William Burroughs : a report from the bunker” by Victor Bockris, 1996 – (Barry Miles’ recollection of Paul bringing the “Rubber Soul” acetates doesn’t match up with the timeline of Paul setting up the Montagu Square studio in March 1966.)

William Burroughs used it – and Paul used the studio to record all the early takes of Eleanor Rigby, but we never got around to actually using it as an avant-garde studio largely because we couldn’t hand out the phone number because it was Ringo’s flat and in the end no one knew about it; even the musicians who we hoped would use it didn’t even know it existed.

Barry Miles – From MOJO November 2022

[William Burroughs’] idea of good music would be Louis Armstrong, Viennese waltzes – because he studied medicine in Vienna before the war – and Moroccan trance music. He liked McCartney though, and they used to smoke a lot of dope together and talk about cut-ups and different ways of encouraging creativity by random interventions. And Burroughs was fascinated to watch him working on Eleanor Rigby. Bill was amazed by how much narrative he got into such a small space.

Barry Miles – From MOJO November 2022

In our conversations [with William Burrough], I thought about getting into cut-ups and things like that and I thought I would use the studio for cutups. But it ended up being of more practical use to me, really. I thought, let Burroughs do the cut-ups and I’ll just go in and demo things. I’d just written ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and so I went down there in the basement on my days off on my own. Just took a guitar down and used it as a demo studio.

Paul McCartney – From “Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now” by Barry Miles, 1997

Occasionally Burroughs would be there. He was very interesting but we never really struck up a huge conversation. I actually felt you had to be a bit of a junkie, which was probably not true. He was fine, there never was a problem, it just never really developed into a huge conversation where we sat down for hours together. The sitting around for hours would be more with Ian Sommerville and his friend Alan. I remember them telling me off for being a tea-head. ‘You’re a tea-head, man!’ ‘Well? So?’

Paul McCartney – From “Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now” by Barry Miles, 1997

Allen Ginsberg told me [Eleanor Rigby] was a great poem, so I’m going to go with Allen. He was no slouch. Another early admirer of the song was William S. Burroughs who, of course, also ended up on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. He and I had met through the author Barry Miles and the Indica Bookshop, and he actually got to see the song take shape when I sometimes used the spoken-word studio that we had set up in the basement of Ringo’s flat in Montagu Square. The plan for the studio was to record poets – something we did more formally a few years later with the experimental Zapple label, a subsidiary of Apple. I’d been experimenting with tape loops a lot around this time, using a Brenell reel-to-reel – which I still own – and we were starting to put more experimental elements into our songs. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ ended up on the Revolver album, and for the first time we were recording songs that couldn’t be replicated on stage – songs like this and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. So, Burroughs and I had hung out, and he’d borrowed my reel-to-reel a few times to work on his cut-ups. When he got to hear the final version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, he said he was impressed by how much narrative I’d got into three verses. And it did feel like a breakthrough for me lyrically – more of a serious song.

Paul McCartney – From “The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present“, 2021

I used to sit in a basement in Montagu Square with William Burroughs and a couple of gay guys he knew from Morocco and that Marianne Faithfull-John Dunbar crowd doing little tapes, crazy stuff with guitar and cello. But it didn’t occur to me in the next NME interview I did to rave about William Burroughs. Maybe it would have been good for me to do that.

Paul McCartney – Interview with Q Magazine, 1986

From Wikipedia:

34 Montagu Square is the address of a London ground floor and basement flat once leased by Beatles member Ringo Starr during the mid-1960s. Its location is 1.3 miles (2.09 km) from the Abbey Road Studios, where The Beatles recorded. Many well-known people have lived at the address, including a British Member of Parliament, Richard-Hanbury Gurney, and the daughter of the Marquess of Sligo, Lady Emily Charlotte Browne. The square was named after Elizabeth Montagu, who was highly regarded by London society in the late 18th century.

Paul McCartney recorded demo songs there, such as “I’m Looking Through You“, and worked on various compositions, including “Eleanor Rigby“. With the help of Ian Sommerville he converted the flat to a studio for Apple Corps’ avant-garde Zapple label, recording William S. Burroughs for spoken-word Zapple albums. Jimi Hendrix and his manager, Chas Chandler, later lived there with their girlfriends. While living there, Hendrix composed “The Wind Cries Mary”. […]

Starr’s lease

Starr leased Flat 1 in 1965, shortly before his marriage to Maureen Cox. It consisted of the ground floor and lower-ground floor (the cellar/basement in the original house), and entrance was gained by walking down the steps leading to the lower-ground floor door, or the front door at ground level. The ground floor had an en-suite bathroom (with a pink bath sunk into the floor) a bedroom and a sitting room. Downstairs was a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom/sitting room, which had its original fireplace. A resident of the square, Lord Mancroft, welcomed Starr, saying to a journalist, “We’re a very distinguished square, and I’m sure we’ll welcome such a distinguished gentleman and his lady.”

The Swiss Embassy was, and is, located at the back of the house at 16–18 Montagu Place, but in August 1965, an embassy spokesperson complained that Beatles’ fans were defacing their back wall (in Bryanston Mews), with messages meant for Starr: “Our back wall is now very unsightly and we shall have to redecorate. Our chauffeur, who is French and took part in the first World War, says the language some of these young people use is worse than anything he ever heard in the trenches”.

The Starrs lived there until Epstein’s accountant suggested that the group members should move to houses near his, in Esher. On 24 July 1965, Starr bought Sunny Heights for £30,000 ($72,000), on South Road, St George’s Hill, but retained the lease on the flat. He rented the flat to The Fool, who were employed by Apple for various endeavours, such as painting the Apple Boutique in Baker Street, London, and designing psychedelic clothes for all four Beatles, as well as The Hollies, Marianne Faithfull, Procol Harum, Donovan, and Cream.

McCartney and Hendrix

McCartney rented the flat from Starr in 1965, and asked Sommerville to install recording equipment (including two Revox reel-to-reel tape machines); planning to use it as a demo studio, and for recordings of spoken-word albums. The house was not far from the Abbey Road studio where The Beatles recorded, and Jane Asher’s parents’ house at 57 Wimpole Street, London, where McCartney was living at the time. He recorded a demo version of “I’m Looking Through You” at Montagu Square in late March 1965, and worked on the composition of “Eleanor Rigby”. Sommerville moved into the flat, even though it was supposed to only be used as a studio, but defended the move by stating that he had to be “on call at all times”. Sommerville recorded Burroughs there, for Apple’s Zapple label offshoot, but discouraged other people who were interested, believing he was working for McCartney exclusively. During the time Sommerville was recording Burroughs, a friend of McCartney, Barry Miles, visited the apartment:

Ian [Sommerville] was in the strange position of playing host in Ringo’s expensive apartment, fixing everyone drinks, fussing about, cautioning everyone not to lean against the green watermarked silk wallpaper in the sitting room.

McCartney later gave up the flat, and it remained empty until Starr sub-let it to Hendrix with Kathy Etchingham, and Chandler with Lotta Null, in December 1966, for £30 ($63) a month (£265.12—$568.23 today). Hendrix and Echingham lived on the lower-ground floor, and Hendrix composed “The Wind Cries Mary” there, after an argument with Echingham about her cooking skills. For three months, between 1966 and 1967, Hendrix shared the apartment with Gordon Haskell, a bassist who played with the psychedelic band Les Fleur de Lys. When Hendrix was under the effects of LSD, he threw whitewash over the walls, forcing Starr to evict him. Starr also lent the flat to other pop stars and friends over the next few years, when they needed a place to stay in London. Lennon’s mother-in-law, Lillian Powell, stayed at Montagu Square rather than at the Lennons’ home, Kenwood, in Weybridge, when she visited her daughter, Cynthia Lennon. […]

Last updated on May 9, 2024

Going further

The Beatles Diary Volume 1: The Beatles Years

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