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Olympic Studios Records: Analogue Recording History and Material Culture Archive

I first met artist, Roger Miles, when he presented his immersive Resonate/Generate installation of analogue objects at Chelsea College of Art in 2014. Roger subsequently became the unofficial archivist at Olympic Studios (home of The Olympic Cinema) in Barnes, South West London, and was instrumental in the opening of Olympic Studios Records, a shop located opposite the studios, and run by volunteers. The store’s mission is to help local people sell their record collections, reinvesting the proceeds towards the building of an archive, which already includes 650 of the 900 albums recorded at the studios between 1966 and 2009. The store also aims to reconnect people with vinyl records and analogue experiences.

I am really chuffed that ShopCurious has been able to collaborate with Olympic Studios Records on an analogue archive of collectable curiosities, including vintage typewriters and a limited edition luxury book featuring the cover art of 100 albums recorded or mixed at the studios.

For those who aren’t aware of Olympic Studios and the building’s fascinating past, here is a potted history:

The building began life as Byfeld Hall, opening its doors on December 20th 1906. It was built as an entertainment centre for the local community. The Barnes Official Guide of the time carried an advertisement, announcing that:
"This Hall has a seating accommodation of 500, is equipped with a large stage and properties, allowing for the production of plays of modern requirements.” In 1910, the building was renamed as Barnes Cinema on receipt of its first cinematograph licence - with the first week’s programme including ‘The Lady of the Lake’ and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, both of which were screened to full houses. The Barnes Cinema gave way to the new Byfeld Hall Cinema, which was extensively refurbished after the First World War. Within a month, the name was altered to The Picture House (whose name can still be seen on the Eastern side of the building), and in 1922 it became the Barnes Picture House.

During the mid 1920s, a young theatrical producer, Philip Ridgeway, acquired the lease to create Barnes Theatre, and his venture was curiously successful. His production of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, starring the young Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies, saw hundreds of people unable to get seats and the national press announcing that all the celebrities of the time were in attendance. Ridgeway continued to bring the West End to Barnes, presenting a range of plays, including a notable watershed production of Chekhov plays directed by Theodore Komisarjevsky, whose casts included the emerging talents of 22 year-old John Gielgud, Jean Forbes-Robertson, 19 year-old Robert Newton and Charles Laughton.

In January 1930, the building reopened as a cinema again under the name of The Ranelagh, billing itself as "the latest atmospheric cinema." The Ranelagh continued as one of the district’s most comfortable and intimate cinemas until March 1940, when the war forced its closure. However, on November 15th 1943, it reopened once again, as The Plaza – closed briefly in 1951 due to a fire in the new projection room - and later reopened under yet another new name, The New Vandyke. 

After a few years as a studio for television commercials, in 1966 the cinema was converted to the Olympic Sound Studios, with room enough to house a 70-piece orchestra. The Rolling Stones were among its first clients, recording six consecutive albums between 1966 and 1972. The Beatles worked at the studio to record the backing tracks for 'All You Need Is Love' and the single, 'Baby, You’re A Rich Man'. The Who recorded their classic albums ‘Who’s Next’ and ‘Who Are You’. It was also where Led Zeppelin recorded their debut in October 1968, prompting engineer and mixer Glyn Johns to call the album, "a milestone… one of the best rock’n’roll albums ever made, and I’m just grateful that I was there".

Queen used the studio for their ground breaking album ‘A Night At The Opera’, and the studio saw the production of many other landmark albums and singles by artists such as The Small Faces, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Joan Armatrading and Procol Harum, who recorded 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale' here. The studio also recorded and produced film music for ‘The Italian Job’ (1969), the film version of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (1973) and ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was recorded in Studio Two in 1975. Over the next thirty years, artists who recorded at 117-123 Church Road included B.B. King, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Duran Duran, Oasis, Slade, Barbra Streisand, Nick Cave, Basil Brush, Madonna, Prince and The Spice Girls.

The Olympic was acquired by Richard Branson’s Virgin company in 1987, subsequently becoming part of EMI’s portfolio when the major label acquired Virgin in 1992. U2 were the final act to record on the site in December 2009, with their album ‘No Line On The Horizon’.

The current owners sold their house to be able to fund the purchase of the closed down studios. They went to Norway to find the comfiest reclining seats; sourced bespoke individual brass tables, custom-made to hold a bottle of wine or a cup of coffee and a bag of popcorn or sweets. They added love seats, and sofas at the back for those wanting to cuddle up, as well as footstools along the front rows, allowing people to kick off their shoes and relax.

They also spent years ensuring that the Olympic Cinema has a clarity and quality of sound in the main auditorium befitting a space with such an incredible recording history. With award-winning speakers including the revolutionary Dolby Atmos 3D sound system, which, say Dolby: “Reproduces a natural and lifelike audio experience that perfectly matches the story; adds overhead speakers for the most realistic effects you’ve ever heard and reflects the artist’s original intent, regardless of theatre setup, employing 64 speakers to heighten the realism and impact of every scene.” 

The vinyl record shop was opened in July 2018. As well as albums and singles for sale, the store stocks old school hi-fi kit, retro audio equipment and memorabilia preserved from the Olympic’s past, including the original recording studio keys and wall charts of the non-digital mixing process. The archive is currently catalogued and held in the basement of the shop at 66 Church Road Barnes SW13 0DQ, and it is hoped that this will soon be displayed in and around the new recording studio, which the owners are planning to open on the top floor of the building. A twenty-twenty, sound and vision experience is guaranteed for all.

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