TITTENHURST PARK is the most famous Beatles and Rock & Roll Landmark that you probably never heard of. More than that, it is also one of the most recognizable English country houses in the world. Its documented history dates as far back as the 1200s, when King Henry VIII granted as a gift to the priorell and nuns of Bromhale “twenty acres of heath in the king's demesne of Tetenhurst” in order for them to be granted the right to cultivate land, build structures from trees, and the privilege of raising hogs. 600 years later, it became famous as the late 19th century home of English patent medicine vendor and philanthropist Thomas Holloway. His name is still recognizable today thanks to his founding of what became the Holloway Sanatorium (an institution or the treatment of the insane – well, the middle-class insane, actually) and Royal Holloway College (officially opened in 1886 by Queen Victoria as an all-women college). In the mid-20th century the estate was the home of British entrepreneur & chocolate enterprise heir Peter Cadbury (yes, THAT Cadbury). By that point the estate was already well-known by Botanists around the world for its “museum of trees”. But it was not until 1969 when most of the world became aware of Tittenhurst Park thanks to it becoming the new home of John Lennon & his wife Yoko Ono.
As a result, the incredible estate became the location of The Beatles' last official photo session on August 22nd, 1969. Tittenhurst Park was also where John Lennon filmed, what is perhaps, the most famous promotional film in history – the 3:31 “music video” for his song Imagine The film was part of an 81-minute, made-for-TV movie that accompanied the release of the album of the same name. Both were released in 1971.
Though many people may not have seen the entire documentary film, many have seen portions of it because much footage was included in other music videos by John Lennon in later years, including “Jealous Guy” which showed Lennon singing and playing piano in the home studio, and shots of he and Yoko walking along the grassy grounds.
The Imagine video begins with John & Yoko, both dressed in black, with Lennon wearing a wide-brimmed hat, walking silently up the winding driveway of Tittenhurst park as a thick fog hovers above the driveway and greenery around them. They soon come upon an opening and we see that they are approaching a magnificent 19th century Georgian manor house. The couple continues walking on and soon arrives at the entry portico with classic white columns and tall windows on either side. When they reach the door the camera offers a close-up of the words etched into the glass transom window above a tall white door. It reads: "THIS IS NOT HERE."
When the camera returns to John & Yoko standing motionless in front of the door they mysteriously disappear. The next scene takes place in a dimly-lit room filled with little more than a white piano and perspex pieces from Yoko's art shows. At the piano is John Lennon. He is playing and singing Imagine while Yoko, dressed completely in white, slowly and methodically walks around the room and opens the shutters of the windows, offering views of the grand grounds and gardens, while allowing the bright light of day to stream through the glass and light the room. It is a magnificent scene. No doubt John & Yoko would have made a promotional film for the song no matter where they lived, but it was the result of living and working at Tittenhurst Park that allowed them to offer to the world the iconic images that are in our memories forever. In fact, with this promotional film, they create what are among the most iconic images in Rock & Roll history.
Yes, Tittenhurst Park was the residence of John Lennon & Yoko Ono. But it was also their work space. For decades previously, musicians have had the opportunity to record themselves at home. Buddy Holly's songs that he recorded with an Ampex tape recorder in his New York City apartment in 1958 may be the most famous & earliest example of doing so. But it was the result of John Lennon's incredible wealth, resources, and motivations that allowed him to create what is considered to be the first professional residential recording studio in the U.K., which went on to become the inspiration for others that followed, including, among others, Richard Branson's the Manor.
Though the design & construction of Lennon's studio began in the fall of 1969, the Manor (built in late 1971) is sometimes incorrectly considered to be the 1st residential recording studio. The only justification for that may be that it was made available to any musicians who wanted to record & live in the space at the same time; whereas Lennon's studio was built for the specific use of him & Yoko. Whatever reason anyone may have to consider the Manor to be the 1st is technically incorrect. No matter how you slice it, the fall of 1969 comes way before the winter of 1971. Further, by the time the Manor was completed, John & Yoko had already produced several complete albums at his residential recording studio, and a handful of other songs to spare.
Another contender for the “1st” residential recording studio is Rockfield Studios just outside the village of Rockfield, Monmouthshire near Monmouth in Wales. In the early 1960s an existing farmhouse was converted into a studio and rented out to musicians who were looking for a place that offered peaceful rural surroundings.
So what it really comes down to is - how does one define “professional residential recording studio”? When it comes to having a professional recording studio in one's personal residence, John Lennon was certainly the 1st one out of the gate, and the 1st to cross the finish line.
The central reason the studio space was built was to offer Lennon the convenience of recording anytime he wanted to, without having to reserve a time-slot at EMI, Apple or anywhere else. Lennon wanted to be able to get out of bed, invite some musician over, have breakfast or lunch together, and then go into the studio and record until he wanted to stop.
Specially-designed connections for his guitar and a mic were even installed in his bedroom so he didn't have to get out of bed if he didn't want to; thereby allowing him to record at the moment of inspiration, day or night.
Beyond the convenience it offered them, by all accounts another reason it was built was because John & Yoko felt that no one at any other studios wanted to see or hear Yoko sing. Whether that was true or not doesn't matter nearly as much as the fact that they felt that way, and they simply were not comfortable in those environments. But with a professional recording studio a few steps from their kitchen, they had all the comforts of home available to them, so John & Yoko could record what they wanted to without the glaring eyes of those who despised her for whatever reasons they may have felt they had for doing so. There is not sufficient space here to begin any discussion of how anyone may or may not have felt about Yoko or her music at the time, but the simple fact of the matter is that having a home recording studio certainly encouraged a great deal of productivity and creative opportunities which may not have been available in another situation.
Recording engineer Eddie Veale was given the task of designing & building the studio as a result of his introduction to John Lennon by The Beatles' pal Neil Aspinall. According to Veale, “There was no real brief. He just said, ‘Build me a studio as good as Apple’.”
Lennon christened it A.S.S. Ascot Sound Studios.
Right: Notice the statue from the Sgt. Pepper cover.
Once completed, John & Yoko - with the assistance of Klaus Voormann on bass and Ringo Starr on drums - recorded portions of the twin Plastic Ono Band albums. Billy Preston provided piano on “God” while musical genius extraordinaire Phil Spector played piano on “Love”. Spector also offered his unique gifts in the role of Producer. Both albums were released in December, 1970. In 1987, the album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was ranked by Rolling Stone magazine ranked as fourth in its list "The 100 Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years."
At the time of its release, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band received considerable critical disdain and failed to chart in the U.K. John & Yoko may have anticipated this reception since, according to Ono, during the sessions, the audio engineers were in the habit of turning off the recording equipment when she began to perform. In recent years, however, the album has been credited with being influential to such bands as The Velvet Underground and the B-52s.
The following year Phil Spector was invited by Lennon to co-produce once again. This time for what would become John Lennon's critically-acclaimed album entitled Imagine. The musicians invited to Tittenhurst Park this time around included former bandmate George Harrison, as well as Nicky Hopkins on piano, Klaus Voormann on bass, Alan White, Jim Keltner, and Jim Gordon on the drums (for different songs), John Barham on harmonium, Joey Molland and Tom Evans (two members of Badfinger) on acoustic guitars, along with King Curtis (recorded in NYC) on saxophone, along with a ½ dozen others who were brought on to play acoustic guitars, tambourine, and maracas. In New York The Flux Fiddlers (members of the New York Philharmonic) were brought in to provide orchestral strings. As famously seen early in the documentary Gimme Some Truth The Making of John Lennon's Imagine Album, the great Phil Spector provided harmony vocals on Lennon's song “Oh Yoko!”
In addition to scenes for the film taking place in the “White Room” and the recording studio, additional scenes were shot in the Billiard Room. Perhaps the most famous scene in the film is the one that shows John & Yoko being driven by a chauffeur in Lennon's 1956 Austin Princess limousine. From above the audience sees the vehicle drive across the east gardens, over the descending greenery of the grounds, and the toward the man-made lake that was built at Lennon's request so that he could see water from his bedroom window.
Despite 800+ years of documented existence, it is the photos & films that were shot at Tittenhurst Park between 1969-1971 that most immortalize the estate in people's minds forever. Perhaps there would have been even more if not for the fact that John & Yoko got on an airplane to go to the USA in hopes of finding Yoko's daughter. That was at the end of the Summer, 1971. They never returned to Tittenhurst Park ever again. The studio went unused. The manor house was empty. With the exception of some of their staff, and their friend Dan Richter (and his family) - who remained in one of the guest cottages on the property - Tittenhurst Park was abandoned.
Interestingly, a portion of the grounds were used by Ringo Starr for his 1972 documentary BORN TO BOOGIE, which featured his friend Marc Bolan (T-Rex) performing a medley of his songs in the famous “tea party sequence” that also featured Ringo, a string quartet, and a bunch of nuns eating burgers served from a BBQ by actor Geoffrey Bayldon of Catweazle fame.
After living in a luxury hotel in Manhattan, and then renting an apartment in Greenwich Village (from The Lovin' Spoonful's drummer Joe Butler), John & Yoko decided to stay in the USA permanently. It was then when they purchased a large apartment in the world's most famous apartment building – the Dakota.
John Lennon sold Tittenhurst Park to Ringo Starr who moved in with his wife Maureen and their three children. Their residency would not last long. When Ringo & Maureen divorced in July, 1975 she was granted custody of all three children and moved elsewhere while Ringo moved to L.A., and (for tax purposes) Monte Carlo.
Rather than selling Tittenhurst Park as Lennon had done, Ringo refurbished the studio to state-of-the-art standards. He renamed it b>STARTLING STUDIOS, and allowed musicians signed to his Ringo O' Records to record there, as well as any other musicians who wanted to make use of the residential recording studio.
Located roughly 45 minutes west of London, it offered an ideal situation for many bands who wanted to get away from the typical, city-based studios, loosen up, and experiment with new ideas while laying down tracks in a comfortable environment. Over a three-year period, seven albums, and 17 singles were released. Music producer David Hentschel was the first aboard when he put together an album consisting of instrumental covers of Starr's 1973 album “Ringo”.
The variety of artists signed to the label ranged from English rock singer and songwriter Graham Bonnet, to American saxophonist Bobby Keys who, over the course of his career, appeared on albums by the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Harry Nilsson, George Harrison, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker and other prominent musicians.
Scottish singer-songwriter Rab Noakes was also signed to the label. While there he recorded his 1978 album “Restless.” The sessions included backing vocals by his friend Gerry Rafferty, and drums by Ricky Fataar who had gained fame as an actor in the role of Stig O'Hara, a parody of George Harrison in the 1978 spoof documentary “The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash”, as well as being a drummer for the Beach Boys in the early-1970s in concert and in the studio.
The group Stormer stayed in the house and recorded their album My Home Town which unfortunately did not get the distribution it deserved because Ringo O' Records closed shop at the precipice of the album's promotional efforts.
From 1975-1980 numerous musicians had the priceless opportunity to stay at Tittenhurst Park while recording their songs at the in-house studio. Though many studios chose to put the bands up in order to save money (since the band had 24/7 access to the studio), many of the musicians appreciated being in the house where Lennon had recorded some of his most legendary songs. They were hoping to absorb the positive vibes associated with the beautiful home, with its big rooms and large windows that offered astonishing views of the magnificent grounds and gardens.
Between sessions the musicians took full-advantage of the beauty of the surroundings as they wandered among the trees and botanical wonders that dotted the 70+ acres.
Many artists know that sometimes the most creative ideas come to them when they are not working, but instead are allowed to put their mind to rest, and to think about other things. Being in a spectacular place like Tittenhurst Park allowed their minds to wander while filling to the brims with such fantastical sites as a life-size statue of a Tyrannosaurus rex that looked directly at the house! In fact, the beast could be seen from the east-facing windows. There was also a life-like statue of a rhinoceros that stood in an open area between magnificent trees. Ringo had a duplicate made for his friend Keith Moon that did not remain motionless. Legend has it that Moon put his on a track that would come zooming out at visitors whenever they pressed the doorbell at his house!
Scattered around the grounds were ornate vintage garden urns and statuary, along with many of the busts that Lennon had abandoned at the estate. The best-known is perhaps the one that was placed near George Harrison's left foot during the photo shoot of the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album cover.
In addition to the grounds and gardens, the musicians also had easy access to the lake, where they could row boats around the island or walk onto the island itself, as John & Yoko had done in their film (as scene by a helicopter hovering above). There was also a heated swimming pool, tennis courts, mini bikes, golf carts, and some six-wheel-drive, skid steer amphibious all-terrain vehicles for their use.
In reference to the “museum of trees” that were transported from all over the world, and planted at Tittenhurst Park in the late 19th century, imagine walking among the grounds and seeing such towering trees as the Weeping Blue Atlas Cedars that The Beatles posed beneath during their photo shoot. The view was so fascinating that it inspired George Harrison to write the following lyrics “Weeping Atlas Cedars. They just want to grow, grow and grow” for his song Beware of Darkness. On another part of the grounds could be seen an 87' Cedar of Lebanon, a 73' Horse Chestnut, a couple of 45' Laurel-leaved holly trees, a 100' Douglas Fir, 55' Weeping Wellingtonia, and trees with such thrilling names as Spiky Fingers, Monkey Puzzle, Umbrella Pine, Schwedler's Maple, Twisted Pagoda, Sweet Gum, Maidenhair, and Honey-Locust. Also could be found were a free-flowering crabapple tree & an old Oak that was covered in wisteria. There were also over thirty varieties of Magnolias gathered together in their own garden, as well as rare specimens of Azaleas and Camellias.
Even the most street-wise, city-hardened, sex-craved, 1970s rock & roller could not help but find sweet serenity, tranquility, & creative inspiration in the natural splendor that surrounded them while recording at Startling Studios.
Back in the house, musicians were offered such amenities as a professional chef who would cook anything the band wanted for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as tasty snacks and desserts. The former dining room was converted to an entertainment room with a billiard table, a pinball machine, dart boards, and games. There was also a TV lounge with dozens of tapes (including entire seasons of Faulty Towers), and comfortable chairs and sofas to relax upon. On the wall was a stainless steel fireplace designed by Ringo and his partner Robin Cruikshank, that matched the stainless steel coffee table that they also designed. Items such as these were sold through the company they owned known as ROR (Robin or Ringo) Enterprises. Oh, yeah! There was also a two-berth sauna on the top floor of the manor house, accessed via a back staircase above the studio.
Though the estate included a 2-bedroom Gate Lodge, a 2-bedroom Keeper's Lodge, a building known as the “Forge Cottages” that included four 2-story apartments, and a unique building designed in the Cape-Dutch style known as the “Temple” (because John Lennon allowed a group of Hare Krishna devotees access to it in exchange for their assistance maintaining the estate) , most of the time the musicians stayed in the Manor House itself. At the time, the accommodations comprised of seven double bedrooms plus two singles. Five of the bedrooms had shared en-suite bathrooms.
Quite by happenstance, many were quite surprised to see the name plates “John” and “Yoko” on the sides of the bed and realized that they were assigned to sleep in the couple's former bedroom! Perhaps even more surprising was looking up from the bed and seeing themselves in the mirrors on the ceiling, or walking into the en-suite bathroom with its round, Jacuzzi-style bathtub that Lennon specially ordered so he and Yoko could bathe together. For a sense of perspective, tubs like the one just described are a dime-a-dozen today, but 50 years ago (especially in England) this was quite rare.
It is safe to say that not much time was spent in the bedrooms anyway. Musicians were there to work, and the studio offered everything they wanted and needed to put together the best product they could in the time they were afforded. According to a promotional brochure provided by Startling Studios, the “facilities provided include a Yamaha grand piano, Hammond C3 organ with Leslie Fender Rhodes 88 stereo electric piano, and an ARP 2500 synthesizer. The microphones are by Neumann, AKG, Beyer, Shure, Senheisser and Electro-voice. There is a variable acoustic drum cage. Studio capacity: 25.”
Because of its size and acoustics, the “Temple” building was sometimes used to record drummers while the rest of the band was in the studio in the southwest wing of the house, roughly 130' away. In a subterranean chamber beneath the structure Lennon had built a thermostatically controlled echo chamber.
The studio manager was musician & producer Mike O'Donnell who had previously worked for The Beatles' Apple Studios. Ten years later Mike O'Donnell would be the co-producer (with Junior Campbell) for “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends” which would include audio narration by Ringo Starr.
American musician and record producer (and Doris Day's son) Terry Melcher was tasked to hire an in-house engineer for Startling Studios. He chose David Tickle who was on-call for any and all bands that needed him, 24/7, which necessitated that he live on the property. In fact, he lived in the manor house itself. By his own account, “I was the only one to live there full time. I lived like a lord. Cooks, maids, the whole thing.” When the facilities were not being used by other bands, Tickle had opportunities to produce on his own, including a session with a New Zealand New Wave band he worked with previously. They were called Split Enz. The session produced the recording "I See Red", a punk-influenced single that would become a hit in Australia and New Zealand. Following his tenure at Startling Studios, Tickle went on to produce for Red Rider & Platinum Blonde. In the 1980s he toured with Prince, and worked on several hit songs by The Purple One.
Together, the Startling Studios team welcomed Hudson-Ford a UK rock band-style duo that was formed when John Ford and Richard Hudson left The Strawbs in 1973. While at Startling Studios the band recorded their 3rd album World's Collide in 1975.
The English punk rock band Sham 69 recorded their concept album entitled That's Life, released in 1978. Before they broke up in 1979, the band was considered to be one of the most successful punk bands in the United Kingdom.
English folk & prog rock band The Strawbs recorded their album Heartbreak Hill in 1978 but, due to record deal and management difficulties, it was not released until 1995. Singer-songwriter Dave Cousins remembers: "We felt we had made our best album in years, but, as we finished recording, our management decided to withdraw support of the band and the master tapes disappeared in a legal haze." The album was the first to feature keyboardist Andy Richards who would soon after offer his extraordinary skills to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, George Michael, and the Pet Shop Boys.
The Scottish pop rock band that was formed in 1961 as The Gaylords, and then later billed as Dean Ford and the Gaylords, and who changed their name to Marmalade in 1966 recorded their album Heavens Above at Startling Studios in 1979.
Right: The cover of the "Hey Jude" album from the Beatles last photo session at Tittenhurst Park on Aug 22, 1969.
The English heavy metal band Judas Priest recorded their first live album Unleashed in the East, in Tokyo, Japan during their Hell Bent for Leather Tour in 1979. However, the album was mixed at Starling Studios soon after by Producer Tom Allom who brought the band there a year later to record & mix their album British Steel in 1980. In fact, "Colonel" Tom Allom (a reference to Elvis Presley's manager "Colonel" Tom Parker) had quite a bit of experience at Startling Studios, as well as with prog rock bands such as Black Sabbath, Strawbs, and The Tourists with Dave A. Stewart and Annie Lennox.
It was Tom Allom who also arranged for British heavy metal band Def Leppard to record their debut album On Through The Night at Startling Studios during December, 1979. It was released in 1980. It was likely his relationship with Dave Cousins of the Strawbs that had a role in having him perform the spoken word intro to "When the Walls Came Tumbling Down".
The hard rock band Whitesnake recorded their 4th album Come an' Get It in early 1981. It was released in the Spring of 1981 and hit #2 in the UK charts. The experience clearly had quite an impact on them since guitarists Bernie Marsden & Micky Moody both wrote about it in their recently published books.
Not all bands who stayed at Tittenhurst Park recorded songs as part of albums. The English glam rock band Slade simply went there in order to loosen up a bit and experiment with an assortment of ideas in an environment where they would not be as pressured and constricted as they would normally feel in a typical corporate-style setting that many studios had at the time. Drummer Don Powell shared his memories about it in his Look Wot I Dun - My Life in Slade.
On the subject of books, British session musician Mo Foster (who had recorded with Ringo at Startling Studios) wrote about his memories of Startling Studios in his book British Rock Guitar: The First 50 Years, the Musicians and Their Stories.
Perhaps the best value, time-wise anyway, that any label had gotten after having leased Startling Studios was for Brand X, a jazz infusion band, to record enough songs that would they would appear on two separate albums, Product, released in the Fall of 1979, and Do They Hurt, released in the Spring of 1980. What made these sessions unusual was that the group of musicians had divided into two (2) separate bands, with one using the studio at one time and the other using it at another time, within each 24 hour period, the reason being that two distinct visions were being followed, which allowed for all of the musicians to fully express themselves to their fullest creative extent. Though all of the musicians involved with Brand X were considered to be among the best of the best in their respective fields, Brand X has the additional distinction of having had Phil Collins playing drums while his group Genesis was on hiatus.
Following John Lennon's assassination at the end of 1980, and his marriage to Barbara Bach in early 1981, Ringo Starr decided to return to England and to make Tittenhurst Park his home once again. At that point the studio was mainly for the benefit of his own personal use, as well as the use of a select few. For example, in 1984 David Tickle returned to Startling Studio in order to produce Strange Animal, the 2nd studio album by Canadian musician-singer-songwriter Laurence Gowan. Together with Jerry Marotta on drums, Tony Levin on bass, Chris Jarrett & David Rhodes on guitar, and David Tickle at the helm, they created what is known as Gowan's breakthrough release; the album would go on to reach #5 on the Canadian album charts and spawned the singles "(You're a) Strange Animal", "A Criminal Mind", "Cosmetics" and "Guerillas Soldier". Gowan still talks about his memories of Tittenhurst Park today, and recently produced a mini-documentary of the making of his album there.
Not every band that spent time at Tittenhurst Park went to record in the studio, however. In 1979 the band Squeeze spent less than 7 hours at the estate where they filmed a promotional film in the Temple for their song Cool For Cats and then moved to the kitchen to film another for their song Up the Junction.
Throughout the mid-late 1980s Ringo fully reverted Startling Studios for his exclusive personal and professional use, recording his Old Wave album there, and also recording narration for the British children's television series Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends
Ringo Starr also played in several promotional films for his songs “Stop and Take the Time to Smell the Roses” (1981) , “Wrack My Brain” (1981) and “Back off Boogaloo” (1981). Prior to these promotional films the only other one produced there starring Ringo was for his song “Photograph” (1973).
Considering the damage done to Tittenhurst Park during the The Great Storm of 1987, in which a violent extratropical cyclone with hurricane-force winds caused havoc and destruction through areas of England, tearing up trees, and damaging buildings, and also considering many other factors, Ringo sold Tittenhurst Park in 1988.
Though the grand estate that became world-famous through its association with John Lennon, is now in private ownership, and is not now, and will likely never again be, accessible to the general population, it lives on in photographs, paintings, images, and the memories of all those who have been there. It also lives on in the music of the amazing music created by talented & gifted artists who found new ways to express themselves after having been inspired by the spectacular splendor of the architecture, gardens, and history of Tittenhurst Park.
Scott Cardinal is an American author, lecturer, publisher, and film producer. His forthcoming books that showcase Tittenhurst Park are now available for pro-order at CampfireNetwork.com