The Most Important Instrument In Rock?

The Most Important Instrument In Rock?

Paul McCartney Carly Simon Freddie Mercury
Paul McCartney. Photo by RB/Redferns / Carly Simon. Photo by Ed Caraeff/Getty Images / Freddie Mercury. Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images.

Even if you’ve never heard of Trident Studios, you’ve certainly heard the songs laid down in the Soho, London recording studio. It might not have Abbey Road’s pedestrian crossing to lure in the tourists, nor the historic southern aura of Sun Studios in Memphis, but in the space of less than a decade Trident played host to artists including The Beatles, Elton John, David Bowie, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Lou Reed and numerous other stars. Many of the recordings set down by these classic songwriters share an unsung element: the hallowed timbre of Trident Studio’s Bechstein grand piano.

Described in Howard Massey’s The Great British Recording Studios as “the best rock ‘n’ roll piano ever”, the first big hitters to utilise the Bechstein on a number one single were The Beatles.  

Searching for an alternative to Abbey Road’s dated four-track recording set-up, The Beatles tested Trident’s state-of-the-art Ampex eight-track system with the recording of their 1968 single "Hey Jude". With Trident also the first to use the Dolby noise reduction system, The Beatles were satisfied enough to move recording of their self-titled ‘White Album’ to the location after initial rehearsals at EMI. The Bechstein was part of the deciding factor, offering a “crystal clear, definitive sound” which lent itself to the recording process.

"Hey Jude" writer, Paul McCartney later described his pleasure at hearing the final mix of the song “on four giant Tannoy speakers which dwarfed everything else in the room”, with "Hey Jude" the first of many tracks from The Beatles’ self-titled album laid down at Trident. The Beatles’ Apple alumni Mary Hopkin, Billy Preston, James Taylor and Badfinger were also dispatched to the St Anne’s Court address for recording. 

Following The Beatles’ eponymous album going to number one on both sides of the Atlantic in December 1968, it wasn’t long before Trident’s ebony finish, metal framed grand piano (serial number 44064, bracing number 11870) was being used by another star. In June 1969, David Bowie recorded his breakthrough single "Space Oddity" at the studio, but there was no piano on this particular recording. It was on 1971’s Hunky Dory recordings, "Changes" and "Life On Mars?" where Trident’s turn-of-the-century grand piano was put to spine-tingling use, with Rick Wakeman deputised on keys. As the piano fades out on "Life On Mars?", you can even hear a studio telephone (hooked up in Trident’s bathroom, of all places) ringing to bring the track to an absurdist end. The classic 1972 album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars would also utilise the famous instrument, with the record’s producer Ken Scott stating the piano “was one of Trident's claims to fame.”

While Bowie’s "Under Pressure" collaborators, Queen were also veterans of the Trident studios (and Freddie Mercury is even credited with “Bechstein Debauchery” in the sleeve notes to 1975’s A Night At The Opera), stories of their opus "Bohemian Rhapsody" employing the famous Trident piano just don’t match up with known facts. Queen, who were signed to Trident’s A&R arm until management issues saw them abscond ahead of recording A Night At The Opera, recorded elements of their first three albums at Trident. Mercury plays the studio’s fabled ivories on the band’s singles including "Seven Seas Of Rhye" and "Killer Queen".

As well as Bowie and Queen’s successes, the ‘70s saw the Bechstein appearing on some of the decade’s most celebrated songs. Harry Nilsson’s 1971 cover of Badfinger’s "Without You", Carly Simon’s "You’re So Vain" in 1972 and Lou Reed’s 1972 single "Perfect Day", taken from the David Bowie-produced Transformer, feature the Bechstein, with the piano also popping up on George Harrison’s 1970 post-Beatles purge All Things Must Pass, Supertramp’s 1974 breakthrough album Crime Of The Century and multiple Genesis albums.

One of the most famous ticklers of the grand piano was the artist formerly known as Reginald Dwight. Sir Elton John’s first UK top 10 single, "Your Song" was recorded at Trident in early 1970, with popular follow-ups Tumbleweed Connection and 1971’s Madman Across The Water (featuring singles "Levon" and "Tiny Dancer") also featuring the Bechstein. While 1973’s classic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road double album was laid down at Chateau d’Herouville in France, some overdubs were also put down at Trident following initial recording.  

Other Trident customers during the studio’s halcyon era included T-Rex, Peter Gabriel, Bee Gees, The Rolling Stones, Thin Lizzy, Yes, Joe Cocker and KISS. Amazingly, despite it having been at the heart of numerous million-selling singles, Trident only purchased the acclaimed piano in 1986. They had rented the Bechstein from Jacques Samuel Pianos Ltd for 20 years! 

After Trident’s original St Anne’s Court site was sold off, the piano was destined for the new Trident 2 facility in Soho. Unfortunately, staff watched in horror as the cradle supporting the fabled instrument broke during moving, sending the piano crashing from the ground floor to the basement. It was rebuilt and last sold at auction in May 2011, however details of the price and purchaser has never been made public. Somewhere out there, a music fan has a magnificent slice of rock history.

On 15 June 2017, the original Trident address was honoured with an official blue plaque from the British Plaque Trust. Music pilgrims can now pay respects to the iconic albums recorded at the site, but many of us remain happy simply listening to the wondrous music recorded within its walls. 

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