MARTIN BENGE HAD SEEN BEATLE mania before, but nothing quite like this. As word spread that George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were making their first visit together in 26 years to the Abbey Road Studios in northwest London, everybody in the building—including Mel Gibson—suddenly seemed starstruck. Gibson, who was working in Studio 1 on a film soundtrack, "was quite overcome," recalls Abbey Road boss Benge, 51. "He asked if he could meet them, and they were quite keen to meet him. So Mel went up to Studio 2, and they all took pictures together. It was quite comic, actually."

Gibson can be excused, since he was witnessing a bit of history. George, Paul and Ringo were returning to Abbey Road to begin work on The Beatles Anthology, a planned three-volume, double-CD set—their first musical collaboration since 1970. Scheduled for release on Nov. 20, the first volume will have more than 40 Beatles songs, including some previously unreleased versions of old favorites (which were remixed, using Benge's old equipment to replicate the '60s sound) as well as an unreleased song written and recorded by John Lennon. "It's been very nostalgic being back," says McCartney, 53. "Sitting in the control room with George, Ringo, a lot of the old faces—and John's voice—has been really cool."

Equally cool is the $130 million the remaining Beatles—and Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono—stand to reap from the project, whose launch will be accompanied by a three-night, 6-hour documentary on ABC beginning Nov. 19. "The fact is, we were arguing for so many years over business disputes, we couldn't have done it," says McCartney of the project. He adds wryly, "Once we started to resolve all our differences—now we're chatty and all mates again—we began booking for the CD, the T-shirt and the cookbook."

They also booked Benge's studios, one of the music world's premier recording facilities. The son of Eric Benge, a stockbroker, and Eileen, a secretary, Martin grew up in Bexhill, Sussex, playing the clarinet and tinkering with old radios. After a stint at technical college, he landed a job as an apprentice engineer at EMI in London, where he worked on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. During the recording of Abbey Road in 1969, he recalls, Yoko Ono was laid up with facial injuries from a car accident. "John and Yoko had pledged they would always be together, wherever they were," says Benge. "To make that possible, we had to get a big double bed into Studio 3. Yoko was brought in by ambulance, and I had to rig a microphone over her bed so she could join in."

Later in 1969, Benge and his girlfriend Jeannie Foley quit their jobs to travel. They ended up in Australia, where Benge took a job as a sound engineer. He and Jeannie married in 1971 and raised two children, Kathrine, now 19, and Brian, 16, as Benge rose to become general manager of EMI's Australian recording branch. In 1993, EMI recalled him to England to supervise the joining of Virgin and Abbey Road Studios. Then in mid-1994, Beatles producer George Martin asked Benge to oversee the historic new albums. "It's enormously exciting," he says. "There's been a healing that's gone on. Abbey Road has brought everyone back together again."

SUSAN REED
PETE NORMAN in London

  • Contributors:
  • Pete Norman.