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Abbey Road, the recording studios made famous by the Beatles, was designated a historic site by the government on Tuesday to protect the pop music shrine against any plans to radically alter it.

Reports last week that owners EMI were to sell the studios attracted worldwide interest and sparked fears the site might be converted into a residential development.

Culture Minister Margaret Hodge declared the iconic venue a Grade II listed building - the second-highest category - on the advice of national preservation body English Heritage.

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In a statement she said the listing had been granted "overwhelmingly on the historic merit of the studios" and because of its "huge cultural importance".

The new status means that although changes to its interior can be made, any proposed alterations must respect the character and preservation of the site.

Abbey Road became synonymous with the Beatles who recorded almost all their albums and singles there between 1962 and 1970. Pink Floyd also used the studios for their late 1960s and mid-1970s albums.

Tourists still regularly pose for snaps on the nearby pedestrian crossing over Abbey Road which features on the cover of the Beatles album of the same name.

Among those calling for the buildings to be saved were ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, who signalled he was a potential buyer.

On Sunday, EMI said it wanted to retain ownership of the studios in St John's Wood, north London, though it indicated it was talking to other parties about revitalizing them.

The firm, owned by private equity group Terra Firma, has previously said it welcomed reports about the planned listing although the restrictions involved could potentially lower the selling price.

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"It's a testament to both the importance of music in people's lives as well as the passion this kind of issue stirs up, that so much interest has been generated by the perceived threat to the future of Abbey Road," Hodge said.

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