That incredibly iconic shot of Harrison, McCartney, Starr and and Lennon walking across the Abbey Road zebra crossing was shot in a few hurried minutes on Friday 8 August 1969, when I was a mere 43 days old. As Apple Corps announce new expanded 50th anniversary box sets of the penultimate Beatles album, here are a few facts about that particular day in the summer of ’69 that you may not have heard before…
Where is the Abbey Road crossing exactly?
Abbey Road was the final album The Beatles recorded and it sported a genuinely iconic cover photo. It pictures the awesome foursome – George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and John Lennon – striding along a zebra crossing situated on Abbey Road, outside EMI studios in London’s St John’s Wood, where the band had spent the majority of their ground-breaking recording career.
The LP and its memorable cover put the location on the map – and the building became known as Abbey Road Studios in light of the Fab Four’s landmark album. Zillions of people have made the pilgrimage to the crossing to have their photo taken and to pay their respects to the genius of The Beatles and dozens of artists have parodied the sleeve, from The Simpsons to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Doctor Who.
Before The Beatles came along, the road’s main claim to fame was being a stone’s throw from the location of Lord’s cricket ground. The crossing is situated at the southern-most point of Abbey Road, at the junction with Grove End Road.
The postcode for the recording studios is NW8 9AY – but if you go looking for the crossing near the recently built Abbey Road station on the London Underground map, you’d be way off. That’s actually a Docklands Light Railway station in East London, miles away.
The album wasn’t going to be called Abbey Road at all
As the sessions for the album came to an end, the four Beatles discussed a title for the record. One idea was to call it Everest after the cigarettes that engineer Geoff Emerick smoked during the sessions. When a plan was floated to charter a private jet and take a cover photo in the foothills of the Himalayas to illustrate the title, the band went off the idea and instead went with the easiest plan possible – have the picture taken outside the studio and call it Abbey Road.
On that day John, George and Ringo were working on I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and The End inside the studio, while Macca worked on Oh! Darling, but before they set to business, they stepped outside of Number 3 Abbey Road to be photographed for the cover. With traffic blocked and photographer Iain Macmillan toting a stepladder into the middle of the street, they got the whole thing done in roughly ten minutes.
Photo in hand, Apple Records art director John Kosh opted to keep the Abbey Road cover design simple – so simple, in fact, that he decided not to include the band’s name or the album’s title. “I thought, ‘Well, this is the biggest band in the world – why would you need to do that?,’” he later laughed. “It was anticipated something coming out of the Beatles. So I decided not to put The Beatles on the cover. They’re walking across the – if you don’t recognise them, you obviously live in a cave.”
Not that the decision seemed so simple to EMI chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood, whose demeanour reflected his stuffy title. John Kosh recalled receiving an irate call from Lockwood in the middle of the night. “I get a phone call at 3 in the morning saying, ‘You’ve fucked this up. We’re never going to sell an album. You’re a prick.’ With a terribly, terribly good English accent – because he’s a blue blood, and I’m not,” Kosh continued. “I’m like really scared; I’m about 23 years old. So, I go into Apple the next morning and George is there, and he said, ‘Hey man, we’re the Beatles. Don’t worry about it.’”
The four Beatles are pictured walking AWAY from the studio
Let It Be, The Beatles’ twelfth and final album, was released in May 1970, but the material had been recorded over a year earlier, meaning that Abbey Road was the last set of material to be produced by all four Beatles.
In fact, the last session to see John, Paul, George and Ringo in the studio together was on 20 August 1969. It’s significant, then, that the photo chosen for the cover shows the four walking across the road with Abbey Road studios (above) behind them – it’s the white building on the left of the album sleeve. Lennon leads the group – which is also significant as he was the first member to permanently quit The Beatles.
“I remember we hired a policeman to hold up traffic while I was up on the ladder taking the pictures,” Macmillan later told the Guardian.
“The whole idea, I must say, was Paul McCartney’s. A few days before the shoot, he drew a sketch of how he imagined the cover, which we executed almost exactly that day. I took a couple of shots of the Beatles crossing Abbey Road one way. We let some of the traffic go by and then they walked across the road the other way, and I took a few more shots. The one eventually chosen for the cover was number five of six. It was the only one that had their legs in a perfect ‘V’ formation, which is what I wanted stylistically.”
Who are the other people pictured on the cover of Abbey Road?
On the left hand side of the photo can be seen three men stood just by the gate outside the Abbey Road studios itself. They are three decorators who happened to be outside on a break around 11.30am on 8 August and were caught by Iain Macmillan’s camera: their names are Derek Seagrove, Steve Milwood and Alan Flanagan.
On the other side of the road, just by the police van, is an American tourist named Paul Cole. “I just happened to look up, and I saw those guys walking across the street like a line of ducks,” Cole later told the Mirror.
“A bunch of kooks, I called them. You didn’t walk around in London barefoot.”
There appears to be another person stood behind the blue car, or is it just an illusion?
Why is Paul McCartney barefoot on the cover of Abbey Road by The Beatles?
Barefoot, eh? According to designer John Kosh, “The reason is he kicked his shoes off because they were too tight.” The 8th of August 1969 was a particularly sunny day and Macca lived around the corner in St John’s Wood, so he strolled around to the studios wearing sandals (see Linda McCartney photo below). For a classic McCartney prank, he crossed the road a couple of times without the footwear – it had nothing to do with being a “clue” that Paul had died.
In late 1969 a crazy conspiracy theory started doing the rounds that McCartney had in actual fact been killed in a car accident in 1966, and had been replaced by a lookalike, and that the four Beatles allegedly represent a funeral procession: George is the gravedigger, Paul is the corpse, Ringo is the congregation and John is the priest.
BONUS: And yes, of course I had a go. Though strangely, even though I lived just up the road in West Hampstead for so many years (and would frequently pass over the famous crossing to get to the West End), I only got around to doing my solo version of the cover once I had stopped living in the UK. Making a return visit to that particular area of North West London on a wet and windy day in September 2014, at least I got my Macca on…