If you happened to be in London 53 years ago this morning, you might have seen rock and roll history being made out on the street. One of rock’s most famous album covers was created on this day in 1969…just by having The Beatles walk across the street.
The Fab Four were close to wrapping up the recording of the last album they’d make, Abbey Road and of course Apple Records were anxious to strike while the iron was hot and get it done and out to the fans who were perhaps starting to wane just a wee bit that year. The recording was been done at the EMI Studios located on Abbey Road , not far from Grove End Road and Regent’s Park in London’s north end.
On this particular day, it’s said they were working on the John Lennon song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” , which he’d written about Yoko. The album was close to completion but lacked a name and image. They’d had a tentative idea of calling it Everest but when the label decided that the appropriate cover should be them in the Himalayas, the band changed its mind and opted for the simple one they used. Given Abbey Road to work with, creative designer John Koss came up with the idea of having them walk across the real Abbey Road. That was easy and didn’t require a lot of extra time spent together, so John, Paul, George and Ringo liked it.
That put the pressure on photographer Iain MacMillan, who was hired to do the shot. Since it was a real road through a busy city, and the band were at each other’s throats and wanted to be done with it, he had to be quick. City police gave him 10 minutes during which they’d shut down the road to stop traffic and let the cover take shape. He had them walk across several times, and after climbing up a small ladder to get the right angle, took just six photos. Paul looked at the contact sheet through a loupe and picked the one which would make history.
The now-iconic cover came out more or less just like Kosh had imagined, including the lack of info. It was unusual to say the least, in lacking the band name or title on the front. The record company was irate apparently, but Kosh insisted the band was so well known no title was necessary for fans to recognize it for what it was.
He was right of course. When the album came out about a month or so later, it was an instant success and well-liked for some of the standout tunes, including the single “Come Together” (lyrics of which had just been written by Lennon during the bed-in he and Ono had in Montreal) and George’s best contributions to the band catalog, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something.” He also recorded a demo for “All Things Must Pass” for the record, but it was turned down and was made into the title track of his mammoth post-Beatles solo debut.
Now, while some merely saw it as a cover photo, showing the band members and what they looked like in the here and now, others read into it much more deeply. There was already a conspiracy theory saying that Paul had died and been replaced by an impostor and the cover fueled the fire. The “Paul is Dead” lobby pointed to the VW Beetle in the background. The license plate had the number/letter combo “28IF” as a part of it… because Paul would have been “28 IF” he had lived they suggested!
More telling to them, the outfits the Beatles wore for it. To them, it suggested the imagery of a funeral. John led the way dressed in white… a priest or minister. Then came Ringo, in a black suit…like an undertaker. Trailing was George, dressed casually in jeans… ready to dig a grave. And then there was the third one, Paul (or the impostor Paul, they believed.) He was barefoot… like a corpse ready to be buried. And what’s more, he was holding a cigarette (note that if you have some of the newer copies of it, the smoke has been airbrushed out) …with his right hand! Since Paul was left, they theorized that the real Paul would always hold a cigarette with his writing hand. Wrong hand, wrong Paul. Simple.
Of course, to most it now seems “rubbish” as the Brits would say. MacMillan has shown some of the alternate shots taken which show Paul wearing sandals for other photos; he was apparently hot and found the footware too tight and kicked them off for a couple of photos. And when the Beatles played on the Apple roof months later, Paul was playing his bass left-handed as always which would be very difficult for a right-handed impostor the suspicious believed had taken over.
A fun story for a great album, and a photo which lives on almost as strongly as the music on it. Not only did the Red Hot Chili Peppers imitate it for a cover on one of their records, pop icons from The Simpsons to Lego characters have taken their own take on it, and the zebra-striped crosswalk is one of the most famous and popular tourist sites in Britain for music fans to this day.
Maybe it’s a good thing Ian wasn’t given the whole day to get the photo.