August 8, 1969 was a blisteringly hot day in southern England. Even under the late morning sun, the pavement baked; the skies were clear and blue over the capital. It seemed to be the perfect day for what was about the take place. But nobody—not even the four men standing at the crosswalk—could have guessed how iconic this moment would be.
At around 10 am, as a policeman held the North London traffic at bay, a man named Iain Macmillan climbed a stepladder placed precariously in the centre of the road—Abbey Road. He pointed his Hasselblad camera to the northwest. He aimed the 50mm wide-angle lens at the zebra crossing a handful of yards away. He gave his cue. The four men walked across the road. Click. Again. Click. Again. Click.
Six frames advanced through Macmillan’s camera body that morning. He captured—at 1/500ths of a second shutter speed, with an aperture setting of f22—what would become one of the most recognizable album covers of all time.
Of the six official photos taken from atop the stepladder that day, only one showed all four Beatles in lockstep; this was the one chosen for the album. This image would grace the cover of The Beatles’ final studio album, Abbey Road, spawn a litany of conspiracy theories, ignite a debate about the very end of The Beatles themselves, and inspire fans continuously to this day.
On a purely aesthetic level, the Abbey Road cover is a pleasing enough photo to look at. Macmillan’s camera lens points directly along the middle of Abbey Road, stretching along in linear perspective fashion. These lines take with them the cars in the busy thoroughfare, parked at the curb or receding from view. Tall trees lining the road contrast against the bright blue sky—there is not a single cloud to be seen. If you look closely, you can see other people gathered on a sidewalk far back in the picture plane. They are extras in the background of what would become an immortalized, historical moment. One man was there simply because he hadn’t followed his wife into a nearby museum (they were visiting London on vacation); he watched, bemused, as the “kooks” (as he called them) walked by “like a row of ducks”.
The Fab Four themselves are centred in the image. Their feet are rooted in the lower third of the image plane, their heads lined up almost perfectly along the midline. The distance John has to walk to exit stage right is the same distance from which George has entered stage left. In fact, every Beatle is equidistant to the Beatle in front or behind him; this, I’d argue, is the strongest point of the whole image.
The spacing of their bodies and the stretch of each man’s gait mark them off as a group, but their clothing show individuality; these were the clothes they showed up wearing when they arrived at the studio that day—not costumes, as with the Day-Glo Sgt. Pepper uniforms, or the matching mohair suits from their early days.
Their choice of clothing is also naturally reflective of their individual styles. That’s what The Beatles were: four guys whose total was greater than the sum of their parts. So while the Abbey Road cover is not one of perfect symmetry, it is appealing nonetheless; knowing that it arose rather spontaneously and that it was one of six images taken that morning is a testament to both the ability of the photographer and the professionalism of his subjects.
In sharp contrast to the way they likely lived their lives for most of the 1960s—mobbed by screaming fans, unable to enjoy the simple pleasures of life without securing a perimeter first—this image presents an oxymoronic image to the world. Here, they were just four guys, and they were just crossing a street. No album title graces the cover; it’s not necessary. The iconography of this street, of these men, on this crosswalk, would soon render pointless any need for a title, anyway.
Did they plan on this image making their recording studio and the crosswalk they used to get there (if they were walking from Paul’s nearby Cavendish Avenue home, anyway) so famous? Does it matter if they did?
We don’t need to get into a discussion of the musical merits of Abbey Road—and there are many—to agree that its cover image marks it off as a singular achievement in pop culture history.
Paul Is A Dead Man, Miss Him Miss Him
The Abbey Road cover reached new levels of the pop culture stratosphere as soon as it hit store shelves, not just because it had such a striking album cover, but because of the fan-based connotations made regarding it.
Within weeks of the album’s release in September 1969, a convenient conspiracy theory sprang up on college campuses across the United States. This theory generally supposes that, sometime in 1966, Paul McCartney stormed out of a recording session in a huff after a fight with the others, got into a serious car accident, and was decapitated in the crash. The others, fearful of the negative response from fans to the death of the Cute Beatle, replaced their dead bandmate with a Paul McCartney lookalike: contest winner named William Shears Campbell. Then, over the course of the next three years, they planted clues to the truth in the covers of their albums and the lyrics of their songs.
While it’s true that Paul had been in a serious motor vehicle accident (a moped crash in the Wirral in late 1965, in which he chipped a tooth and bashed his face up pretty badly), it’s likely that these facts had gotten confused with those of the 1966 car crash that killed his friend, Guinness heir and Swingin’ Sixties dandy Tara Browne, and that this led to mixed up rumours that Paul had been the one killed instead. Nevertheless, Abbey Road had just come out and fans pored over the album looking for such clues.
Much like the (arguably better and more compelling) sets of clues on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Beatles (The White Album) or even Magical Mystery Tour (the walrus, after all, was Paul…), the clues on Abbey Road are easy to spot and, in certain lights, could be quite convincing. You can spend a lot of time going over the clues; many people have. But the general gist of it goes something like this:
- The cover depicts a funeral procession: John is the priest, Ringo is the pallbearer (Paul-bearer?), and George is the gravedigger, with Paul as the unfortunate corpse.
- Paul, famously left-handed, is holding his cigarette in his right hand. (Sub-theory: cigarettes are sometimes known as “coffin nails”. Make of that what you will.)
- He’s not wearing shoes—as one does when one is dead.
- He’s out of step with the rest of the band—as one is when one is dead.
- The Volkswagen license plate beside George’s head reading ‘28IF LMW’, which obviously stands for “Paul would have been 28 years old IF he’d lived; Linda McCartney Weeps”
- The police van parked up the road symbolizes the presence of a police coverup of the accident that killed Macca.
The back cover contains a few more clues—the girl in the blue dress is supposedly the fan named Rita with whom Paul was supposedly driving on the night of the accident; the series of dots to the left of the tiles spelling out ‘Beatles’ can be connected to form a ‘3’, as in “There are only 3 Beatles left”; the crack in the ‘s’ of ‘Beatles’ symbolizes the fractured Beatles, missing their charismatic bass player—but the front cover is what galvanized what became known as the “Paul is Dead” theory/hoax.
The theory never quite went away, either, even though most of the clues are quite easy to debunk. Fifty years later and it is still going strong, in spite of the fact that Paul still tours to this day and has poked fun at the whole thing himself. For one photo to spawn such a huge effect is remarkable, especially considering the fact that the photo session that created it it was set up on the fly, steps away from where the band was recording, during a break in their recording session, and lasted no more than ten minutes.
And In The End…
Ask any Beatles fan which album is the last one released by their favourite band, and you will enter into the quagmire of a debate that rages to this day: it’s either Let it Be or Abbey Road. Technically speaking, Let it Be came out last, in May 1970, to coincide with the release of the documentary of the same name; this is more than six months after Abbey Road hit store shelves. But Let it Be was largely recorded and completed by January 1969, whereas Abbey Road was in the process of being recorded throughout that hot summer when its cover photo was created.
Let it Be was a contentious album, marred by infighting that was caught on film by Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary crew. Abbey Road marks the return to form for The Beatles, feeling much more like a “traditional” Beatles album, and was consciously recorded to rinse the bad taste of Let it Be out of their mouths. Let it Be ends with John Lennon’s famous ad-libbed line during the January 30, 1969 rooftop concert—”I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and I hope we passed the audition”—which is certainly a nice circular way to end things off, but hopeful and optimistic fans prefer the positive message of Abbey Road’s final track, “The End”: “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” (Of course then you have Paul’s half-finished song, “Her Majesty”, which is apparently about wanting to sleep with the Queen…so there’s that, too.)
If you ask me, I prefer to see Abbey Road as The Beatles final words to the world. And it really comes down to that cover image—John, Ringo, Paul, and George (in that order) are depicted walking away from the EMI recording studios where they had lived and breathed and laid down every single one of the albums, from Please Please Me in 1962 right on through that very day. The symbolism of this is magnified by their official breakup a little more than eight months later. Whether they knew it would be their final album or not, it’s hard not to look at this seminal image and not feel a little bit of nostalgia and wistfulness. It truly was the end of an era.
Carry That Weight A Long Time
Fifty years have passed since The Beatles immortalized a North London crosswalk. Of all the mundane things to become larger than life, this has got to take the cake. If you visit the crosswalk today, you’ll meet fans of all ages walking in the footsteps of their heroes. People stand in the middle of the intersection, snapping photos of their friends, striking poses and dodging traffic. It’s a crowded place. The white-and-brick walls of the EMI studio front parking lot are covered with song lyric graffiti. A webcam operated by the recording studio broadcasts live images of the crossing via the studio’s website twenty-four hours a day (eight days a week…).
(Full disclosure: I’m a born-and-raised Beatlemaniac. On my first visit to London over Christmas, 2013, I made two pilgrimages to the crossing in four weeks. I have stood beneath the Beatle-painted ceiling of the Casbah Coffee Club, visited both 20 Forthlin Road and 251 Menlove Avenue and 12 Arnold Grove and 10 Admiral Grove, had my photo taken in the Penny Lane roundabout, in front of the Strawberry Field gates, and in the Cavern Club in Liverpool…but the Abbey Road crossing is something else entirely. It’s indescribable…and indescribably weird to pay such attention to a crosswalk. But here we are…)
Tour groups in the area get in on the action as well. With other Beatle-y attractions nearby, it’s no surprise that the place is crawling with fans at all hours. But on special occasions, like this year’s 50th anniversary, guides and superfans are organizing mass events to celebrate. The 2009 40th anniversary drew hundreds of fans to the intersection. You can expect that this year’s festivities will be even more remarkable.
Such is the power of this album’s iconography that, five decades after the photos were taken, all six of Macmillan’s images sold as a set at auction for £180,000 (nearly a quarter of a million US dollars). And, it may surprise you to learn (because it surprised the hell out of me) that both the Abbey Road studio and the zebra crossing itself are English Heritage Grade II listed buildings, meaning every effort will be made to preserve them, as a result of their national importance.
Not too bad for a ten-minute photo shoot.
I can’t think of another image that has consistently generated such levels of devotion over such a long period of time. And looking at the image itself, it’s both easy and hard to understand why. Such a simple premise—four guys walking across the street—carries with it such potent and stirring connotations to their fans. It’s been parodied and lovingly homaged by everyone from The Simpsons to Sesame Street to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Minions. If I were a betting woman, I would put good money down that fifty years from now, on the 100th anniversary of the Abbey Road album cover photo session, fans will still be gathering to commemorate the event. I can’t explain it.
But perhaps it’s better that way.
Edit: It was just announced that The Beatles’ Abbey Road will get the full remaster treatment this year from producer Giles Martin (George Martin’s son) just like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album did in recent years. New mixes, unreleased session recordings, and demos will round out a 4-disc Super Deluxe Edition, complete with a hardcover book (other CD and LP releases will be made available as well, at various price points, meaning the actual remastered album won’t be out of reach for most.) The album will hit store shelves on September 27, 2019.