The Beatles Most Celebrated Album Celebrates 50 Years Abbey Road Album Cover They made it the world’s most famous zebra crossing. And one of the most famous sites in London. I am, of course, referring to the Abbey Road album cover, one of the most…
The Beatles Most Celebrated Album Celebrates 50 Years
Abbey Road Album Cover
They made it the world’s most famous zebra crossing. And one of the most famous sites in London. I am, of course, referring to the Abbey Road album cover, one of the most celebrated covers of all time – the eleventh, and last, studio album recorded by the Beatles – the last to actually be released was Let it Be. You could say it was a farewell from the fab four, and it came at the pinnacle of their career. The songs on it, such as Come Together, Something and Here Comes the Sun, were among their best and most loved. But this article isn’t about the music. It’s about that ever-iconic album cover.
It was streets ahead of its time (no pun intended) – being the only Beatles album cover to not feature the artists’ name or album title. But then, like the Nike or Apple logo, the world didn’t need any words to work out the brand. Creative director John Kosh of Apple Records designed the cover adding “we didn’t write the band’s name on the cover… They were the most famous band in the world”.
The cover is so iconic that’s it’s been imitated time and time again. I even found an article on the Independent online from 2009 titled, “Abbey Road: 40 Years – 40 Imitations”. Clicking through the 40 pastiches was fascinating. Some were shot by random fans for a bit of fun, while others were perfectly choreographed by bands, TV programmes, and celebrities from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Sesame Street, the Simpsons, and an array of tribute bands as well as a diversity of super-strange acts. Some feature the exact same spot in North London, while others come from every corner of the world.
Even fifty years on, if you google ‘most famous album covers of all time’, Abbey Road still sits proudly in the top ten (according to billboard.com); actually, it comes second after Andy Warhol’s renowned ‘banana cover’ for the Velvet Underground and Nico. And it’ll most probably remain there forever – which is unbelievably impressive. The cover also sparked a number of intriguing stories and even a widely believed conspiracy theory.
But let’s start at the beginning – the idea was roughly sketched by pencil on a scrap of paper by Paul McCartney for Apple Records’ creative director John Kosh to design. Kosh’s design was then given to photographer Iain Macmillan to work his magic.
The shot was taken on Abbey Road at 11.35am on 8 August, 1969. The freelance photographer had just a few minutes to capture it while a policeman held up traffic. He used a Hasselblad camera with a 50mm wide-angle lens, aperture f22, at 1/500 seconds; and had to balance on a stepladder to get every shot. Macmillan, a friend of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, took just six shots in total – the best of which (McCartney chose the fifth after scrutinising each under a magnifying glass) made it to the album. And just in case none worked out, Linda McCartney took some extra photographs while the band waited for the shoot to begin.
Why this specific location? Well, Abbey Road was home to EMI’s London recording studio; yet ironically, not all of the songs were recorded here. But that’s another story; let’s get back to the cover itself. Another irony is the inclusion of the song Come Together on the album. The image shows all four Beatles ‘coming together’ on the cover but in reality, the band was going through tumultuous times and were close to breaking up.
So what about that conspiracy theory? It began as a rumour – published in an American newspaper – that Paul McCartney was killed in a car crash three years earlier in 1966. And the Paul McCartney we see on the cover was secretly replaced by a lookalike called William Campbell. Many fans started to believe this was the case when a few ‘clues’ came to light:
“McCartney was out of step with his bandmates; his eyes were closed, and he wasn’t wearing shoes (like a buried body); he held a cigarette in his right hand (despite being left-handed); over his shoulder was a Volkswagen with a number plate interpreted as ‘28IF’ (ie McCartney would have been 28 if he lived; although actually he would have been 27).”
It was also (falsely) claimed that the Beatles were walking out of a cemetery in an orderly funeral procession fashion.
Of course, the conspiracy theorists were proved wrong when McCartney was interviewed by Life Magazine in November 1969 – just months after the cover photo was taken. But why the ‘bare feet’ (when Paul was already wearing a pair of sandals on the day – albeit claiming they were ‘too tight’) – McCartney simply claims that it was a hot day. This is probably true but bare feet were also synonymous with the flower power era of that time. As was the obligatory long hair, hairy faces and flared trousers. McCartney even returned to the same zebra crossing in 1993, parodying the never-to-be-forgotten photo, for the cover of his solo album – Paul is Live.
So what about the rest of the photo? Who or what was lucky enough to be captured in one of the most infamous album covers ever, forever? After all, they weren’t perfectly planned props – everything bar the four Beatles just happened to be there. Such as the three men on the left of the photo – decorators who just happened to be on their break; a police van; and an American tourist. And then there’s that car the conspiracy theorists mistook as a clue to McCartney’s death. The aptly situated and apt white Volkswagen ‘Beetle’ bears the number plate ‘LMW 281F’ – aside from being stolen several times since the release of the album, the plate was said the have been sold at auction in 1986 for £2,530.
After all these years, the Abbey Road zebra crossing in St John’s Wood, London is still a popular place to visit for Beatles fans from around the world. In fact, in 2010, the crossing was granted a grade two listing for its ‘cultural and historical importance’. And with a live webcam operating at the location since 2011, even Big Brother keeps a keen eye on it.
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