On 8th August 1969, at 11.35am, four men walked across a zebra crossing in St John’s Wood. Hardly an earth-shattering event, but since then millions of people have come to the very same crossing to imitate those four men.
Of course, the four men in question were the Beatles, and the crossing is in Abbey Road. The ‘Fab Four’ were posing for the photo that was to be used on their last album to be recorded. Abbey Road has never been the same since.
Every day, fans from around the world come to the crossing to walk in the footsteps of their heroes and to see the studios where they recorded most of their songs.
The Beatles had been coming to Abbey Road for many years to record at the EMI Studios. Their die-hard fans often visited the studios in the hope of catching a glimpse of them coming or going. A select few even camped in the car park to see their heroes come out after a late night recording session. However, it wasn’t until after the Beatles named their album after the street it was recorded in that it became world famous and a shrine for fans.
Things could have been very different. Originally the LP was going to be called Everest – after the favourite brand of cigarettes smoked by Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ recording engineer. Someone had the bright idea that the Beatles should go to the mountain of the same name to shoot the album cover! The Beatles reaction to that idea can’t be repeated here without offence! Finally, it was decided to call the album Abbey Road. Incidentally the album was NOT named after the studio, but the road where the studio is situated. The studio was then called EMI and didn’t change its’ name until after the album came out.
The famous pose of the Beatles on the Abbey Road crossing endures as one of the most memorable LP covers of all time, and one of the easiest for fans to replicate. The idea for the picture was probably Paul McCartney’s. A sketch drawn by Paul showing how the picture should look still exists. The photographer was Iain MacMillan, a long time friend of John and Yoko. MacMillan had known Yoko before she met John, and it is quite possible that John’s first site of Yoko might have been on one of MacMillan’s photos. His photos illustrated the catalogue for Yoko’s exhibition Unfinished Paintings and Objects, at which the couple first met.
For the photo shoot, the Beatles congregated by the crossing at around 11.35am. This was an early start for them, as normally recording sessions didn’t start until around 5pm. This was done deliberately to ensure fans would not interrupt the photo session. The day was gloriously sunny and Iain MacMillan stood on a stepladder in the middle of the road to get the required angle. The Beatles were asked to cross the road in procession, while MacMillan attempted to get the best shot. In the end six photographs were taken, and the whole session only took about 10 minutes.
Shot one shows them walking from left to right, with a Mercedes car coming out of the car park of the studios. Shot two has them walking the other way across, towards the studios. In both shots Paul has his head bowed and is seemingly preoccupied with his feet. By shot three Paul has removed the open top sandals he was wearing and is now barefoot – an historic decision! Shot three was probably the best so far, but has traffic too near to the crossing to be perfect.
Shot four again shows them going from right to left. Like shot two, the Beatles don’t seem to be concentrating on getting the right pose. Maybe they already had it in mind that the shot would look better going the other way across. Shot five was the best by far and the one used on the album cover. Another shot was taken but this was far inferior.
After the session on the crossing Iain MacMillan got in a car with Anthony Fawcett, John and Yoko’s assistant, to find a suitable road sign for the back cover. They found one on the junction of Abbey Road and Alexandra Road. As MacMillan was about to take a photograph of the sign a girl in a blue dress walked through the shot. Fawcett remembers that Iain MacMillan was angry the girl had got in the way – but other accounts said it was planned. Unfortunately, the Abbey Road sign no longer exists. This part of Abbey Road was redeveloped in the 1970s and the wall and sign demolished.
The session on the crossing only lasted about 10 minutes – leaving the Beatles over three hours to kill before they were due to start recording. According to Mal Evans in his personal diaries, Paul, John and Ringo went to Paul’s home nearby to relax while George and Mal went to “Regents Park Zoo to meditate in the sun. To Krishna Temple for lunch and studio for 3pm”.
Since the famous Abbey Road picture was taken, several million people have crossed the street to imitate their heroes. In 2005 Abbey Road Studios estimated 150,000 come to Abbey Road every year.
Just after the album came out, the Abbey Road cover became the central part in a bizarre rumour and conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney was dead! It is hard to pinpoint where the rumour started, but it seemed to begin almost simultaneously in different universities in America. Word went around that Paul had died in a car accident in 1966 and that the Beatles had replaced him with an imposter, to ensure their fame wasn’t affected. However, the Beatles felt guilty about doing this, so they put ‘clues’ on various album covers and songs to tell the truth. Many of these clues can be found on the Abbey Road album cover.
The picture is supposed to be of Paul’s funeral procession, with George Harrison dressed as the gravedigger, Ringo Starr the undertaker, and John Lennon the preacher. Paul McCartney is supposedly wearing an old suit, and is barefoot – how bodies are buried! Paul is holding his cigarette in his right hand – fans pointed out the ‘real’ Paul McCartney is left handed, so the man in the picture isn’t Paul, but an imposter. Some even named the imposter as William Campbell, who had won a Paul lookalike competition. Paul is also out of step with the others, drawing attention to himself.
By the side of the crossing is a white Volkeswagen car. The first part of the car’s license plate is LMW – this is supposed to stand for ‘Linda McCartney – widowed.’ The second part is 281F – this is supposed to signify that Paul McCartney would have been 28 years old – IF he was still alive! Actually, he was 27 in 1969.
There are even clues on the back cover. The ‘Beatles’ sign has a crack through it – to show that the band are no longer complete. Also the sun has shone though the shadows to create a shape that is supposed to resemble Paul McCartney’s skull!
Rumours of Paul McCartney’s demise spread like wildfire, especially when Russ Gibb, a DJ on a radio station WKNR in Detroit, received a telephone call from a student telling him to look for clues. From there the whole thing became an international pastime. The Beatles’ offices received many calls from distraught fans wanting to know the truth.
The rumour only started dying down when a reporter from Life magazine went up to Scotland, where Paul was staying, to obtain an interview to prove that Paul was still alive.
Since 1969 the rumour has refused to go away. There have been many books and TV shows on the subject. Paul himself lampooned the rumour on his 1993 album Paul is Live. He returned to the Abbey Road crossing with Iain MacMillan to pose with his old English sheepdog, Arrow. For the cover Paul is superimposed on an original Abbey Road picture – with the Beatles taken out. However, the VW license plate has been changed, to 51 IS – Paul’s age when the Paul is Live picture was taken.
On 8th August 2009 I organised a mass crossing of Abbey Road, exactly 40 years to the minute since the Beatles. I arranged for a Beatles lookalike band, Sgt Pepper’s Only Dart Board Band, to lead fans across wearing the same styled clothes as the Beatles wore 40 years earlier. I thought we may get some media interest, as we’d organised similar crossings on the 25th and 30th anniversaries. However, I was totally shocked by the scenes around the crossing. There were at least 15 TV crews around the crossing, representing over 100 countries. The event was featured in countries like the USA, Russia, India, Greece, Italy, Australia with many covering it live! There were also scores of press photographers and many hundreds of fans. Eventually the police closed Abbey Road for over an hour and fans held an impromptu street party.
In December 2010 the Abbey Road Crossing was given ‘Grade 2 Listed Status’ by English Heritage. This means that the crossing cannot by moved or altered without specific Government permission. In its’ report English Heritage said, “The Abbey Road zebra crossing is of undisputed interest as a late C20 iconic cultural site”. It also states in the English Heritage document that they believe the crossing has moved since 1969. This isn’t the case. Linda McCartney was also present on the day of the Abbey Road photo shoot, and took many pictures. Her shots show the side of the road, and shows things like the drain by the crossing on one side, and the manhole cover on the other are still in the same place now as they were in 1969.
Author and blogger Richard Porter is a professional London Beatles tour guide. For more details on his tours, see http://www.beatlesinlondon.com