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Abbey Road: The story behind the famous cover

On the 50th anniversary of the iconic Abbey Road cover photograph being taken, Sky News takes a look at how it came about.

On 8 August 1969, a photograph was taken that would turn an ordinary zebra crossing into one of the most recognisable street locations in the world.

Fifty years on, Abbey Road in London’s St John’s Wood remains a must-visit for any true Beatles fans, the place to go to recreate the famous strides of the Fab Four in one of the last ever images taken of the group all together.

Apparently based on a stickman sketch by Paul McCartney, the shoot was hastily put together, with photographer Iain MacMillan reportedly getting his shot in around 10 minutes as a police officer held traffic at bay for the biggest band in the world to cross the road.

The band were said to be keen to get on with recording, rather than spending their time posing for the camera.

At the time, no one involved had any idea that the final image, chosen from just six shots taken of McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, would go on to become immortalised in rock history, one of the most memorable and imitated album covers ever made.

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Come Together! Thousands of Beatles fans flock to Abbey Road to walk across famous zebra crossing and mark 50 years since iconic album was released

  • Around 2,000 Beatles fans are at Abbey Road in London trying to recreate iconic album cover photo
  • The Fab Four held up traffic on August 8, 1969, to get famous shot of them walking over a zebra crossing
  • Abbey Road Studios invited fans in to pose next to giant version of picture and said atmosphere was ‘fun’
  • Traffic is being held up by sheer number of people and police are at the scene to maintain safety 

Thousands of Beatles fans have today flocked to the iconic London zebra crossing that was the focus of their Abbey Road album to mark 50 years since the picture was taken.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr held up traffic on August 8, 1969 by posing on the crossing outside their recording studio to capture the famous shot, taken by freelance photographer Iain Macmillan.

And their dedicated fans clamoured to do the same thing today as they packed out the roads in St John’s Wood.

It is believed around 2,000 fans have been outside Abbey Road Studios so far with lines stretching around both sides of the pavement.

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50 Years Later, Beatles Fans Recreate Abbey Road Cover Shot

(LONDON) — It was 50 years ago today, that The Beatles caused a traffic delay.

And hundreds of fans of the Fab Four gathered Thursday at a crosswalk in London’s St. John’s Wood neighborhood immortalized on the “Abbey Road” album to recreate the cover photo half a century after it was taken.

At 11:35 a.m. on Aug. 8, 1969, Iain Macmillan photographed John, Paul, George and Ringo striding single-file across the black-and-white “zebra” crossing outside Abbey Road Studios while a police officer stopped traffic.

Used as the cover of the band’s penultimate studio album, it became one of the most famous images in music history.

On Thursday spectators snapped photos on cellphones and lookalikes from a Beatles cover band crossed the street in tribute to the original image.

The spot remains a place of pilgrimage for Beatles fans from around the world.

“Every hour of every day there are fans on the crossing,” said Beatles tour guide Richard Porter, who organized Thursday’s commemoration. “I’ve seen lots of different sights on the crossing, too, from couples having their wedding photos taken to people going across naked.”

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Hundreds of Beatles fans flock to Abbey Road on album photo’s 50th anniversary

Hundreds of fans gathered at London’s Abbey Road to mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles walking across its zebra crossing.

John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Sir Paul McCartney and George Harrison were photographed striding single file over the crossing on August 8, 1969, and the image went on to become one of the most recognised covers in music history for their Abbey Road album.

Beatles lookalike band the Fab Four were joined by fans of the group on Thursday, halting traffic in the process.

The band arrived at the location in a replica of Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls Royce car and fans posed for pictures on the spot during the gathering.

The zebra crossing has become a destination for fans of the Liverpool group over the past five decades, many making the pilgrimage from all over the world every year.

The anniversary stunt was arranged by Beatles London tour guide Richard Porter, who said: “Every hour of every day there are fans on the crossing.

“I’ve seen lots of different sights on the crossing too – from couples having their wedding photos taken, to people going across naked!”

Photographer Iain Macmillan snapped six shots of the band walking over the road’s black and white stripes, and the fifth was selected as the cover shot for Abbey Road, the Beatles’ penultimate studio album.

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How Scottish photographer created THAT iconic Beatles Abbey Road album cover

It’s an image that, for half a century, has been frozen in rock ’n’ roll amber – one of history’s most famous album covers.

The photo for The Beatles’ final album in 1969 bestowed instant immortality on a quiet London street called Abbey Road. It turned a simple zebra crossing into a shrine for Fab Four fans from all over the world.

And the sleeve’s kooky symbolism sparked music’s biggest conspiracy theory – that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by a doppelganger.

The image of John Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr striding across the road outside EMI studios in St John’s Wood was taken 50 years ago on Thursday by Scots photographer Iain MacMillan.

Perched precariously on a stepladder, the Dundee snapper had five minutes to get it right as a police officer kept traffic at bay nearby. He reeled off six shots before Lennon’s patience ran out.

“We’re meant to be recording, not posing for pictures,” he muttered.

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The Beatles Story reports a record-breaking surge in visitor numbers

Liverpool tourist attraction The Beatles Story is reporting the busiest fortnight in its 29-year history – and its busiest ever day.

Based at the city’s Royal Albert Dock tells the story of the ‘Fab Four’ and attracts Beatles fans from all over the world and, in the two weeks to Sunday, July 21, it saw a 20% year-on-year increase.

Between Monday, July 15, and Sunday, July 21, the attraction saw 10,978 people come through the door and on Saturday, July 13, 2,524 visitors turned up – the busiest day in the attraction’s history.

It follows on from the recent revelation that The Beatles Story had broken record visitor numbers for the 2018/19 season, welcoming a total of 310,894 visitors, a 2% improvement on the previous year.  With no sign of The Beatles’ popularity slowing down, the attraction looks well on course to break record numbers again this year.

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Beatles-Inspired ‘Yesterday’ Reaches $100 Million Mark At Box Office

Danny Boyle’s musically energetic Yesterday just achieved the $100 million milestone, according to Variety. This feat is accomplished amidst a summer filled with buzz surrounding super hero films and popular animated features. During the film’s opening weekend on June 28-30, it generated $17 million. The film is still awaiting its release in 24 different international areas, which can further propel earnings.

Himesh Patel made his feature film debut in Yesterday starring as aspiring musician Jack Malick. Just when all hope seems to be lost as a successful songwriter, Jack makes his major breakthrough after he gets hit by a bus as the entire planet experiences a massive blackout, waking up in a world where certain aspects of pop culture- specifically the Beatles- are no longer remembered. He then leaves behind his hometown to travel the world and present the Beatles’ iconic compositions as his own work. Lily James, Kate McKinnon, and Ed Sheeran also star alongside Patel.

While the actual members of the Beatles were not directly involved with the film, their hits such as “Back In The U.S.S.R,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “Hey Jude” ring nostalgically throughout the movie. In order to use these songs, the rights to feature these songs were bought for $10 million.

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The Beatles on the The Abbey Road Crossing

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.

The first Abbey Road photo
The first Abbey Road photo

2nd

The 3rd Pic taken
The 3rd Pic taken
The 4th Pic
The 4th Pic

 

The 5th pic taken - the one used on the album cover
The 5th pic taken – the one used on the album cover

 

The last pic taken
The last pic taken

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.

The cover of a mag on the Paul is dead rumour
The cover of a mag on the Paul is dead rumour

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.

The cover of 'Paul is Live'
The cover of ‘Paul is Live’

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.

Me with Sgt Peppers Only Dart Board Band 8th August 2009
Me with Sgt Peppers Only Dart Board Band 8th August 2009
Abbey Road August 8th 2009 - 40 years to the minute since the Beatles crossed
Abbey Road August 8th 2009 – 40 years to the minute since the Beatles crossed

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.

Linda McCartney's photo - showing the location of the crossing.
Linda McCartney’s photo – showing the location of the crossing.

 

Author and blogger Richard Porter is a professional London Beatles tour guide. For more details on his tours, see https://beatlesinlondon.com/ 

Richard is guiding a special London Beatles Walk on August 8th, that will cross Abbey Road 50 years to the minute since the Beatles. To buy tickets for the tour go to https://www.funzing.com/sd/UVduZN and scroll through for the date.