Abbey Road, by The Beatles

An album cover art story

When Iain MacMillan climbed a 10-step ladder in the middle of Abbey Road on August 8, 1969 to take a series of shots of the Fab Four crossing the street, he did not have much time to complete the photo shoot. A policeman was hired to hold all traffic in the road for this occasion, but time was of the essence. MacMillan took only six shots from his vantage point. He wanted the Beatles to walk the road in perfect V formation, which they failed to do in five of the photographs. Those were attempts 1,2,3,4 and 6.

The fifth photograph hit the jack pot. All four walked as ducks in a row, legs stretched according to plan. Stepping down from that ladder, MacMillan could not have foreseen the impact of that hurried shot, becoming one of the most iconic album covers of all time.

 The idea for the photograph came from Paul McCartney, who sketched it on a piece of paper a few days prior to the shoot. MacMillan added a more precise rendering of Paul’s idea in the top right corner.

The morning of the photo session the Beatles arrived wearing suites by celebrity tailor Tommy Nutter, however wardrobe coordination was not on top of their mind. Linda McCartney was on hand and took photographs that add more color to that historic event. One of them shows the Beatles preparing on the side walk, with Sir Paul wearing thumb ring sandals to accompany his suite. Luckily he took them off just before crossing the street, thus adding one more clue to the Paul is Dead myth, along with the Beetle license plate and the cigarette in his right hand. The real Paul was lefty, dig? What more do you need to realize he’s been dead for over 50 years?

A number of ideas surfaced earlier during the recording of Abbey Road as to how to name the album. The lasting one was Everest, after Geoff Emerick’s favorite brand of cigarettes. Discussions ensued about flying in a private jet to Nepal for the photo shoot, but the idea was nixed, as engineer John Kurlander remembers one of the Beatles, likely Paul, saying: “’Look, I can’t be bothered to schlep all the way over to the Himalayas for a cover, why don’t we just go outside, take the photo there, call the LP Abbey Road and have done with it?” To paraphrase – Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?

This was a lucky move for hordes of fans over the years, saving them a laborious trip to the snowy peaks to photograph themselves imitating the cover pose.

Talking about imitating the pose, Abbey Road is undoubtedly the most parodied album cover in history. There are tens of albums out there with covers based on that photograph, most of them pretty lame. Some of the better ones include the endearing cast of Peanuts:

The bizarre church-chant album Franciscan Road (The Community of St. Saviour’s Monastery, Jerusalem):

And of course there is the Abbey Road E.P. by The Red Hot Chili Peppers with the band members crossing the street wearing their favorite stage custom, consisting of a sole white sock covering their, mmm, you know.

Ok, back to that day in August 1969. After the photo shoot for the front cover was complete, Iain MacMillan went on to pursue the back cover. He found the Abbey Road sign on the corner with Alexandra, a street that since than has been demolished. Adding the Beatles road signage on the back cover was a matter of finding other road signs that had the required letters and handing the shots to a retouching service that meticulously added the crack going through the ‘S’ for authenticity. And what about the girl with the blue dress, you ask? Well, she just happened to walk by unaware at the serendipitous moment MacMillan pressed his camera button for the shot of the Abbey Road sign. He was at first unhappy about that innocent intruder, but decided to keep her in. The photo could not have been better if he planned it that way.

Abbey Road was released several weeks after the photo shoot, on September 26, 1969. It was the first British Beatles LP without the band name or the title of the album on the front cover. They were not needed, as the album cover became instantly iconic. What a class act to conclude the band’s recording career with a homage to the recording studio that enabled all that magic.

Iain Macmillan

Categories: Album Art

2 replies »

  1. A glorious piece on many different levels: it’s simultaneously informative, nostalgic and somehow poignant. The older I get, the more often I hear myself muttering Wordsworth’s line – “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”.
    I’m ashamed that I haven’t commented before about how much me and my chums enjoy your writing.
    Many thanks for your substantial efforts over the last few years.

    • Excellent, thanks for the comment and great to know that a group of chums out there is enjoying my writing. The lines that follow your Wordsworth quote are no less informative, nostalgic and poignant:
      But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
      In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
      Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
      The attraction of a country in romance!

      But then again, it was about the French Revolution 🙂

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