Memory Lane

05th September 2019

Fifty years have passed since the Beatles released Abbey Road , yet fans still flock to that fabled north London zebra crossing to recreate the album’s cover – which became the focus of a bizarre conspiracy theory

Words by Will Hodgkinson

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It is a cover image so iconic, you can visit the zebra crossing outside Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood at any time and you’ll be sure to find four tourists irritating drivers by recreating it. Abbey Road was once just a dull residential street in an upscale part of Northwest London. Now it is forever associated with The Beatles’ penultimate album, recorded after Let It Be but released before it… although it very nearly wasn’t the case. 

The original title for Abbey Road was “Everest”, named after sound engineer Geoff Emerick’s brand of cigarettes. There were plans to shoot the band at the foot of Mount Everest, but no one could be bothered to travel to Nepal so Paul McCartney sketched up a concept that involved shooting them outside their regular studio instead. John Kosh, the art director of their record label, Apple, had the idea of featuring The Beatles without album title or band name. By 1969, he said, everyone knew what they looked like. And so, at 11.35am on August 8, photographer Iain Macmillan was given 10 minutes to complete the shoot.
He stood on a stepladder while police held up the traffic. 

Perhaps the image would not have been so universally, instantly impactful had it not been fuel for the “Paul Is Dead” conspiracy theory bouncing around American college campuses at the time. McCartney (or rather, his double) holding a cigarette in his right hand when he was left-handed and being barefoot, Lennon dressed in white and therefore leading a funeral procession, and the number plate of a VW Beetle – 28IF – supposedly McCartney’s age if he were alive (even though he was actually 27), were all taken as signs of McCartney’s death. 

Paul died in a car crash in 1966, the theory claimed, and the Abbey Road cover featured a lookalike. In fact, McCartney had been out of view because The Beatles were splitting up, he was estranged from his bandmates, and he was trying to recover some semblance of normality with his young family on a farm in Scotland. So fervent was Beatles obsession in 1969, however, that every aspect of Abbey Road ’s cover was mined for symbolism. 

Why does it work? Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of the four most remarkable young men in the world crossing an unremarkable road on a sunny day in London. Most of all though, it’s the simplicity of the photograph, which has been copied by everyone from Booker T. & the M.G.’s to The Red Hot Chili Peppers to an unending stream of tourists. The music’s pretty good too.

This article was taken from the Autumn 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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