FEATURE: The Immortal Shot: The Beatles' Abbey Road at Fifty: Celebrating an Iconic Cover



The Immortal Shot


PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan 

The Beatles’ Abbey Road at Fifty: Celebrating an Iconic Cover


IF you are lucky…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Abbey Road, taken on the morning of The Beatles’ album cover shoot on 8th August, 1969/PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan

you might create one brilliant album cover in your career! I am thinking of bands like Nirvana (Nevermind), The Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers) and Pink Floyd (The Dark Side of the Moon), who often appear in the ‘best album covers ever’ list - and it is hard to argue against. These artists can be proud of that but, when you think of The Beatles, they can claim to have THREE album covers that are iconic and timeless – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Beatles (1968) and Abbey Road (1969). There is debate among fans as to which of that trio stands out most. Of course, one simply has to tip their hat to the genius cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the gamut of famous faces that appear. It is amazing to think how The Beatles progressed as a band between 1965’s Rubber Soul and 1966’s Revolver. Along with this leap in sonic endeavour and ambition came a more artistic approach to their covers. Look at the covers pre-1966 and, largely, it is the band snapped quite simply. Maybe that reflects the music they were producing: simple, classic Pop albums do not necessarily require hugely illuminating and complex covers. When they started pushing the studio and splicing sounds, their covers became more eye-catching and inventive. If Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band dripped with effort, thought and a lot of focus, Abbey Road’s cover has a charmingly casual and of-the-moment vibe.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan

Paul McCartney sketched how he wanted the cover to look but I think, were it too posed, it would look weird and unnatural! Very few shots were taken, and it is amazing we got the shot we did; the band looking casual but in perfect step. The Beatles Bible talks about the day the cover was shot and how it all came together:

All four Beatles gathered at EMI Studios on the morning of Friday 8 August 1969 for one of the most famous photo shoots of their career. Photographer Iain Macmillan took the iconic image that adorned their last-recorded album, Abbey Road.

Iain Macmillan was a freelance photographer and a friend to John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He used a Hasselblad camera with a 50mm wide-angle lens, aperture f22, at 1/500 seconds.

A policeman held up the traffic as Macmillan, from a stepladder positioned in the middle of the road, took six shots as the group walked across the zebra crossing just outside the studio.

The Beatles crossed the road a number of times while Macmillan photographed them. 8 August was a hot day in north London, and for four of the six photographs McCartney walked barefoot; for the other two he wore sandals.

Shortly after the shoot, McCartney studied the transparencies and chose the fifth one for the album cover. It was the only one when all four Beatles were walking in time. It also satisfied The Beatles' desire for the world to see them walking away from the studios they had spent so much of the last seven years inside.


PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan 

Macmillan also took a photograph of a nearby tiled street sign for the back cover. The sign has since been replaced, but was situated at the corner of Abbey Road and Alexandra Road. The junction no longer exists; the road was later replaced by the Abbey Road housing estate, between Boundary Road and Belsize Road”.

Given the simple beauty of the cover, it is easy to replicate – through the years, scores of people have copied that shot outside Abbey Road. Although it is not the same spot The Beatles used in 1969, one cannot resist doing a version of Abbey Road. This hugely important album turns fifty on 26th September, and you just know scores of people will be striding across zebra crossings, in fours, doing their spin on a genius cover. I bet every artist on the planet was green with envy when that cover came out. Something that simple looking so brilliant! Maybe it is the aura The Beatles projected or the fact there was something symbolic about them walking as they did. Maybe it represented them walking away from the studio; perhaps it is them all together but separate. When Abbey Road hit shelves, there was the famous ‘Paul is dead’ theories that circulated. Many thought the cover’s image was the band leaving a funeral. In front, Lennon is dressed in white (as a religious figure); Starr was dressed in black (representing the undertaker) and George Harrison was in denim – sort of playing the gravedigging role.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan

As McCartney was bare-footed is out of step with the others and holding a cigarette in his right hand (he was left-handed), many assumed it was an imposter; maybe a sign that he was dead. I am not sure whether McCartney planned the image like this; whether he wanted people to view the band as leading their own funeral procession, but it is clear people have read a lot into the cover – and, of course, Paul McCartney is very much with us! The first time I saw the cover, aged about six or seven, I liked the fact The Beatles all had different clothes on. If there was uniformity, then it would have clashed with the zebra crossing and wouldn’t have resonated. Each band member has their own style and, for my money, John Lennon edges it in the fashion stakes! Artists since have tried to create an album cover as iconic with so little effort. I cannot think of anything since 1969 that has grabbed the eye and stayed in the mind quite like Abbey Road’s cover. I am hoping to put out another Abbey Road feature before the big day, but I just HAD to feature the stunning cover. It is one of the best ever and, as I have mentioned, sent heads spinning with conspiracies and speculation. In fact, as we can see from this article, there are even more ‘clues’ regarding the supposed (premature) demise of Paul McCartney:

The license plate

In the background we see a Volkswagen Beetle with the plate "LMW 28IF" Conspiracists claim this to mean that McCartney would be 28 if he were alive. (Nevermind the fact that he would actually have been 27 if the rumor were true.)


PHOTO CREDIT: Iain McMillan 

The police van

Parked on the side of the road is a black police van, which is said to symbolize authorities who kept silent about McCartney's fatal fender-bender.

The girl in the blue dress

On the night of McCartney’s supposed car accident, he was believed to have been driving with a fan named Rita. Theorists say the girl in the dress featured on the back cover was meant to be her, fleeing from the car crash.

Connect the dots

Also on the back cover are a series of dots. Join some of them together and you can make the number three — the number of surviving Beatles.

Broken Beatles sign

On the back cover, we see the band’s name written in tiles on a wall and there’s a crack running through it. Of all the symbols, this one turned out to be the most meaningful, and sad. Although the release of Abbey Road was followed with ample evidence that McCartney was alive and well, what the public didn’t know was that the Beatles had secretly broken up. Abbey Road would be the band’s penultimate studio album, and the group would call it quits only a year later”.

There is so much to unpack, investigate and adore when it comes to Abbey Road. It was the final album the band recorded, and they gave us, perhaps, their finest effort. There is debate where Abbey Road falls in the rankings regarding musical quality; in terms of that arresting cover, I do not think the band bettered that. Maybe Abbey Road is not the absolute best cover ever, but it must be in the top three, surely! Whether you are hooked by its coolness and simplicity or go into the conspiracy side of things, one must marvel at its sheer brilliance! There was rumour The Beatles were planning another album after Abbey Road; that they had a bit more to give. I am not sure what changed their mind, but it is sort of heartbreaking thinking…

WHAT could have been.