The famous image of the Fab Four crossing a simple zebra crossing into a shrine for fans from all over the world.
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And the sleeve symbolism sparked music’s biggest conspiracy theory – that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by a doppelganger.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.
But the image that was chosen was one of the last to show all four Beatles together, just weeks before Lennon secretly quit the world’s biggest band.
MacMillan recalled: “The whole idea was McCartney’s. A few days before the shoot, he drew a sketch of how he imagined the cover, which we executed almost exactly that day.“I took a couple of shots of the Beatles crossing Abbey Road one way. We let some of the traffic go by and then they walked across the road the other way, and I took a few more shots.“The one eventually chosen for the cover was number five of six. It was the only one that had their legs in a perfect ‘V’ formation, which is what I wanted stylistically.”
The unconventional photo session took place at 10am, a crazy time for a band that kept vampire hours in the studio. Only a handful of people watched MacMillan trying to capture the perfect shot. Among them was then 31-year-old painter and decorator Derek Seagrove, who, with two pals, just happened to be working at EMI that day.
Standing down the street, they ignored MacMillan’s demands to move and so became part of pop-art history.
Derek said: “I am the guy on the right, in the bottom left-hand corner of the picture.“It wasn’t unusual for me to be at Abbey Road. I had been there on numerous occasions. I used to see the Beatles having a cup of tea in the canteen.“We would sometimes be at the next table and say a casual hello to them.“On this day, we saw them all walking out the front door around about 10 or so, which was unusual in itself.“You rarely saw them at that time of day. Curiosity got the better of us so we followed them. We stopped at the gate and they walked up the other end. We just stood there watching.“The guy who was taking the photograph was waving to us to get out of the way but we decided to just stand our ground. We had no idea about the significance of the picture.”
The photo, however, unwittingly thrust The Beatles into the eye of the 60s’ most bizarre cover-up storm. Days after the album’s release, students in Detroit combed the cover for evidence of Macca’s apparent demise.
And they soon claimed The Beatles had colluded in hoodwinking fans after seemingly unearthing a trail of clues hiding in plain sight on the cover.It was claimed MacMillan’s picture depicted a funeral procession. Lennon, dressed all in white, was said to be a clergyman; Starr, wearing a black suit, was the undertaker, and Harrison, clad in rock star denim, was the gravedigger.But the biggest “clue” centred around McCartney. He was pictured barefoot – a sign of death in many cultures – and was holding a cigarette in his right hand, despite being left-handed.
He was also out of step with the other three, an ironic coincidence given the fact he was at odds then with Lennon, Harrison and Starr over the future of The Beatles. And a Volkswagen Beetle parked just behind them had the licence plate 28IF – taken to mean McCartney would have been 28 had he still been alive. He was, in fact, 27.
It was, of course, nonsense – but the “Paul is dead” rumour saw sales of Abbey Road soar and it became The Beatles’ best-selling album. Paul, naturally, dismissed the phenomenon. He explained: “It was a hot day and I decided to kick my sandals off.“If you look at the outtakes of the cover, I am actually wearing my sandals. It just so happens, in this one picture, I’m not.”
MacMillan’s six pictures were developed within an hour and pored over by John Kosh, the art director for The Beatles’ company Apple. And he chose the image that ended up on the cover.
But his decision to keep the band’s name off the front and back sparked a furious reaction from Sir Joseph Lockwood, the straight-talking chairman of EMI, The Beatles’ record company.
Kosh recalled: “Anyone who didn’t know who these four guys are must have been living in a cave. They were the four most famous musicians on the planet. They didn’t need the name of the band on the album.“Then Sir Joseph Lockwood phoned me at 3am. He said I would cost them thousands of sales by not having the name of the band on the cover.“He was absolutely livid, furious. I was shocked, not so much by the call as the language. He had this upper-class English accent and he was calling me all sort of names.“So I went into Apple the next day scared stiff and the first person I saw was George Harrison and I told him about the phone call. He just said, ‘Screw it man, we’re The Beatles’. In the end, the album has sold something like 26million copies, so I feel vindicated.”
MacMillan, who died in 2006 in Carnoustie, remained humble about one of the decade’s most epochal snapshots.
He said: “I think the reason it became so popular is its simplicity. Also, it’s a shot people can relate to. It’s a place where people can still walk.”
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