(Don’t worry guys; I wrote this while listening to a Beatles playlist. I wouldn’t do it any other way.)
One of the most famous album covers of all time produced by one of the most famous bands of all time was thrown together at the last minute. In fact, it was put together at a time when the Beatles were falling apart.
The recording of the album was the culmination of lots of arguing and tense compromises among the four musicians. As George Harrison said, it felt “as if we were reaching the end of the line.” The Beatles were planning on releasing the album under the title Everest, named after their sound engineer Geoff Emerick’s favorite cigarette brand. The art on the cigarette packs was a silhouette of Mount Everest, and the band liked the image. To create a similar look for the album cover, the band was going to take a private jet to the Himalayas and get the cover photo. But deadlines were closing in, and EMI was demanding a product from the band. Under that amount of pressure to produce a quality album, especially in the midst of so much forced compromise, the band was desperate to get the album done and over with. So Paul McCartney suggested they all just go outside and get a photo of them crossing the street outside their studio. He said they could simply name the album after the road.
The band hired a photographer, Iain Macmillan, and a police officer to block traffic. “A few days before the shoot, [Paul] drew a sketch of how he imagined the cover, which we executed almost exactly that day,” said Macmillan. At about 11:30 AM on August 8, 1969, the band went outside and Macmillan set up a step ladder in the middle of the street. Paul, Ringo, and John all wore suits designed by Tommy Nutter, but George opted not to match. In addition to that wardrobe choice, Paul wore sandals for shots 1 and 2, but then decided to go barefoot for shots 3-6. (This later erupted as a “clue” for the Paul Is Dead myth. Paul much later responded to this by producing his fourth album with a retouched version of the Abbey Road cover and naming it Paul is Live.) “I took a couple 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,” said Macmillan. The whole thing took 10 minutes, mostly because the police officer didn’t want to block traffic for too long. “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 specifically,” Macmillan recalled.
The photo was given to Apple Records art director John Kosh. He made the decision to make the cover revolutionarily simple; the cover did not include the band’s name or the album title. “I thought, ‘Well, this is the biggest band in the world – why would you need to do that?'” Kosh said. “If you don’t recognize them, you obviously live in a cave.” Kosh submitted the design and then received a call from EMI chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood in the middle of the night. “I get a phone call at 3 in the morning saying, ‘You’ve f*cked this up. We’re never going to sell an album. You’re a prick.’ With a terribly, terribly good English accent – because he’s a blueblood, and I’m not,” said Kosh. “I’m, like, really scared; I’m about 23 years old. So, I go into Apple the next morning and George is there, and he said, ‘Hey man, we’re the Beatles. Don’t worry about it.'”
The album, obviously, sold well. The cover became so famous that the license plate on the white Volkswagen Beetle, belonging to one of the people living in the apartments across from the Beatle’s studio, in the background was stolen. The care was later sold in 1986 for about $3800 and was put on display in Germany in 2001. Another object in the background is a seemingly random pedestrian standing on the sidewalk. An American tourist, Paul Cole, tracked down by reporters after several years, said he was standing on the sidewalk because he was sick of following his wife into places on their vacation itinerary. “I’ve seen enough museums. I’ll just stay out here and see what’s going on outside,” he told her. Cole struck up a conversation with the police officer to entertain himself. “I saw those guys walking across the street like a line of ducks. A bunch of kooks, I called them, because they were rather radical-looking at that time. You didn’t walk around in London barefoot,” he recalled. It wasn’t until Cole’s wife brought home Abbey Road that Cole realized what he had witnessed. “I had to convince the kids that that was me for a while. I told them, ‘Get the magnifying glass out,'” he said, laughing.