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  Global Views
A Simple Walk: Abbey Road Crossing Revisited
By Darron Davies
Special Correspondent
40th anniversary of the Beatles famous album cover crossing of Abbey Road on August 8th, 2009

On August 8, 2009 it will be forty years since the Beatles made that famous crossing of Abbey Road - and one of the most recognizable album covers of all time.

The album , which spawned memorable tracks such as 'Something', 'Here Comes the Sun' and 'Octopus's Garden' , would also become famous for many myths.

As hundreds visit the site this coming August, led by tours such as Richard Porter's 'Beatles in My Life ' tour , which will include a to-the-minute crossing and a tribute band imitating the Beatles , it is interesting to reflect on that day forty years ago.

What was happening at that time? What would be the consequences of the album covers fame?

While the album will become part of the Beatles mythology, some of it very weird, it is interesting to take off the paisley coloured glasses, take the needle off the album, and reflect on the events surrounding this famous photo. Reality can be just as interesting as the myths.

Let's backtrack to Friday August 8, 1969 , courtesy of newspapers and the scholarly research of anthologists such as Mark Lewisohn.

It is a warm day in London, about 74 degrees fahrenheit or 25 degrees celsius.

It is the time of Carnaby Street, mini-skirts, the Rolling Stones, bowler hats, paisley colours, mini skirts and challenging films such as Clockwork Orange .

Yet on this day people are going about their business as people have always done : going to work, paying the bills and feeding the family. The fact of four fellows crossing a street will only be a small part of events.

Opening a newspaper in a cafe that morning a man will read the speculation, based on the findings of the unmanned Mariner 7 space probe , that there may be life on Mars.

The lawyer, representing Sirhan Sirhan - Robert Kennedy’s assassin - has been indicted on contempt of court charges.

There is more fall-out following recent riots in Ulster. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Major Chichester-Clarke, will meet Prime Minister Callaghan to discuss the unrest.

President Nixon is being criticized by the Soviet Union for forming ‘imperial’ bridges with eastern bloc socialist countries.

The New Zealand cricket team is struggling in its second test match against England.

An exhibition of modern african art will open on the coming weekend at the Camden Arts Centre. Thousands are expected to flock to the Plumpton Race Track, Streatham, for the Ninth National Jazz and Blues Festival. A headline act will be the young Pink Floyd.

'Abbey Road' is not a household name . It is a regular street in London known for housing the EMI recording studios . Ardent Beatles fans know that they can visit the area to get glimpses of the band members.

On this morning, Friday August 8th, Abbey Road is typical London street. A man has parked his white volkswagen adjacent to his apartment.

Chris Blair, a tape operator at the nearby recording studio , usually parks his Morris Minor on this spot. Today he can't. He will laugh about this simple event for years.

The four Beatles have been recording in the EMI studios since early July and are nearing the completion of what will be their last recording session.

The previous recording sessions , for the White Album, and the Let it Be album, have been fraught with tensions. Band members are bringing in their own material. There is a growing feeling that the band is nearing the end of its journey and there are moments of genuine camaraderie.

In previous months George Harrison and Ringo Starr have walked out of the band only to return. There is a growing interest in side projects.

The band, and engineers, are nearing the end of recording and are fine tuning material . It is time to consider the album cover. Rumour has it that the album is to be called Everest after a brand of cigarettes smoked by Geoff Emerick, the Beatles' recording engineer. Plans are being considered to use Everest as a photo backdrop, even flying the Beatles to this region. The end decision couldn't be further from the truth though. It is all too much for a band that is tiring and has long been tied up in the recording studio . A photo shoot will be done on the road outside the studio.

Paul McCartney has given a sketch to the photographer Iain Macmillan. It shows what appears to be an aerial view of the road and the crossing - a suggestion, using dots, that the four
Beatles can be photographed walking symmetrically across the crossing.

As the morning progresses the four Beatles make their way to the recording studios. Recording usually starts at about two in the afternoon- often going into the early morning. The photo shoot
will happen earlier. There will be less people on the street, less likelihood of fans disturbing events.

The Beatles have been holed up in the recording studio for weeks . It has been a busy week.

They have been working diligently. A quick photo shoot will solve the problem of the album cover, allowing them to enjoy some free time before returning to the studios.

Iain Macmillan is a friend of John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono's and is a professional photographer who has been pulled quickly into the photo session. He has been responsible for photographing the catalogue to a recent Yoko Ono exhibition.

He arrives with a step ladder, late in the morning, and with some assistance from police, begins to direct the Beatles in a series of six photographs, one that will become the famous album cover.

In a couple of photographs the Beatles walk from both directions and are out of step.

Cars turn into frame and there is one photograph of a London bus moving towards the crossing. Paul McCartney removes his shoes for four photographs. The day is getting warmer.

In the fifth photograph there is nice symmetry. This will be the photo chosen for the front cover.

Linda McCartney is also taking photographs. In these photographs the Beatles can be seen waiting for direction, smoking, talking, lining up to make the walk, and talking to an elderly lady.

A hundred metres away Paul Cole, a tourist holidaying from the U.S., has walked into Abbey Road . He is tired of visiting museums and has taken a break . He gets into a conversation with a policeman , in a black van, at the side of the road. He sees the photographer on the step ladder and what he will later recall as "a bunch of kooks' walking across the street like a line of ducks.

The photo shoot is completed very quickly. Before recording starts early that afternoon John goes with Paul to his Paul's house. Ringo goes shopping. Mal Evans, personal assistant to the Beatles, and George Harrison , visit the Zoo at Regent's Park and reportedly the Krishna temple for lunch.

Iain MacMillan scouts for a suitable street sign to photograph for the back of the album. He finds an Abbey Road street sign. It is passed by a woman in a blue dress. In what will be considered to be a radical decision John Kosh, the Abbey Road Creative Director, will insist that no words are needed for the front cover - the Beatles are famous enough to be recognised by image alone.

Returning to the studios at 2.30 that afternoon Paul McCartney , working alone in the studio, will overdub tambourine and lead guitar onto the track "Oh, Darling". Drums and bass are overdubbed onto the song "The End". Ringo adds drums to the track "I want you" and Lennon also works on this track using an elaborate moog synthesizer, and a white noise generator, to add moody complexity.

The following day the world will awake to the horror of the Manson murders . Three days later fierce rioting will break out in Derry. The following weekend the Woodstock festival will pull in thousands to the small town of Bethel, New York.

The Beatles will continue working in the studio completing final touches to the album. On August 20th their work is complete. It will be the last day that they work together.

The Abbey Road album is released in the U.K. on September 26, 1969, and a week later in the United States. It sells millions.

On September 17, 1969, following a review in the Drake University paper , in Iowa, rumours begin to circulate that Paul McCartney is dead.

This is picked up by the worldwide press following a satirical newspaper review by Fred LaBour, in the University of Michigan newspaper.

Evidence builds that the album cover holds clues to McCartney's death. Rumours have been building over time. Paul is seen to be out of step, his eyes closed, the lettering on the VW number plate supposedly referring to his age if he were still alive.

Two months later McCartney will debunk all rumours in a Life magazine interview.

A mythology begins to evolve around the album cover. The crossing becomes synonomous with the Beatles.

The EMI studio will change its name to the Abbey Road studios in 1970 - becoming one of the most recognisable recording studios in the world.

Studio employees and residents start noticing that people gather at the crossing to imitate the famous photo. The number plate on the VW is repeatedly stolen . Residents become irritated by the pilgrimage of fans. Abbey Road street signs are continuously stolen.

The local council discusses means of preventing these incidents. Signs will eventually be painted and displayed at a height so they cannot be stolen. The council will also receive letters of complaint suggesting that graffiti not be cleaned - it being considered, by some, as culturally significant.

Scholarly articles, under the banner of cultural studies, will analyse the significance of the street, deciphering the meaning of the graffiti.

Eventually the crossing will be moved metres down the street - a fact not known by many fans.

Paul Cole, the man talking to the policeman on the day of the photo session discovers, a year later, that his image is recorded for posterity on the album cover. His wife is learning the Beatles song 'Something' on the organ. Cole recognises himself wearing his new sportscoat and shell rimmed glasses. This becomes a great standing joke within the family. He never claims royalty. Paul Coles dies in early 2008 at the age of 96.

The volkswagen in the picture is eventually discovered and sold. It ends up on display in the Volkswagen Auto Museum in Wolfsburg, Germany. John Lennon's smart suit, worn in the photograph, is reportedly sold for $ 118,000 at auction in 1995.

Over time the photograph increasingly becomes parodied. These include the infamous Red Hot Chilli Peppers naked shot, the Simpsons, Sesame Street characters, Benny Hill, George Benson, the King's Singers, Ren and Stimpy, the Rutles, the Shadows, the Zimmers, Snoopy, and even Paul McCartney himself. He uses a computer generated artist to superimpose himself over one of the original photos - not the one used for the cover - for his tongue in cheek titled 1993 album 'Paul is Live.'

Studio tours begin. Tour companies will establish Beatles tours of London. Famous visitors to the crossing will include Margaret Thatcher. It is estimated, by the studio, that 150, 000 people
visit the crossing each year.

The Abbey Road image proliferates and makes its way onto coffee mugs, t-shirts, mock street signs, key rings, badges and cigarette lighters. It becomes the key marketing image used by the studio.

The studio also establishes a live webcam of the crossing. One can now watch the busy thoroughfare day and night.

The bands U2 and Greenday do a combined reenactment of the crossing photo session in 1996.

In 2003, in an odd politically correct gesture, U.S. poster companies, with permission of Apple Records, airbrush out a cigarette held by McCartney in the original photo. This is deemed a great gesture by anti-smoking bodies - knowing the strong public perception that George Harrison's cancer, and death, in 2002, is assumedly smoking related.

Iain Macmillan continues photographing. He becomes involved in the design and photography for several of Lennon's and Ono's projects. He teaches part- time at a college in stoke on Trent and eventually moves back to Scotland, continuing to take landscape photographs. He dies in 2006 from lung cancer.

The studios famous for recording the Beatles, Glen Miller, Yehudi Menuhin, Fats Waller, Gracie Fields, Paul Robeson and Vera Lynn, continue to record. Recent artists include Radiohead, Oasis, Panic at the disco, and numerous films scores including Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. On the back cover of a Lord of the Rings soundtrack album the director, Peter Jackson, can be seen walking barefoot across the crossing.

In 2007 a 64 pence stamp of the Abbey Road cover is released by the royal Mail in the U.K.

In 2008 the Westminster Council announces that it will crack down on any organisations or individuals who break copyright by reproducing street sign images without permission.

In October 2008, The Beatles' Apple Corps Ltd, announces a partnership to develop a Beatles interactive computer game - Beatles Rock Band - which will be released on the 9th September 09 - a very Beatle-ish play with dates. It will no doubt feature strong reference to the crossing imagery.

Meanwhile - to this present day - local drivers and residents contend with posing tourists. How may cars are stopped each day at the crossing so that a few fans can recreate this photo?

A trivia question regarding the order by which each Beatle crosses the street pops up in a quiz show.

Fans visit the site and ring their friends- "look at the live webcam, I'm crossing the street.'

Looking at the Abbey Road webcam, as I have done a few times in researching this article, I reflect on all that has evolved from a quick decision and a reportedly ten minute photo-shoot.

Only locals appear to be crossing the street. There is no sign of tourists.

At the side of the crossing a council worker can be seen sweeping the street. All is very ordinary, very mundane.

Life goes on.

Abbey Road Webcam:

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Mr. Darron Davies, who serves as a special correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a photographer: and works as a specialist in education supporting creative teaching within schools :






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