With the multitude of celebrations throughout the summer for the Woodstock Festival’s 50th anniversary, another half-century moment associated with musical history slipped through the cracks and the attention of fans. August 8 marked 50 years since the Beatles wandered out of the recording studio and sauntered across the zebra-striped pedestrian crosswalk on Abbey Road as a photographer snapped photos for their upcoming album cover.
It would have been impossible for anyone witnessing that moment to know how iconic the photograph of John Lennon leading Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison across the road would become. The band traversed the street three times to give photographer Iain Macmillan enough opportunities to capture the right shot for the cover that would complement the music being recorded only a few steps away at EMI Recording Studios at 3 Abbey Road.
The studio had been a landmark since it was established in 1931 by the Gramophone Company, predecessor to EMI. It was where, in the 1960s, most of the Beatles music was recorded. That includes the album released September 26, 1969 under the title Abbey Road, which is receiving a bit more attention for its 50th anniversary than its cover’s photo session.
A deluxe box set was released last month, offering a remixed version of the album along with outtakes and what a press release refers to as the “trial edit and mix for the album’s epic Side 2 medley,” complete with “Her Majesty” in its original position in the sequencing. Like the Sgt. Pepper and White Album box sets that preceded it, the Abbey Road release offers insights into the recording sessions and creative process that produced the album.
The music contained on Abbey Road would continue to inspire musicians for generations, but the album cover exerted a certain amount of influence as well. In 1970, Booker T. and the MGs appeared in a similar stroll on the cover of their Abbey Road tribute album McLemore Avenue, named after the Memphis road on which Stax Studio was located. McCartney used a retouched photo from the Abbey Road cover shoot for his 1993 Paul Is Live CD to refute the 1969-70 “Paul is Dead” conspiracy by theorists who purported that the Beatle had died and been replaced during the 1960s and that clues pertaining to this had been planted in song lyrics and on album jackets for the public to decode.
Perhaps the most notable effect the album had was when the LP’s fame convinced EMI to officially change the name of its recording facility to Abbey Road Studios in 1970.
Ten years later, I was traveling in England and, while sightseeing in London, the tour director said we could be dropped off wherever we wanted in the city. A small entourage inquired about Abbey Road and her eyes lit up as she said, “Ah, Beatle-land. You want to go to Sinjuns Wood.” It wasn’t until later that we realized that’s how the British pronounce St. John’s Wood, an affluent district in the City of Westminster that dates back to 1238 when it was the wooded farm of St. John’s Priory.
In 1980, it was a busy urban area, and in its midst was Abbey Road Studios. Two men were chatting outside the building when they spotted us staring at the facility from across the street. They immediately retreated indoors. Our presence had sounded the tourist alert as drivers in the area prepared themselves for what came next. I was the only one to brave the zebra crossing as all vehicles came to an immediate stop to allow me to trace the same path the Beatles had 11 years earlier.
Commanding the traffic once again, I returned to my companions only to notice a grinning elderly woman staring at us. She sidled up to us and inquired, “Do you want to see where Paul McCartney lives? I’m his neighbor.” We followed her directions and, after a short walk, found ourselves on Cavendish Avenue, outside the gate of McCartney’s home. Unlike his bandmates, who had purchased mansions outside London, McCartney had, in 1965, chosen a modest dwelling in a quaint neighborhood. It wasn’t apparent until then how easy and quick it must have been to access his place of work, the recording studio on the street he helped make so famous.