Abbey Road at fifty

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Its alright now, we’ve reached the fiftieth anniversary of the world’s most famous zebra crossing. Actually there’s been a zebra crossing on Abbey Road more than fifty years, so this is really about those photographs taken by Ian McMillan on 8th August 1969 – and especially one of those photographs which immortalised the crossing into the public consciousness. If you have a music album with the Fab Four shown walking upon a zebra crossing you’ll know what this is about!

I have written at length about the Abbey Road crossing before though it is noted that some slight changes have been made to the crossing itself since works were undertaken to re-surface the road about four years ago. It means the crossing is actually a ‘new’ one its not the original, however there probably hasn’t been an original for many decades because the constant passing of traffic would have worn the white paint away.

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The crossing on the morning of 8th August 1969. Interesting it has just been repainted and resurfaced! Source: Twitter

Indeed the crossing itself had just been renewed, repainted, by the time the 1969 photo session came about. Perhaps it was done for the session itself, who knows! But this, in 1969, wasn’t the original crossing anyway.

And that is the point. The passing of time wears everything away – except it seems – the Beatles. The same goes for Abbey Road. The photograph, the notion, the concept, the influence doesn’t really wear off because there is an almost constant renewal of it going on.

The image of the crossing seems to get stronger and stronger with time, partly because the image of four people footing it across has been recycled over and over again to denote many different things, to publicise programmes, films, book or music launches, even to celebrate satire, poke fun and whatever. If one needs a crossing to publicise an idea then that’s what Abbey Road is for! There are endless imitations of the concept which makes the whole thing more enduring.

How did it all begin? As history shows the Beatles had been using the famous studios since around 1962, but amazingly no one ever thought to use the crossing outside the studios itself to generate some of the most memorable pictures ever to feature a band. Everybody from the Beatles to Pink Floyd were instead happy with publicity pictures taken on the steps or inside the studios itself.

So who came up with the idea first? John? Paul? Ringo? George? Maybe the other George? (This being Martin of course.) Or the photographer himself?

That’s an interesting question – and one which I don’t think anyone has asked before! So whats the answer?

The Beatles Bible says it was Paul’s idea. If he was dead by that time as some conspiracy theories claim, namely that he had died in a car crash three years previously to the Abbey Road crossing, well that wouldn’t have been his idea then!

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The sketch by Paul McCartney for the Abbey Road album. Source: Twitter

As it stands it was Paul’s idea. The Beatles Bible tells us Paul sketched some ideas, and then Scots photographer Ian McMillan took these a bit further with some additional detail of his own.

So it was originally Paul’s idea, suitably backed up by input from McMillan.

But that’s not the point really is it?

What I mean is why did Paul suggest the crossing? The only thing I can think of is the Beatles had countless pictures taken of them on those famous stairs leading up to the entrance to the studios. It could be that Paul saw the crossing as an opportunity to create, say, a two dimensional version of the stairs. I mean one cant really have four Beatles walking down the stairs in unison can they? It wouldn’t work.

They had tried everything else. Standing, jumping, sitting. What else could they do? Stand on their heads on the steps… not really!

So the crossing was the alternative. It was a two dimensional version of the stairs they were so used to being photographed on.

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One of the shots which was not used. Source: Twitter

One down side of using the crossing was just a few minutes could be spent here because of the traffic. Some sources say ten minutes were spent on the six photographs that were done, whilst others say it was fifteen minutes. Whatever it was, it was a very brief moment that has exceeded all expectations. Andy Warhol was right. It took the Beatles and Ian McMillan those fifteen minutes to confirm Warhol’s theory!

The amazing fact about this is Warhol came up with his ‘theory’ in 1968. Except it wasn’t a theory, simply a statement – if it ever was made. Some think it wasn’t even said.

One thing missed out was how those fifteen minutes worked. He said “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” If only. Some people never even see a minute’s fame. Thus its not a very good theory is it?

But the Beatles were a totally different ken altogether. They already had their fame. They had an endless string of fifteen minutes of fame, so why was this one so very different?

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The photo taken in the seconds before the immortalised one was captured. Source: Twitter

The difference was this particular shoot would immortalise the Beatles countless times over. The Beatles had their early fifteen minutes of fame in the Cavern at Liverpool and from there, the Beatles machine showed no way of stopping. The four only needed to be seen for a few seconds and the reverberations would be felt right round the world. The television scenes seen in the sixties whenever the Beatles arrived anywhere was astounding. The fans were in their thousands and most were ready to maul the Fab Four, get an autograph, grab bit of their hair, whatever. No-one has ever achieved a cult status on the level they did.

The Abbey Road photographs came at the right moment. The Beatles were at the point of break-up and that is why Abbey Road (the album) has been such an iconic moment in the history of the band.

It provided a shrine (for want of a better word) for fans to revere, mourn, celebrate, reminiscence, upon their favourite band. The shrine was to be the studios where the recordings were made. Few places in the world have such an esteem in terms of cult status.

For a start its a different sort of shrine. We can see some similarity in terms of things like Kensington Palace and Princess Diana. These places suddenly assume a huge new importance and they help to keep the momentum going. But its clear the Beatles were bigger than Diana.

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Would the famous photograph have been as revered if it had been taken at night? I’m not so sure! Pic taken by me! Actually its a photomontage using a night time shot I took this year.

There was a different sense here. Young people were able to really identify with someone for the first time. It wasn’t some politician – who wanted some fuddy duddy guy called Lord Hume or something or other? Actually the next Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, soon got wind of what the Beatles were doing and how the public consciousness was being influenced, shaped, so he himself decided to become a public icon. And it worked.

Those days were different. This sort of thing was totally new and unique. Mass communications, television and instant news were in their infancy and people had not experienced anything like it before.

I don’t know if the Beatles had even intended it the way it turned out. This cult status. The huge followings. But it showed that having a certain status would be far more powerful than just fifteen minutes of fame. And it wasn’t only Harold Wilson, but many others who sought a similar cult status. Jimi Hendrix. Bob Marley. Pink Floyd. The Rolling Stones and many more.

But cult status comes with risks. One can fall a long way and sink without trace. The Beatles nearly achieved this, but what happened is instead of falling into an ordinary hole and disappearing forever, they fell into a black hole, and out the other end came a super elevated version of the Beatles. They essentially achieved immortality.

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A shot of the Fab Four going the other way, indicating a reversal of fortunes perhaps? I don’t think so. Source: Twitter

Abbey Road – the album – was released almost at the start of the long road to closure for the Beatles. The Long and Winding Road. As the Beatles Bible points out, they had last worked together properly was on the 1st August 1969 to record the track Because.

It was a significant milestone because they wouldn’t be seen working together again in public. It was to be the Beatles final fifteen minutes of fame.

Abbey Road studios says the last time the four worked together there was on 20th August 1969, wrapping up recordings of tracks such as ‘I Want You (She’s so Heavy.)’

Soon after that the music sessions at the studio were completed. It was just the three (George, Paul and Ringo) who collaborated to pull the final pieces of the tracks for the Abbey Road album together. The album of the same name was released later in September 1969. It would be just nine more months before the Beatles released their next, and final album. Let it Be.

Ironically much of Let it Be had been recorded before Abbey Road. Thus the latter was no doubt the Beatles’ last great collaboration.

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John and George at Abbey Road 1969. Source: Twitter

Straight after the recording and editing sessions had finished John Lennon announced to the others he was leaving the band, this being mid September 1969. It was pleaded of him to keep this quiet until the latest album had been released. Although Lennon had not worked with the other three since 1st August 1969, he at least held his public announcement back until April 1970.

From the date of the crossing photographs, 8th August 1969, to the public announcement of Lennon’s departure, 10th April 1970, that had been almost exactly eight months.

In retrospect one can say Abbey Road was a forced collaboration. The four were being asked to work together in unison, to step together in the same exact time. Dancing to each other’s tune in fact. That couldn’t have been easy for any of them.

The fact John Lennon has his hands in his pockets quite telling indicates he wasn’t happy, at least that is how I see it. Other will of course have different theories. Some point out the band are walking away from Abbey Road studios. Exactly! But in other photographs they are walking towards it!

John was also in the front. It probably wasn’t because he wanted to lead the other three. It was more likely he wanted to show he was the independent guy, the first to step away from the Beatles completely. And he was just going along with the other three rather hesitatingly, but they were also literally at the back of his mind because he had other plans to look ahead to, other music, other collaborations, and most of all a new group – the Plastic Ono Band.

Compare with those previous photographs on the steps of the studios itself, the Fab Four always looked happy, jovial, full of comradeship, determination to work together and make a go of it.

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Rare photograph of John Lennon at Abbey Road just before a Plastic Ono Band session in 1970. Source: Twitter

Some say Abbey Road very much represents a funeral procession. George is the gravedigger, Paul is the corpse (following those much touted rumours of course), Ringo is the congregation and John the priest. Well its up to people if they want to make Abbey Road into a funeral cortege – and some positively thrive on these conspiracies!

In order to have a good theory (a synthesis) one needs a thesis and an anti-thesis. That’s Hegel’s idea. As Karl Popper has said in some of his famous works, a theory isn’t true unless it too can be disproved. Conjectures and refutations, and an open debate which ensues to reinforce either theory. If one of those theories sustains repeated attempts at refutations, then it must be the good theory.

As for John Lennon himself, in 1969 he was already doing many things under his own steam. Plastic Ono as we have already said. No surprise he was the first to walk out of the band.

Ironic the first song on the new album Let it Be was Come Together. That wasn’t happening. The Long and Winding Road was perhaps the foretelling, thus it seems these tracks should have been the other way round!

Perhaps someone had been thinking this when they organised the Beatles’ final photo shoot at John’s home at Tittenhurst Park on the 22nd August 1969? Getting the Fab Four together again seemed fraught with difficulties unless it was done on John’s own land and indeed they did get together for just one more photoshoot.

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The Beatles at Tittenhurst Park 22nd August 1969. Source: Twitter

But its a photo shoot that didn’t seem to do much in the way of wonders for the Beatles. As many observers have said, they didn’t seem to care much for one another.

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Doesnt look very good… the Beatles at Tittenhurst Park in 1969. Source: Twitter

It can be plainly seen on social media (this tweet for example) that everyone is saying the Beatles look so unhappy, there’s not any sort of happiness between the four. Abbey Road hadnt worked so well (despite the enormous applause the photographs had brought) and Tittenhurst wasn’t in any way going to improve on Abbey Road.

But if we think about it we are lucky we have the Abbey Road sessions and photographs at all. They are practically the last positive images we have of the Beatles. And in many ways John Lennon’s consensus to keep quiet about the break up for a few more months helped to cement the album as a positive force in terms of the band.

Thus their influence was sustained in a way that their fame ultimately got even more amplified. And as a result of this, we have a shrine to the Beatles.

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No other band gets the amount of exposure the Beatles do! Abbey Road’s homage to Sergeant Pepper in the summer of 2017.

Anyway, without Abbey Road there would have been no source of identifying with the Beatles after they broke up. A lot of bands have performed/recorded at Abbey Road yet its only the Beatles who have this enduring presence there and in my view its because of the crossing itself.

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