Among a list of memorable album covers, the front of the sleeve for The Beatles’ Abbey Road still resonates in the public consciousness more than four decades later. It shows John, Ringo, Paul, and George sauntering across the pedestrian cross-walk right in front of EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. It’s an unusual graphic for the Beatles since it curiously doesn’t list the name of the band or the name of the album on the front cover. Of course, by 1969 the band could have released an album in a plain paper bag and shifted several million copies. The previous year, they had released The Beatles, aka The White Album, to test this theory. The White Album’s cover is about as minimalist as they come, yet it still sold in droves. Abbey Road likewise went on to be a fantastically popular album and its iconic cover has been imitated ad infinitum.
What you might not know is that the band and their art director were granted only ten minutes for the cover shoot. With police temporarily holding back traffic, photographer Iain Macmillan climbed a stepladder in the middle of the road and snapped several shots as the band walked to and fro. Sir Paul McCartney allegedly chose at the very last second to kick off his sandals and make the traverse barefoot. In retrospect, this one spur-of-the-moment idea was like throwing gasoline on the fire of all the “Paul is Dead” rumours.
To this day, thousands of Beatles devotees per month make the pilgrimage to Westminster NW to check out the site in person. I was lucky enough to see it for myself on a trip to England and Wales in August 2001. We took the Jubilee Line tube for a visit on a Sunday morning, when the traffic was relatively light. I’ll wager that at certain times of day, the cross-walk must be a veritable goat rodeo of vehicular traffic clashing with tourists pausing mid-street for photos.
You can check out a web-cam of the location at this website. Watch for a few minutes and you will inevitably see somebody shooting their own virtual album cover. Many people also bring Sharpie pens to scrawl their names or messages on the white brick wall in front of the studio; it’s painted over monthly.
The one drawback for serious Beatlemaniacs is that, unless you bring your own stepladder to St. John’s Wood, the perspective of your personal shoot will be different than the album cover. I certainly don’t endorse setting up a ladder in the middle of a busy street, but in the name of authenticity I’m sure some looney tries it from time to time.
Despite some recent financial difficulties Abbey Road Studio is still a working studio and, last time I checked, do not do public tours. Some day I would LOVE to see the inside of Studio 1 and Studio 2, just to walk in the footsteps of my musical heroes. The list of influential albums either wholly or partially recorded in that building borders on ridiculous:
Abbey Road – The Beatles
Ceremonials – Florence and the Machine
Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
Kid A – Radiohead
Odessey & Oracle – The Zombies
OK Computer – Radiohead
Origin of Symmetry – Muse
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – Pink Floyd
Revolver – The Beatles
S.F. Sorrow – The Pretty Things
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles
Walking into Clarksdale – Page & Plant
Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
Year of the Cat – Al Stewart
Not to mention pretty much everything ever put to tape by The Shadows, and most of the symphonic music for the Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s one of those places on the planet, like Sun Studios in Memphis, Tamla Motown in Detroit, Sunset Sound in LA, or Britannia Row and Olympia studios in London that just seem to be a nexus for great music from another dimension.