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This Day in Music Spotlight: The Beatles Walk into History

Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.

The tension in The Beatles’ camp was nothing short of palpable in 1969. The sessions for their Let it Be album had been just this side of disastrous, and the group still hadn’t completed the project (at the time, the working title for the album was Get Back, though they later renamed it.) With that album flailing along slowly, Paul McCartney suggested to producer George Martin that they make another album, this time the way the group used to make albums, and Martin agreed under the stipulation that he call the shots. At the time, none of The Beatles really came out and said that it was going to be their last hurrah, but there was certainly an unspoken feeling that it would be their swan song album, so they agreed to temporarily put aside the their differences so that they could “go out on a high note.”

Despite having recorded John Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” in February of 1969, just weeks after shelving the Get Back/Let it Be sessions, recording of Abbey Road began in earnest in April with the recording of the single “The Ballad of John and Yoko”/“Old Brown Shoe.” The bulk of Abbey Road was recorded in July.

The album’s iconic cover, with all four Beatles walking across a zebra crossing on Abbey Road outside of the EMI Studios, was based on sketch ideas from McCartney. At 11:30 a.m. on this day in 1969, photographer Iain Macmillan was given 10 minutes to get the shot he wanted while a policeman held up traffic. Macmillan climbed a stepladder in the middle of Abbey Road and photographed the band as they walked, single file, from left to right. With Lennon in front, followed by Ringo Starr, McCartney and George Harrison, all members except for Harrison were dressed in suits, while Harrison wore blue jeans and a blue denim shirt.

When rumors of McCartney’s death began to surface, the imagery from Abbey Road’s cover helped fuel the nonsense, with many seeing each band member’s attire symbolizing some role in a funeral sequence. Lennon, dressed in a white suit, was seen as a sort of evangelical preacher, while Ringo, dressed in black, was a mourner. Harrison, with his denim pants and shirt, represented a gravedigger, while Paul, dressed in a nice suit and barefoot, was the decedent (though many believed it wasn’t actually McCartney in the photo but a look-alike). The fact that Paul is out of step with the other three further fanned the flames of his untimely demise.

Over the years, the white Volkswagen Beetle car seen on Abbey Road’s cover, which was owned by people living on the street, had its license plate repeatedly stolen by fans. The car was sold at auction in 1986 and eventually found its way to a German museum. The man standing on the right-side sidewalk was American tourist Paul Cole, who didn’t realize he’s been photographed until the album was released months later and he saw himself on the cover.

The Abbey Road crossing remains an iconic fixture to this day and can even be seen on a ’round-the-clock webcam (click here to view a live shot of bustling Abbey Road. In December 2010 the crossing was given a grade II status as a historical landmark for its “cultural and historical importance.” Abbey Road studios had been given the same distinction earlier in the year.

 

Last Updated: 08/08/11 10:25
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The tension in The Beatles’ camp was nothing short of palpable in 1969. The sessions for their Let it Be album had been just this side of disastrous, and the group still hadn’t completed the project (at the time, the working title for the album was Get Back, though they later renamed it.) With that album flailing along slowly, Paul McCartney suggested to producer George Martin that they make another album, this time the way the group used to make albums, and Martin agreed under the stipulation that he call the shots.