Forty years ago this Saturday, on August 8, 1969, this photograph was taken.
The image served as the cover for the last recorded studio album by The Beatles, Abbey Road, released in the U.S. on October 1, 1969. It is arguably (but closer to indisputably) the most famous album cover photograph in rock history.
The shot was taken by photographer Iain MacMillan, the result of a 10 minute photo shoot session with the band. They would finish their studio work on the album less than two weeks later. The four would only be together a few more times in their lives. Before Abbey Road hit the shelves, Lennon was already touring with the Plastic Ono Band. When their final album Let It Be was released in spring 1970, McCartney had a solo album released and at least two of the members had suggested the band was done. They dissolved their business relationship later that year.
I’ll have more to say about the album in October, when the 40th anniversary of the release arrives. Needless to say, it remains one of their most successful, and iconic. As an album, it is my hands-down favorite. In unique and unexpected ways it showcases the talents of each of the four, and that’s not even talking about George Martin, who was behind the controls. The album is something of a disputed artifact within fan and critical circles, seen by some as symbolic of the wave of “overproduction” taking hold of popular music and emblematic of the emerging “progressive rock” movement.
Most famously, of course, the above photograph inspired the “Paul is dead” rumors in late 1969. The “rumor” began largely after the publication of a joke article written by University of Michigan student Fred LaBour. LaBour read into every aspect of the photograph, leading others to do the same. The band crossing the street became a funeral procession, with Lennon the clergy, Starr the undertaker, McCartney the deceased, and Harrison the grave digger. McCartney is carrying a cigarette, and is stepping out of synch with the others. There’s even more that was said about the license plate of the VW, the cop car, and the back of the album.
When I studied abroad in England in 1992, I bought three posters to hang on my dorm room wall. One was the picture of Cindy Crawford holding her breasts and looking lovingly into the camera, obligatory for my generation’s adherence to heterosexual norms. One was of Bob Marley’s pained face smoking marijuana, obligatory for being in college. The other was of the cover of Abbey Road.