Monday, December 15, 2014

Abbey Road

Shrouded in mystery and the initial source for the Paul is Dead conspiracy, the Abbey Road album cover was borne from a pack of cigarettes.  The album was tentatively titled Everest (how’s that for an alternate universe?), after the brand of cigarettes smoked by Sound Engineer, Geoff Emerick. The Beatles liked the cigarette pack graphics and an ill-conceived plan to fly off to the Himalayas was knocked around until Ringo recommend they merely step outside, snap some photos and name the album after the studio.  Family Guy fans will note that Paul and John would take Ringo's songs and hang them on the refrigerator, but more often than not, it was Ringo who had a resounding rationale in group matters. No other album cover, indeed no other photograph, has stirred our imaginations in the same manner.

The photo was taken at 11:30 on the morning of August 8, 1969 outside EMI Studios. Photographer Iain Macmillan was given only ten minutes to take the photo as he stood on a step-ladder while a policeman held up traffic.  With the exception of George, all the Beatles wore suits designed by Tommy Nutter, the famous Savile Row tailor.  McCartney wore sandals for the first two shots, but was barefoot the rest of the session, one of the first "clues" in the Paul is Dead mythology, which began in 1969.  The first five shots each had the Beatles walking in step, but the fifth, ultimately the one Paul chose, had him out of step walking with a cigarette in his right hand.  (The “clues” just kept racking up.)
Let’s get this out of the way: The Funeral – John Lennon leads in a white suit, symbolizing the preacher; Ringo Starr is the mourner, dressed in black; George Harrison, in scruffy shirt and trousers, the grave-digger; while Paul is barefoot, the rumor that the dead are not buried with their shoes.  The Cigarette – Paul McCartney is left-handed, but holds his cigarette in his right (impossible, you say). The License Plate – the white VW Beetle in the background has the registration LMW 28IF – 28 being the age conspiracy theorists say Paul would have been IF he hadn't 'died.' In fact, Paul was 27 when Abbey Road was released, but fortunately for the theorists, Indian mystics count a person's age from conception, not birth, in which case Paul would have been 28 at the time.  Yeah, yeah, on and on, but there you go. Paul is dead.
While the iconic photo itself is unretouched, the back photo is a great example of old school "photoshopping." The "Abbey Road" tiles existed (recently sold at auction for £7000) and next to them was the area designation "NW8."  "The Beatles" tiles were superimposed and the natural crack in the wall was extended onto the tiles with marker.  The girl in the blue dress is also [arguably] superimposed.  Abbey Road was the first album not to contain either the title or the name of the band on its cover. 
What is astonishing to this day is the shear excitement over a simple street corner.  Like Hollywood and Vine, there's really nothing there.  Here's the webcam for proof:  The Beatles' Abbey Road is one of the great albums of its era, or any era, so the excitement over the album may just be what creates all the hoopla about the photograph; that we can only ponder.