The Beatles cross an intersection single file. In the background, a white Volkswagen Beetle. The photo made music history – as did the "Abbey Road" album for which it was taken, the last recorded by The Beatles.
The morning of August 8, 1969: A section of London's Abbey Road near the EMI studios is the scene of a brief photo shoot. There's only light traffic, which has been blocked by a policeman. No fans to be seen: They'll only turn up in the afternoon when The Beatles meet in the studio for the recording sessions for the Abbey Road album, as they do every day. It's 11:30 am. Linda McCartney stands on the street and takes pictures of four Beatles in a mildly good mood and getting ready to cross the street for that famous photo.
John Lennon, in his white suit, looks absent-minded, as though he'd like to get it over with quickly. Behind him, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney are making faces. George Harrison looks like he couldn't care less. The four finally take off, walk back and forth, then start over again. Photographer Iain MacMillan presses the shutter six times — and that's it.
For the four Beatles, it went too fast. Despite the simple idea of just crossing the street, two or three hours were scheduled for the photo shooting. The musicians normally didn't want to meet in the studio until the afternoon. The production of the Abbey Road album is in full swing, and it's been work-filled days and weeks.
Because the photo session only lasted about ten minutes, the Beatles have time on their hands. There's not much interest in small talk – or any kind of talk anymore. Beatles roadie Mal Evans writes in his diary what happens next: "John and Paul dashed off to Paul's home around the corner. Ringo went shopping. George went to the zoo."
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Abbey Road is the last album the Beatles record together. The album Let It Be has already been produced but won't be released until 1970, after the Beatles had split. The production of Let It Be was more ill-fated than that of the inspired White Album of 1968.
The band members have been quarreling: business problems, disagreements over management – and finally, there is Yoko Ono, John Lennon's wife, who never leaves her husband's side and gets on the nerves of the other three.
Paul McCartney is the only one who still thinks there's a future for the band and persuades the others to record a new, final Beatles album. It's their last collaboration before the final breakup.
"Word of honor: John will be there
Paul calls George Martin, the Beatles's long-standing producer. He's pretty surprised, thinking that after the disastrous Let It Be recordings, the Beatles's time was long past.
In the Beatles Anthology, Martin recalls how Paul asks him: "We're going to record a new record — do you want to produce it?" Martin answers: "Only if you let me do it just like I've done in the past." Exactly so, says Paul, giving Martin his word of honor that John will be there too.
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Zebra stripes rather than Himalayas
And what comes of it is in fact "a very nice record," as Martin later tells. "I think it's because all agreed it would be their last." It was originally supposed to be titled "Everest" since the band had symbolically reached the summit.
As arguably the world's greatest band, the Beatles wanted to have a picture taken atop the world's highest mountain. But there wasn't enough time before the planned release. So they chose a pragmatic solution: a street scene outside the studio. On September 26, 1969, Abbey Road was released.
The Beatles recorded several of their albums in the Abbey Road Studios – and it is still booked by musicians from all over the world today
It sold in the millions, and the cover photo became an icon of pop culture. It has also been both imitated and parodied by musicians and fans in the half century since it became a global phenomenon.
The rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example, walked naked over the zebra crossing with white socks draped over their private parts, for their EP, The Abbey Road. The Simpsons, Teletubbies, Star Wars characters, assorted Disney figures and others have been immortalized on zebra crossings.
Meanwhile, the graphic artist and blogger Wells Baum mounted The Beatles on Segways, or showed them getting distracted on their mobile phones, in updates of the storied Abbey Road image.
White Beetle as a harbinger of death?
The photo even set off a conspiracy theory according to which Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and had been replaced by a double. The proof? In the photo, left-handed Paul carries his cigarette in his right hand. And fitting an English funeral tradition, he's barefoot.
Then there's that white Beetle in the background. The license plate reads "LMW 28IF." That was seen to stand for "Linda McCartney Widowed" or "Linda McCartney Weeps." "28IF" supposedly meant that in that year, Paul would have been 28 years old, "IF" he hadn't died. Bad arithmetic: Born in June 1942, McCartney would have been only 27 at that point in time.
Nobody believes that anymore. The vigorous now 77-year-old is working on his first musical and has hinted that there may be a new album forthcoming with outtakes of studio sessions from the past.
The VW Beetle, then belonging to John Lennon, now stands in the VW Museum in the German city of Wolfsburg. The former VW archivist Eckberth von Witzleben acquired the car at an auction in 1999 for the sum of 34,160 Deutschmarks (about €17,000, or $18,700) and donated it to the museum.
Newly released — and live
Exactly 50 years later, Abbey Road is being re-released. George Martin's son Giles took the tapes and remixed and remastered the songs with Dolby Surround Sound. In addition to the hits Here Comes the Sun and Come Together, it includes a version of Oh! Darling that sounds completely new. The anniversary edition is being marketed on vinyl and CD and in a deluxe box with DVD, Blu-ray and additional demos and audios from session tapes.
Fans – at least those in West Europe – can even hear the music of Abbey Road live in concert. The Dutch band The Analogues has specialized in playing every Beatles album since 1966 live. What the Fab Four no longer did themselves because the fans were too loud and the music too complex, is being revived by The Analogues on the original instruments used by the Beatles.
With the complete albums Abbey Road and Let It Be, the Dutchmen are constantly on tour through Belgium, France, Germany, England, and of course at home in The Netherlands.