50 Years On: Stepping onto Abbey Road

A quick glance of the UK Top 40 Albums Chart this week and there’s a familiar face in top spot. 50 years after its release, The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ returned to the top of the charts, breaking their own record for the longest time for an album to return to No.1 in the UK.

It’s an album that’s become globally recognisable through the years because of its iconic album cover. The image of band members Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison walking across a zebra crossing outside the London recording studios, is as famous as the songs on the album itself.

As the way we listen to music has developed through the years, so too has the way music is released and promoted. The change in format has provided a significant evolution for both album artwork and promotional campaigns for new releases.

Back in 1969, the year of its release however, the LP vinyl was the format of choice, and artwork played a pinnacle role of an album release, the 12” record sleeve provided ample space for subtlety and invention.

The Beatles album covers, by this time, had already been renowned for their creativity. The pop-art design of Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper’ Lonely Hearts Club, the minimalism of Richard Hamilton’s White Album and the illustrative style of Heinz Edelman’s Yellow Submarine were all released in the immediate period before Abbey Road.

Had it not been for a schedule change and a very tight deadline, the cover design for Abbey Road might have been very different. The album was the very first to be designed by John Kosh, who was to go on to become the creative director for the band’s label Apple Records. Kosh had initially been tasked to work on a design for the next Beatles album titled Get Back, when he later found out that it was being replaced on the release schedule by Abbey Road. With a tight deadline, Kosh immediately needed to create a design and luckily had the now classic image, shot by Iain MacMillan, at his disposal.

The photograph was the initial idea of Paul McCartney, and in order for MacMillan to fulfil the brief, he stood on a step-ladder, while a policeman held up traffic behind the camera. He had just ten minutes to capture the shot, and with six photographs taken, McCartney and John Kosh later studied with a magnifying glass before picking the shot that would be used for the album.

Kosh’s greatest contribution to the sleeve design was his decision to omit the name of the group and the title of the record from the cover, the first release on EMI records to have done this. Though it was an artistic choice that earned disapproval from the record label, his reasoning being, that by this stage, they were the most famous band in the world, and so were instantly recognisable in image alone.

In the past 50 years, the image of the four Beatles crossing Abbey Road has been imitated countless times, most notably on album covers by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Kanye West.

The image is now a cultural icon, which has become a tourist hotspot for music lovers young and old.

In 2010, the crossing was given grade II listed status for its “cultural and historical importance”, and since 2011 a live webcam has operated at the site. You can view the crossing here: https://www.abbeyroad.com/crossing