The cover artwork

Abbey Road was unique among The Beatles’ albums to feature neither the group’s name nor the title on its front cover. The four members were pictured walking away from EMI Studios – a symbolic gesture given the thousands of hours spent inside there since 1962.

The photography was taken by Iain Macmillan on 8 August 1969. A freelance photographer, Macmillan was a friend to John Lennon and Yoko Ono; he died in May 2006.

The session began at 11.35am. Macmillan positioned a stepladder in the middle of Abbey Road, and quickly took six photographs using his Hasselblad camera while a policeman stopped traffic from passing. He used a 50mm wide-angle lens, set at aperture f22 at 1/500 seconds.

In three of the pictures The Beatles were walking away from the studio; in the remainder they walked from right to left. In each of the shots the order was John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

During shots 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 the group were walking out of step. However, the fifth shot was perfect, and was selected by Paul McCartney for the album.

In the background an American tourist, Paul Cole, was pictured standing next to a police van. Cole was unaware he was pictured on a Beatles album cover until some time later. The Volkswagen Beetle car which was parked on the other side of the road was sold at auction in 1986 for £2,530, and is currently on display at the Autostadt museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.

’Paul is dead’

McCartney wore sandals for the first two shots taken by Iain Macmillan, but afterwards took them off and walked barefoot. This action became one of the ‘clues’ in the Paul Is Dead myth, which began in September 1969.

There were said to be three clues on the front cover:

  • The order in which The Beatles walked was said to make reference to a funeral procession, with John Lennon dressed all in white as a priest; Ringo Starr in a black suit as an undertaker; McCartney being barefoot, as many corpses would have been buried; and George Harrison following as a gravedigger. McCartney was also out of step with the others, with his eyes closed.
  • McCartney was pictured holding a cigarette with his right hand. However, it was well known that he was left-handed, suggesting that an impostor was in his place.
  • A Volkswagen Beetle car in the background has the numberplate LMW 28IF. LMW was taken to mean ‘Linda McCartney weeps’, and 28IF was interpreted as referring to Paul’s age if he had lived. However, at the time of Abbey Road’s release in 1969 he would have been 27, rather than 28.

Furthermore, on the back cover a ghostly face, fancifully believed by some to be the Grim Reaper, is cast by a shadow onto the wall next to The Beatles’ name.

The legacy

While it was well-known that The Beatles recorded most of their music at EMI Studios in Abbey Road, the release of the album made the building, and the street on which it stands, world famous. In the early 1970s the company officially changed the studio’s name to Abbey Road Studios, to acknowledge the legacy bestowed upon it by The Beatles.

The zebra crossing outside the studio, too, is a favourite destination for tourists, with countless photographs being taken of fans following in The Beatles’ footsteps. A webcam was later installed to give fans outside London a chance to see the crossing at any time.

The artwork has been much-mimicked and parodied in the years since Abbey Road’s release, by musicians including Booker T and the MGs, Kanye West, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. In 1993 Paul McCartney even adapted the original artwork for his album Paul Is Live.

The sleeve of Paul Is Live was adapted by CGI artist Erwin Keustermans. In place of The Beatles was Paul McCartney with his dog Arrow – whose mother was Martha, the inspiration for the 1968 song Martha My Dear.

Another key difference was the numberplate on the VW Beetle, which was changed from LMW 28IF to 51 IS – a reference to McCartney being alive and well, and aged 51 at the time of the album’s release.

Paul Is Live album artwork - Paul McCartney

Chart success

Abbey Road was released in the United Kindom on 26 September 1969, as Apple PCS 7088, and in the United States on 1 October 1969 as Apple SO-383.

Advance orders in the UK were more than 190,000. The album entered the UK albums chart at number one on 4 October, and remained there for 11 consecutive weeks. It spent a further six weeks at the top from 27 December, having briefly been displaced by The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, and spent a total of 81 weeks in the charts.

Abbey Road was the UK’s best-selling album of 1969, the eighth highest-selling of 1970, and the fourth highest-selling of the entire 1960s.

In the US it débuted at number 178, then climbed the following week to number four, before topping the chart in its third week on sale. It spent 11 non-consecutive weeks at number one, and was in the top 200 for 83 weeks until May 1971. It was America’s fourth best-selling album of 1970.

In the first six weeks four million copies of Abbey Road were sold worldwide, with a further million by the end of 1969. It was the first Beatles album to sell more than 10 million copies, a milestone which was passed in 1980.

Something/Come Together

A double a-side single, Something/Come Together, was released in the US on 6 October, and in the UK on 31 October. It was the first time a song by George Harrison received top billing on a Beatles single.

In America it was common practice to count sales and airplay of a- and b-sides separately, allowing both sides of a single to chart separately. Both songs were popular, which threatened The Beatles’ chances of topping the charts, but from 29 November the Billboard chart compilers began combining both sides.

As a result the single topped the chart for a week; converseley, on the Cash Box chart, which counted the songs separately, Something peaked at number two, while Come Together topped the chart for three weeks.

In the United Kingdom it was the first Beatles single to feature songs already available on an album. The group had previously avoided this, believing it represented poor value for money. The arrival at Apple of Allen Klein changed this, and the release was a brazen attempt to bring in more money for the group and their company.

Such a move was evidently unpopular with record buyers: the single peaked at number four in the UK, and spent 12 weeks on the charts.