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Revisiting Abbey Road 40 years on

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Little Beetle
Little Beetle
Forty years ago on Saturday, one of the pop world's most infamous and imitated album covers was shot in a little side street in north London.

The idea for the cover of the Beatles' Abbey Road album was initially to call it Everest, after the favourite brand of cigarettes smoked by their engineer Geoff Emerik. Then the thought of doing a Himalayan cover helped kill the idea, and instead they considered doing shoot closer to home.

"There's a sketch Paul McCartney did with four little stick men crossing the Zebra," says Brian Southall, author of the history of Abbey Road Studios.

"It gave a pretty good idea of what they wanted."

On the 8 August 1969 that the Fab Four walked out of No 3 Abbey Road, having finished basic work on what would be - and they subsequently said they knew would be - their last album.

Brian Southall wrote:A policeman held up the traffic, the band walked back and forth a few times and that was that

The photographer who took the famous cover shot was the late Iain Macmillan, a close friend of Brian Southall's, who knew the Beatles through working with Yoko Ono.

"He was given about 15 minutes," says Mr Southall.

"He stood up a stepladder while a policeman held up the traffic, the band walked back and forth a few times and that was that."

He only took seven or eight pictures, now in the Apple archive, but they're fascinating for their difference to the end product we all know.

Conspiracy theories

Most striking is the one of the band walking in the opposite direction (right to left), caught mid-stride in different poses.

It looks all wrong of course, and draws attention to the accidental symmetry - despite Paul being out of step - of the final cover shot with its pattern of four firm inverted V shapes.

In one of the alternative takes Paul McCartney is wearing sandals he kicked off during the shoot. This matters if you remember how the album cover was taken as evidence for the conspiracy theories that "Paul is Dead."

Barefooted, out of step, the car number plate behind him referring to his age - 28 if he'd lived - the Beatles forming a funeral procession for him.

George was cast as the gravedigger, Ringo the undertaker, and John the priest.

Years later in 1993, the very much alive Paul McCartney would spoof the cover and the rumours for his "Paul is Live" concert album.

A lesser noted curiosity is that the album cover has no writing on it and is just the picture.

That is thanks to John Kosh, who at the time, was creative director at Apple.

"I insisted we didn't need to write the band's name on the cover," he says.

"They were the most famous band in the world after all - EMI said they'd never sell any albums if we didn't say who the band was, but I got my way, and got away with it."

Zebra stripes

And it is hard to think of an album cover that has been so thoroughly repeated.

Dozens of bands have put stripes on their cover, like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but of course the biggest tribute comes from the thousands of fans and tourists who go to leafy north London every year.

Ron, taxi driver wrote:I come here all the time and its always been the same... all they're doing is posing on the crossing

If you want to check the crossing now, there's a webcam.

Watch it for a while and you will see scampering fans snatching at a gap in the traffic to recreate the shoot - much to the annoyance of local drivers.

One black taxi cabbie, Ron, who also used to drive a bus down Abbey Road, told the BBC World Service: "I come here all the time and its always been the same - it really does annoy you."

"All they're doing is posing on the crossing. Someone's going to get mown down one of these days there's no doubt about it."

Here's hoping Ron avoids the crossing on Saturday morning when Beatles fans will stage a mass crossing in honour of the photo shoot.

It is not known how many of those fans are injured on the crossing every year.

But the council have to repaint the wall next to the crossing every three months to cover over fans' graffiti.

And the Abbey Road street sign has now been mounted out of reach up a wall, so often has it been defaced or stolen.

If there was a way to steal the stripes off the zebra you can bet Beatle's fans would have taken them too.

Or maybe they haven't thanks to the rumour that the famous crossing you now see isn't actually the original and has been moved for safety reasons.

And who would want to steal the wrong zebra crossing?

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