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  1. ITV Report

From Paul is Dead clues to the non-Beatles fan cameo – the oddest facts about the iconic Abbey Road cover 50 years on

Abbey Road sold four million copies in its first six weeks on sale in 1969. Credit: AP
  • By ITV News Content Producer David Williams

(With apologies to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band...)

It was 50 years ago today

That the Beatles crossed a road one day

They did it with a certain style

And made a mecca for all Anglophiles

So may we introduce to you

The facts we've learned from all these years

On the marching steppers cover that was barely planned...

Yes, in non-lyrical terms, it's a half century since John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison decided to Come Together for Something simple: a short photographed walk across a zebra crossing for an album cover photo.

It wasn't quite Here Comes The Sun but the photo session in broad daylight would turn the otherwise pedestrian stretch of North London road into the most famous crossing in the world and a musical shrine, visited by countless fans over the past five decades.

So how did it happen, why did the Abbey Road cover photo spark so many odd rumours and is the zebra crossing still the original?

The iconic crossing before The End of the Beatles

The Beatles in fact crossed the road and back three times for freelance photographer Iain Macmillan, a friend of Lennon who snapped them up a step-ladder while police kept the road clear in St John's Wood on August 8, 1969.

All wore suits by Tommy Nutter bar Harrison, who was rocking the double denim like a Sun King amid recording at Abbey Road Studios.

The fifth of six photos became the cover for the Abbey Road album, which was released the following month.

It would be another year before McCartney's announced exit signalled the most successful group in British music history were breaking up.

But wasn't he dead by then?

That was the rumour which gained remarkable traction.

Paul is dead?

An impostor? Paul's bare feet and smoking hand pointed some fans to doubt his existence. Credit: AP

Conspiracy theorists were adamant “Paul is dead” and pointed to the Abbey Road cover as symbolic proof his role was being played by an imposter after a fatal road accident dating back to 1967.

Why else would the left-handed McCartney be smoking with his right hand? And not wearing any shoes, a sign in some cultures of being ready to be buried.

Suddenly the group walk became a funeral procession and the number plate on the car nearest Harrison – LMW 28IF - a coded clue.

Paul would be 28 IF he was still alive, they argued. The LMW? “Linda McCartney Weeps” some claimed in tribute to the woman the musician married in March that year.

Paul McCartney's appearance alongside his wife Linda and baby daughter Mary in Glasgow after a plane ride in October 1969 helped to end the death rumours. Credit: AP

In fact, Paul would have been – and indeed obviously was - 27 at the time of the photo and living happily with his new wife away from the spotlight.

But the album release failed to puncture the rumour mongering, which spread to American radio and magazines.

It took a Radio 4 interview with Paul on his remote farm in October 1969 to finally quash it.

The now-knighted musician, still with us in 2019, later riffed off the incident for his 1993 solo live album “Paul is Live".

But why no shoes? The first few photos show he was actually wearing sandals but got hot so took them off.

Everest was too far

Abbey Road became the name of the album because the Himalayas was too far.

The previous working title was 'Everest'. Not Because of the mountain, but instead a tribute to Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick's favourite brand of cigarettes.

But plans were in place for a shot of the group in the foothills of the world's tallest summit.

Free as a bird? What the Beatles' 11th UK album cover may have looked like. Credit: AP

Yet flying halfway round the world didn't delight the star quartet any more than diving for a shoot in an Octopus's Garden.

Instead McCartney essentially suggested: 'Why don't we do it in the road?'

He sketched out the zebra crossing idea and the close-to-home solution outside the Abbey Road Studios where the album was recorded gave the album its new title.

It became – and remains - the only Beatles album released in the UK not to feature the band's name or album title on the cover.

The fifth Beetle

A parked car belonging to a neighbour of Abbey Road Studios would become a future museum piece. Credit: AP

Ok, obviously the white car is the only 'Beetle' in shot with the four Beatles.

A deliberate play on words? Hardly. It was owned by a resident who lived over the road and stayed in shot after attempts to move it failed.

Despite being on one of the famous album covers in music history, those driving it appeared to have been oblivious to its claim to fame.

That's how Pete Gent, a music shop owner in St Albans, paid little over £2,500 in 1986 for the piece of music-related memorabilia at an auctioneers unaware of its sellable potential.

The car later went on display at the VW Factory in Wolfsburg, Germany after curators weighed up their options and possibly thought “I Want You (She's So Heavy)”.

What would it fetch today? Who knows what price Maxwell's Silver Hammer would fall on?

Noel Gallagher, seen alongside Paul Weller and Paul McCartney at Abbey Road Studios in 1995, was inspired by the famous Beatles cover. Credit: PA

But given the drumhead used by Ringo on the Ed Sullivan Show reached £1.7 million and even an early Lennon guitar strap can go for £25,000, crazy money, you would assume.

Or how about the value of the police van over the road from the Beetle, just to the right of Ringo's head.

We all know You Never Give Me Your Money, but maybe Noel or Liam Gallagher could use some of their great wealth to buy it?

Its licence plate, SYD 724F, appeared on the front of the Rolls Royce sinking into the swimming pool on Oasis's album cover Be Here Now in 1997.

The other Paul

To the far left, the trio of decorators, and to the right, Paul Cole. Credit: AP

It's a tribute to the microscopic research into Beatles folklore that even the trio of decorators further down the road have been identified as Alan Flanagan, Steve Millwood and Derek Seagrove, who were working at Abbey Road studios.

But it's American salesman Paul Cole who landed the stand-out cameo cover role – though he was unaware he had to Carry That Weight at the time.

It was only once he saw his church organist wife given the Abbey Road album to play at a wedding back in Florida years later that the penny dropped.

"I saw it resting against her keyboard and I said 'Hey! It's those four kooks. That's me in there!"

(Not these Kooks) Credit: PA

He had been standing on the street, waiting on his wife – possibly bemoaning 'Oh Darling!' - during their holiday to London in the summer of 1969.

"I saw the album and I recognised myself right away," he told The Mirror.

"I had a new sports jacket on and I’d just bought new shell-rimmed glasses.

"I said to my children, 'Get a magnifying glass out and you’ll see me'."

It's fair to say Paul didn't become the latest Beatles fan.

"It's not my kind of thing. I prefer classical music."

Speaking at the age of 92, six years before his death brought permanent Golden Slumbers, he still hadn't listened to the 17-track album.

So he remained oblivious to the likes of Mean Mr Mustard or Polythene Pam, and never did hear The Beatles' take on Her Majesty or why She Came In Through The Bathroom Window.

The 'wrong' crossing?

It's provided photo opportunities for everyone from Margaret Thatcher - who ventured too far to the right - to the most talented Darts Club and even 'Elvis' (though he was definitely an imposter).

But have the many subsequent shoots over the zebra crossing been on the wrong spot?

Margaret Thatcher crossed the wrong way in 1990 - but the Lady obviously wasn't for turning. Credit: PA
Darts players James Wade, Wayne Mardle, Raymond van Barneveld and Phil Taylor lined up in 2008. Credit: PA
'The King', sporting a more decorated jump suit version of the John Lennon white suit, appeared 30 years after Elvis Presley's death in 2007. Credit: PA

Certainly the occasional tourist has been caught out by Abbey Road on London's Docklands Light Railway and ventured around six miles too far east from St John's Wood.

Abbey Road on the DLR is around 40 minutes' away from the zebra crossing by public transport. Credit: PA

But a strong claim attributed to Westminster Council suggested the original zebra crossing on Abbey Road had been moved as part of a traffic management scheme.

So have fans, celebrities and prime ministers been walking across the wrong stretch of road for years?

The Abbey Road crossing from the 'other' direction - but is it the original? Credit: PA

Well, it seems not.

Though the claim has been reported as recently as 2010, Beatles experts and tour guides who have researched the issue are adamant that the crossing remains in the same place.

The rarely photographed empty crossing on Abbey Road. Credit: PA

But could it be moved in future?

It's not likely. According to tourist guides, it's now a Grade 2 listed crossing, protected by English Heritage.

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