Who’s in the Background of the Beatles Abbey Road Cover?

Daniel Ganninger
November 29, 2021
The Beatles Abbey Road cover

Whether you’re a Beatles fan or not, you’re probably familiar with the band’s most iconic album cover, Abbey Road. This cover, of course, is the one with the four members of the Beatles strolling across a street in perfect unison. While the group is the main focal point of the photograph, there are some interesting things to be noted in the background.

Abbey Road was the 11th Beatles album, the last they recorded together even though Let It Be was the final album for the band (it had been mostly recorded prior to Abbey Road). The Abbey Road cover was unique in that the band’s name or album title didn’t appear anywhere on the cover. It simply showed the four members–Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison–walking across a street at a crosswalk, or zebra crossing as it is known in the United Kingdom and other places around the world.

The photo shoot took place in a convenient place for the band–right outside their studio on Abbey Road. Initially, their preliminary title for the album was going to be Everest which was from their engineer’s favorite cigarette brand. A shoot in the Himalayan mountains was going to take place but was scrapped for the much easier photo shoot in London.

On the morning of August 8, 1969, a policeman held traffic on the road so photographer Iain Macmillan could get the iconic shot. He climbed a ladder to take the photographs, and the whole thing only took around 10 minutes. Macmillan credited McCartney in coming up with the idea as he had drawn the plan out a few days before. Macmillan took only six pictures and picked the one where the men’s legs were in unison walking across the road.

Because of the quick nature of the shoot and the simplicity of the cover, fans were able to see exactly what was going on that day. Paul McCartney wasn’t wearing anything on his feet, opting to take off the sandals he was wearing after the first two shots. There was a group of people in white standing farther up the street, and the license plate number of a Volkswagen Beetle that read “LMW 281 F” was parked on the curb. While it was ironic there was a Beetle on the Beatles album cover, another figure caught in the photograph standing on the sidewalk at the right watching the group had a story all his own.

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The man in the background

The man was an American tourist named Paul Cole. He wasn’t there because he wanted to get a glimpse of the Beatles. He actually didn’t want to follow his wife on their next tourist stop, opting to spend his time outside. He struck up a conversation with the police officer holding up traffic for the photo shoot and saw the four men walking across the street.

Cole had no idea who the men were or what they were doing, only thinking that they looked like a bunch of “kooks.” Months passed until Cole’s wife, who was a church organist, had gotten a copy of the album to play at a wedding. It was then when Cole discovered he was on one of the most famous album covers of all time.

Other rather strange things also spawned from the Abbey Road album. The white Volkswagen Beetle in the picture was stolen multiple times since it was owned by a person that lived in the flats across from the recording studio. It eventually sold at an auction in 1986 for £2,530 and was put on display in a German museum in 2001.

A number of rumors and urban legends also surrounded the cover. Most revolved around the rumor that McCartney was actually dead because of a car accident and that he had been replaced by an imposter. The picture was said to be of a funeral procession because of the clothes Lennon and Starr were wearing, and McCartney was barefoot which was somehow linked to people being buried without their shoes on in certain cultures. Even more far-flung theories began to surface about the album cover that had to do with McCartney’s fictional demise.

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The Abbey Road crossing continues to be a huge draw for tourists, and they travel to the site to imitate the pose the Beatles put on in 1969. It even has its own webcam, where if you watch for just a little while, you’ll see someone stopping traffic or standing in the road striking the same pose the Beatles did.

Sources: The Beatles Bible, Ultimate Classic Rock, Whizzpast, Biography, The Guardian, Buzzfeed