Paul McCartney And The Iconic Abbey Road Sessions

Macca got hitched for the third time this weekend, and as tidy as he looked in his best bib and tucker, his wedding photos can't hold a candle to the brilliance of the Abbey Road sessions...
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I’ve often wondered how you get to be immortalised on the cover of a classic album, without being in the band. Paul Cole did it. He was an American tourist who happened to be on vacation in London. On 8 August 1969, as he walked around the streets of St John’s Wood waiting for his wife, he stumbled across four guys being photographed on a zebra crossing. He watched for a while as they went there and back again. And again. And one more time. And that was it. Without knowing it at the time, that’s how he came to be captured for posterity on one of the most famous photographs of all time - the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road LP, standing to the left of John Lennon’s head on the album sleeve. But, as a new exhibition reveals, he might so easily not have been on the cover. ‘Beatles and Bystanders: the Abbey Road sessions’ on show at Snap Galleries’ Piccadilly space in central London, uncovers, for the first time, at least a dozen other characters who might equally have featured on the cover of one of the most important albums in the history of popular music, if a different frame had been chosen for the album sleeve.

Scottish photographer Iain MacMillan (1938-2006) was the man behind the camera. He took just six photographs that day, and the fifth frame in the sequence was selected for the front cover. It’s the one everyone knows. The Beatles crossing from left to right. Paul McCartney barefoot with a cigarette in his hand. John and Ringo (like Paul) in Tommy Nutter suits, with George Harrison at the back, dressed in denim. The other Paul, Paul Cole, stands on the right pavement, while on the left of the photograph is the fifth Beatle. Well, Beetle. The Volkswagen Beetle, registration LMW 281F, achieved cult status after appearing on the album and after selling at auction, was displayed at the Volkswagen Museum in Germany.

Abbey Road is one of the most recognisable covers in the history of popular music - certainly one of the most aped.

Out of the shadows..

I should declare my interest at this point - I own the gallery that is exhibiting the collection. As part of the preparation and research for the show, we decided to put the session photographs under the microscope, and delve deep into the dark spaces and shadows for the first time. This exercise has revealed a whole cast of unknown characters (unknown for now at least) who could have found themselves in the same position as Paul Cole - on the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road LP - if a different frame had been chosen for the cover. Who are they?  Well, we don’t know yet, but maybe that can change.

I have some favourites already.

A mysterious lady in a purple top who appears deep in the shadows on the left pavement in three of the frames. She is there in frames 3, 4 and 6, but just missed out on being in frame 5, the actual cover. Who was she? She probably doesn’t even know that she was there that day - but someone must know who she is.

Another little vignette appeals to me - because it gives a sense of the movement going on, of people and vehicles nipping in and out of the scene, getting on with their daily business. In frame 3, a black delivery van pulls in behind the iconic white Beetle. The van only appears in this one frame, then its gone. Look very closely and you can see the thin left arm of the delivery driver as he stands at the back of the van. Who was the skinny chap?

The other session photographs highlights just how easily things may have been different for the Beatles as well. Paul McCartney, famously barefoot on the actual album cover, appears wearing sandals in the first two frames, and only went barefoot from frame 3 onwards; his cigarette, so prominent in his right hand in frame 5, the actual cover, did not feature at all in any of the other five session photographs. The other Paul - tourist Paul Cole, was by no means a shoe-in for the cover. He did not appear at all in frames 4 or 6, the frames which bookend the actual cover image. So even he may not have made it.

How did it all happen in the first place?

Abbey Road is one of the most recognisable covers in the history of popular music - certainly one of the most aped. But how did it all come about? The story starts three years earlier, in 1966, when Iain MacMillan included a photograph of Yoko Ono in “The Book of London”, a collection of his photographs published that year. Ono then commissioned MacMillan to document her exhibition at London’s Indica gallery, and as a result, he was introduced to John Lennon - establishing The Beatles connection. Subsequently, John Lennon invited him to photograph the Abbey Road cover. Paul McCartney had already developed the initial concept of the shoot, and in a meeting with Iain, they discussed Paul’s early sketches.

On the appointed Friday, 8 August,1969, MacMillan only had a short time to capture the image. He spent less than 15 minutes up a ladder, and they had to give way to traffic too. Because of time constraints, the shoot had been very carefully planned. Iain knew exactly what he was trying to achieve. You can see this from his hand drawn sketch of the intended result: the Beatles in step, the vanishing point in the centre of the image, the viewer’s eyes drawn in by the converging lines of pavements and trees. So on the day, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr walk over the zebra crossing next to Abbey Road studios. There and back. Three times. Just six photographs, and the shoot was over. Three frames show the Beatles crossing from left to right, and in the other three they walk from right to left. The same order in each of the six frames - John Lennon first in white, then Ringo Starr in black, Paul McCartney in grey and at the back, a denim clad George Harrison. The fifth frame of six, showing a left to right traverse, was chosen as the actual cover. The back cover also featured an Iain MacMillan photograph. It showed an unidentified girl in a blue dress, rumoured by some to be Jane Asher, walking past an Abbey Road street sign, reportedly on the corner with Alexandra Road. The art director added the word ‘Beatles’ to the wall - this was of course not present in Iain MacMillan’s original photograph.

The cover shot, has been discussed and analysed in depth over the years, even to advance theories of the death of Paul McCartney.

The session photographs in more detail

Frame 5. The cover shot, has been discussed and analysed in depth over the years, even to advance theories of the death of Paul McCartney. But what of the five other front cover session photographs taken that day: the three right to left and two left to right passes that weren’t used? They have been reproduced sparingly in publications over the years, but the opportunity to view them together on a wall in a gallery setting has allowed us to go much deeper.

Frame 1. Paul Cole is there, on the right, but so are two other people further back on the same side of the road. One is looking at the camera, the other is bending down,  looking for something in a bag. On the left pavement, a man sits on the wall, his legs dangling, while closer to camera, two women and a young girl appear behind the Volkswagen Beetle.

Frame 2. There’s Paul Cole again, but this time he is all alone on the right pavement. The two people on the right in frame 1 have gone. Meanwhile our friend sitting on the wall on the left has been joined by a man in a white shirt and a woman with a parasol.

Frame 3. Paul Cole is there, but now he has moved further away from his position in frame 2. He shares the pavement this time with a lady in a red sweater, looking directly at the camera. Here’s where it gets interesting. You have to look very, very carefully on the left pavement to spot her, but there in the closest gateway, just behind the Beetle, is a young woman in a purple top. This is her first appearance, but she is present in three of the six frames - just one fewer appearance than Paul Cole. Immediately behind the Beetle, a black delivery van has pulled in. It has gone before frame 4. Look carefully and you can see the left arm of the driver, standing behind the van.

Frame 4. There’s no sign of Paul Cole, but there is another man in a white shirt, striding with some purpose, walking towards the camera. Over on the left we get a clearer sight of the mysterious girl in the purple top, on the move this time, and two of the three decorators who appear on the actual cover, appear in this frame.

Frame 5. The actual cover. The one everyone knows. Paul Cole is there on the right, of course. On the left pavement, further back, stand three decorators, subsequently identified as Alan Flanagan, Steve Millwood and Derek Seagrove. They were all captured for posterity on the cover photograph. Close viewing shows another man, as yet unidentified, standing behind a car, close to the group of three. There is no sign of the mysterious girl in the purple top.

Frame 6. Paul Cole has had enough - he’s gone. The three decorators remain on the left, joined by a fourth person. The girl in the purple top is there on the left, clearly visible, back in the gateway she first occupied in frame 3. Other people appear, but are not engaged with the scene: a man dressed in black walks away from camera on the left pavement. On the right, by the police van, two people are looking away, while in the distance, on the left, passengers spill out of a number 159 bus. Who were these other people? Maybe we’ll never know, or maybe this can be the start of their 15 minutes. Anyone out there recognise their mum, or their aunty Beryl?

The exhibition runs to 28th May at Snap Galleries’ Piccadilly space

Snap Galleries, 8 Piccadilly Arcade, London SW1Y 6NH

Full details at

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