Travel Report: Abbey Road, London.
Abbey Road, London.
It’s strange to think that I was forty one years old by the time I finally got round to visiting Abbey Road. As a lifelong Beatles fan, it really shouldn’t have taken me so long. Especially when one considers that for decades the place was right on my doorstep.
Nevertheless, it was definitely a case of better late than never as I exited St. John’s Wood Tube Station one fresh May morning. I’d come from Tooting Bec, naturally, while from St. John’s Wood it it took me a brisk twelve minutes on foot to arrive at one of the world’s most hallowed Beatles sights.
I admit to feeling more than a few goosebumps as I approached what is arguably Earth’s most famous zebra crossing. Because it was right here, on the 8th of August 1969, that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr posed for photos that would grace the artwork of their 11th album, Abbey Road.
Beatles fans from all over the world come to visit Abbey Road. On some days the crossing gets really hectic, but there were certainly no crowds on the afternoon I visited. Just pockets of curious, whispering tourists and unimpressed locals going about their daily business.
Up close it is an entirely ordinary zebra crossing that would surely fail to impress anyone uninvested in the band. However, for me it was so exciting I literally had to sit down on a nearby ledge. Take a deep breath, pull myself together and soak up the atmosphere. Before long, I was smiling at the antics of an Asian man trying to grab a photo of his wife posing on the crossing between passing traffic.
Abbey Road, London.
In August 1969 The Beatles were hard at work recording at London’s prestigious Abbey Road Studios. Nearly all the songs were still in various stages of completion when they took a break one morning to stroll outside and shoot some photographs.
The photographer, Iain Macmillan, was a friend of John and Yoko’s. With the band on such a tight recording schedule, Macmillan had just ten minutes to take the shots that would serve as Abbey Road’s front cover, back sleeve and interior artwork.
As the story goes, Macmillan brought a stepladder, which he climbed in order to obtain his preferred angle. Moreover, the band employed the services of a local police officer to hold up traffic. I love how one of Linda McCartney’s private photographs of the shoot captures a nosy old lady approaching the band. “Eh, what’s going on here, then?”
Macmillan took just six photographs during his allotted time, which McCartney later examined with a magnifying glass. The winning image shows the band walking across the road in single file. John leads the way, followed by Ringo, then a shoeless McCartney and finally George.
Paul’s lack of shoes sparked a flurry of crazy theories. The most famous of these was the idea that McCartney had in fact died some years earlier. The band’s marching pose, some believed, symbolised a funeral procession.
Thousands of nut jobs also insisted that the Paul on the cover was actually a McCartney lookalike. And that his going barefoot was a secret nod to Paul’s supposed death. “Ah, it was a hot day and I didn’t feel like wearing my shoes” Paul later explained. Hm, so he took off his sandals to walk on hot stone? The entire thing sounds a bit strange to me.
The Beatles in London.
Crossing the road myself took a matter of seconds, but was still a thrill. On the other side, one immediately comes face to face with the wall that separates the public pavement from the small parking lot of Abbey Road Studios.
This is where Fab Four fans come to scribble down greetings, sketches, Beatles lyrics and RIP tributes for John and George. It’s all rather moving. No matter what time of day you’ll always find someone here contributing to the wall. In 2006 an Abbey Road engineer by the name of Zoran Veselinovic started taking photographs of the wall. Eventually, he collected these shots on what is now the Abbey Road Wall Instagram Feed.
His project of documenting the state of the wall feels particularly worthwhile when one realises that the council paints over all the graffiti every month! Hence the Instagram feed keeps alive all the messages that would otherwise be lost. As I added my own greeting that day, I could only hope that it would find its way onto the feed before disappearing forever.
Abbey Road is still a working studio and does not provide tours to the public. As a result, I had to make do with peering through the railings for a glimpse of its famous steps and doorway. It’s amazing to think that John, Paul, George and Ringo would have trotted up and down these steps hundreds if not thousands of times during their many recording sessions between 1962 and 1970.
To the side of the studios a narrow alleyway leads to The Abbey Road Shop. The walls of the alley serve as a timeline of the studios’ history, including details on the vast array of iconic artists who’ve worked at Abbey Road.
Abbey Road, London.
In fact, take The Beatles out of the narrative altogether and Abbey Road still stands as one of the world’s most historic recording venues. A place where Sir Edward Elgar conducted an historic performance of Pomp and Circumstance March no.1 in 1931. Where Pink Floyd laid down their debut album Piper at The Gates of Dawn in 1967 and where Radiohead recorded The Bends in the summer of 1994.
In contrast to the guarded interior of the studios, everyone and their wallets are welcome inside The Abbey Road Shop. Here you’ll find all kinds of exceptionally cool souvenirs celebrating the history of Abbey Road and British music. Most of which, it has to be said, comes with an exceptionally uncool price tag. Check out my video tour of The Abbey Road Shop here.
Back outside by the zebra crossing I got chatting to Erik from L.A., an American musician and all-round Beatles nut. Totally in awe of his surroundings, he told me how it had been a lifelong dream to come here. The Beatles, he exclaimed, had been a huge influence on his musical tastes and indeed the music he produced with his band in Los Angeles.
Apparently, I’d just missed him and a few random tourists performing a group pose on the crossing. “Let’s grab a selfie!” he laughed. “I’m doing this with every Beatles fan I talk to, will be cool to show the folks back home”.
The Beatles in London.
It had been a great day, and yet I knew that something was missing. Naturally, I wanted to get a group pose of my own on the crossing. It took a bit of plotting, but a few days later I returned to Abbey Road with Baddi, an old friend from my Beijing days.
Baddi was game for posing on the crossing, so all we needed were two more participants to complete the lineup. As luck would have it, a pair of South American guys heard us discussing how we would pose for the shot. “Hey, we will totally join you!” cried Maximilian from Argentina, while his Brazilian pal Marlon nodded enthusiastically.
Abbey Road, London.
Happily, the whole thing quickly fell into place. First, a lady from Yorkshire agreed to take the shot for us. Soon after we caught a break in traffic and hopped onto the crossing before holding several clumsy poses. It was all a bit nervy, our posing being watched by dozens of onlookers and two lanes of surprisingly patient motorists.
Sure, we could’ve gone to greater lengths to recreate a more faithful reproduction of the album cover. But really, I was just pleased to get the job done. Indeed this capped off an unforgettable experience at Abbey Road! And the perfect warmup for my forensic adventures touring the Beatles sights of Liverpool.
Love The Beatles? Have a read through my review of The White Album.
For more on my home city, why not delve through my many reports from across London.
Or maybe search further afield with my articles from all around England.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.