CRAIG BROWN: 52 years on and Beatles fans find magic in Abbey Road pic

CRAIG BROWN: Here comes the sun in Abbey Road!

Fifty-two years ago this summer, The Beatles were finding it hard to decide on a suitable cover and title for their forthcoming album.

They had already juggled with Four In The Bar and All Good Children Go To Heaven but had then switched to the idea of calling it Everest, to be accompanied by a cover photograph of the four of them scaling the highest mountain in the world.

Paul, the most energetic of the four, was particularly excited by the idea, but John and George were prevaricating and Ringo was dead against it, since foreign food disagreed with him.

With the deadline fast approaching, Paul grew exasperated.

The Beatles’ recording engineer, Geoff Emerick, remembered hearing him say: ‘Well, if we’re not going to name it Everest and pose for the cover in Tibet, where are we going to go?’

To which Ringo, the most straightforward of The Beatles, replied, ‘Let’s just step outside and call it Abbey Road.’

And so Abbey Road it became. 

Ever since Abbey Road’s release, Beatles obsessives have pored over every detail of that famous cover, finding more and more mysteries to solve

On Friday, August 8, 1969, they assembled for a cover photograph of them walking in step across the zebra crossing outside the Abbey Road studios, ready for the album’s release in September. What could be simpler than that?

But ever since the album’s release, Beatles obsessives have pored over every detail of that famous cover, finding more and more mysteries to solve. 

Who, for instance, were the three men in white overalls gathered on the left-hand pavement? And who is the barely visible lady in the purple top, just behind the VW Beetle?

In my recent book One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time, I devote a short chapter to these questions and the intrepid researchers who seem to have uncovered the answers. 

It turns out, for instance, that the men in overalls were decorating one of the studios. Spotting The Beatles, they had popped out to see what was happening.

Fifty-two years ago this summer, The Beatles were finding it hard to decide on a suitable cover and title for their forthcoming album that would end up simply being called Abbey Road 

‘On this day, we saw them all walking out the front door around about 10am or so, which was unusual in itself,’ recalled one of them, Derek Seagrove. 

‘You rarely saw them at that time of day. Curiosity got the better of us so we followed them… The guy who was taking the photograph was waving to us to get out of the way but we decided to stand our ground. 

‘We had no idea of the significance of the picture.’

The VW Beetle was owned by someone called Malcolm Tanner, who lived in a flat opposite the Abbey Road studio. 

His son remembers that, after the album came out, its number plate was stolen ‘numerous times’ by Beatles fans.

There is still some disagreement about the exact time the photograph was taken.

Veteran Beatles biographers Mark Lewisohn and Barry Miles pin it to 11.35am. The heavyweight Beatles Bible states that it was 10am. 

Another biographer, Bob Spitz, is rather more vague, saying it was ‘some time after 10am’.

Last week, I received an email from Bill Tarver of Wokingham. Bill is an amateur astronomer who has navigated a boat across the Atlantic using only a sextant, compass and watch.

He told me that, since reading my book, he had applied his expertise in shadow analysis to the Abbey Road photograph, hoping thereby to ascertain the exact time it was taken. 

He was generous enough to share his conclusions with me.

‘The shadow angles give a clue. George is striding over a white band on the crossing and his shadow is centralised on it.

Although there is still some disagreement about the exact time the photograph was taken, veteran Beatles biographers Mark Lewisohn (above) pins it to 11.35am

Similarly, Ringo is in mid-stride over the central line of the road and his shadow points along it. The sun is thus right behind the camera, clearly shining down the length of the road.

‘A London A-Z shows Abbey Road has a bearing of 142 degrees (almost NW-SE).

‘On August 8 the sun is due south (180 degrees) at 12.06 GMT (13.06 BST). It thus has another 38 degrees of arc to travel before it’s local noon. 

‘The sun travels through 15 degrees in an hour, so it is two hours 32 minutes before noon or 10.34 BST.

‘Lewisohn and Miles have the minute almost spot on, but are out by an hour, so perhaps a misprint has occurred in some holy screed somewhere.’

So another great mystery is solved. Oddly enough, those closest to an event are often the least sure of the details. 

The man who took the famous photograph, Iain Macmillan, was hazy about the time, but was pretty sure it took place on a Sunday. In fact, it was a Friday.

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