July 15, 2024

The Abbey Road Bystander

The Abbey Road bystander is in the background of the world's most famous album cover, watching the world's most famous band cross the street. Who is he?

Abbey Road album cover
Abbey Road album cover

Recording 'Abbey Road' was not an easy process.

By 1969 The Beatles were nearing the end, tired of each other and the media circus that surrounded them. John Lennon and Yoko Ono wanted to move to America, Paul McCartney and George Harrison were ready for solo careers.

Ringo Starr, as usual, was happy where he was, but there was no longer a consensus position he could attach to.

Paul McCartney and George Harrison in Abbey Road studios
Paul and George at the Abbey Road sessions.

But after the acrimony and bad feelings that surrounded their live album, 'Let It Be', the band did want one final statement; a more conventional album that would serve as a sign off.

And things did improve during the recording of 'Abbey Road'. Everyone felt the new material was strong, and some of the old camaraderie returned.

Several of the songs on 'Abbey Road' would become touchstones in modern music.

'Something,' Harrison's heartfelt ode to his wife Patti, and 'Come Together', an old school rocker from Lennon, both hit the top of the charts, and became instant fan favourites.

The working title for the album was 'Everest':

'Our engineer, Geoff Emerick, always used to smoke cigarettes called 'Everest,' so the album was going to be called 'Everest'. We never really liked that, but we couldn't think of anything else to call it.'

- Paul McCartney

In an act of typical Beatles excess, plans were even made to charter a plane to fly over Mount Everest, and take photos for the cover. But the feeling that the title wasn't quite right remained.

And then, inspiration:

'One day I said, 'I've got it!' Abbey Road! It's the studio we're in, which is fabulous, and it sounds like a monastery.'

- McCartney

The band accepted the new title, and plans were hastily drawn up to support McCartney's idea visually: for the album cover, the band would would be photographed walking over a pedestrian crossing outside their studio.

The Beatles get ready to cross Abbey Road, before their famous photo
Getting ready to walk.
A sketch Paul Macartney drew, showing the idea for the Abbey Road cover.
McCartney's sketch of the cover photo.

McCartney also claimed credit for this. Prior to the shoot, he sketched his idea for photographer Iain Macmillan, who added the more detailed drawing visible top right of the image above.

On August 8, 1969, the four Beatles assembled at the Abbey Road studios for the cover shoot.

Two policeman closed the road to traffic, and Macmillan positioned himself on a step ladder adjacent to the zebra crossing. The Beatles then walked back and forth six times, so they would have a few examples to choose from.

In the background of abbey road
Paul Cole

The band reviewed the transparencies and picked the fifth image as the cover shot. It was to become one of the most famous album covers in music history.

But what everyone missed at the time, or at least ignored, was the man standing in the background of the photo; a bystander to this moment in music history. His name was Paul Cole.

Close up of Paul Cole, a pedestrian in the background of Abbey Road album cover
Paul Cole; The Beatles Bystander

Paul Cole was an American tourist, on holiday in London with his wife. That morning, while his wife went off to see a museum, Cole was out for a walk, aimlessly passing the time.

'I saw this police van and so I went over. I must have been chatting to the policeman for half an hour.  I was asking him all sorts of things, just passing the time of day. I then saw these four guys walking across the street like a line of ducks.'

- Paul Cole

Cole, not a fan of popular music, did not even recognise the famous pedestrians. Describing the incident to his wife later, he told her he had seen four 'kooks' with long hair.

In the background of abbey road
Paul Cole; Beatles footnote.

It was not until a year later, according to Cole, that he realised the significance of what he had witnessed. His wife, an avid organist, was listening to Abbey Road so she could learn to play 'Something'.

The album was on top of the record player, and Cole saw the cover for the first time.

'I recognised myself straight away. I had a new sport jacket on, and horn rimmed glasses.'

- Paul Cole

His incredulous children were delighted, and had Cole's snippet of the cover blown up to poster size.

As a small footnote in the career of the most famous band of all time, Cole was often sought out by fans, and never tired of granting interviews about his participation that August morning. In all of these, he delighted in recounting that he had never once listened to the album whose cover he was on.

'Abbey Road' proved to be the final Beatles album; the band broke up in 1970.

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One thought on “The Abbey Road Bystander

  1. I have this album cover in metal with 2005 Apple Corps Limited. All Rights Reserved. A Beatles, TM. Product licensed by Apple Corps Limited. I wonder if anyone cares. If interested my email address is genakilgorewilson@gmail.com

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