The Beetle, Paul Cole, three decorators…
The Abbey Road cover photograph is of course one of the most recognisable rock ‘n’ roll photographs of all time. The Beatles are the main event, rightly taking centre stage. They are not alone though. Other peripheral characters appear stage right and stage left on the actual album cover, and get their own fifteen minutes of fame. The man standing on the right pavement watching proceedings is American tourist Paul Cole. If you look at your Abbey Road LP or CD you’ll see him, just to the left of John Lennon’s head. 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.
It wasn’t just human bystanders that became famous through an appearance on the album cover. Let’s not forget the fifth Beatle. Well, Beetle. The white Volkswagen Beetle, LMW 281F, parked up on the left achieved cult status after appearing on the album, and after selling at auction, was displayed at the Volkswagen museum in Germany.
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 allows careful study of the contrasts and comparisons between them. How do we actually know the order that the photographs were taken? Simply because Iain MacMillan made a set of prints showing individual frame numbers alongside the images.
At first glance, there are some interesting differences. Although Paul McCartney was famously barefoot on the cover, he actually appears in sandals in the first two of the six frames. He only appears with his cigarette in one frame – the actual cover. Interestingly the second Paul, Paul Cole, very nearly didn’t make it onto the cover. In the frame immediately preceding the cover image, and the frame straight after, he simply isn’t there.
The other bystanders…
While researching this exhibition, we have taken the opportunity to dig a little deeper. Iain MacMillan’s Abbey Road session images are the holy grail for collectors of rare Beatles photographs, and the opportunity to present a complete set has given us the chance to put the individual images under the microscope. We’ve subjected them to some really rigorous analysis and delved into the dark spaces and shadows for the first time. This 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.
One of my favourites is a mysterious lady in a purple top who appears deep in the shadows on three of the frames, for example. Who was she? She probably doesn’t even know that she was there that day – but someone will know who she is. During our research, we have discovered a dozen other bystanders, just like her. In frame 3, a black delivery van pulls in behind the iconic white Beetle. The van only appears in one frame, then its gone. Look very closely and you can see the left arm of the delivery driver as he stands at the back of the van. It’s fascinating to me to think that if a different frame had been chosen as the cover, some of these other characters might have been on the album sleeve. It’s also interesting to have a set of photographs with the actual frame numbers visible, so we can establish with absolute certainty the order of the images.
At least a dozen people. Who were they? In the gallery exhibition we reveal their faces for the first time. They have never been studied in any depth before now, and none of them have been formally identified. For now at least, their identities remain a mystery. This is the start of their story. All these photographs repay careful study. Come and see them close up, in the flesh, at the gallery.