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The Story Behind the Beatles 'Abbey Road' Cover

While the album gets a new 50th anniversary remix, the iconic image endures

In honor of its 50th anniversary, the Beatles’ famous Abbey Road album has been newly remixed and upgraded for the first time, with additional session recordings and demos — most previously unreleased. The songs, from chart-toppers “Come Together” and “Something” to “Here Comes the Sun” and “I Want You (She's So Heavy),” get a fresh sonic sparkle from producer Giles Martin, son of longtime Beatles producer George Martin.

What hasn't changed — and surely never will — is the 1969 album's indelible cover of George Harrison, Paul McCartneyRingo Starr and John Lennon striding single file across London's Abbey Road.

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That was the handiwork of John Kosh, 75, now a designer, director and producer in Los Angeles. He was a 23-year-old designer at London's Royal Opera House in the late 1960s when he got a call from John Lennon. “I thought it was a put-on,” Kosh recalls.

Lennon, who liked Kosh's minimalist style, asked if they could meet to go over some projects at the Hammersmith Hospital.

The designer was told to ask for “Mr. Winston.”

"I still thought it was a joke,” Kosh says. “But I went and took the private elevator, and when the door opened, it was John Lennon. Yoko was in bed. … He invited me to come to Apple and start designing."

He landed the plum job as creative director for the Beatles’ Apple Corps multimedia company, and started working on the album cover for Let It Be, which was then called Get Back, at a time when the band members weren't getting along. “It was supposed to be their swan song,” Kosh says, but then “all of a sudden they went back into the studio to make Abbey Road. On a Wednesday, EMI called and said they needed a cover by Friday.”

spinner image  The Beatles, Tittenhurst Park, 22nd August 1969
The Beatles, Tittenhurst Park, 22nd August 1969.
Apple Corps Ltd.

Kosh knew that Scottish photographer Iain Macmillan had recently taken a few shots of the band on the now-famous crosswalk, next to London's EMI Recording Studios. Kosh summoned the transparencies by courier and selected the best one for the cover. He says he didn't include the album title and the band's name, reasoning, “The Beatles were ‘The’ Beatles, the biggest band in the world. You had to know who these four guys were by now."

The controversy over the album began even before its release, as rumors swirled that McCartney had died in a 1966 car crash and been replaced by a look-alike. Abbey Road's U.S. debut in October intensified the “Paul is dead” conspiracy theories to absurd lengths. Among the cover's flimsy “clues” that something was amiss: McCartney is barefoot and out of step with the others, and holds a cigarette in his right hand. (He's left-handed.) Lennon, in white, was deemed a priest. Ringo, in black, was seen as the undertaker. And denim-clad Harrison, the only one not outfitted in a Tommy Nutter suit, represented a gravedigger.

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The urban legend spread around the globe, yet Beatles publicist Derek Taylor initially instructed employees to neither confirm nor deny the hoax, says Kosh, who'd later design album covers for the Rolling Stones, the Who and other greats. “We would tell callers, ‘Well, it looks like Paul.’ That's all we were allowed to say."

Today Kosh, admitting bias, says he considers Abbey Road the band's finest album — and its cover? He dubs it “the most iconic album cover ever.”

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What to know about the 50th anniversary edition of Abbey Road

The remix is available in multiple packages. Producer Giles Martin, who also oversaw the expanded editions of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (2017) and the White Album (2018), worked with mix engineer Sam Okell to enhance the 17 tracks to stereo, high-res stereo, 5.1 surround sound and Dolby Atmos surround sound. The super deluxe Abbey Road box set holds 40 tracks on three CDs and a Blu-ray Disc housed in a slip-sleeved 100-page hardbound book with McCartney's detailed annotations and rare and previously unpublished photos. A super deluxe high-resolution digital audio collection is available, as well as a limited-edition 40-track, three-LP vinyl box set, a two-CD set, a single CD, a single vinyl disc and a limited-edition picture disc vinyl LP.

The 17-track album is also available for digital download in standard and MFiT audio.

Edna Gundersen is an American journalist and a former longtime music writer and critic for USA Today.

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