By Dave Thompson
Abbey Road, if you care for such minute details, would deliver any number of firsts to The Beatles’ legend.
It was the first British Beatles album to be cut away from EMI, by Malcolm Davies, and the first not to be cut by Harry Moss. It was the first single-disc Beatles album to feature more than the usual dozen or so songs, as the medley was broken up on the track listing into no less than 10 separate numbers, and the first to feature two George Harrison songs.
It was the band’s first U.K. release to spawn a single, as the aforementioned “Something”/”Come Together” coupling was pulled off at the insistence of business manager Allen Klein to become their least successful new single since “Love Me Do” at the dawn of their career. And it was the first to be recorded and mixed in stereo only. Oh, and it was the first Beatles album to be released on CD, when the Japanese EMI/Odeon label unveiled a now hyper-collectible disc (CP35-3016) May 21,1983 — a full four years before EMI got around to releasing any Beatles elsewhere in the world. (And when they did … a word of caution to anybody who enjoys listening to their music on the computer, as the inaudible gaps that separate the medley on vinyl and cassette are transformed into towering gulfs of silence by the new, superior technology.)
There is more. Allen Klein insisted that Abbey Road was the first Beatles album that would actually make the quartet as rich as they deserved to be, and apparently backed up his boasts with hard figures. “They are making 100 percent more than before [with Abbey Road] and on their old product, they are making 1,000 percent more. I made them £4 million without doing anything. How can you argue with that?”
But perhaps the album’s most important claim to uniqueness is, Abbey Road was the first Beatles album to ignite a hysterical frenzy, after sundry fans, scholars and conspiracy theorists banded together to dissect its cover art for clues and discovered that Paul McCartney was dead.
The story of Macca’s demise is well-known today; how the three surviving Beatles had been dropping a tangled web of clues into their recorded output for the past three years, ever since their bandmate perished in a fiery car crash sometime during the winter of 1966.
Backwards messages in “Revolution 9” (from the White Album), the positioning of sundry Beatles and artifacts across the cover of the Sgt. Pepper sleeve, secret telephone numbers and lyrical giveaways … when Paul’s secretly inducted stand-in, Billy Shears, sings “took her home and nearly made it,” in “Lovely Rita,” he refers not to how close he came to having sex with the meter maid, but how Paul’s Aston Martin crashed and burst into flames as he was taking his evening’s date home.
And so on.
Hindsight looks back at all this and is astonished that anybody could ever have believed such nonsense. That Paul is dressed as a walrus on the cover of Magical Mystery Tour because of a Scandinavian belief that the hairy, tusked mammal is a harbinger of death; that “Glass Onion” is Liverpudlian slang for the handles on a coffin; or that, if you play “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” backwards, you will hear The Beatles confess to the cover-up by declaring “hahaha, I know we did it.” The fact that the song sounds a lot better backwards than forwards has nothing to do with anything.
Yet all this was inspired by the cover of Abbey Road, within days of its appearance on the shelves, in October 1969.
Clue number one: Paul is out of step with his bandmates. Well, that would have been a first!
Clue number two: He is barefoot and his eyes are closed. Apparently, that is traditional burial practice in Italy.
Clue number three: He is holding his cigarette in his right hand, yet he is left-handed. Proof that he has been replaced, albeit carelessly, by a lookalike.
Clue number four: The surviving Beatles are dressed according to a funeral: John, in white, is the priest; Ringo’s suit is that of an especially trendy undertaker; and scruffy old George is the gravedigger. Paul, of course, is dressed as a corpse.
And clue number five: The Volkswagen bug parked directly behind the boys has the license plate 28IF. McCartney was 27 when he died; he would have been 28 IF he’d lived.
McCartney himself remained silent throughout the conspiracy’s month-long life. He was, in fact, in Scotland at the time, living out the last days of The Beatles by preparing for the first days of his solo career and really didn’t have time to deny he was dead. But other people were happy to contribute to the flames, including the vice-president of marketing at Capitol Records, Rocco Catena, who happily declared this was going to The Beatles’ biggest-selling month since the heyday of Beatlemania. Especially when you combined this totally unplanned promotional push with the fact that The Beatles had indeed delivered the masterpiece that Paul McCartney had hoped for.