Fifty years ago, the Beatles walked across a street in London for a photo shoot that would become the cover of their next album, Abbey Road — an anniversary that was commemorated on Thursday with crowds and news crews. But for John Kosh, the Apple Records art director who had to turn those shots into an album cover, that was only step one in creating one of rock’s most recognizable covers.
In 1969, Kosh was what he calls the “creative art director” for Apple Records, the Beatles’ label, and had an office on the first floor of the building. He’d already designed album and single covers for John Lennon (including his and Yoko Ono’s Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions) and other Apple artists. He’d witnessed Lennon and Paul McCartney record “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” watching as the two supposed nemesis had fun playing all the instruments themselves. “Paul was on drums, John was doing the lead vocal, Paul came down and played bass,” he recalls. “It was two guys having as much fun as you can imagine — but they’re not supposed to be talking to each other! It’s almost as if they were back in Hamburg.”
By the time he had to work on Abbey Road, Kosh had heard the stories of turmoil within the band and had already designed what he thought would be their next and last album, then called Get Back. Since it would follow the White Album, Kosh came up with the idea of having four separate portraits of the group against a black background for contrast. “They were kind of falling apart, and that was supposed to be their swan song,” he says. “So a ‘black’ album was my answer to the White Album. It was supposed to be the last thing they were going to do. Was I wrong!” (When the album was finally unveiled the following year, it sported the same look but a new title, Let It Be.)
Sure enough, Kosh was at Apple one day in the summer of 1969 when he and publicity head Derek Taylor were invited by Lennon to listen to an acetate just cut in the basement studio of the building. “It was fucking Abbey Road,” says Kosh. “I’m sitting there and listening to this, and very few people had listened to it by then. When it came to ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy),’ I nearly fainted. It was so good.”
With Abbey Road now replacing Get Back on the release schedule, Kosh had to quickly devise a new cover—as he recalls, in a matter of two days. “We had a deadline,” he says. “We had to go to press and the album was late and you just had to deal with it.”
The designer remembered the shots that photographer Iain Macmillan (who died in 2006) had taken outside Abbey Road studios and knew that the album would be named after that street. In a quick and pivotal decision that would resonate for decades, Kosh decided not to use the band’s name on the cover and let the photo speak for itself. “We thought, if you didn’t know the Beatles by now, where have you been?” he says.
According to Kosh, Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison all signed off on the idea, as did Apple Corps head and longtime Beatles confidante Neil Aspinall. Kosh has no memory of McCartney’s reaction to the absence of their name, but does have still-startling memories of a middle-of-the-night call from Sir Joseph Lockwood, who ran the Beatles’ corporate label home, EMI. “I heard a string of invectives that was stunning,” Kosh says. “He was saying I would destroy the Beatles because I didn’t put their name on the cover and no one would buy the album. I was shivering after that call.” (Peter Brown, the longtime Beatle associate and co-manager, has no memories of Lockwood being angry with the band, so his comments over Abbey Road may have been an exception.)
As Kosh recalls, he went to work the next morning and, by chance, Harrison was also there at an unusually early hour. When Kosh told him about the call, Harrison dismissed it, giving Kosh the go-ahead, and Abbey Road would be released the following month with its original vision—no artist name or title on its front.
Kosh looks back on the analyses and conspiracy theories that followed with amusement, starting with the “Paul is dead” rumors that sprang from supposed clues in the photo. He recalls being in the office when an Apple executive called McCartney in France to make sure he was, in fact, alive; “Fuck off,” McCartney said, hanging up the phone.
Kosh, who has been based in Los Angeles since 1973, went to design the covers of Hotel California, Who’s Next, and many other landmarks of the era. But his work on Abbey Road stands apart. Surely the most parodied jacket of all time, it’s been recreated on releases by Kanye West, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, George Benson, Booker T. and the MG’s, Sesame Street, rapper Chubb Rock, and McCartney himself.
“You’re not designing an icon when you’re doing it,” he says. “You’re paying the rent and enjoying yourself. I remember seeing the Chili Peppers one in particular and thinking, ‘My God, how great is that?’ It was thrilling for me to have people have a laugh taking the piss out of me.”