As the definitive snapshot of ‘60s pop culture (taken on March 30, 1967 by Michael Cooper at Chelsea manor Photo Studios), artist Peter Blake’s Sgt. Pepper cover was unlike anything the world had ever seen. The result was a collage bursting with color, texture, intellectual diversity, comedy, tragedy and time compressed. Even today, shrunk down to jewel case dimensions, the iconic design captures the eye and the imagination. And it came with a free cardboard mustache.
“In my mind I was making a piece of art rather than an album cover,” Blake said. “It was almost a piece of theater design.”
It was Blake’s concept to assemble what he called “a magical crowd” around the band. “I offered the idea that if they had just played a concert in the park, the cover could be a photograph of them with the group who had watched the concert,” he said. “If we did this by using cardboard cut-outs, it could be whomever they wanted.”
Fred Astaire was pleased. Mae West was aghast that she would be a member of a lonely hearts club. Shirley Temple asked to hear the finished album before she agreed.
Despite Paul McCartney’s assurance to Blake and EMI that the cover stars of Sgt. Pepper would “love it and do anything to please us,” permissions had to be obtained for the most famous class photo of all time.
It was a headache for manager Brian Epstein’s office, but their PR efforts paid off; the only holdout, Bowery Boy Leo Gorcey, insisted on a $400 fee and was promptly airbrushed out of history.
Each Beatle—excepting the go-along-to-get-along Ringo Starr—offered suggestions on who should be pictured in the crowd behind them. Some of the inclusions are whimsical or tongue-in-cheek, and a few actually came from art director Robert Fraser and Blake. However, several of the “Club” members were very important to the Beatles’ lives and art.
Carroll’s surreal wordplay is echoed in the Beatles’ stream-of-consciousness verse during the Sgt. Pepper period, particularly that of John Lennon. His “I Am the Walrus” was a direct reference to Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”
SRI PARAMAHANSA YOGANANDA
George Harrison’s cover subject choices were mostly Indian holy men, including this yogi and guru who was instrumental in bringing meditation and yoga to the West. Friend and sitar teacher Ravi Shankar had given Harrison a copy of Yogananda’s book Autobiography of a Yogi in 1966, and its influence on the spiritually searching Beatle was profound.
Although his debut album had been released only five years previous, Dylan was already a giant figure in the minds of his fans—including the Beatles. Everything they had written since the Rubber Soul era carried a touch of Dylan’s influence, if only in the way he opened up the possibilities of rock lyrics to subjects other than boy-meets-girl.
The original “fifth Beatle,” Sutcliffe was a talented painter who played bass for the group before leaving to pursue a promising career as a visual artist—one that came to a premature end when he died from a brain hemorrhage in 1962 at age 21. Lennon, his closest friend in the band, asked to include him on the Sgt. Pepper’s cover. Yoko Ono has said that hardly a day went by when her husband did not mention Sutcliffe’s name.
The 20th-century German modern composer’s pioneering electronic work led McCartney (who chose him for the cover) to begin conducting his own experiments, which produced innovative sounds like the eerie looped effects on 1966’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
The legendary actor’s turn as a rebellious biker in 1953’s The Wild One was a touchstone for ‘50s teenagers like the Beatles, perhaps even more than they consciously knew. The group named itself in honor of Buddy Holly’s Crickets—but in the Beatles Anthology documentary, McCartney recounts seeing The Wild One again several years ago and noticing for the first time that one of the movie’s motorcycle gangs is called “The Beetles.”
—By Bill DeMain