The release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles in 1967 marked a momentous shift from the conventional ‘Beatles’ image that occupied most of the band’s career until then. They were growing in age as well as artists, and it was about time that their music reflected it. In the case of Sgt. Pepper’s, though, it was not just the music that went through a recognisable change but the album as a whole, too. The most visible aspect, of course, was the very colourful and captivating album cover art which was unlike anything that the band had produced prior to that moment.
The first couple of years of the 1960s were a whirlwind for the Beatles. Within a span of merely three years, The Beatles reached the apex of their popularity in what came to be widely known as the Beatlemania. Needless to say, as the Beatlemania grew in intensity, so did the plethora of controversies surrounding the band. By ’65, following a number of disagreeable events, the Beatles were debarred from going on commercial tours any more. In a way, this was a change for the better, if the future records produced by the band were anything to go by.
With the newfound liberty of not having to be occupied by the added stress of touring, the Beatles decided to work on cultivating and expanding their musical knowledge and abilities as well as broadening their horizons as artists, breaking conformities and not shying away from experimenting with newer things. What came out of this, as a result, was perhaps the magnum opus of the Beatles’ musical career – their eighth studio album and one of their most significant achievements, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was a mammoth project – both musically and artistically, but the band executed it remarkably well.
An album is, undoubtedly, as much a performance as it is a spectacle. The album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s, therefore, became a vital element in the selling of the album. For people who were used to the relatively less chaotic albums covers by the band, this certainly would make them do a double-take, and for people who had no clue about them whatsoever, it would be as fascinating as it would be intriguing. And why shouldn’t it be?
At first glance, you see something resembling a ridiculously colourful class photo from what could only be from a school book for the youngest children. And then you look closer. There are the four members of the Beatles standing behind a bass drum with the title of the album written on it, dressed in military-style costumes, each holding a musical instrument in their hand. In front of them is an arrangement of red flowers to form the word “Beatles”. Everything else in the photo that you see is either props or cardboard cut-outs meticulously painted and arranged to surround the four members.
Designed by pop artists Jann Haworth and Peter Blake, directed by Robert Fraser and photographed by Michael Cooper, the cover was a collaborative work by both professional artists as well as the band. On the use of cardboard cut-outs of celebrities, Blake commented, “I offered the idea that if they [the Beatles] had just played a concert in the park, the cover could be a photo of the group just after the concert with the crowd who had just watched the concert, watching them. If we did this by using cardboard cut-outs, it could be a magical crowd of whomever they wanted.”
The band members were asked to make a list of all the people they would want to be included in the “crowd of famous people” surrounding them. The shortlisted nominees for the photo ranged from gods and goddesses to writers, artists, musicians, actors, philosophers, gurus, sportspersons and many more. From Bob Dylan to Karl Marx to Oscar Wilde to David Livingstone; From Gorge Bernard Shaw to Betty Davis to Carl Jung to Lenny Bruce to Karlheinz Stockhausen to the Hindu goddess Lakshmi to Buddha – the collage presented a variety of personalities whom the band, as well as those working behind the cover, had chanced upon at some point in their life, in person or otherwise.
In fact, there were a number of people (or well, their cardboard cut-out) who were originally supposed to feature on the cover photo. Among these were well-known figures (for better or for worse), including Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, who were ultimately removed from the cover to avoid triggering further controversies. The “crowd” included cardboard cut-outs of the band members’ wax figures from Madame Tussauds, as well.
As for the inside gatefold cover image, McCartney interpreted Cooper’s idea behind it, saying: “With Michael Cooper’s inside photo, we all said, ‘Now look into this camera and really say I love you! Really try and feel love; really give love through this!’” McCartney continued by saying, “If you look at it, you’ll see the big effort from the eyes”. While that may have been so for McCartney, Lennon’s interpretation was certainly inching more towards hilarity. To Lennon, the message behind the inner-gatefold photos was pretty clear: “Two people who are flying [on drugs], and two who aren’t”. The back cover of the album, on the other hand, quietly uniquely had the lyrics of all the songs from the album printed on it – a first for any rock LP record. With a staggering expense of £3,000 behind the final production of the cover, it was easily made the list of some of the most expensive covers of all time.
The Beatles’ flair for experimentation and a penchant for producing albums that would be relevant yet would have that off-beat factor really took shape in this album. With a distinctive change in the sound and more discernably, the visuals, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band became a milestone album of the band’s career.