Sneak peek: The story behind the iconic Sgt. Pepper cover art

cover art

As Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band approaches its 50th anniversary, we’re celebrating every aspect of the seminal album, including its instantly recognizable cover art.

Tune in to The Beatles Channel (Ch. 18) on June 1 to hear the album’s new Anniversary Edition stereo mix in its entirety, plus special commentary by the album’s original producer, the late George Martin, and by his son, Giles Martin, who produced the album’s new stereo and 5.1 surround mixes from The Beatles’ session tapes.

But before we dive into this landmark recording, we’re honouring the album’s iconic cover art.

Check out sneak peek excerpts below from The Cover Story, an in-depth essay written by Kevin Howlett about the incredible design. The full piece appears in the book that accompanies the upcoming Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition.

“In my mind, I was making a piece of art, not an album sleeve.” Peter Blake

The high ambition of the Sgt. Pepper cover was inspired by Paul McCartney’s fond memory of buying LPs as a schoolboy: ‘Saturday morning, I had my pocket money. I used to go down to this big department store called Lewis’s, get the record that I’d been saving up for, then get on the bus and unwrap it. Then I had half an hour to look at it … and read the sleeve note and look at the pictures and everything. We designed Sgt. Pepper with that in mind. The person who’s just been to his version of Lewis’s, he’s got that half hour so we’ll give him masses. He can look at this one for months!’

With an extravagant Pop Art collage on the front and assorted images and extras inside, if ever an album cover conjured up the spirit of the record it was wrapped around, this is it. Not only did the sleeve encapsulate the merry jumble of ideas bursting from the LP, it also helped to give the impression of a concept unifying the album’s songs. The story of how the artwork was created is a striking example of how The Beatles were able to carry off an innovative idea – no matter how unprecedented, expensive and risky it might be.

With the exception of their film soundtrack albums, it was unusual for The Beatles to fix upon a title for an album before it was completed. However, this time, it was soon clear what their work in progress would be called. With this advantage, Paul took his original musical concept – that The Beatles had assumed the identity of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – and developed it into a visual idea. His initial sketches for the cover show the group wearing the uniforms of a military band while holding instruments usually played by such an ensemble. Standing in an Edwardian sitting room with framed photographs of some of their heroes, John holds a clarinet, Paul an E-flat bass tuba, George a trumpet, and Ringo has a kettle drum. Paul also drew the band next to a typical floral display seen in British public parks. ‘I did drawings of us being presented to the Lord Mayor with lots of dignitaries and friends of ours around,’ he remembered. ‘It was to be us in front of a big northern floral clock, and we were to look like a brass band.’

This was not only an era of experimentation in a variety of art forms, it was also a time of exciting cross-pollination between them. Through various connections on the vibrant London scene, The Beatles had become friends with art dealer Robert Fraser. When shown Paul’s sketches for the cover, he suggested the involvement of Peter Blake and his then-wife, American artist Jann Haworth. In the spirit of the Pop Art movement, Peter had incorporated disparate characters from popular culture into his work. His subjects had included wrestlers, circus performers and, indeed, John, Paul, George and Ringo in a piece called The Beatles 1962. Over a series of meetings at Paul’s house, in Abbey Road Studios (Peter attended the first session for ‘Within You Without You’) and the artists’ home, the original concept for the cover evolved.

The Beatles Channel (Ch. 18) launches May 18, only on SiriusXM.

The key factors leading to the creative success of the front cover were that the figures standing behind Sgt. Pepper and his Band would be ‘a magical crowd’ made up of people whom the group admired. Secondly, the image would not be produced as a two-dimensional picture; rather more ambitiously, a ‘staged’ collage was to be constructed into which The Beatles could enter. The group would then be photographed surrounded by life-size cutout images of the chosen ‘lovely audience’. John, Paul, George, Robert Fraser, Peter Blake and Jann Haworth compiled lists of people they wished to see on the bandstand. Peter Blake recalled that, ‘Ringo said, “Whatever the others say is fine by me.”’ Nobody is really sure who chose who, but the following groupings seem likely.

John’s list included Jesus and Adolf Hitler. Only a matter of months after the religious controversy sparked in America by John’s remark that The Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus now’, it was deemed safer not to include that particular choice. However, Hitler – most probably on his list as a joke – did make it as far as having a cutout prepared for the photoshoot, but it was omitted from the final picture. More seriously, John paid tribute to his art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe, who had for a time been The Beatles’ bass player. The talented painter had died tragically young in 1962. Not surprisingly, Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice In Wonderland, was included along with writers Edgar Allan Poe – later to be mentioned in ‘I Am The Walrus’ – and Oscar Wilde. On a more arcane level, John remembered Albert Stubbins – a high-scoring Liverpool soccer player from 1946 to 1953.

Paul’s selection of heroes reflected his current artistic interests, as well as favourites from the past. Contemporary Beat poet William Burroughs and avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen were listed alongside Hollywood’s great song and dance man Fred Astaire. A decade after its publication, a memoir called The Doors Of Perception by Aldous Huxley had become associated with the prevailing interest in psychedelia and hallucinogenic drugs. The author, best known for his novel Brave New World, appeared on Paul’s list. ‘It was about time we let out the fact that we liked Aldous Huxley. That wasn’t the sort of thing we’d talked about before. No one had ever asked us in an interview!’

‘I don’t think we can ever be accused of underestimating the intelligence of our fans,’ George mused in 1967. His contenders for the cover included Bob Dylan, American comedian Lenny Bruce and Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Reflecting his deep immersion in Indian culture and spirituality, he also chose Mahatma Gandhi and several Yogis. One of them, Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, was the author of Autobiography Of A Yogi – the deeply influential book Ravi Shankar had given George early on in their friendship. Peter Blake and Jann Haworth boosted the size of the fantasy audience with a diverse array of past and present figures such as music hall comedian Max Miller, rock ’n’ roller Dion, Tarzan film actor and champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller and screen stars Tony Curtis and WC Fields. Robert Fraser’s list added contemporary cultural figures, including writer Terry Southern and American artists Wally Berman and Richard Lindner.

With names drawn up, The Beatles’ assistants Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans visited the Indica book shop and various photo libraries in their quest for corresponding images. Large prints were made and hand-tinted by Jann Haworth, stuck on particle board (chipboard) and cut to size. The crowd was then assembled in a set built in a photographic studio used by Michael Cooper at Chelsea Manor Studios in Flood Street, London. An ex-Vogue magazine photographer, he had established a friendship with The Rolling Stones. Consequently, his young son Adam had been given a sweatshirt saying ‘Good Guys Welcome The Rolling Stones’. In a magnanimous gesture, it was placed on a Shirley Temple cloth doll made by Jann Haworth. There was a remarkable range of other objects placed around the stage. Peter Blake had rescued a Madame Tussauds model of boxer Sonny Liston just before it was due to be melted down. His imposing figure was positioned next to the waxworks of The Beatles, as they had looked in 1963. In keeping with the cover concept, The Beatles were not really depicted twice because, as Peter Blake explained, ‘It made sense that The Beatles would be fans of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’

The Beatles Channel (Ch. 18) launches May 18, only on SiriusXM

The drum skin at the focal point of the image was made by fairground artist Joe Ephgrave. He painted two designs – the unused version with more modern lettering was attached to the other side of the bass drum, just in case there might be a change of mind. When flowers from Clifton Nurseries arrived, an unexpected feature was introduced when the delivery boy asked if he could make a guitar shape with white hyacinths. Contrary to legend, there is not a row of marijuana plants above BEATLES. Appropriately, they are Peperomia plants.

During the assembly of the collage, the possibility that anyone would not want to be part of a Beatles sleeve had not been a consideration. When presented with the front cover photograph, EMI took a more pragmatic view. First, the chairman of EMI, Sir Joseph Lockwood, was insistent about the necessity to remove Gandhi from the sleeve. He visited Paul at his home to explain why. ‘I said, “Why not? We’re revering him.” – “Oh, no, no. It might be taken the wrong way. He’s rather sacred in India, you know.” So Gandhi had to go.’ He was painted out by adding extra palm leaves on the right of the cover. Asserting that ‘it is too light-hearted to believe no one will sue,’ the record company also insisted that each person depicted, or their estate, should have granted permission for their likeness to be shown. Brian Epstein’s former personal assistant, Wendy Hanson, was hired to seek such clearances. In a memo on her progress, she wrote that Shirley Temple Black ‘wants to see the cover (and HEAR record, said this impossible), also to receive autographed cover for her children’. Wendy also reported that having ‘discussed the Gurus with George’, they had concluded that ‘the likelihood they would see the photos, let alone sue, was so remote that we have done nothing about them.’ Hollywood femme fatale Mae West had initially withheld consent on the grounds that she could never be a member of a ‘Lonely Hearts Club’, but was eventually persuaded to sign up. Only one person made permission conditional on receiving a fee. Consequently, actor Leo Gorcey – known for his roles in movies about Dead End Kids, East Side Kids and Bowery Boys – was also painted out.

The inclusion of all the lyrics on the sleeve had also been a challenge. As this had never been done before, agreement had to be sought from the publishing company, which feared its sheet music sales would be adversely affected. EMI had also been troubled by another major point concerning the cover: its cost. At this time, the usual fee for album artwork would be well under £100. The budget for Sgt. Pepper had risen to nearly £3,000. In 1967, it was possible to buy a house for that price. In a letter to [The Beatles’ manager] Brian Epstein, EMI advised him that it would only agree to pick up the bill for the cover if the album sold a million copies around the world. That turned out not to be a problem for The Beatles.