There are a few iconic 20th century images that most people over the age of 18 will recognise, regardless of which generation they belong to. One of them is the photo of Neil Armstrong planting the Stars and Stripes on the moon, and another is the one of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out. And then, there is the cover of the Beatles’ eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released in 1967. Their most successful record. It has been hailed as a ground-breaking piece of music, and serves up a perfect blend of the band’s melodic pop sounds (When I’m Sixty-Four) and contemporary experimental psychedelic soundscapes (A Day in the Life)–as well as the deep influence from Ravi Shankar, which comes through in their use of classical Indian instruments like the sitar, dilruba, and tablas.
Nobody had ever heard such a genre-defying record before, and nobody expected it from a band who had already won an audience of millions with the catchy songs they had produced in the past. When the album was recorded, the short back-and-sides phase of their career was well behind them, and they had grown beards and attracted the holy wrath of Christians all over the world due to John Lennon’s (much misunderstood) claim that the Beatles were ‘bigger than Jesus.’ The tracks were recorded from November 1966 to April 1967. This sensational album, which heralded a significant shift in the Beatles’ path in particular, but also in the world at large, simply couldn’t be released without a suitably sensational cover to go with it. Peter Blake (b. 1932) was already a renowned British pop artist, and the task, along with a quick and loose sketch by Paul McCartney, fell into his hands through the agency of their mutual acquaintances.
Peter Blake’s approach to pop art differed somewhat from that of Andy Warhol, the most famous of the pop artists. While the latter tended to use reproductive methods, Blake preferred to work with collages, in which he combined painting with ads and clippings taken from weekly magazines. Along with David Hockney, he is the most celebrated British pop artist.
After some initial discussions with the members of the band, Peter Blake began his work on the cover. The fab four were dressed in colourful uniforms, standing behind a floral arrangement spelling out the name BEATLES. Around them, Blake added a fascinating cast of famous personalities: Hindu gurus like Sri Yukteswar Giri, occultist Aleister Crowley, actress Mae West, psychoanalyst Carl Jung, gothic horror writer Edgar Allan Poe, Bob Dylan, Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy), Marilyn Monroe, and Karl Marx, to mention just a few. The leading exponents of popular culture of their day were thus inserted into this distinguished gathering of living and dead greats. This blurring of the lines between youth culture, historical figures, leaders, and writers constituted a milestone in history, leading the way to a future in which established hierarchies would no longer matter. Instead, the youth would lead the way, and everybody else would follow. The cover of Sgt. Pepper wasn’t just perfectly matched with the album’s musical innovations, it also came to be an iconic symbol of a subversive, systemic shift.
It seems superfluous to mention that the record sleeve also made Peter Blake a great celebrity in his own right. The work that has arrived at CFHILL is a variant of the record cover, made by Blake for the American TV Guide in 1995, in what we might call the last golden age of television. The cover was made to celebrate a documentary, Anthology, written by Bob Smeaton, which had been in production for many years, and suffered many setbacks and delays before it was finally broadcast during the fall of 1995. Naturally, copies of this issue of the magazine have since become collector’s items. The piece we are showing is the original collage.
The Beatles' press conference at the Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota in 1965.