Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today

By Olivier Julien | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
Cover story: magic, myth and music

Ian Inglis

Sgt. Pepper remains the only album within popular music whose cover has attracted as much attention and debate as the music it contains. Despite the musical innovations, commercial transformations, and proliferation of styles and related cultural practices that had redirected the production and consumption of popular music since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s, the art of the album cover had remained largely untouched. The principal pre-war album design strategies – painterly covers, posterlike covers, graphic covers (Jones and Sorger 2000, pp. 72–3) – had gradually converged to produce a post-war adoption of ‘the personality cover’ (Thorgerson 1989, p. 10) on which a positive, attractive image of the performer(s) was presented alongside their names and the album title. With very few exceptions and little variation, this approach had persisted unchallenged. Indeed, the Beatles’ first six albums (Please Please Me to Rubber Soul) had broadly confirmed the practice, and it was not until the whimsical photograph-and-illustration design of Revolver that the group had attempted to consider any other possibilities.

In fact, the success of Revolver – its designer, Klaus Voorman, won the Grammy Award for Best Album Cover of 1966 – was instrumental in persuading the Beatles to contemplate alternative ideas for the cover of their next album, Sgt. Pepper. While the recording of the album continued from December 1966 to April 1967, agreement developed within the group that the cover should not be separate from, but an integral part of, the album itself. Art and music were to be equally significant components; the Beatles’ intention was to create a record whose musical impact would be complemented by its visual impact.

Paul [McCartney]: This album was a big production, and we wanted the album sleeve
to be really interesting. Everyone agreed. When we were kids, we’d take a half-hour bus
ride … to buy an album, and then we’d come back on the bus, take it out of the brown paper
bag and read it cover to cover … you read them and you studied them. We liked the idea of
reaching out to the record-buyer, because of our memories of spending our own hard-earned
cash and really loving anyone who gave us value for money. (Beatles 2000, p. 248)

That the Beatles were so determined to participate in the design of the cover – at a time when such decisions were routinely made by the record companies’ marketing executives – was in itself indicative of the growing presence in popular music of cohorts of young people for whom art was a legitimate avenue of expression. McCartney had taken Art and English at A level, with the intention of going on to train as a teacher; and Lennon (and Stuart Sutcliffe, who had left the group in June 1961 to attend Hamburg State School of Art) had studied at Liverpool College of Art.

-91-

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