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The Beatles 'Sgt. Pepper': The story behind the iconic cover art

Learn the incredible tale behind the most important album cover in rock history: 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.'
 © Apple Corps. Ltd

© Apple Corps. Ltd

By Rush Evans

Shop for Beatles vinyl, collectibles and more — including the 180gm stereo mix pressing of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at Goldmine's store.

Slip Mahoney was a fast-talking, street-wise, shady kid from New York City whose speech was peppered with hilarious malapropisms, such as “housewives all over the country will put me up on a pedestrian.” The Bowery Boys enjoyed much success in their comedic movies of the 1940s, until 1945, when Leo Gorcey, the New York actor who brought Mahoney to life, demanded a double salary pay increase in the film series. That was the end of the legendary Bowery Boys.

But the impact had been made, even all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, where some other tough and funny kids were enjoying the films and music that reached them from America. Those inquisitive kids drew such influences into creating a sound that changed the world, a sound that would evolve dramatically over the course of a pivotal creative decade. By the time they made a musically experimental record that would define the era in which it was released, they wanted to celebrate some of the artistic people who had inspired them, such as Gorcey. But two decades after demanding more money from the Bowery Boys franchise, Gorcey once again demanded to be paid. This time, he wanted the princely sum of $400 to allow his image to appear on the latest album cover by the now-grown kids who’d so loved his work as a Bowery Boy.

And that’s why Leo Gorcey as Slip Mahoney does not appear on the most iconic musical album cover in history, The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Quite a few other historical figures, however, are featured. Those who were still alive were approached and asked for permission for inclusion, though the comedic bawdy sex symbol, actress Mae West, wondered why she would ever need to be associated with a lonely hearts club. She was OK with it in the end, though, after receiving a personal plea signed by all four Beatles.

The care and creativity that went into the making of the “Sgt. Pepper” album by The Beatles (along with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick) resulted in the most important album ever recorded. They knew that the accompanying cover should reflect the colorful, multilayered imagery evoked by the music itself. They were, after all, the biggest musical act in the world at the time, and their previous two albums, “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver,” and their respective covers had been similarly innovative. But this one needed to be extraordinary, bigger than life. And so it was.

Sgt. Pepper – Every person on the cover revealed

Once the imaginary alter ego band had been conceived, it made sense to present that band in all its imagined glory. Paul McCartney sketched an image on a piece of paper in which the band would stand in front of an audience of sorts, an assemblage of people whom The Beatles liked.

And just as John Lennon had made music inspired by a circus poster with “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” British pop artist Peter Blake would take the basic sketch and idea and convert them to art. “In my mind I was making a piece of art rather than an album cover. It was almost a piece of theater design,” he would later say. “I offered the idea that if they had just played a concert in the park, the cover would be a photograph of them with the group who had watched the concert. If we did this by using cardboard cutouts, it could be whomever they wanted.”

Blake was a painter, so it would have been easy to conceive the cover as either painted on a canvas or assembled as photographic collage. But the making of the album itself hadn’t been easy, and the result would be nothing short of astounding. Therefore, patience and imagination inspired the photographic direction, resulting in a more vivid image.

 Artist Peter Blake poses besides a copy of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album cover that he designed in 1967, as he reopened the Holburne Museum on May 12, 2011 in Bath, England. The museum’s first exhibition, “Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself,” had displayed objects from Blake’s own collection together with a number of important works by the artist himself. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Artist Peter Blake poses besides a copy of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album cover that he designed in 1967, as he reopened the Holburne Museum on May 12, 2011 in Bath, England. The museum’s first exhibition, “Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself,” had displayed objects from Blake’s own collection together with a number of important works by the artist himself. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Photographs would have to be found of all the various people chosen to populate the cover, and cardboard standups of each would have to be created to life-size scale. The Beatles’ own indispensable Neil Aspinall was sent to the library to find photos of each of the people involved, pictures that could be enlarged for the photo shoot. Blake’s then-wife, Jann Haworth, was also involved in the design, and gallery owner Robert Fraser was brought in as art director. Fraser’s involvement with The Beatles went far beyond “Pepper,” as it was he who sponsored the Yoko Ono art exhibition at London’s Indica Gallery in 1966 where she and Lennon met. It was also he who gave McCartney the gift of a René Magritte painting of an apple, inspiring the name and image of The Beatles’ own company by 1968. And it was Fraser who dissuaded The Beatles from using as the cover a psychedelic piece created by The Fool, a design collective known for its hippie imagery. (Don’t worry: The Fool’s place in Beatles history was still secured through other avenues, most notably their outside design on the short-lived Apple Boutique in London and their still-prominent colorful artwork on the piano that McCartney uses on tour to this day.)

So a photograph with many cardboard cutouts it would be, and photographer Michael Cooper would be tasked with taking it, just as he would later for The Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request” album cover photo, an entire project that was clearly inspired by “Sgt. Pepper.”

On March 30, 1967, the cardboard cutouts, along with The Beatles themselves in their specially tailored marching band uniforms and a number of other visual props, were assembled for the photo shoot. The lovely audience that The Beatles would’ve liked to take home included the inspirational figures listed in the sidebar on the previous page.

Included in the original photographs was the cardboard image of Gorcey, positioned next to the top row’s Varga girl, leaving behind a noticeable blue-sky gap in his ultimate removal for the finished product. The same goes for the historic leader of the Indian Independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, who originally was placed next to author Carroll. All of the Beatles wanted his inclusion, but their record label, EMI, was concerned that his depiction might be perceived as sacrilegious, so the gap is filled by more of the palm tree on the right edge of the photograph.

In front of the Lonely Hearts Club Band and its lovely audience is a garden of marijuana plants (though largely unnoticed by most folks in 1967), BEATLES spelled out in flowers, and a left-handed guitar arrangement of flowers, which many believed to be symbolic of McCartney’s left-handed bass at the site of his grave.

That’s right: The “Sgt. Pepper” album cover (like the later “Abbey Road” cover) is filled with “clues” that support the “Paul is dead” theory that first arose in a college newspaper article from Iowa’s Drake University two years after the album’s release. It, of course, quickly spread like wildfire, thanks to radio coverage and other articles. Obsessive Beatles-trivia fans will be interested to know that one of those articles was co-authored by college student Fred LaBour, now famous as “Too Slim” in the comedic Western swing musical group Riders in the Sky.

 THE DISPLAY: A view of the “Sgt. Pepper” room is seen at the Beatlemania exhibition on May 28, 2009 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Krafft Angerer/Getty Images)

THE DISPLAY: A view of the “Sgt. Pepper” room is seen at the Beatlemania exhibition on May 28, 2009 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Krafft Angerer/Getty Images)

Visual “proof” of McCartney’s early demise was retroactively applied to the richly nuanced photo on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper.” Apart from the left-handed bass in flowers at the grave, McCartney on the front was apparently being propped up by Starr and Harrison, and three of the young Beatles appeared to be looking forlornly down at the gravesite (as does boxer Liston). Also, it is the cardboard version of author Crane who is positioned just behind McCartney in the photo. Crane had also died at a young age (28 in 1900). And it is comedian Bonn’s hand that hovers hauntingly over McCartney’s head.

And in the grand urban myth, the Shirley Temple doll’s “Welcome The Rolling Stones” sweater is considered just that: a welcome to the Stones as the most important rock band in the world, now that Beatle Paul is presumably no more.

The back cover includes a photo of all four Beatles in costume from the same photo shoot, and McCartney is the only Beatle not facing forward. Harrison’s finger appears as pointing to the line in “She’s Leaving Home” that says, “Wednesday morning at five o’clock, as the day begins,” perceived to be the time of McCartney’s death.

McCartney is, of course, very much alive and turning 75 the same month that “Sgt. Pepper” turns 50. But this interesting diversion of dozens of clues is yet another example of the imaginative thoughts that can be generated by one particular photograph of four men and a roomful of cardboard figures taken about two months before it would appear in record stores all around the world.

The image has taken on a life as energetic and interesting as the music it represents. It has been parodied and reconfigured as an album cover for many other musical acts. The earliest of these came from avant-garde rocker Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention, who intended to use their “Pepper”-like image as the front cover of their third album, “We’re Only in It for the Money,” but wound up using the photo on the inside gatefold. Zappa intended it to be “a direct negative” version of The Beatles’ image, placing his crowd under a dark thunderstorm instead of blue skies a la “Pepper.”

The Simpsons’ “Yellow Album” used the same format as an opportunity to depict all of the animated television show’s characters, including Krusty the Clown in the Shirley Temple doll position. Instead of welcoming The Rolling Stones, his sweater says, “Welcome Ren and Stimpy,” a reference to another popular animated series.

One of the most compelling “Pepper”-like covers came from Japan in 1977. Keyboardist Jun Fukamachi recorded his versions of Beatles songs and used a spot-on painted version of the original “Sgt. Pepper” cover in which The Beatles and all other figures are turned around and facing the other direction! The artist credited on the album is Fumio Tamabuchi, which just happened to also years later be the false name given acting credit instead of actual actress Piper Laurie in the second season of television’s mysterious “Twin Peaks” series. Any connection? Who knows, but it’s a cryptic nugget worthy of the “Sgt. Pepper” cover.

The other photographs from March 30, 1967, are out there. Indeed, they appear in the packaging for the 6-disc expanded 50th anniversary version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” One of them has also been used as cover art for various Beatles bootleg albums, and this time, Gandhi appears. (So does Gorcey as Slip Mahoney, still unpaid.)

Lennon and Harrison are gone, as are nearly all of the people who populate the “Sgt. Pepper” cover. Art director Fraser died of AIDS in 1986 at age 48, and photographer Cooper took his own life at 32 in 1973. Gorcey died of liver failure from years of alcoholism at age 51, two years and a day after the release of “Pepper.” But half a century later, the “Sgt. Pepper” album cover comes to life each time it is viewed. The Beatles may have been standing still, much like the cardboard cutouts and wax figures behind them, but the firing of millions of imaginations is animated and vibrant. And when the album cover is held and the needle is dropped at the beginning of Side 1, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” really comes to life. Still the act you’ve known for all these years.

Sgt. Pepper – The making of a masterpiece