It is the most famous rock album cover of all time: The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. One of the many things that still fascinate us about this incredible album is the cover. The concept for the cover was called "people we like."
According to artist Peter Blake, the designer of the iconic Sgt. Pepper cover: "In my mind I was making a piece of art rather than an album cover. It was almost a piece of theater design."
Blake continues: "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."
Each of the four Beatles was told to compile a list of people they admired, and their choices would all be featured on the album's cover. Ringo, always the least pretentious of the four, declined right off the bat. "Whoever the others choose is okay with me," Ringo said.
John Lennon's off-kilter mind immediately came up with Adolf Hitler and Mohandas Gandhi. Hitler was immediately nixed for obvious reasons. But, incredibly, a paper cutout of Adolf Hitler was actually made and was there at the photo session on March 30, 1967. Legend has it that Hitler was actually in the final shot, but during the session, one of the Beatles stood in front of him, covering the camera's view. Gandhi got the axe by EMI executives, believing it would hurt album sales in the Far East.
George, "the mystic Beatle," of course, chose four Indian gurus. Bob Dylan was a clear choice by all the Beatles, who worshiped Dylan.
Fred Astaire was definitely a "Paul" choice. The legendary dancer was an easy sell and was reportedly delighted to be featured. However, despite Paul's initial assurance to EMI that all the requested "guests" would "love to do anything to please us," several of the chosen figures gave EMI more than a bit of difficulty. Shirley Temple asked to hear the finished product produced before giving her consent.
The Beatles all wanted Mae West to be on the cover, but she was apprehensive. "What would I be doing in a lonely heart's club band?" Mae asked. To placate the legendary sex symbol, all four Beatles wrote and signed a letter to Mae, and she finally agreed.
Leo Gorcey of The Bowery Boys was chosen to be featured along with his comic partner Huntz Hall. But Gorcey demanded the outrageous (!) sum of $400.00 to appear and he got the axe. It is still easy to see where Gorcey was airbrushed out on the final cover. Gorcey's Bowery Boys buddy, Huntz Hall, proved more cooperative, and can be found hovering in the top row.
Other no-shows include Bette Davis (in full Queen Elizabeth getup), whose cutout was there, but got blocked out by George's left shoulder. Albert Einstein, also, is mainly blocked out by John's right shoulder, and can barely be perceived.
Lewis Carroll, John's literary idol, is there. (Carroll, besides being a writing hero to John, was also the inspiration for Lennon's classic song "I Am The Walrus." John admitted that the song was inspired by Carroll's poem The Walrus and the Carpenter.)
Paul was to say they chose some of the figures because they liked their "groovy-sounding names" and gave Aldous Huxley and Karlheinz Stockhausen as examples.
The oddest choice? Well, maybe it was Sonny Liston, the boxer who was twice defeated by Muhammad Ali, who The Beatles had met in person a few years previously. Liston had attended a Beatles concert that same year (1964), hated the boys, and said, "My dog drums better than that guy" (referring to Ringo).
Most curious omission? Definitely Elvis Presley! Why no Elvis? I have never found an answer to this question in all the Beatles books and interviews I have read. Elvis was all four Beatles' supreme hero, especially in their early, formative years.
Many Beatles books state that Jesus Christ was an original candidate chosen by John Lennon. This is possibly not true. The Beatles were still stinging from John's famous "We're bigger than Jesus" remark of less than a year earlier and the repercussions from that statement. John suffered greatly from the huge backlash of his controversial comment during this period. Nonetheless, it is possible, although not probable, that the never-back-down Lennon still tried to opt for Jesus to be featured.
The most touching featured tribute was to the Beatles' former bandmate, bass player Stuart Sutcliffe. Stu died tragically in 1962, at the age of 21, from a head injury. Poor Stuart never lived to see all the band's future success. John always considered Stuart his best friend (besides Paul) and John was probably behind choosing Stuart to appear.
The cover was shot by photographer Michael Cooper on March 30, 1967. The four Beatles are seen wearing custom-designed military-style outfits made of satin dyed in Day-Glo colors. George and Paul can both be seen wearing their recently-awarded MBE medals. John was very ambivalent about the band receiving these medals, and declined to sport his MBE, choosing instead to don several generic medals he borrowed from the mother of former Beatle drummer Pete Best. The royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom can be seen on John's right sleeve. Paul is wearing a black Ontario Provincial Police armband.
Four wax dummies of The Beatles stand alongside the living members, these symbolizing the "old Beatles" sporting moptops and identical outfits.
Among several dozen male figures, just five females are present: besides the aforementioned Mae West and little Shirley Temple, actresses Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and Diana Dors are included. Jann Hayworth, the wife of Peter Blake who helped her husband with the album cover's original design, was to always regret the fact that more women weren't featured.
The Sgt. Pepper cover was to win a 1967 Grammy Award for Best Album Cover, Graphic Design.
Editor's Note: In celebration of his 80th birthday, artist Sir Peter Blake has just unveiled his personal updated version of the Sgt. Pepper album cover. The artist himself is in the middle, surrounded by his own selection of celebrities. See if you can name them all.