The Sgt. Pepper's Project: the significance of the album cover

By Tomi Johnson, Art History Faculty

Transcribed from a lecture given on February 16th, 2017

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not only considered one of the best rock albums ever recorded, but its complex artistic design has made it one of the most iconic images from the second half of the 20th century.

This talk will explore the imagery with particular emphasis on the influences and motivations behind the intricate designs included in the packaging.

For this talk, I am indebted to a number of Beatles biographers, particularly the work of Hunter Davis and Steve Turner.

In order to understand the imagery of the Sgt. Pepper album, it is necessary to look at the time and context of its design.

By 1966, the Beatles had grown tired of constant touring and battling day to day just to live their lives.  They also discovered, to their horror, that the constant screaming of the crowds and the inability to hear themselves or each other during live shows had caused their playing to become incredibly sloppy.

They were also growing up, getting married, starting families, and developing interests that had long been dormant during the heights of Beatlemania.  

In 1966 the Beatles recorded Revolver, a watershed album that paved the way for the even more radical experimentation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In 1966 Paul McCartney began collecting the works of pop artist Peter Blake.  Peter Blake would be asked to coproduce the cover of Sgt. Pepper the following year.  McCartney had begun collecting modern art to decorate the home he had recently purchased in St. John’s Wood in London.

The young German artist Klaus Voormann had been chosen to create the cover for the previous album, Revolver, seen pictured here with Voormann.

Voormann’s style of drawing in black ink was very reminiscent of an English Victorian era artist by the name of Aubrey Beardsley.  

Beardsley was best known as the illustrator of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a work that was highly eroticized, as most of Beardsley’s work was.  Here we see Salome embracing and nearly kissing the severed head of John the Baptist. A portrait of Beardsley would appear on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, and McCartney also collected some of Beardsley’s original works.

Revolver broke new ground in pop album artwork, in that it didn’t emphasize the Beatles’ physical attractiveness, nor did it display their name anywhere on the front cover.  Smaller photographs were inserted into the drawings, showing the Beatles in previous years, almost as if the old photographs represent a nightmare from which they are now escaping.  

The cover of Sgt. Pepper would duplicate this, with the Beatles standing beside their wax dummies as they were created in 1964 for Madame Tussaud’s Wax Musem.

The entire cover of Sgt. Pepper is filled with personal references of personal interests, people they admire, and even personal belongings.  In the lower left quadrant is a ceramic fukusuke figure that John Lennon bought in a shop while in Tokyo in 1966.  It is a “god of fortune” meant to bring good luck and prosperity to the owner.

Another personal element included in the album design was the inner sleeve, the actual vinyl jacket.  It was designed by the artist duo known as “the Fool.”  The Fool was Dutch artist Marijke Koger and her partner Simon Posthuma.  Koger had done extensive painting designs in George Harrison’s home after he and his wife Pattie returned from spending five weeks in India in 1966.

Unfortunately, only the first pressing of Sgt. Pepper included this element, and it is no longer available today.

But what about the concept of the album as a whole?  Why did the Beatles decide to record an album that was titled under a different name?  And where did this idea come from?

In 1966, Paul McCartney went on a long overseas trip under a different name, and wearing a simple disguise of a moustache and sunglasses.  It was enough to work, and allow him to do things that Paul McCartney could never do without being at best harassed or at worst mobbed by an enthusiastic public.

On his long flight home from Africa, he spent some time reflecting on the feeling of freedom he’d experienced, and how that might be applied to the Beatles as a whole.  They were all feeling constricted by the constant touring, public appearances, and expectations that they continue to write and record bubbly pop songs.

I feel this is powerfully represented in visual form by placing the Madame Tussaud’s figures next to the Beatles on the cover of Sgt. Pepper.  It is visible proof of how the public saw and responded to the Beatles as a frozen, static entity, rather than as developing human beings who wanted to express their personal and artistic growth.

McCartney began thinking about adopting an entirely different identity for the group, something that could allow new dimensions in their creativity.

McCartney is quoted as saying, “I thought – let’s not be ourselves.  Let’s develop alter egos so we’re not having to project an image which we know.  It would be much more free.  What would be really interesting  would be to actually take on the personas of a different band.”

While McCartney was pondering these things, he was served a meal on the airplane, and given packets labeled “S & P”.  McCartney came up with the joke – Sgt. Pepper, instead of “Salt and Pepper.”  He liked the way it sounded.  He decided that Sgt. Pepper would be the leader of this new band.

Working off this idea, McCartney imagined the character to be from a previous generation, from the Victorian or Edwardian military band.  

Recently, “retro” style had become popular in England, and old army dress jackets with brass buttons, epaulettes, high collars, and stripes were at the cutting edge of street fashion.  It was taking the symbols of British imperialism and re-appropriating their message:  instead of symbolizing discipline, submission, and hierarchy, they were now associated with the youth sub-culture of freedom, rebellion, and equality.  

The Beatles were not the first to explore this type of appropriation.  Pete Townshend of the Who had worn a jacket made from the Union Jack for the photo shoot for Observer Magazine and subsequently wore it in concerts.   Others exploring this type of fashion rebellion were Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton.

As McCartney continued to develop his concept, he gave the character of Sgt. Pepper a band:  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  It sounded old-fashioned and also psychedelic.

McCartney was further inspired by the release of Freak Out! A new album by Frank Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention.  Inside the gatefold Zappa printed the names of 179 people who according to Zappa, “contributed materially in many ways to make our music what it is.”

The list included Elvis Presley, Ravi Shankar, comic Lenny Bruce, novelist James Joyce, artist Salvador Dali, producer Phil Spector, and actor John Wayne, and of course, many more.

The cover of Sgt. Pepper would acknowledge significant influences in a visual way, and on the front cover.

One of the first songs that the Beatles worked on was McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four.”  McCartney had written the music as a teenager, and would sometimes play it live in the early days of the Beatles in the Cavern, as an instrumental on the piano.

Now he put lyrics to the tune and made it into a vaudeville-inspired song that sounded like it came from the 1920s.  McCartney wanted to make the point that Sgt. Pepper’s band could play music from any era or culture.

The final eclectic mix of musical styles on the album is a result of the wide-ranging interests of all the Beatles, and again is visualized in pictorial form on the album cover.  They drew upon a large frame of reference, and pictured themselves, in this case literally, as part of the tradition of painters, sculptors, filmmakers, poets, and novelists.

I will not identify each and every figure on the cover, as that would be tedious, and the information is widely available.

What is significant is that there are 14 actors, 11 writers, 8 visual artists, 6 comedians, and only 4 musicians.

It is easy to literally see that the Beatles saw themselves in a broader cultural context than being merely musicians and songwriters.

This idea of identity reinvention was appropriated by other popular artists who followed the Beatles such as David Bowie, and Madonna.

But, possibly the most obvious homage to this idea of artistic alter ego was by the English group XTC, pictured here on their album The Black Sea, who also cut several records as “The Dukes of Stratosphear,” an obvious loving reenactment of the Beatles retro-psychedelic exploration of artistic freedom.


Thank you.