Fifty years ago this week the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band hit the streets to thunderous acclaim. Yet one key question still puzzles Fab Four devotees.
How the heck did they end up with such a bizarre series of faces parked on the cover of their iconic album?
No one doubted The Boys needed a knockout cover to match the music they had started to record, including songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “When I’m 64,” and the album’s rousing title tune, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Their diverse, eclectic choice of faces on the album cover always intrigued me particularly when I wrote my book The Beatles and Me on Tour about my travels with the Beatles on their first American tour in 1964.
So I set out to get the truth. The Pepper concept was Paul McCartney’s from the very beginning. “Sgt. Pepper was going to be an album of another band that wasn’t us,” he recalled. “Our alter egos. We were going to call ourselves something else and just imagine all the time that it wasn’t us playing this album.”
He first drew some basic ink sketches: the Beatles in folksy bandsmen uniforms receiving the keys to the city by the mayor, surrounded by an audience of famous onlookers, all played out in front of a floral clock.
At the time they recorded it, The Beatles were at a crossroads. Their last two albums, Rubber Soul in 1965 and Revolver a year later, had been huge hits. Their next one had to knock it out of the park.
Enter British pop artist Peter Blake and his young wife Jann Haworth. The Blakes were friendly with Paul when he was dating actress Jane Asher and his wife recalled, “One night at dinner Paul said it was time for the band to dump the tailored, skinny-lapeled touring suits that had become their trademark and climb into something a bit more colorful. ‘Perhaps,’ he mused, ‘they should doff the kind of military-style uniforms preferred by musicians who used to play in municipal parks at the turn of the century.'”
The Blakes felt if there was to be a performance in the park, it was also up to the Beatles to decide what famous faces they would like to show up. The first thought was to use of cardboard cutouts on the album cover, but instead opted for a collage, a wall of famous faces to surround the real-life Beatles. A piece of art rather than an album cover.
Jann, now divorced from Blake and living in Salt Lake City continues the story: “I contacted each of the Beatles and said, ‘Pick your hero’, she said. “It was as simple as that.”
But as it turned out, she said, the Beatles at first, gave only cursory consideration to the famous faces idea. “They ended up choosing about a third of the faces; Peter and I chose the rest,” she said. “Maybe they were just too busy working on the album.”
Eventually when pressed again they did come up with some picks. “George,” she said, “chose all his gurus, like the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and other Indian holy men. John wanted Edgar Allen Poe, Jesus and Hitler—the last two we took out because Paul didn’t want Hitler.” (Not to mention that Jesus was a sensitive figure following John’s controversial 1966 Jesus-Beatles showdown comments.)
However John’s writing inspiration—Lewis Carroll—made the cut. So did British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, “although I wasn’t quite certain whether he was a Lennon favorite or nominated by Peter.”
“Paul’s choices were more eclectic: literary figures like Aldous Huxley, who was also a favorite of John’s, and showbiz greats like Fred Astaire. Paul liked the name of the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.” By contrast Ringo, she said, “didn’t come up with much.”
Strangely, none of the Beatles bothered to include any of the black singers of the fifties who had so greatly impacted them, like Little Richard or Chuck Berry or Fats Domino. Nor did they list the obvious—Elvis. The feeling was that the King would have considered it something of an insult to be included as just another nestled among the sea of faces.
But what amazed Jann the most, was that the Beatles chose not one single woman; so she took it upon herself to right this omission. “The women that made it were our choices and those— Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Temple—are pretty piss-poor, with the exception of Mae West, who was a very bright lady.”
Marlene Dietrich was squeezed in; Jann said this was because her husband was enamored of the actress, even hanging out at a London theater just to get her autograph.
The Blakes also added in some less-familiar characters. “Issy Bonn, the English vaudevillian comic—because my husband was a great music-hall fan,” Jann told me. “And then British radio legend Tommy Handley, best known for his hit post-war radio show ITMA, which stood for, ‘It’s That Man Again.’”
Ironically, neither of Paul’s original suggestions—Groucho Marx and soccer player Dixie Dean—made the list; the only Marx in attendance was Karl. But the Liverpool footballer of the forties, Albert Stubbins was included which Jann said, “came from one of the Beatles, but I don’t recall which one.”
There were a few other surprising inclusions: Movie comics Laurel and Hardy in colorful hats. Scottish explorer David Livingstone, but no sign of missionary Henry Morton Stanley, the journalist who tracked him down in Africa.
There were six life-sized wax models: the Beatles, along with Sonny Liston, former heavyweight champion of the world, and British sex symbol Diana Dors. Liston and Dors put in their appearances simply because the Blakes were able to borrow the wax effigies from the famous Madame Tussauds museum in London, thanks to Peter’s friendship with the waxworks’ managing director.
I was surprised that Liston made the cover, because on my travels with the Beatles, I knew he certainly wasn’t on any of the Beatles “hero” lists—especially after he had refused to meet them in Florida in February 1964.
They did meet Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) in February 1964. But John told me he was upset with Ali because, ‘he exploited us in those boxing ring photos in ‘64. (John and Ali made up when they met again at President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball in January 1977.)
Liston’s inclusion gave the cover some needed racial diversity. Although Jann Haworth was unaware of Shirley Temple Black’s meeting with the Beatles backstage at their 1964 San Francisco concert, she said she stuck the actress (three times) into the mix, including her face and a Temple doll wearing a red, white and blue sweater embossed with, “Welcome the Rolling Stones.” “I was enamored by all the silliness,” she said. “I thought it was just kitsch.”
Shortly before they were to shoot the historic album cover, Jann remembers receiving a frantic call from Brian Epstein. “He was worried and wanted to know if we had received approval from all the famous faces we planned to put on the cover.”
“Most of the people should involve very little risk since they are dead,” Brian noted, but he pointed out that in America some personalities whose likeness had been used for commercial enterprises had sued and won compensation. Epstein feared some of those included might be resentful at being inserted in a group whose sole purpose was to advertise a Beatle record.
Panic stations: Letters were swiftly sent to several of the still-living personalities. “When we contacted Leo Gorcey of the Bowery Boys,” recalled Jann, “he said he wanted a fee of £150 (about $450)—so he was airbrushed out. Former Hollywood sex symbol Mae West, who was 74 at the time, wrote back to say, “What on earth would someone like me be doing in a Lonely Hearts Club?”
Said Jann: “The Beatles penned a personal note informing her that the title had nothing whatsoever to do with anyone lonely or looking for love—and that it just happened to be the name of the band. She quickly approved.”
Another last-minute excision was Gandhi, who was simply replaced by a carefully positioned palm tree frond. “Brian worried that using his likeness might offend the entire nation of India”, she remembered.
On March 30, 1967, once the “set” was finally fixed in photographer Michael Cooper’s London studio in Chelsea, and the six wax figures had been carefully parked and given a fresh coat of makeup so they were ready for their close ups, it was show time.
The touched-up photos of the other famous faces were glued to the boards, and Jann’s grandmother’s doll was carefully inserted into the picture. Artist Joe Ephgrave, hired specially for the shoot, then carefully propped his painted Pepper drum in the front row. (The drum was sold at Christie’s in 2008 for $1.07 million.)
The only thing that remained was for the flesh-and-blood Beatles to put in their appearance. And they dazzlingly did, wearing old-fashioned mustaches and decked out in satin, Day-Glo dyed yellow, puce, blue, purple and lime green military-band plumage rented from Bermans, London’s best-known theatrical costumers.
George and Paul wore their MBE medals, and John opted to borrow some World War II medals from Mona Best, the mother of ex-Beatle drummer Pete Best. Best didn’t make the collage, although the late Beatle musician Stuart Sutcliffe did. Then Cooper shot the remarkable assemblage.
EMI Records had a fit when the photo and bill finally arrived: It was £2,867 (about $8,601)—a “massive” £200 of which went to the Blakes who to this day feel they were somewhat underpaid considering the fabulous success of their inspirational cover.
It took five months to record the 13 Pepper tracks. The Beatles’ debut 1963 album Please Please Me was completed in thirteen hours flat!
It was all worth it. Not only does the Sgt. Pepper cover remain one of the most loved of all time but in 1967 the cover won a Grammy Award and Rolling Stone magazine labelled it, “the best album ever made,” a claim duly made by many others.
One final mystery is that two of the Beatles showed up for the photo shoot stoned…but Jann isn’t saying which ones.