Making 'Sgt. Pepper,' Part 3: Playing the Part
    • MONDAY, JUNE 05, 2017

    • Posted by: Robert Steiner

    Welcome back to ‘Making Sgt. Pepper,' a four-part miniseries leading up to the legendary album's 50th anniversary. Part 1 covered the inspirations behind the album, and Part 2 discussed the innovative recording sessions, so today, we're discussing the final piece of the package, the album's iconic cover.

    As we discussed in our previous two installments in this series, the Beatles intended to create something different on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band from the very start. From orchestras to sitars to dog barks, the album's final thirteen tracks proved to be a vast and immersive journey through a mythical concert featuring the most recognized band in the world as a fake band led by a fake army officer. The music was clearly the most ambitious of their careers, and they seemed aware of that too, but the band wasn't planning on stopping there. The final step to creating the Pepper persona, and proving to listeners once and for all that the "old" Beatles were long gone, was the album's cover, the first thing fans would see of Pepper and, in many ways, the visual thesis for the entire record.

    We all know the cover at this point: The four Beatles, dressed in bright, extravagant army uniforms, huddled around a kick drum bearing the 'Sgt. Pepper' band name. They're accompanied by over 50 different people, from celebrities to philosophers to writers to even their younger "Mop Top" personas, and on the ground are flowers spelling the real band's name. Designed by renowned pop artist Peter Blake, the picture is bright, welcoming, and very much like a world inside of a picture book. It was like a window into an alternate version of reality, an invitation to the listener to join the band at this mythical concert that could never actually be played live (at the time, at least). The band isn't smiling on the front, but the inside sleeve reveals a close-up shot of the band with wide eyes and boyish smiles, like they were thrilled that we could join them on the journey they created. The most expensive album cover ever created at the time, a whopping 3,000 pounds compared to the standard 50 pound album art budget, Pepper practically emitted on record store shelves, and like everything else the band had done with the album, there was almost nothing else to compare it to.

    Aside from the initial visual wonder, Pepper's imagery was a lot more than just a pretty picture to catch peoples' eyes. Like everything the four had done with this project, there was a great deal of thought and care put into what they wanted to say through their art, and what they wanted fans to understand about their direction as a band. Paul and Blake came up with the idea of the band taking a group photo accompanied by their many heroes and influences, both from their childhood and their musical counterparts. As the legend goes, and in true reflection of their personalities, Paul chose the majority of the cardboard cutouts, while John wanted controversial figures like Hitler, Jesus Christ, and Aleister Crowley in the crowd (the latter was the only one to appear). George offered a modest list of Indian gurus, and Ringo was happy with whomever the other three chose.

    The result is a decade-spanning collection of artists and famous figures from all walks of life. There are intellectual figures and thinkers, like Karl Marx, Dylan Thomas, Aldous Huxley, and George Bernard Shaw, rubbing shoulders with more contemporary pop culture celebrities like Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, and Shirley Temple. Not only is this fictional gathering simply a bunch of people and friends the Beatles liked, but it also represents a collision between high and low-brow art, a world where playwrights and scientists literally shared the same praise as socialites and rock n' roll stars.

    Much unlike the real world, there was no divide between intellectual and mainstream culture; in the world of Sgt. Pepper, it was just art. This idea is what the band had been trying to accomplish for years, aching to outgrow their "teeny-bopper" status and prove themselves to be not just a trendy pop band, but a group of legitimate artists. The band believed that they could still be pop stars without writing four-chord love songs, and they could still be mainstream while also challenging and engaging listeners with new styles and ideas, and that's exactly what Pepper was all about: Rock music not as art for teens, but as art period.

    The colorful figures and vibrant colors certainly give a lot to look at, but they also cause the four "wax" Beatles, dressed in black suits and ties, to stand out in stark contrast. The four look somewhat somber, especially Ringo, as they look down at the flowerbed bearing their name. It's this subtle detail that makes the viewer see the cover in a different light, that while this could be a photo of a party or musical celebration, it could also very well be a funeral. The many friends and figures that were apart of the Beatles' formative years, including the "Mop Top" Beatles themselves, showed up to send off the "old" Beatles, a band that seemingly ceased to exist at their last concert a year before. The band was paying homage to their early years, but they were also officially leaving it behind, literally burying it in the ground. The band the world recognized as the Beatles had stepped aside, and in their place front and center were four mustached, longhaired hippie generals no one had ever seen before. Without question and dispute, the first half of the Beatles' career was over, and now there was an uncharted future filled with limitless artistic possibilities.

    Though the band showed up twice on their own album cover, the question still remained: Who were these "new" Beatles? Were they still the four lads from Liverpool a generation had been growing up with, or were they this completely new band led by a so-called "Sgt. Pepper?" The music can be interpreted as the obvious answer to this question, but you probably guessed, the cover reveals plenty before the vinyl even hits the needle.

    The truth is that, even though they were playing neon alter egos, the band was still very much, and always would be, the Beatles. In fact, Pepper's cover shows the band's true identity more than any cover, song, or performance had before: The "old" and "new" Beatles standing together, along with people who all played roles in their lives and music. It's a work of art that can be enjoyed on a surface level as easily as it can be analyzed and dissected. Its purpose is both to sell records to young people and stand on its own as a piece fit for an art museum. In other words, it's everything the Beatles were and stood for in a single photo, like a window into what made the band tick: Blurring high and low art, pulling from both academic and mass-market influences, and creating engrossing art that transcended age demographics.

    The Beatles had not died, broken up, or worst of all, abandoned their fans, like many tabloids suspected when they stopped touring. Through the fictional identity they created for themselves, they were showing their true colors more than ever, and that even though there was more day-glo involved, they were going to keep making music that was true to who they were. Now that they had left behind their "brand," there was officially one thing, and one thing only, that mattered in the world of the Beatles: The music. Quite a lot of subtext for not even opening the packaging yet.

    On June 1, 1967, this radiant cover of the band we've known for all these years greeted American audiences, 50 short years ago. While the music was strong enough to stand on its own, the imagery undoubtedly helped in cementing its place as the one of the greatest albums of all time, and helped create the aesthetic for the latter half of 1960s culture. Next week, we'll conclude this series by discussing what happened after Pepper, and how the album forever music and, for better or worse, how the public saw the Beatles.

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