Studio Blog

50th Anniversary of ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

I spent close to 6 years (off and on) creating this self-portrait/homage to The Beatles' iconic 1967 album. I'm a little late, but May 26th, 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the release. I began this painting in 2009, mainly as a way to practice painting portraits. The first face I completed was that of Aleister Crowley, who appears in the very top left-hand corner of the album cover. I knew a little about Crowley (and Ozzie Osbourne's fascination with him), but not enough so I researched him. After painting and researching the next few faces (Mae West, WC Fields, Carl Jung, among others), I began asking: who are the rest of these people, and why are they included here? More importantly, why has this album and cover art persisted to be so iconic and relevant? As I painted, I researched the 58 personalities (and objects – 82 in total) that are included. That satisfied the need to educate myself on who these people are and their historical relevance, and got me thinking next about how they possibly were related to the “band.” (click here to see a key someone made for the cover). I started to shape ideas about the cultural and artistic context of the work, and also let me mentally explore the open space to the right, "off-set," which would be the space for me to contextualize the contemporary and continuing significance of the cover photo/art. Then, at some point near the end of the work, I decided to add myself to the painting (how modest). The following text are excerpts from the journaling I did between 2011 and 2017 on the painting and the relevance of the Sgt Peppers imagery today (click the image to see the full piece and detail shots).

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on May 26th, 1967. When the album dropped it was an instant sensation, and it redefined almost everything in pop music and culture at the time. The Beatles next frenetic, intensely creative and controversial 10 years or so were largely due to that album taking them from chart-toppers to society and culture-toppers. So how did the album come about?

By creating the alter-egos which were the members of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (SPLHCB), the Beatles allowed themselves to experiment with their own tendencies and habits. They decided they needed a change following the hectic year of 1966 (they acknowledge this by including wax dummies of their former selves as symbolic witnesses to the characters they embody as SPLHCB). After the Shea stadium insanity and a scary situation in Manila, the band decided they had had enough of touring and live shows. The craziness, they realized, would consume them. They were also aware of the looming fate of mop-top pop pin-up pigeonholing. They understood that they had to morph and grow, and that they had the popularity, influence and momentum to successfully take a new form.

Paul came up with the idea for Sgt. Pepper’s band, and it became a way for them to fantasize about music created in costumed anonymity, escaping from the iconic "fab four" personas that had been seemingly stabilized in tabloid gloss and Tussaud wax. It was an instrumental step in their musical progression, paving the way for the dynamic albums and singles that were as musically evolved, progressive and varied as the individuality displayed in each member’s costume on the cover of Abbey Road. They knew they weren’t actually escaping the pop scene – that was impossible – but this was a fantasy, a temporary mental removal of the last 4 years of Beatles music. They could play, experiment, freely concoct. They had the freedom that comes with established popularity combined with the recklessness of having to not care all that much about the outcome. They holed up in the studio for 5 months, exploding and expanding more than ever before, all the while reveling and snickering at the tabloid headlines which had started to declare them as “dried up.”

It was a collage of ideas -- an audio Richard Merkin piece – a youthful yet experienced artistic perspective on whatever topics they fancied. They were turning the commercial record-making process upside down because they were the Beatles and they could afford to, both creatively and financially. They seemed to set out without any goal in mind, which is why the record was so artistically successful. The wild collage they had constructed was musically experimental but also of excellent quality, and although they had predecessors in mind like Mothers of Invention, Os Mutantes, and the Beach Boys, who had all released records with similarly experimental arrangements, the record the Beatles dropped on the public in 1967 was totally revolutionary. Maybe it has a large part to do with who they had previously been musically and who they still were publicly, but I think there was more. They stepped outside themselves not just as musicians but as individuals, and when they turned back around to look at themselves they were faced with pleasant uncertainty. ‘Who are we? We’re the Beatles, but we don’t care to design who we think we ought to be.’ Everyone knew who the Beatles were, as icons. ‘But who are they as artists?’ ‘Does it matter?’ ‘This record is unbelievable!’ As Paul said, “The idea we had was that the record could go on tour instead of us.”

With their musical fantasies given a chance to play out, they needed a jacket design that would capture and reflect what was inside. The fantasies sprouted connections to the visual embodiment of influential figures that helped shaped the cultural past and present that they were a product of. As art critic and historian Randall Smith notes, “They [Beatles] surround themselves with ALL of their influences: musical, theatrical, philosophical and aesthetic. Yet this is not done in a literal sense, these people are represented as cutouts brought to service in much the same way artists have always synthesized their inspiration. It is a bibliography. It is a confession to the world, that the most famous and creative artists in the world really are nothing more than a conduit for the ideas of others.”

Did the band members see these surrounding 58 personalities as vital influences on SPLHCB and their own selves and also recent history? Certainly they did, although as Smith notes above, this is not done directly. Each member had very different ideas about the people that should be included on the cover – George, for instance, requested Hari Krishna gurus, but Ravi Shankar (who he learned the sitar from) is not included. John wanted Jesus, Hitler and Gandhi, none of whom appear on the cover – too controversial for EMI Records to handle. Some of his choices remain, such as Dylan Thomas and Aleister Crowley, among others, but he may have been just as tickled that EMI nixed Jesus, Hitler and Gandhi as if they had consented, probably even more so. Paul had many of the choices, especially the show-biz personalities – perhaps his choices were the most personally and musically relevant. Ringo doesn’t remember the photo shoot. “I suppose I must’ve been there because I’m in the photograph.”

The cover idea nearly did not happen at all, as EMI didn't want to foot the bill for such an outlandish undertaking or deal with the inevitable litigious entanglements involved in reproducing the likenesses of 58 very famous people. In the end they were convinced to pony up the money (I'm sure no EMI people involved would later ever admit to such resiliency) and handle the various legal issues. One stipulation was that no celebrity could be paid, it was all pro bono, which led to at least one post-production omission. Mae West famously declined when she commented, "Why would I be in a Lonely Hearts Club?" She consented after the band wrote her personally. It should be heavily noted that artist Peter Blake and collaborator and then-partner Jann Haworth receive pretty much all the credit for the concept - Haworth was a Hollywood set designer and Blake was a collage artist who was known for (he also encouraged his students to do the same) creating lists of their heroes for use in their artwork. They, along with photographer Michael Cooper, made most of the choices of personalities included - Haworth estimates that Harrison, McCartney and Lennon contributed roughly 40% of the choices, all of them males, and except for Harrison's gurus, all were white. A few of the wax dummies, such as Sonny Liston, were thrown in as bonuses by Madame Tussaud’s when they shipped the Beatles’ figures. Peter and Jann were acknowledged for their achievements as they won a Grammy for the design, but many theories still manage to swirl around the conceptual origins of the cover (listen to an excellent 2017 interview with Jann Haworth here, where she discusses the origins and process of the project). She also discusses how the group was far too Euro-centric, and laments the exclusion of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds: "I wish that there had been more African-American musicians represented; I think at that time the Beatles owed them."

With the concept finally breathing, Blake, Haworth, Cooper and Robert Fraser (Blake and Haworth's gallerist) did the bulk of the labor, with Haworth providing all the cutouts by mimeographing and enlarging the portraits, tiling the black-and-white enlargements together onto masonite, and hand-tinting all the appropriate color reproductions. The recent and distant past of Western (and a little Eastern) culture was then endeared in static wax forms and hardboard cutouts, standing in a "park" (evoked from Paul's concept of the marching bands who would play round the village green gazebo on holidays). The band members and artists contributed random or semi-random objects to fill in some blank spaces - statuettes, plants, hookahs, sculptures and trinkets occupy the negative spaces in the scenery, making it feel like a street carnival or perhaps a George Méliès scene. The scene was shot indoors, with the raised flower bed substituting for the outdoor scenery. Several versions of the photo were taken, as the band members held different instruments and posed slightly differently (see outtakes here). 

After the shoot I can then imagine George, John, Ringo and Paul shedding their garish, military-style brass band costumes and eccentric instruments, watching the disassembly of the props, having a smoke and discussing the next venture. By revealing these layers of past and present all at once, they were able to create meaning within themselves but also impressing that meaning on pop culture. Looking at that cover now, the mark of the Beatles (and the artists who conceived the cover) is embodied in the images of SPLHCB and then up and through the array of individuals, personalities, trinkets and symbols that appear in the photograph. All in all, it is as experimental and haphazard as some of the songs on the record (A Day in the Life, for example, was a collage of two unrelated Lennon and McCartney sketches, stitched together by 24 bars of orchestral crescendo).

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By June of 2012 I had almost completed the set of the SPLHCB photo shoot, and I’d worked out the framework of the space to the right. It includes the figures of the wives/family, girlfriends and interests of the fab four at the time: Patti Boyd (girlfriend of Harrison), Cynthia Powell (wife of Lennon), Julian Lennon, Maureen Cox (wife of Ringo), Jane Asher and Linda Eastman (current and future girlfriends of McCartney). It also includes their manager, Brian Epstein.

In the Spring of 1967 Eastman had recently met McCartney at a party – things with he and and longtime girlfriend Jane Asher were dissolving. Lennon had not yet met Yoko Ono, but she was not too far in John’s future. Both men perhaps felt that they had matured artistically and sought relationships with women who reflected that artistic maturity. George Harrison’s good friend Eric Clapton was infatuated with Harrison’s girlfriend Pattie Boyd, comprising one of the most famous rock ‘n roll love triangles. Harrison seemed unphased by the conflict, as he consented to Clapton stepping in, although the Boyd/Clapton relationship was short lived. Although Cox and Ringo were married until 1975 (the longest-lasting union of the four), the relationship was already dissolving by 1970 around the time the band broke up – Ringo had been cheating on her, although the much-publicized event was the tryst that Maureen had with Harrison in 1970, perhaps as revenge.

It may seem somewhat sobering and droll to include the partners (and Epstein and Julian) in the space to the right, but my reasoning to do so has to do with the fact that I’m not sure that any spoof, tribute or add-on that I come up with can add anything to the aesthetic of the Sgt. Pepper concept. I started this project seeking something, with the awareness that the quest would change as I went. I wanted to know why the album cover was so iconic, and I think through my research I’ve done that.

What I began to think more about following the research was the idea that the painted surface is always an illusion. The entire Sgt. Pepper aesthetic concept is already an illusion, a fantasy. So naturally my instinct was to reverse that and go the other way, and think about what was not fantasy for them at the time, what was constant and real. What I discovered while researching their lives at the time was, like their musical careers, their relationships were evolving. Everything relationship-wise was in flux, and this aspect seems to fit so well into the space of a painting whose surface is false and misleading. These figures are not real people, this painting is a poorly-rendered version of people and things chosen by me to depict, so therefore the illusion of relationship stability for the members of the Beatles seemed to me the logical image to include.

This choice of imagery also serves as a reminder of who they were at the time as depicted through the figures of the significant others standing off-set. Epstein (as well as George Martin in the studio) still organized their frenetic, half-stoned twenty-something lives so that the creative energy and boundless experience could be safely and positively deposited into their music. Epstein’s job was to keep them safe, alive and commercially viable. It’s ironic enough, or perhaps it isn’t, that it was Epstein who died of the drug overdose, only 5 months after the photo shoot for Sgt. Pepper.

John and Ringo were married (John and Cynthia had a 3 year-old child in Julian), and Paul and George were dating well-known fashion models in Asher and Boyd. Their lives were obviously highly publicized just as much as their husbands and boyfriends, and they had bought in to all of it (especially Cox and Powell, who were groupie-type admirers). They were an integral part of the Beatles’ lives, and the closest people to them, in many respects. But in the near future, all of them would be estranged from their famous partner, and for the rest of their lives they would wear the armband that labeled them, “Ex-Beatle Partner.” What color the armband was became up to them to determine, but they could not take it off.

Furthermore in the photograph they are real people, but dressed up as this goofy brass band quartet. In my painting they are painted, just like everyone else, they stand in static immobility. The figures to the right are just as static and fake as the “actual” Beatles, and certainly as much as the cardboard cutouts that were standing behind the group during the photo shoot. This was the line of thinking that led me to include myself in the piece. Ultimately the painting was my personal endeavor, and as much as the fantasy or illusion that Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was for the fab four, the rendition of the scene of their lives that I imagine here is just as much a fantasy or illusion. The self-portrait also ties in the ideas of contemporary context - to make a rendition or homage in the 21st century can reëstablish the iconic nature of the original work, and therefore can include the references that help me to understand my connection with it. By including myself in the piece, it completes a conceptual loop for myself by commenting on both the influence the record and cover has on me as well as the act of completing the painting (or, nearly completing it, as the incomplete logo on the bass drum shows).