It was, perhaps, the most fabulous collection of the superfamous ever assembled in one room. Marilyn Monroe. Marlon Brando. Mae West. Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce, and William S. Burroughs. Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Albert Einstein.
Okay, so they were all photographic blowups. But the March 30, 1967, photo shoot for the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, at London’s Chelsea Manor Studios, was still a memorable day in the life of the world’s biggest pop band.
Decked out in psychedelic army garb that had been custom-made by Bermans theatrical clothiers, the Fabs posed in front of an artfully cluttered set that included, among other things, an elaborate assortment of flower arrangements, miscellaneous musical instruments, a gag sign on a doll welcoming the Rolling Stones, and, most famously, the life-size cutouts of a gaggle of historical figures, whom it seems the band picked almost at random. ”To help us get into the character of Sgt. Pepper’s band, we started to think about who our heroes might be, ‘…Who would this band like on the cover?”’ explains Paul McCartney in the recent The Beatles Anthology. At least that was the plan. ”I still have no idea who chose some of those people,” George Harrison says in the same book.
Though McCartney came up with the basic band-in-a-flower-bed concept, Pepper’s packaging really sprang from the brain of Pop artist Peter Blake, who constructed the set with his wife, Jann Howarth, over several weeks prior to the shoot. All the Beatles had to do was show up and pose for photographer Michael Cooper (who committed suicide in 1972). Later that day, the band moved on to an 11 p.m. session at Abbey Road, where they finished recording ”With a Little Help From My Friends.”
Unfortunately, things went less smoothly when the Beatles presented the finished record jacket to EMI executives, who insisted that the band remove the myriad famous faces to avoid potential lawsuits. Instead, Beatles manager Brian Epstein painstakingly tracked down each living celeb, getting letters of permission from almost everyone: Bowery Boy Leo Gorcey demanded a whopping $500 fee and was summarily ditched.
The resulting album cover for Sgt. Pepper would become the Sgt. Pepper of album covers, a landmark that has inspired a host of imitators and continues to reverberate in the design world. ”It’s become an adjective,” says Capitol Records VP Tommy Steele, who oversees the label’s CD packaging. ”To this day, I’ll have young artists come through here and say, ‘Let’s do a Sgt. Pepper cover.’ I always try to convince musicians to use a cover in an artistic way…. The Beatles were absolutely the first ones to do that.” And the first to pose with Sonny Liston and Shirley Temple.