How The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Changed Album Cover Design Forever

I am old­er than Evan Puschak, The Nerd­writer, one of a hand­ful who have mas­tered the online video essay. But I still find myself agree­ing with his take on the music video as most­ly unnec­es­sary and dis­tract­ing. At least at first. Then I get nos­tal­gic and remem­ber some of the videos of my youth, like, say The Cure’s “Pic­tures of You” or Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Good­bye to Yes­ter­day”—both bit­ter­sweet tracks about nostalgia—and I feel dif­fer­ent­ly. The video can have a pow­er­ful emo­tion­al pull on us. But its pow­er to sell music has per­haps nev­er matched that of the album cov­er, even after the death of the record store. Puschak makes the case that The Bea­t­les for­ev­er changed the form, mak­ing it into the “almost lim­it­less” art we know today.

Anoth­er crit­ic besides Puschak—one who remem­bers buy­ing a first press­ing of Sgt. Pepper’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band—might be alleged to have fall­en vic­tim to a rever­ie. But there is nos­tal­gia and there are qual­i­ta­tive his­tor­i­cal argu­ments, and Puschak, a con­sum­mate­ly care­ful, if exceed­ing­ly con­cise, essay­ist, makes the lat­ter. In times past, he informs us, dur­ing the first few decades of the indus­try, record cov­ers were more or less util­i­tar­i­an brown paper bags, with some excep­tions. Then came Colum­bia Records design­er Alexan­der Stein­weiss in 1938 to rev­o­lu­tion­ize album art, ini­ti­at­ing a “huge boom in sales.” The mar­ket fol­lowed suit and record shops bloomed with col­or as album cov­ers became lit­tle bill­boards for their con­tents.

“Since music has no spa­tial dimen­sion,” and we can’t hold it in our hands, “the album cov­er emerged as the stand-in for the com­mod­i­ty to be pur­chased. This explains the so-called “per­son­al­i­ty cov­er” fea­tur­ing promi­nent band pho­tos that look like por­traits of actors’ troupes. It’s a con­ven­tion The Bea­t­les duti­ful­ly observed on their first few sleeves in the ear­ly six­ties. As their stature increased, how­ev­er, the band “seemed to become dark­ly aware of their sta­tus as com­modi­ties.” (Thus the glum looks on the cov­er of their unsub­tly titled 1964 Bea­t­les for Sale.)

Their evo­lu­tion from the teen­pop “per­son­al­i­ty cov­er” to the broody and sur­re­al is self-evi­dent, from Rub­ber Soul’s groovy band shot and psy­che­del­ic let­ter­ing to Revolver’s take on Aubrey Beard­s­ley, cour­tesy of Klaus Vor­mann, “The Bea­t­les were lead­ers in expand­ing an album cover’s func­tion from a mar­ket­ing tool to a work of art in its own right.” Then we come to Sgt. Pepper’s, and the shift is cement­ed. The album cover’s design­er, Peter Blake, explic­it­ly thought of the cov­er as “a piece of art rather than an album cov­er. It was almost a piece of the­ater design.” And the band them­selves had a direct hand in its cre­ation. “We all chose our own colours and our own mate­ri­als,” not­ed McCart­ney.

They also chose most of the peo­ple on the cov­er (out of many who turned them down or didn’t make the final cut). By “jux­ta­pos­ing high­brow artists and thinkers with pop icons,” says Puschak, “The Bea­t­les sig­nal the break­down and mix­ing of high and low cul­ture that they them­selves exem­pli­fied.” What’s bril­liant about the cov­er is that it taps into the band and the record buyer’s nos­tal­gia with an open acknowl­edge­ment of the music as com­merce. “We liked the idea of reach­ing out to the record-buy­er,” McCart­ney recalled, “because our mem­o­ries of spend­ing our own hard-earned cash and real­ly lov­ing any­one who gave us val­ue for mon­ey.”

But, as Puschak points out, the Sgt. Pepper’s cov­er also serves as its own cri­tique. “By stag­ing the scene as a per­for­mance and an audi­ence,” he says, “the band chal­lenges us to deal with the func­tion of both.” That this mes­sage coin­cides with their deci­sion to stop tour­ing sug­gests that the band was using the album cov­er as they were using their music to draw the audi­ence clos­er and give them the pri­vate emo­tion­al and aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ences so many invit­ing album cov­ers now rou­tine­ly promise. Design­er Blake and the band encour­aged lis­ten­ers to have an intel­lec­tu­al rela­tion­ship with the record from the very start, with the cryp­tic who’s‑who puz­zle pho­tomon­tage of famous peo­ple and the lyrics print­ed direct­ly on the back. In so doing, they announced that although record­ed music was inescapably a com­mod­i­ty, it was also, insep­a­ra­bly, a mod­ern art.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

7 Rock Album Cov­ers Designed by Icon­ic Artists: Warhol, Rauschen­berg, Dalí, Richter, Map­plethor­pe & More

Andy Warhol Cre­ates Album Cov­ers for Jazz Leg­ends Thelo­nious Monk, Count Basie & Ken­ny Bur­rell

Clas­sic Jazz Album Cov­ers Ani­mat­ed, or the Re-Birth of Cool

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Jake Pollard says:

    I’m old enough to have bought Sgt. Pep­per’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band when it came out in the sum­mer of 1967. I lived in a small town in Geor­gia and we were vis­it­ing rel­a­tives in Atlanta. Lack­ing the inun­da­tion of media access we now have, I hadn’t seen a pho­to­graph of the album cov­er and had no idea what to expect. I only knew that the “new Bea­t­les album” was avail­able wher­ev­er records were sold. (I often bought them at a retail­er like Sears or Woolworth’s).

    I entered a record store that fea­tured rows and rows of out­ward-fac­ing record sleeves, on my right and left and direct­ly ahead. In an instant my eye was drawn to a flash of Day-Glo col­or from across the room that I instinc­tive­ly knew could only be the new Bea­t­les album. Only the Bea­t­les would pro­duce some­thing so dis­tinc­tive­ly dif­fer­ent from any­thing ever seen before. Though the oth­er album cov­ers were also in col­or, it looked like the only Tech­ni­col­or square sur­round­ed by a sea of black and white squares.

    I walked direct­ly to it and even though it didn’t have the band’s name on the cov­er and they looked com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent than they’d ever looked before, with mus­tach­es and strange uni­forms, I rec­og­nized it as the Bea­t­les. I took it back to my cousin’s house and when it start­ed play­ing sounds of the orches­tra tun­ing up, my cousin (who was my par­ents age) asked, “Is it sup­posed to sound like that?” To which I replied, “I don’t know; I’ve nev­er heard it before.” But when the rock sound kicked in with the first song, I knew I was in for an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence, while the adults quick­ly left the room. Son­i­cal­ly, it was as explo­sive as the cov­er had been visu­al­ly.

  • title54 says:

    Thanks for shar­ing! I’m much younger than you, but your com­ment real­ly helped me under­stand how vis­cer­al­ly the album would’ve been per­ceived. It was a shock to my sys­tem when I heard it at age 10 or so, so I can only imag­ine the effect it would’ve had with­out the inter­ven­ing 30 or so years of pop­u­lar music.

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