Designing Revolution: The Beatles’ Album Covers

March 1, 2013

A Revolution and an Evolution

The band that started it all with the British Invasion also started a revolution in the art of the album cover. Long after Beatlemania was over, (if it ever really was), the art that was created on their covers inspired a whole new take on the 12 x12. Here, we explore the evolution of the covers, which changed as the Beatles and their music changed, and are as ingrained in our culture as the music itself.

The Early Albums

Like many albums of the time, their albums had the Beatles faces, shown close up. But the photography style of Meet the Beatles introduced a new look. The black-and-white starkly lit images and unusual composition demonstrated the artfulness they would always have in every aspect of their work. As we listened to the music, we stared longingly at these images of our heros. Following that album, the title typography and off-kilter photo on Rubber Soul foretold the beginning of the mind-bending period of art that was to define the 60′s. And who could forget the dead babies cover? Substituted after the first printing with meat, these original covers were revealed if you steamed off the new one, and are of course, worth a fortune.

“We used to sit with the album in our hands, looking at the artwork and lyrics while our ears were tuned to the Hi-Fi, volume up as high as it would go. The album covers were as much a part of the experience as the music itself.”

Says Carmen, herself a Baby Boomer and Beatles fan. Here are the design stories behind the album covers that changed rock and roll, and the world, forever.

Revolver – The Cover That Began With McCartney in the Loo

German artist Klaus Voorman, who befriended The Beatles during their Hamburg days. Voorman was with the band and drew many sketches and paintings of these wild and crazy days at the Kaiserkeller Club. He presented several ideas to the boys, and they unanimously chose the one that became one of the most recognized of all their albums. His pen-and-ink signature style perfectly reflected the energy and music of the band. Still as prolific and amazing as ever, you can see more of Klaus Voorman’s work on his website

“They were being so avant-garde,” Voorman has said. “I thought, the cover has to do the same thing. How far can I go? How surreal and strange can it be?”

The Revolver artwork was created by sifting through piles of newspapers for pictures of the Fab Four, cutting them out and gluing them together, and then superimposing them onto his line drawing.

“I had a few strange ones where John was pulling a face, or Paul was laughing, but in general, the photos show their sweet side. The first time I showed it to them I was scared, because nobody said anything. They were just looking at it. I thought #@%, they hate it.

Then Paul looked closer and said, ‘Hey, that’s me sitting on a toilet!’ George Martin took a look and said, ‘You can’t show that!’ Paul said, ‘No, it’s great!’ So that broke the ice.”

McCartney later decided to remove that particular image, but the style was set. The album art helped kick off the psychedelic era, foreshadowing the technicolor explosion of “Sgt. Pepper” one year later.

Below is a cartoon by Voorman depicting how they designed the cover.

cartoon by klaus voorman

Who’s Who in “Sgt. Pepper” 

The cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic images in the history of rock and roll.

But it wasn’t always the design we know and love. The photo was originally going to show the Beatles playing in a park. Luckily they scrapped that plan, and the cover took a very different turn.  Created by Sir Peter Blake, The Beatles stand amidst life-sized cardboard cutouts of their cultural heroes. This was no photoshop job, this entire image was a physical creation.

“In my mind I was making a piece of art rather than an album cover. It was almost a piece of theater design” -Designer Sir Peter Blake

Rebel-rouser John Lennon suggested— half-jokingly, it is believed—that they include Jesus Christ, Gandhi, and Adolf Hitler in the cover photo. The lingering bitterness about Lennon’s “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus” comment led the band to scrap his image.

Hitler was also thought to have been removed before the shoot on the grounds of taste. But in 2007 Sir Peter Blake admitted to The Independent, “Yes he is on there – you just can’t see him. If you look at photographs of the out-takes, you can see the Hitler image in the studio.” A Hitler cutout was created before it was wisely removed and pushed out of the shot. In 1967, Time magazine, wrote that Sgt. Pepper constituted a “historic departure in the progress of music—any music.”

In the end the collage includes Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Edgar Allen Poe, Fred Astaire, Karl Marx, Bob Dylan, Lewis Carroll, Jane Mansfield, many other British Rockers and politicians, and Shirley Temple (who requested to hear the record before she allowed her image to be used).

Designer Sir Peter Blake received only £200 for creating one of the most important album covers ever. As he put it, “I laugh about that sometimes, when I’m not crying.”

Coloring The White Album 

Known as “The White Album”, The Beatles cover was designed following their transformational experience in India with the Maharishi. Perhaps the minimalist design was a reflection of their experience and letting go of the material world, or something else.

The double album jacket was designed by Richard Hamilton, who is often called the father of Pop Art. Hamilton proposed the blank cover as a deliberately minimalist response to the technicolor overdose of “Sgt. Pepper.”, and is devoid of anything other than the band’s name in embossed lettering.

The simple white square has spawned a family of homage covers. Jay-Z, Prince, and Metallica all created entirely dark CDs called “The Black Album.” Punk band Weezer created “The Green Album” and “The Blue Album,” and the comedian Dennis Miller released “The Off-White Album” in 1988. For his part, Spongebob Squarepants released The Yellow Album.

 

The White Album Lives On

The importance of this album has not waned. “We Buy White Albums,” a record store that stocks only “The White Album.” is an homage to this one record. An installation at the Recess Gallery in Soho by Rutherford Chang, displays 700 of Chang’s own White Albums on its walls. Each record—worn, torn, and doodled on through the decade—tells its own story. In an age when music is sold through downloaded files, it also shows the power and sentiment of a physical object, the record, that just doesn’t exist anymore.

Rutherford Chang is 27 years old. The Beatles, he says, are still bigger than Jesus today. Not sure about that, but their popularity has not waned much in the last 50 years.

Abbey Road – Paul is Dead

The photo shoot for 1969′s “Abbey Road” took only ten minutes and just six frames. It was taken by the photographer, Iain Macmillan, who was perched on a stepladder.

Those ten minutes would change rock and roll forever and create not just a great piece of art, but a cultural landmark. The Abbey Road zebra crossing attracts thousands of musicians and tourists every year, who hope to recreate themselves on the album cover each year. Can’t get to London? The Abbey Road WebCam (http://www.abbeyroad.com/crossing) let’s you watch the never-ending stream of fans 24/7.

Beatles nuts read a lot more into this cover than was actually there. Many avidly believed that Paul McCartney died in 1967 and had been replaced by a lookalike on the cover of “Abbey Road.” It was the time when the Beatles were breaking up, and maybe people thought it was because Paul died.  The photo was interpreted as a funeral procession. John (dressed in white) was the preacher, Ringo (in black) the mourner, and Paul (barefoot) was the corpse. They believed a license plate in the background, 281f, was a code that meant Paul would have been 28 years old if he had not died.

These folks are the birthers of music fans. But it didn’t stop McCartney from doing his own tribute to the cover on his 1993 concert EP, “Paul is Live.” If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Have a favorite Beatles’ album cover? Still think Paul is dead? Tweet at us @network9 or find us on Facebook. It would be groovy to hear from you.

And, just for fun, here’s a collage of all the Beatles albums.