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50 Years Ago: The Beatles Shoot the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ Cover Photo

Capitol Records
Capitol Records

At the time, it was one of the most expensive album covers ever created. And in the end, it would become one of the most iconic images in rock ‘n’ roll history.

On March 30, 1967, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr visited Michael Cooper’s studio in the Chelsea area of London to take the photos that would grace the cover of the Beatles‘ upcoming album (they would pose for the pictures that would appear in the gatefold and on the back of the sleeve). By this point the album had been named Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the cover had been conceived by Peter Blake and his wife Jann Haworth.

McCartney had come up with the initial idea: a presentation featuring a mayor, a corporation, a floral clock and pictures of famous people hanging on a wall behind the Beatles. The Fab Four gave suggestions for the figures to be included — ranging from Karl Marx to Fred Astaire to Dylan Thomas — and Blake ran with the idea, turning it into a full-on collage of celebrities crafted from cardboard models. The concept began that the band had just given a concert in a park and the famous faces were all there to catch the show.

A contract dated April 14 specified the payment for everyone involved, totaling 3,000 British pounds (an extravagant sum given that the average album cover cost about 50 pounds at the time).

The Beatles’ day-glo military uniforms were designed in the run-up to the shoot. On March 30, Paul and George chose to wear the MBE medals they had been awarded a couple of years previously. John wore medals he borrowed from the mother of former Beatle Pete Best.

The collage was meticulously created in the eight days prior to the photo session. Some of the suggested famous faces didn’t make the cut for political reasons — notably Adolf Hitler, Jesus Christ and Gandhi (to ensure sales in India). Other exclusions were either accidents (Albert Einstein was blocked by Lennon’s shoulder; Bette Davis was obscured by Harrison) or because of rights issues (actor Leo Gorcey refused to allow permission for his image unless he received $400). Mae West initially balked at the idea of being associated with a “Lonely Hearts Club,” but relented after all four Beatles wrote her letters to implore her to change her mind.

When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released two months later on June 1, 1967, the (loose) concept record became an instant touchstone for psychedelic culture and a game-changing moment for what a rock album could sound like. The album’s cover was just as much of a sensation, winning a Grammy for Best Album Cover and becoming an indelible image in popular culture.

Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ Cover Art: A Guide to Who’s Who

Next: Top 50 Beatles Songs

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