Why The 'Sgt. Pepper's' Cover Art Matters As Much As The Music

May 28, 2017

Fifty years ago, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's acknowledged nearly universally as one of the most well-known and influential rock albums of all time — and critic Colin Fleming argues that the artwork on the cover is just as important as the music.

The Sgt. Pepper's cover art, co-created by pop artist Peter Blake, is iconic. It depicts The Beatles surrounded by the images of famous figures from history and pop culture — "almost like a giant birthday party or an Irish wake," Fleming says. "Kind of like a death of the 'pop' Beatles and a rebirth, really, of this new, almost populist-avant-garde Beatles."

And while the Sgt. Pepper's cover has prompted its fair share of imitations, Fleming thinks its cultural impact goes beyond that.

"I think it expanded the notion of what was possible," he says. "And the notion of freedom — I think the cover as much as the final, famous chord of 'A Day In The Life' signifies the same kind of idea."

Hear more of Fleming's conversation with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro at the audio link.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS BAND CLUB")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) It was 20 years ago today Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play. They've been going in and out of style, but they're guaranteed to raise a smile. So may I introduce to you the act you've known for all these years, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band?

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Fifty years ago, The Beatles released one of the most well-known and influential rock albums of all time. I barely even have to say the name - "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." And my guest, music critic Colin Fleming, argues the artwork on the album's cover is as important as the music. Colin, welcome.

COLIN FLEMING: Hey, how are you, Lulu?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm good. That sounds like almost something that is heretical. But before we get into why the artwork is important, remind us what the album cover looks like so everyone out there knows what we're talking about.

FLEMING: It's a vertiginous assembly, really, almost like a giant birthday party or an Irish wake where you have lots of famous people from history from pop culture assembled around The Beatles as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and wax statues of the lovable mop top Beatles. And it's either, depending on how you look at it, kind of like a death of the pop Beatles and a rebirth really of this new, almost populist avant garde Beatles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was the process behind "Sergeant Pepper?" How involved with The Beatles in crafting that image?

FLEMING: They were quite involved, Paul McCartney, in particular, because it's around this time that he's spearheading a lot of things to the - for the band, much to, like, John Lennon's annoyance. So I'm going to say that it was his central idea. He wanted to have The Beatles in, like, Edwardian garb in this room, almost like a locked room mystery, with photographs on the wall of people and, like, their dead uncles and whatnot. And - but you have that sort of bric-a-brac collage idea, which is built up, of course, by Peter Blake, the pop artist, into the cover that we know now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So in that crowd in that image, you have Marilyn Monroe and you have Bob Dylan. Were there arguments about who to include there?

FLEMING: Oh, yes, they really were. Lennon had to be reigned in. Now, it's - the year before, he says that they're more popular than Jesus, which wasn't, like, completely fatuous. Like, it was ballpark.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

FLEMING: But he wanted Jesus on the cover. It's just like, maybe not. He also wanted Hitler to pair with Jesus on the cover. So they couldn't do that. Shirley Temple wanted to hear the record, like music critic style, before she would allow herself to be on it. And Aleister Crowley, the satanist of all people, is on the cover, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What cultural impact do you think the art had?

FLEMING: It produced a lot of drecky imitation, certainly. But beyond that, I think it expanded the notion of what was possible. Not just visually with a record, but musically, you could go as far as your imagination was able to take you. Now, I don't think that's the same right now, but it was for, like, a bunch of years. And the notion of freedom, I think, the cover as much as the final famous chord of "A Day In The Life" signifies the same kind of idea.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's music critic Colin Fleming. Colin, thanks so much.

FLEMING: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS BAND CLUB")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) We're Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. We hope you have enjoyed the show. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, we're sorry, but it's time to go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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