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The "Sgt. Pepper" cover turns 40

Chat with James Sullivan -- March 30, 2007

It was exactly 40 years ago today (March 30, 1967) that the Beatles shot the infamous photograph that graced the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Inspired by Victorian-era composite photographs, Dada collage artists, and Pop artist Richard Hamilton's surreal cut-and-paste suburban scenes, the "Sgt. Pepper" cover has become a visual touchstone. Writer James Sullivan was online March 30 at 11 a.m. to field your questions about this important music moment.

JoshR__Guest_: Who was removed from the cover and why?

James_Sullivan: Hello fellow Beatlemaniacs and pop culture curiosity seekers. Welcome to the "Sgt. Pepper" album cover chat.
James_Sullivan: Hi Josh --
James_Sullivan: Two images were apparently painted out of the finished album cover. As I noted in Sunday's piece, the actor Leo Gorcey asked for money ($400) and was painted out (you can see a faint thumbprint shape in the back row, to the right of the Vargas girl), and Gandhi, behind the wax figure of Diana Dors, was blacked out. EMI, the Beatles' record company, did a lot of business in India and was sensitive about potentially offending.
James_Sullivan: Amazingly, John Lennon's most provocative suggestion -- Hitler -- actually made it to the photo stage. There are pictures of the shoot-in-progress that show a Hitler cutout in the studio, set aside. At the last minute, someone decided to leave him out -- maybe after they took to calling the gallery "People We Like"!
dudemanwhatup__Guest_: what did epstein think of this cover? did he want a traditional beatle headshot?
James_Sullivan: Hey Dude,
James_Sullivan: Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, loathed the cover design. In fact, one of his last bits of correspondence before he died was about this subject, with Nat Weiss, the Beatles' American manager/lawyer -- Brian wanted paper bags put over the cover.
JoshR__Guest_: Where are these legendary cutouts today?
James_Sullivan: That's a great question. I'm not sure that anyone knows. When I talked to Jann Haworth (Peter Blake's ex-wife and the co-designer of the cover), she told me she was trying to find a museum home for the Shirley Temple doll, which she made. Haworth, by the way, now lives in Utah, and she organized a mural design in Salt Lake City a few years ago ("SLC Pepper") which is still there, with all new faces -- more women, and more ethnic groups represented.
Ringo__Guest_: Is it true that the original name of the album was going to be "Dr. Pepper" instead of Sgt. Pepper but because of an obvious lawsuit that they scuttled that name?
James_Sullivan: Hi Ringo,
James_Sullivan: I tend to doubt it. The cover concept always revolved around the idea of the Beatles posing as a Salvation Army-type band in military uniforms, playing on a small town common.
JoshR__Guest_: was the Sgt. Pepper album the first to show the lyrics?
James_Sullivan: It's always credited as such, and I have yet to see evidence to the contrary. It was all part of Paul McCartney's grand vision for the album -- beyond the music, he wanted the whole product to be a mind-blowing experience, with words, pictures, inserts, etc.
walrus__Guest_: Can you provide some info about the "Paul is Dead" symbolism on Sgt. Pepper?
James_Sullivan: Hi Walrus (and here we are thinking the Walrus was Paul!) --
James_Sullivan: The main clue on the cover to the whole "Paul Is Dead" mystery -- for the uninitiated, many fans at the time bought into a widespread rumor that Paul McCartney had actually died in a car crash and had been quietly replaced by a surrogate -- was Issy Bohn's outstretched hand directly over Paul's head, which was supposed to be a symbol of the dead in Eastern religion. There are other clues, too, including the glove next to the Shirley Temple doll, which appears to be bloody, and the fact that on the back cover, McCarttney is the one Beatle with his back to the camera.
JoshR__Guest_: Would you say that this cover is the most emulated of all time?
James_Sullivan: The most emulated album cover is probably "Whipped Cream and Other Delights" by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, or maybe the Elvis record with the pink and green lettering, but the "Sgt. Pepper" cover has clearly become a huge part of our collective visual storebank. One of my ideas, which space woudln't permit, was to put together a gallery of "Sgt. Pepper" imitators -- Frank Zappa, the Rutles, Band-Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" (designed by Peter Blake), the "Simpsons," covers for Rolling Stone and the Sporting News...
booyah__Guest_: I had no idea about the 40th anniversary today, but by chance I'm listening the the Beatles Anthology 2, containing many demos of Sgt. Pepper tracks. Do you think this was a purposeful attempt to create an iconic cover, in the same way McCartney seemed to do the same years later with Band On The Run?
James_Sullivan: There's no question about it. As I mentioned earlier, McCartney in particular was devoted to the idea of "Sgt. Pepper" being a complete package of sensory overload. The 40th anniversary, by the way, is of the photo shoot for the cover -- the album itself was released in June.
coop__Guest_: Is there a story behind the doll's sweater ("Welcome Rolling Stones")?
James_Sullivan: Hi Coop,
James_Sullivan: I can't recall exactly where the shirt came from or how it came into the hands of someone on the album-shoot set -- something to do with Michael Cooper, the photographer? He was close to the Stones. I do know that the Beatles chose to use it on the cover to poke a little fun at the idea that they were in some sort of rivalry with the Stones.
nootch23__Guest_: so why didnt they use the Hitler picture for the cover?
James_Sullivan: It was in '66 when Lennon got the band in plenty of hot water for suggesting the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus." If EMI was wary of using Jesus's image, which they were -- he was another of John's suggestions -- you can bet they would have wanted no part of seeing Hitler's face on the cover.
hendrix_was_better__Guest_: Can you please tell the people sgt. pepper was at best the beatles 2nd or 3rd best album?
James_Sullivan: Hi Hendrix,
James_Sullivan: In my humble opinion, yup, I can agree with you on that. When I was on staff at the San Francisco Chronicle, I once wrote a piece about that very thing -- how the album actually has more than its share of second-rate Beatles songs ("Lovely Rita," "Fixing a Hole"). Having said that, I'm 41, so I was too young to experience the album release firsthand, and I know that for those of a certain age at the time, it was such an exciting event -- the new, wildly creative Beatles album, coming out right at the beginning of the Summer of Love! -- that they can't help but remember it with rose-colored glasses. And, of course, you can't argue with "Lucy" or "A Day in the Life."
vet__Guest_: Jim...this isn't a question about the's more about how amazed I was to hear this music when I was over 12,000 miles away in the Mekong Delta, South Vietnam. A shipmate, I was in the Navy, received the album and I borrowed a "record player" (rmember those days?) and with a shipmate, listened to the album. Being in the situation we were in the album "brought us back home" to what our contemporaries were listening to in the states. it was a moment i will never forget and everytime i hear a song from that album it brings me back to the evening, sitting in a small compartment on our ship in the middle of the Run Sat River, listening to music that took us to a far different place in time.
James_Sullivan: Case in point! Thanks, Vet.
flowersnbeads70__Guest_: What would you say is the most surprising thing about this cover?
James_Sullivan: The most surprising thing would have to be, as Jann Haworth pointed out to me, that the Beatles chose just two fellow musicians for the gallery -- Dylan and Dion. No R&B performers -- no Little Richard, who gave Paul his "whoo!" No Barrett Strong or Arthur Alexander or any of the other American soul singers who gave them their early sound.
JoshyR__Guest_: Als WB Mason's new catalog is a Sgt. Pepper ripoff
James_Sullivan: That's funny -- I'll have to chech that out.
coop__Guest_: Don't know if "Their Satanic Majesties Request" was an imitator, but it was definitely an emulator...
James_Sullivan: That album was definitely shot in the same spirit, by the same photographer, I believe (Michael Cooper).
PetSounds__Guest_: I don't know anyone who thinks Pepper is even one of the top 3 Beatles albums, let alone the greatest rock album of all time. Do you think the cover is a big reason for its reputation?
James_Sullivan: You'd have to assume it is a big part of the mystique, plus the Summer-of-Love timing, as I mentioned above. To me, this cover art is actually one of their most intriguing legacies.
flowersnbeads70__Guest_: Can't agree with the opinion that Sgt Pepper was not the Beatles' best LP - it certainly was their most important, at a minimum - if you want to argue for a different record being 'better', one can make the same subjective argument that some of the songs on it may not be 'first-rate' ie the white album, abbey road, or revolver. Sgt Pepper is incredible from the moment the needle drops until the long piano tone fades out on side 2.
James_Sullivan: Hi Flowers,
James_Sullivan: Their most important album, undoubtedly. The debate about whether it actually contains the pinnacle of the group's music could go on forever. And for that, we're blessed -- even the most insubstantial Beatles song is a mini-masterpiece.
James_Sullivan: Well, folks, "We hope you have enjoyed the show... We're sorry but it's time to go," and all that. Thanks for the great questions about "People We Like"!