Spare a thought for the poor souls who created the sleeves to the Beatles’ album. The problem, y’see, with designing covers for arguably the greatest band of all time is, no matter how mind-blowing the artwork you sling together, it’ll always be overlooked for the music within, like kids tearing into wrapping paper on Christmas morning. Da Vinci himself could have been stuck the Mona Lisa on ‘Revolver’ and it’d still have been passed over by fans yelping “yes, nice sleeve Leo, but how about that mad backwards sitar solo on ‘I’m Only Sleeping’?!?” The covers to each Fab Four album, however, are integral parts of those records, capturing the feel and fun of each chapter in their evolution to 21st century icons. Here’s the story of how each album cover was made…
Please Please Me: Shot in the stairwell of the EMI offices in Manchester Square, surrealist artist Angus McBean was enlisted for this not-so-surreal shot, featuring John, George, Ringo and Paul grinning down from above. It was nearly so different, though: somewhere out there are illustrations by Macca for the sleeve, back when the LP was prospectively punnily titled ‘Off The Beatle Track’.
Another plan for the record was to shoot the sleeve outside the insect house at London Zoo, punning on their creepy-crawly band name. :But the zoo people were very stuffy indeed: ‘We don’t allow these kind of photographs on our premises, quite out of keeping with the good taste of the Zoological Society of London,’ so the idea fell down,” later said George Martin. “I bet they regret it now…”
With The Beatles: The start of a beautiful friendship. Robert Freeman snapped the band in stark black and white at Bournemouth hotel the Palace Court for the Fab Four’s artful second, going on to shoot a further four Beatles LPs. “Rather than have them all in a line, I put Ringo in the bottom right corner, since he was the last to join,” said Rob. “He was also the shortest.” Poor Ringo.
The white block at the top of the front cover almost caused a ruckus between the band and label. The group wanted the black and white image presented with no text, but the label vetoed it, insisting the Beatles weren’t famous enough to carry a nameless cover. EMI meanwhile weren’t too happy with the smile-less shot, at odds with their chipper public persona, but eventually backed down.
A Hard Day’s Night: Another Rob Freeman classic. The iconic head shots were his attempt to mimic the motion of a movie camera, with each panel another frame in a movie – a nod of course the movie of the same name, as well as arguably the group’s increasingly cinematic sound. Its playful feel, Beatles academics have suggested, was at the label’s behest after their dark previous sleeve.
The front cover’s colours – red, white and a dark dominant blue – were deemed “too British” for other regions by label execs. As a result, the album was released in Brazil and the US with a red frame, with the American release using only four large frames instead of sixteen small ones, ruining Freeman’s original concept. Like the previous records, the back sleeve was kept elegant and clean.
Beatles For Sale: Freeman’s third cover saw the Beatles posing in an autumnal Hyde Park, their surly expressions perhaps a reflection of the new soul-searching on the music within: Lennon was big into Bob Dylan’s introspective folk around its writing. Others say the photo (and title) capture their weariness with Beatlemania, now at its height, and constant commodification of their music.
The shoot was a doddle, according to McCartney: “It was easy. We did a session lasting a couple of hours and had some reasonable pictures to use…. The photographer would always be able to say to us, just show up, because we all wore the same kind of gear all the time. Black stuff, white shirts and big black scarves.”
Help!: The very groovy plan was originally for the Fab Four to arrange their arms to spell H.E.L.P in flag semaphore. Freeman, however, wasn’t happy with the “graphic positioning of the arms” and instead improvised. The ski garb the band are decked out in, meanwhile, is taken from the ‘Help!’ movie.
It’s a slight wonder the sleeve isn’t more out there, given ‘Help!’ coincided with a wild time for the band. “We were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period. Nobody could communicate with us because it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world,” said Lennon in 1980. Instead, it was another year till LSD began to influence their music and aesthetic…
Rubber Soul: Here’s where things start to get trippy. ‘Rubber Soul’ was the group’s first release not to feature their name on the cover, which in 1965 was unheard of. The story goes that one afternoon Freeman (him again!) was projecting photos of the band onto an album-sized piece of cardboard, in order to give them an idea of how the photos might look as the new cover…
When the projector’s slide card fell backwards, warping the projected image, the band were thrilled by the effect. “I liked the way we got our faces to be longer on the album cover. We lost the ‘little innocents’ tag, the naivety, and ‘Rubber Soul’ was the first one where we were fully-fledged potheads,” later said George Harrison, with Macca adding: “It was another example of our branching out.”
Revolver: The Beatles’ 1966 release featured a cover illustration created by German musician and artist Klaus Voormann, who they met in amphetamine-munching spell spent in Hamburg in the early 1960s. Voormann used personal photos supplied by the band members, which, in his words, “show their sweet side”.
If you look closely, Voormann’s own photograph as well as his name is worked into Harrison’s hair on the right-hand side of the cover. His design ended up winning a Grammy for Best Album Cover Or Graphic Art. The band may well have clinched it with its striking back cover too: the band in the studio, sunglasses on and contrast raised to hide stoned eyes, it’s rumoured.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The work of pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, inspired by one of Paul McCartney’s ink drawings. 57 photographs and 9 waxworks of famous individuals went into this iconic monster of a sleeve: all people the band admired, Bob Dylan and Lewis Carroll among them. The cover reportedly cost £3,000 to make, an absurdly extravagant sum at the time.
Included with the album was a sheet of cardboard cut-outs designed by Blake and Haworth, a postcard-sized portrait of Sgt. Pepper, a fake moustache, two sets of sergeant stripes, two lapel badges and a stand-up cut-out of the Beatles in their satin uniforms. Moore felt that these item would helped fans “pretend to be in the band”. Nice touch.
The White Album: A aesthetic U-turn after the beast that was the ‘Sgt Pepper…’ cover, this minimalist design included a tiny serial number in the bottom left corner. Richard Hamilton, who created the album with Macca, claimed the number was intended “to create the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies.”
In 2008, an original pressing of the album with serial number 0000005 sold for £19,201. The lack of a cover photo did little to dampen rumours the band could no longer stand each other, with the relationship between John and Paul said to be becoming more and more fractious. “It wasn’t a pleasant one to make,” Macca sheepishly admitted after release.
Yellow Submarine: Released in 1969, ‘Yellow Submarine’ featured an illustration of the band by Heinz Edelman in the style of the eponymous film, which also doubled as the film’s poster. The film and its sleeve were the peak of the Beatles’ psychedelic siege on the mainstream.
The UK and US versions of the LP had very different back covers: the British one featuring a review of the White Album from The Observer, and the US edition a illustrated biography of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, comparing their battle with the Blue Meanies to Beowulf at Heorot mead hall, King John’s signing of the Magna Carta and Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence.
Abbey Road: Originally titled ‘Everest’, after their sound engineer’s favourite cigarettes, Martin had arranged for the band be snapped at the foothills of Mount Everest. Instead, on August 8 1969, Lennon and McCartney took the decision to just walk outside, take a picture, and name the album after whichever street they were on.
Photographer Iain Macmillan was given just 10 minutes to take the snap while police held up traffic. The shot became the first Beatles cover to include neither their name nor album title. The cover became one of the most parodied ever. If you’re ever bored, there’s now a webcam dedicated to watching the street, where you can watch tourists in Birkenstock sandals imitate the Fab Four all day.
Let It Be: The sleeve for ‘Let It Be’ spoke volumes about the divides within the band as they neared the end. The black frame seemed funereal, as the clouds above the band blackened further. “Ringo had left at one point. I know John wanted out. It was a very, very difficult, stressful time… I got up and I thought, ‘I’m not doing this any more. I’m out of here,” said George.
The band were finished before the album was even released, capping an extraordinary decade, after which popular music was never the same. Their legacy – and those iconic album sleeve images – however, live on…