.The Truth Behind the Most Iconic Beatles Cover

On Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Paul McCartney sings one of the Beatles’ slipperiest lyrics: “And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right.” Equally slippery has been Sir Paul’s memory of how much he contributed to the cover of that album, which has gone on to be arguably the most famous and pored-over piece of artwork in the history of rock music. And he’s not the only one; as the legend of the 1967 album cover—a photograph of the Beatles in day-glo uniforms, surrounded by dozens of cutouts and wax figures of historical and pop culture notables, including their own mop-topped early incarnations—grew, more and more people seem to have remembered how much credit they deserve for it.

Jann Haworth says it doesn’t matter much to her whether people think McCartney’s wrong or right. She and then-husband Peter Blake were the artists who put together the album cover’s collage, which was photographed by Michael Cooper. The daughter of Oscar-winning Hollywood art director Ted Haworth, Jann grew up in Hollywood before moving to London in 1961 to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. With the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper this year, Haworth looks back on the album cover and its aftermath with a certain bemused distance, but she’s also revisited the concepts she and Blake employed for it on more recent projects that combine her artistic and political passions.

Haworth will be on the Santa Cruz airwaves this weekend, doing an interview on KPIG about the anniversary of the album cover at noon on Sunday, Aug. 13. She spoke to me about what it was like to co-create the world’s most recognizable piece of rock art by phone from her home in Salt Lake City.


You met the Beatles long before the Sgt. Pepper album. How did it happen?

JANN HAWORTH: It wasn’t their first concert in London; it was possibly the second, at Luton [in 1963]. And we’d gone down with Bob Freeman, who was photographing them at that time. And Bob, in a funny sort of way, almost palmed them off on us, saying “oh, you know London. They haven’t been to any of the clubs. Why don’t you take them to the clubs after the concert.” So we did that.

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Having met them that early on, what was it like to see the incredibly meteoric rise they had not long after?

We went to L.A. in the fall of  ’63, and Peter made a point of taking the Beatles album with us. And no one wanted to listen to it. It was just sort of “Eh, OK, you’re coming with your little English album.” And then within weeks of our trip, it was just like everything in L.A. was the Beatles. It was the Beatles weather, and “the Beatles time today is …” I mean, it really was ridiculous. My father thought it was terribly funny, because he had listened to the album, and responded to it rather well, and he caught us up with the fact that you couldn’t move in L.A. without running into something that related to the Beatles. A couple of people we had played the album for sort of laughingly communicated with us, saying “wish we’d listened.”

You don’t seem like you were too impressed with the Beatles at the time.

You know, I think it’s very hard to imagine back, because nostalgia and all sorts of stuff gets in the way. I always had a fairly detached sense with the Beatles, because my ear was American and I was interested in, you know, Bo Diddley and that area of music. Chuck Berry and stuff was what I was tuned to. To me, this was kind of a “boy band,” and coming as I did out of Hollywood—if you grow up on the backlots, nothing impresses you very much. It doesn’t mean anything to have met Marilyn Monroe, because you don’t know her, you just have met her, and so what? So it wasn’t something that to me was like an arc of excitement. It simply was a band … they’re just people. It was more interesting to me that I had dinner with Francis Bacon, because there’s more common ground to talk about, more curiosity, more sort of interest for me personally. [Pop musicians] have a way of being very ordinary.

Did working with them on the cover change your opinion of them at all?

Well, not really. I mean, going back a little bit, I went to one of Yoko Ono’s performances when she was with her former husband and did a piece at St. Martin’s School of Art. And it was just another kind of thing, you know? It was kind of weird, kind of stupid and kind of annoying and curious and so forth. So on an artistic level, there really wasn’t any entry point for Peter and I, unless we’d sat around and hung out, I suppose, which we weren’t inclined to do. We had other things to do. We wouldn’t have entered in on the music level of what they were doing, I don’t think. That would have been a spectator sport—not something that we would’ve really been able to understand the same way we understood the language of painting and talking about sculpture and art and so forth. I’m sure that the level of their musical significance, their abilities, their insight and their creativity in those fields is outstanding. But we wouldn’t have had access to that in the same way that we did to our own fields.

So how did you come to work on the cover?

Well, it really came through Robert Fraser; he was a gallery dealer in the ’60s, and both Peter and I were with his gallery. He was

Jann Haworth artist iconic Beatles cover Sgt Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band
Jann Haworth now, in front of a photo of her at the time the album cover was shot. Her then-husband Peter Blake is third from right in the front row. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JANN HAWORTH

our dealer, as it were. He also represented a lot of other people; the list of people that he showed is just completely remarkable. He was showing New York artists, Richard Lindner and Jim Dine and Dennis Hopper. I mean, it’s just amazing. Peter always said that we introduced [Robert] to the Beatles, I don’t know if that’s actually accurate or not. But he became very friendly with the Beatles, and he showed John and Yoko in an exhibition at the gallery. He was kind of in with them. And what happened was there was a design for the cover by Simon [Posthuma] and Marijke [Koger]—they called themselves “The Fool.” And Robert didn’t like that cover—he didn’t think it was suitable for the music. And he suggested Peter and I. So it was kind of like replacing one couple with a second couple.

I’ve always heard that of the Beatles, McCartney was more of the mastermind of the concept. Is it true that he was that involved?

Paul’s story has changed. He [originally] made no claims on it, as was appropriate. Now he has sort of backhoed that story into that it was all his idea. Which is really pretty disrespectful to Peter, because Peter claims he did it all. Paul now claims he did it all. I claim I did 50 percent. So it’s 250 percent of a cover. But I think it’s the retelling of the story—I’m sure he believes what he’s saying, it just happens to be inaccurate. And it’s surprising, because he and Peter maintained their friendship. And it’s an affront to Peter to say that. And it’s so childish, because at the very least he could be generous to his friend, and even if he thinks he did it, he could afford to be generous. Having said that, personally I don’t actually care that much. But I think it is a good example of how stories morph. You start telling your family or your friends “Well gosh, you know, I did that and I did this,” and you’ve got to stick to it because you said that. And so then you get kind of unhappy when somebody contradicts you.

It seems like many people over the years have gradually remembered how much credit they deserve.

Nigel Hartnup, who was the assistant to Michael Cooper, now claims that he actually pressed the button on the photograph that they used. Well, the normal set up for a photographer is to stand there and say “OK, move to the left, lift your head, hey I like the way the light’s hitting your nose, now turn a little bit this way,” while your assistant actually presses the button when you tell him to. So I think that would be the origin of that. The photographer is being the director, his assistant is quite happy just pressing that button. But that’s hindsight, a cherry-picking kind of vision of something that, again, like nostalgia, gets in the way of what is a simple fact.

How would you break down what Peter did on the cover, and what you did?

There’s a direct line between Peter’s work and the aspects of the cover that he did, and there’s a direct line from my work to the aspects of the cover that I did. It’s really simple: the life-size [concept] is directly from my work, and directly from my work is I hate imposed lettering, I like to control it. I didn’t want somebody else to. Peter is direct on things like a very straight set-up of “this is a way you photograph a group of people.” A band could have their fans behind them—he loves the whole fan thing—and it’s an easy way to make a collage of heads to take photographs. The life-size was straight from movie stuff, with the 2-D heads in photographs and front row 3-D. That’s what my dad did. I nicked the idea off of movies. Oh yeah. I mean it’s straightforward. But then it gets all buried in the retelling, I think.

I’ve always wondered about the legend of how you had to get an OK from the living people who were going to be featured. How much of that is true?

Well, my memory of that differs from other accounts, and I wouldn’t want to argue with that. But my memory is we finished the photographs, the shoot day, and Brian Epstein suddenly said “oh crap, we have to get permission from everybody, because they might sue us.” And the story as it’s written up is that EMI thought of this, but as it was presented to me it was Brian saying “oh my god, we’ve got to get this straightened out.” And so it was at that point, when it was all done, that telegrams and letters went flying out. Which was pretty funny. And I remember that it was pretty panicky, which would suggest that it was after. And so the letters went out, and the first things back were affirmative, and then there was one from Leo Gorcey saying he wanted 200 dollars, and we weren’t going to have that kind of money go out. So we just took him out of the photograph, and that suggests to me, too, that it was after. If we removed Leo Gorcey from the photograph, it means the photograph was already taken. He was photographed in the actual take. And then Mae West famously said, “What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?” Which is lovely. So they wrote her and kind of cajoled her. And that worked out, and we kept her. And she was my choice as a head, so that’s why I love that.

What was the hardest part of the shoot?

I suppose I’m struck in retrospective that maybe one of the hard things to process that I’ve been aware of is the kind of statistics on the shoot, if you look back and see how many people died connected with that, not all that long afterwards. It seems a very kind of sad moratorium on it. I mean, there was this thing of  “Paul is dead.” Well, he isn’t, but a lot of other people are. John, obviously, but Mal [Evans, Beatles assistant and roadie] and Michael [Cooper] of drug overdose, and Robert Fraser of HIV, and Brian Epstein. And then tangentially to it, of course, Brian Jones and Keith Moon, I mean, that whole circle of people—a lot of them present in those photographs, the outtakes and stuff. And you have to say something about that. That’s, to me, chronically sad, and it’s never built into the narrative. There’s a story there that’s different than the hippie dream and flower power. It was costly. There’s also the parallel timing of the Redlands raid [of Keith Richards’ home in Sussex], that was all going on in court underneath the making of Sgt. Pepper, so there must have been—I only just realized this in retrospect—a high level of tension with the people concerned, because they didn’t know if they were going to jail. In fact, Mick [Jagger] was, until the appeal came down, and Robert Fraser did go to jail … So the subtext—we harvest all the prettiness and the flowers and the costumes, and wasn’t it all pretty and fun and isn’t it interesting, but there’s this terrible stream underneath it. Which is not to pull it under, but it’s to say that what life is like—it has this dichotomy going on the whole time and nobody wants to talk about that. They want it to look back and say “oh, it’s all so pretty.”

As the album cover has gained this legendary status, is it crazy to you how much energy people have put into trying to dissect every little bit of meaning to these figures and absolutely every other aspect of it?  

Oh, it’s just interesting, because it makes you reflect on things like the grassy knoll and say “we can find so many things in there.” Somebody said, “Oh yeah, hold the mirror horizontally on the drum and you’ll see that it says this.” You know, it’s just playful and kind of fun, but it does put the lie to other conspiracy theories, and tells you that no, it didn’t happen that way. Because I know it didn’t. And, you know, somewhere along the line there is an actual thing that actually happened—you didn’t make the guitars spell “Paul?” And those aren’t marijuana plants. And it’s Issy Bonn waving, it isn’t the Hindu sign of death over Paul’s head. That was really funny when all that came out. It was quite glamorous to be in England, and have people calling you from Rolling Stone to say “So, is it true that Paul is dead?” Pretty funny.

One of the “mysteries” of the cover I remember hearing about was why Shirley Temple is in there three times, and if the doll wearing the Rolling Stones shirt is Shirley Temple or not.

Yes, it was Shirley Temple. It was a figure that I made and the old lady whose lap she’s sitting on is also a figure that I made. Somebody put the T-shirt on Shirley Temple, I don’t know who. It was just not there one day and then the next morning when I came in to work it was there. So that was that.

So it’s your Shirley Temple obsession that has kept obsessive Beatles fans up at night all these years.

Well, I apologize for that. I really don’t want to own that, but yes. Peter and I both thought Shirley Temple was wonderful. It was pre-having my daughter and you know we were gearing up for kids’ stuff, I think.

Not that long after the album was released, other bands started sort of doing these tributes and parodies of the album cover, like Frank Zappa’s cover for ‘We’re Only In It For the Money.’ What did you think when you started to see those?

I thought the Zappa cover was hilarious. I thought it was absolutely wonderful. Peter hated it. I mean, I just think it’s funny. Somebody got me one that was a take-off on the cover that was a conference of colonoscopy doctors. So they’re all in their rows, with the word “colonoscopy” spelled in flowers. That is so classic.

And you’ve paid tribute to it in your own subsequent work.

It’s something that as a format has been interesting to revisit. Rolling Stone did their “Greatest 500 Albums of All Time” in 2003, and somebody pointed out to me that Sgt. Pepper was number one, which I thought “Oh, that’s nice.” And then I was thinking about the cover, and sort of disciplining my thoughts to say “hey, it’s not about the cover, it’s about the music.” But I wanted to look at the cover in review that much later. From that came the idea of doing a revamp on it myself, as a mural in Salt Lake. So we did SLC Pepper as a community project; about 30-33 artists worked on it, doing stencil portraits of different people. And the idea behind that was that you did people who were catalysts for change—to look again at the level of choices on the Sgt. Pepper cover and say, “Hey, not good enough. We’ve moved on. Let’s look at this a little more seriously, and say, ‘Who does what, and who has actually made stuff happen?’” So we can do Mother Jones and we can do Tracy Chapman and we can do Steve Earle or Peter Gabriel. What’s happening out there both in the arts and in social activism. Then again in 2008, I was thinking about doing a women’s history mural which we just, eight years later, finally brought to fruition and are doing that same format again … We have Mata Hari and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama and Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina. And Bessie Smith and Nefertiti, and—well, 156 people. It’s now 36 feet long, and we’re going to be taking it to TEDWomen in New Orleans in November, and by then it will be 60 feet long. It’s going to be traveling all over the place to different venues.

Aside from the fact that you’ve been able to use the popularity of the album cover to further projects that are important to you, what has the legacy of the album cover been like? Is it annoying to see Peter claiming too much credit, or Paul claiming too much credit?

Well, you know, I don’t take those things seriously, really. I’m glad it’s there, but it was just one thing. You know, the job. I take it as being a good thing to have done, but I’m not going to revel in it.


The ‘Sgt. Pepper’ Story on Local Airwaves

Jann Haworth will be interviewed on KPIG, 107.5 FM at noon on Sunday, Aug. 13.



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