This week* marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most celebrated record albums of all time, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I am, above all other geekdoms, a Beatles geek.
Unpopular opinion time: (small voice)Sgt. Pepper is overrated(/small voice). I know, what kind of fan am I? But no, really, it’s a good album—one of the best albums ever—I love it. I named my imaginary all-girl Beatles Tribute Band, Lovely Rita and the Meter Maids, after the 10th track, and the final track, “A Day In the Life”—heck, just the final nearly-minute-long-reverberating chord alone—is one of the greatest masterpieces in rock history. It’s just, in relation to the rest of the band’s output, it’s probably closer to their third or fourth best album. The truly most quintessential Beatles album is Revolver. My personal favorite album is Abbey Road.
The thing that really sets Sgt. Pepper apart has very little to do with the music: it’s the cover.
The cover was designed by Peter Blake, based on suggestions from the band. They’d wanted it to look like they were a band with a long history and a lot of famous hangers-on. “Who would this band like on the cover?” Paul described their thinking process in Anthology. “Who would my character admire? We wrote a list. They could be as diverse as we wanted; Marlon Brando, James Dean, Albert Einstein—or whoever…. It got to be anyone we liked.” Blake blew up pictures of everyone they could legally get a picture of onto life-size cardboard cutouts and arranged them behind a fancy garden, and photographer Michael Cooper set the Beatles in the middle (right beside some wax figures of their slightly younger selves) and took the picture.
It’s a cover you can stare at for years, trying to pick out every detail.
So here’s a project for you this auspicious week: who would you put on your Sgt. Pepper cover? What crowd of icons do you want hanging around with your band?
A few years ago I did this project at the library in honor of the anniversary of the Beatles’ first trip to America. I used somewhat random groups of storytime kids as my bands. You, on the other hand, just need your family.
First, assemble your look. The Beatles went for psychedelic military. You do you: sunglasses and feather boas, leather and boots, whatever you think your band might wear for a show. Then grab some instruments, whether you can play them or not, and whether they’re real or not. At the library we had a lot of maracas and a broken Rock Band guitar.
Then, pose together, with your costumes and instruments, and take a picture or a few.
Now, here’s where you might prefer to go your own way from what I did. Something must be done about the background of your photograph. The background it has now is not going to be on your album. Maybe you feel comfortable cutting out each member of the band by hand. Maybe you want to edit the background out with photo editing software. Maybe you have your own green screen! You know what I did? Pasted each image into Microsoft Word and used the “Remove Background” picture tool to cut as much of the background as I could.
You need this space, because the real album cover background is going to be highly populated. Grab yourself a pile of magazines and look for people you’d like to have backing up (or at least hanging out with) your band, and cut them out—again, with as little background left as possible.
Paint a background on a 12″ by 12″ sheet of cardstock or cardboard (note: the kids at the library mostly skipped this step, but yours can probably look better not cardboard-colored). Then arrange all your cutout people, including your family band, into a group shot pose, and glue in place.
I found a good image of a Sgt. Pepper drum online, edited out the words, and printed one for each participant to mark with their own album title, or band name, or both. Of course, on the original cover, the Beatles spelled their name out in flowers below the drum. You can do that, too, if you’re feeling ambitious!
Each child at the library program did their own album cover, separate from the rest of the kids in their “band,” and they used whatever magazines we had, without always knowing exactly who they were cutting out. But you might want to put more thought and discussion into this project as a family, choosing people you know and agree on, and working together. Then you can frame your family band portrait, hang it in a place of honor, and feel like true rock stars!
*The official release date was June 1, 1967. But it was released on June 2 in the United States, and a lot of stores put it out as early as May 26, so celebrate whenever feels best to you.