This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most important rock albums ever made, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As every rock snob knows, Sgt. Pepper is widely hailed as one of the first concept albums (although, as some critics have pointed out, the songs don’t have all that much to do with each other). For the Fab Four and producer George Martin, the record represented new heights of creativity and experimentation in the studio.
Then there’s the iconic cover, which features the band members along with dozens of celebrities and public figures chosen by the Beatles and represented in cardboard cutouts and wax figures. There are actors, comedians, musicians, artists and philosophers, but here at HPB we couldn’t help but notice that authors make up one of the largest contingents. Here’s a look at the literary types on the most famous album cover in history.
The British author famous for Brave New World relocated to California in 1937 and became involved with mysticism and other spiritual subjects. His 1954 book Doors of Perception, which detailed his experiences with psychedelic drugs, was influenced on Timothy Leary and others in the hippie generation. Some have suggested a connection between this book and the Beatles song “Help,” in which John Lennon sings, “Now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors.”
The Welsh writer behind poems like “Do not go gentle into that good night” had a reputation that rock stars would appreciate—that of an erratic, drunken poet. Paul McCartney said: “I’m sure that the main influence on both [Bob] Dylan and John [Lennon] was Dylan Thomas. We all used to like Dylan Thomas. I read him a lot. I think that John started writing because of him.”
Carroll’s surreal literary nonsense and wordplay was a big influence on John Lennon. The Beatles song, “I Am the Walrus,” written the same year as Sgt. Pepper, was a reference to “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a poem by Carroll that appeared in Through the Looking-Glass. In a 1965 interview, Lennon said he read that book and Alice in Wonderland “about once a year.”
In 1964, John Lennon published In His Own Write, a book of essays and experimental writings full of puns and invented words. The critic John Wain wrote “The first thing any literate person will notice on reading through Mr. Lennon’s book is that it all comes out of one source, namely the later work of James Joyce.” Lennon wasn’t all that familiar with Joyce at the time but became a fan of Finnegan’s Wake, which would appear as a prop in the 1980 video for Lennon’s “Just Like Starting Over.”
William S. Burroughs
The American writer and Beat poet known for Naked Lunch lived in London during the 1960s and struck up a friendship with Paul McCartney via their mutual friend (and Burroughs’ lover) Ian Sommerville. Burroughs told an interviewer about hanging out with Sommerville and McCartney: “The three of us talked about the possibilities of the tape recorder. He’d just come in and work on his ‘Eleanor Rigby’…I saw the song taking shape.”
Shown on the cover wearing sunglasses, the satirical American author was known as the screenwriter of Dr. Strangelove and as a pioneer of “New Journalism.” In the mid 1960s, he lived in London and moved in the same swinging social circles as the Beatles and Rolling Stones. He was good friends with Michael Cooper, the photographer who shot the Sgt. Pepper cover.
There’s not much evidence for why the American writer of The Red Badge of Courage was included, but his position in the photo, with his hand raised over the head of Paul McCartney, has given fuel to conspiracy theorists who have mined the cover for hidden meanings related to the “Paul is Dead” urban legend.
Edgar Allan Poe
The American author of creepy poems and stories, pictured prominently in the top row on Sgt. Pepper, has the distinction of being mentioned in a Beatles song, the aforementioned “I Am the Walrus.” Lennon sings, “Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.”
George Bernard Shaw
One of three Irish writers shown on the Sgt. Pepper cover, Shaw was a playwright who wrote more than sixty plays, including Man and Superman and Pygmalion. He was also a fierce social critic with sometimes controversial political views.
The Irish writer noted for The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray was known for his style and wit. John Lennon, in his 1980 Playboy interview, said, “Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, Vincent van Gogh…were tortured by society for trying to express what they were. I saw loneliness.”
H. G. Wells
The English writer known mainly for science fiction (The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds) was also an outspoken socialist who was critical of English society. Aldous Huxley, also pictured on Sgt. Pepper, wrote Brave New World as a parody of Wells’ work, Men Like Gods.