Peter Blake and the Art of Rock and Roll

Keiron Pim He’s best known for designing the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but there’s plenty more to Sir Peter Blake, as a forthcoming show in Norwich demonstrates. He spoke to Keiron Pim.

Keiron Pim

For generations of pop music-lovers, the songs on an LP were only one aspect of its appeal.

When it came to capturing the music's spirit and that of the time in which it was released, the design on the record's cover was a crucial factor. Back in the days when vinyl was the main format, artists had a 12in-square canvas to work on and their creations often became iconic images associated with those eras.

Think of Pink Floyd's album Dark Side of the Moon and you think of Storm Thorgerson's image of light passing through a prism; if someone mentions the Sex Pistols, you're likely to picture Jamie Reid's ransom note-style artwork for Never Mind the Bollocks.The advent of CDs reduced the artists' space to about 5in by 4in and as CDs make way for digital downloads, that canvas has for many people been reduced to nothing, with music existing as an intangible file on an iPod.

But there was a time when it was all very different, as a forthcoming exhibition at a Norwich gallery demonstrates. If you think of 1967's 'summer of love', you're likely to picture Sir Peter Blake's vivid cover of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album, and the great pop artist's work is at the centre of the new exhibition at the St Giles Street Gallery.

Sir Peter Blake and the Art of Rock and Roll is the first show at the newly-extended and refurbished venue, which has almost doubled in size. Owner David Koppel, a former Fleet Street paparazzo, has built on the success of past exhibitions such as last year's Frank Herrmann's Unseen Beatles show, consisting of photographs from the Sgt Pepper recording sessions, some of which also make an appearance here. David's interest in pop music iconography has been evident throughout the six years he has run the gallery, and that interest has culminated in this new show featuring an array of album sleeves and photographs, all available as signed limited-edition prints.

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Sir Peter is 76 now and throughout his long career he has returned time and again to creating memorable album sleeves. This strand of his work began with Sgt Pepper in 1967 and takes in illustrations for the folk-rock band Pentangle, Eric Clapton's 24 Nights live album, Paul Weller's Stanley Road, Brian Wilson's Gettin' In Over My Head and the Band Aid single, Do They Know It's Christmas? All will be on display in Norwich. At the moment he is working on another commission, for the late Ian Dury's band The Blockheads.

It is the Beatles cover that stands out in most people's minds, however, but Sir Peter has mixed feelings about it.

“I think it has given me unwanted attention really. I have done such a lot more than that. I suppose eventually it will pass; it's now 40-something years ago and I don't think about it very much.”

Apart from every time a journalist asks him about it, presumably. Or whenever a copy of the album's sleeve is posted to him by fans who want him to autograph it and post it back, which he says still happens often.

The appeal is easy to see though. Created in partnership with his then wife Jann Howarth, and photographed by Michael Cooper during a three-hour shoot at Chelsea Manor Photographic Studios, Sir Peter's design incorporated waxworks and cardboard cut-outs of more than 60 of The Beatles' chosen icons.

On the 40th anniversary of the album's release last year, Norwich's own great pop artist Colin Self, a long-standing friend of Sir Peter, described the design as “like the first light shining through a newly-unlocked door to a new future”, and added: “It gained life from the fact that there are real flowers put in the foreground, and the cutouts and waxworks had life because they were not simply painted but stood in space.”

Sandwiched between Klaus Voorman's black and white illustration on Revolver and Richard Hamilton's stark blank cover for the White Album, Sir Peter's work for Sgt Pepper came as a vibrant burst of colour, symbolising the watershed in British culture that occurred during the 'summer of love'.

“The concept of the album had already evolved: it would be as though The Beatles were another band, performing a concert,” Sir Peter has said in the past. “Paul and John said I should imagine that the band had just finished the concert, perhaps in a park. I then thought that we should have a crowd standing behind them, and this developed into the collage idea.

“I asked them to make lists of people they would like to have in the audience at this imaginary concert.”

What resulted was an assembly of the diverse cultural icons floating around in The Beatles' and Sir Peter's collective consciousness in the spring of 1967. Aldous Huxley and Dylan Thomas rubbed shoulders with Karl Marx and Oliver Hardy. Oscar Wilde peers out from behind Albert Einstein, Lewis Carroll nestles between Lawrence of Arabia and Sri Lahiri Mahasaya (a Hindu guru, George Harrison's choice).

Sir Peter salvaged Sonny Liston from Madame Tussaud's after hearing that the ex-world heavyweight champion boxer was due to be melted down, and the model still stands in his famous treasure trove of a studio in Chiswick, south-west London.

And standing at the front were the Fab Four themselves, no longer the apparently clean-cut mop-tops of a couple of years before, but now musical warriors clad in brightly-coloured tunics, a subversion of military uniform for the peace-and-love generation.It is one of the great images in pop music but for Sir Peter, on top of the fact that he feels Sgt Pepper has eclipsed the rest of his career, what is particularly galling is that while it's indisputably his best-known work - the album has sold an estimated 32 million copies - he received only a one-off payment of £200 and hasn't seen another penny.

“It's still the same situation. Every now and then Apple has new management; Neil Aspinall has gone now,” he says, referring to The Beatles' confidant and head of Apple, who died recently. “There's still a narrow possibility someone might say it was a raw deal and recompense it in some way. But no one ever has.

“Robert Fraser, who owned the gallery where it was taken, had a contract with Apple which I knew nothing about, and he kind of sub-contracted me to do it. I just merrily went ahead and did it. It was exciting to do it, we didn't particularly think about the future at that time.”

In fact, while Sir Peter appears to be eternally affable and is courteous enough to discuss Sgt Pepper for the thousandth time, he's adamant that its only real benefit has been that it prompted much of his subsequent work.

“With the Brian Wilson one, it happened after I did an interview and during it I said, probably out of exasperation at being asked about Sgt Pepper, that I would much rather have done Pet Sounds. I think Brian's management picked up on that and said do you really mean that? I thought they were asking me to do Smile but it was an album called Gettin' in Over My Head.

“Paul Weller was a great fan of The Beatles and what I had done for Sgt Pepper. At that point I hadn't been asked to do a cover for quite a while. Someone contacted me and said would you be interested? It was the same really with Oasis. Noel is a great fan of Paul Weller and of The Beatles so it came about like that.”

Exploring the world of celebrity has been an abiding interest, often through collage, painting or a mixture of the two media. One of his best-known early paintings, Self-Portrait with Badges, showed him clad in a denim jacket covered with button badges, and clutching an Elvis fanzine. He remains intrigued by the icons of his youth but can see some new ones emerging that interest him.

“I suppose overall Marilyn Monroe is still the Hollywood icon and I guess always will be. I can't imagine she will be replaced. In rock 'n' roll Elvis and the Beatles would be the icons. But in the '60s I used imagery often from Twiggy and the equivalent today would be Kate Moss. I have done a couple of paintings of Kate Moss. I suppose Pete Doherty has become an icon of badness or naughtiness!”

Sir Peter is only one of an array of artists and photographers whose images will be on display at the Norwich gallery from Monday, July 14. Other famous record sleeves include two for Led Zeppelin: George Hardie's for Led Zeppelin I and Peter Corriston's for Physical Graffiti. There will be designs from albums by The Who, countersigned by Pete Townshend, and a wide selection of photographs of rock 'n' roll icons, taking in the Rolling Stones, Debbie Harry, Eric Clapton, INXS.

“We've got a great selection from Dave Hogan, who has been on The Sun for 30 years,” says David. “That is quite a coup, he is bringing out a book at the end of the year and this exhibition will give a taste of that. He has been on tour with Paul McCartney, Madonna, the Rolling Stones. We're lucky to have got him.

“We were rivals, brothers-in-arms, in my days on Fleet Street. He was The Sun's official photographer and I was the upstart, and we became The Sun's two showbusiness photographers.”

David's contributions to the show include digitally-manipulated shots of Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and Debbie Harry, all issued on brushed aluminium.

It is a fitting show to relaunch one of Norwich's prime exhibition spaces.

“We've made it more open-plan and it's going to be one of the largest privately-owned galleries in East Anglia,” said David. “We will be able to have bigger and better exhibitions, showcasing the work of more people than I could before. I'm bringing it into the 21st century - we are going to have video displays and more wall space than ever before.”

It should provide the ideal setting for an unprecedented collection of rock 'n' roll imagery in Norwich, a show that only goes to prove the enduring appeal of pop culture. Sir Peter and the other British and American pop artists made lasting art out of focusing on the ostensibly disposable elements of our culture, whether it's 'throwaway' pop music, or Andy Warhol's soup cans, or Roy Lichtenstein's comic strips. Sir Peter applies this attitude to everything he does, from self-portraits to album sleeves.

“I treat everything with the same respect,” he says, “so I don't see any of it as being any less important.”

t Sir Peter Blake and the Art of Rock and Roll runs from Monday July 14 to Saturday September 6 at the St Giles Street Gallery, 51 St Giles, Norwich. Opening hours are 10am to 5pm Monday to Saturday. Telephone 01603 663333 or e-mail for more information.