White Album at 50, That Iconic Cover Was Nearly a Smear Job

White Album at 50, That Iconic Cover Was Nearly a Smear Job

Richard Hamilton in London (circa 1968)

Richard Hamilton in London (circa 1968).

Paul McCartney remembered his conversation with Richard Hamilton like this: “Richard had a friend from Iceland, the artist Diter Rot, who used to send him letters smeared in chocolate, and Richard liked that a lot…” With that in mind, the conversation turned to other options: a brown coffee cup stain, a light green smear of apple pulp, Chinese takeaway remains, or maybe “somebody ought to piss on it.”

But upon reflection, Richard admitted the idea was “a bit flippant;” Paul said it would “just look like they printed it crappy.” While they rejected these ideas to make The Beatles’ next album cover not so plain and white, you can check any original “White Album” for stains, smears and other life residues from the past fifty years. Maybe they were just channeling the cover’s fate.

Long before talk of stains and smears, the new album’s design and title ran through several ideas. Early titles included Umbrella and A Doll’s House, the latter taken from a three-act play by 19th-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. George Harrison recalled that the original design idea was to have “a clear see-through sleeve on a clear see-through record… They’d had red see-throughs when we were in Hamburg in 1959 or 1960.” By June 1968, The Beatles had hired several designers for professional cover help.

One result was an illustration by British artist Paul Whitehead which depicted The Beatles’ as Mount Rushmore-style faces on a cliff overlooking a sea. “I was working as the Art Director for Time Out In London [sic],” said Whitehead, “and I had friends at Apple records and one, Wayne Bardell, told me that Apple was looking for ideas for the cover and possibly for material to go inside the cover. I submitted my design but they passed on it.”

Reports about other early covers have dogged the album’s history, but they’ve all fallen flat for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most frequently mentioned has been the intriguing child-like portrait titled “The Beatles” by Scottish playwright and artist John Byrne. Painting under the name “Patrick,” Byrne recently set the record straight, writing, “I created The Beatles artwork for [Alan Aldridge’s] The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics and NOT for the ‘White Album.’ I was never contacted by Paul McCartney nor anyone to do with The Beatles with regard to the ‘White Album.” After appearing as the frontispiece in Aldridge’s 1969 book, the picture ultimately covered the 1980 The Beatles Ballads LP.

In mid-July 1968, the British group Family released its LP Music in a Doll’s House, ending The Beatles’ use of the similar name and finishing the initial flurry of titles and designs. Now what? Building on his experiences with the group’s previous three records, Paul, by now The Beatles’ de facto art director, turned again to his friend and gallery owner Robert Fraser for advice. Fraser suggested that Paul speak to Hamilton about doing the next album’s cover art, and it was probably August or September before Paul and Hamilton met.

We’d got an album coming out, we really hadn’t got a title for it. I’d like you to work on the … I just had a feeling you might be right.

~ McCartney to Hamiltion

Their meeting would be the defining event for the cover, but it did not begin well. Hamilton was kept waiting outside Paul’s office for about an hour and began questioning if his involvement was a good idea. He recalled “feeling slightly irritable because of the wait” and was about to leave when Paul appeared. “He was very nice,” said Hamilton. Introductions aside, Paul got down to business: “We’d got an album coming out, we really hadn’t got a title for it. I’d like you to work on the … I just had a feeling you might be right.” “Why don’t you do it yourself?” asked Hamilton. Paul reassured him: “No, no, come on, be serious. What do you think?”

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (Richard Hamilton 1956)

What did he think? For over two decades Hamilton had been experimenting with all manner of visual arts and had extensive experience with the artistic elements that would eventually appear on the final cover. For example, in 1963 Hamilton set out to make a print, titled Five Tyres, which was pure white and applied “blind embossing,” a process that raises a design or lettering slightly above the surrounding surface so that the embossed and surrounding surfaces are the same color.

Similarly, as recently reported by author Kevin Bradford, Hamilton produced a series of ten monographs in the early 1960s for the William and Noma Copley Foundation, featuring selected works by a promising or prominent artist in each book. Seven books had pure white covers broken only by their artist’s last name debossed in black type in the lower right.

While Hamilton was credited as the series’ “Editor of Publications,” Anthony Atlas, Archivist for the Copley Estate, concluded that Hamilton’s “editor” role “probably included and certainly surpassed the straightforward work of a designer.” But some of Hamilton’s most famous works were collage-style posters, including what the Tate Gallery called his 1956 “icon of Pop art” titled Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? and another titled Swinging London 1967 – poster, a collection of newspaper articles about the 1967 arrest and drug-bust trial of Fraser, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards. When Paul asked what he thought, Hamilton was well-prepared to answer.

Hamilton said he began with his “habit always to look for the opposite.” But, for this album, the opposite of what? He reasoned that “Sgt. Pepper was their previous album and it was a great success, it had everything and everyone on it so there wasn’t any point in trying to beat that.” Then what would be Pepper’s opposite?

Hamilton let loose a brainstorm of creative ideas: “Make it look like a limited edition, something rare and special, and modern like a Fluxus publication… like a very small edition publication of poems…a very prissy thing.” “Have a completely clean sheet and just go white cover.” To which Paul reacted: “It’s a nice idea, but for what we were to people, and still are, it doesn’t quite fit, we’re not quite a blank space, a white wall, the Beatles.” Feeling a bit guilty, Hamilton countered with more ideas to offset the cover void: “Number each copy, to create the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies.” “Bounce an apple on a bit of paper and get a smudge.” “I would do a poster for you that goes inside.” Hamilton even asked if there had been an album simply called The Beatles, to which Paul said “No,” but then, surprisingly, had to check with EMI because he wasn’t sure. Hamilton said, “Let’s call it that,” although he didn’t want to see it on the cover. They also agreed that artist Gordon House would be responsible “for all production works.” It was all very spur of the moment and their meeting was likely quickly concluded.

Gordon House (occasionally misidentified as “Gordon Howes”) was an accomplished British painter, graphic designer, and typographer who had previously designed Sgt. Pepper’s back cover. House, too, was familiar with the artistic elements soon to appear on the cover, having designed the catalog for the 1961 “New London Situation” exhibition with the title embossed through a plain white cover, and a plain green catalog for a 1966 Marcel Duchamp exhibit, with the artist’s name vertically debossed on its front. This time, his job was to turn Hamilton’s to-do list – plain, white, numbered, eponymous title – into an album cover, deciding on their placement, position, scale, style, and color. And although Hamilton opposed placing the title on the cover, he surmised that House “must have succumbed to Paul’s insistence because I was surprised to find the band’s name on the final product, even if it was only embossed.” Art journalist David Buckman recalled that throughout House’s career, “clients knew that [he] would personally draw a whole package together.” He was the closer, the can-do guy.

Following his meeting with Hamilton, Paul discussed the results with the group and various others, recalling, “They said ‘yes’ and then they let me get on with it, really.” That is, except momentarily when John, who, perhaps facetiously, announced in his best Liverpudlian accent, “What we really want is a sleeve in white ‘fuurr.” House dutifully made a model of the idea in white flock paper, but it was soon overcome by the rush to production.

The album would include a poster with a collage on one side and a lyric sheet on the other. Collage had been a significant style in Hamilton’s work, and this part of the project interested him more than the cover. “Most of the design effort and expense went into [the collage]” he recalled. So, while House attended to the rest of the album’s design, Hamilton and Paul spent a week together in October creating the collage.

Hamilton asked Paul to talk to the group and “Get lots of snapshots: go back to all your baby photos, get photos of yourselves – any kind – and I’ll make a collage,” following the family photo pattern set by the covers of Revolver in 1966 and the “Strawberry Fields”/”Penny Lane” single in 1967. He remembered that his request was rewarded with “over three tea chests of the stuff.” The collage was assembled at Hamilton’s studio located in the back garden of his home in the Highgate suburb of London. They would begin each day at about noon and would work until four or five o’clock. The first few days were spent sorting and talking through images, selecting some and rejecting others. Some were resized, colorized or otherwise modified, and various photo arrangements followed. Paul recalled that Hamilton would “just sit there, looking at it, sorting it out, put this on, take that off.”

The final collage had over seventy images, some only fragments, arrayed on a plain white sheet. All but three were photos, of which about two-thirds were black and white. John and Paul each appeared about thirty times, George and Ringo each about twenty times. There were only ten photos with all four Beatles, and over half had only one. Brian Epstein, George Martin, and many others also made appearances. The pictures were the works of at least fourteen photographers, including John Kelly (photographer for Magical Mystery Tour), Hamburg-pal Jürgen Vollmer, and Linda Eastman (soon McCartney). Visual curios abounded, including a cat photo, and two pictures of Paul and two of John and Yoko in the buff.

Hamilton wanted the collage to be something you’d hang on a wall, larger than a 12- 3/8” square album cover. Having used various folding techniques in several previous works, he settled on a 22 ½” by 33 ¾” sheet– just under two albums wide and three albums high – which would neatly fold down to fit into a gatefold pocket next to a vinyl disc. One vertical fold and two horizontal folds defined six almost album-sized “pages.” Hamilton selected and arranged photos so that The Beatles would be roughly equally represented, and such that each page could be enjoyed both on its own and as part of a group that would appear as the poster was unfolded. “The folds worked out so that the top right-hand page was a sort of cover,” said Hamilton. “If you opened it up once you’d get a spread. Open it up again to get four segments and then you’d get a complete composition with the final sheet of all six segments making up a total image. It was a complex operation.” Hamilton was giving us not one but four posters cumulatively made up of one, two, four and six pages. At another time, he recalled an alternative way of unfolding that resulted in nine different collages. Regardless of the approach, Hamilton’s folds were a subtle way to get the greatest value from his art.

And the lyric sheet on the reverse of the collage? That was the work of Gordon House.

The finished album consisted of five graphic products. The gatefold album cover housed the other four parts, and initially had top-opening pockets rather than traditional side openings. The poster, with Hamilton’s collage on one side and House’s lyric sheet on other, was the largest and most complex visual element tucked into the gatefold. A set of four 8” by 13 ½” color photos of the individual Beatles, by photographer John Kelly, was also inserted. Plain black sleeves over the two vinyl records were in contrast with the ubiquitous white. And the new Apple Records labels, photographed by Paul Castell and designed by Gene Mahon, made their LP debut. The A-side label featured an uncut green Granny Smith apple; the B-side showed the white inside of an apple cut in half. Jeremy Banks, Apple’s “photographic coordinator,” was listed in the album credits but his contributions to the artwork are unclear.

The album’s gatefold cover was stark and white, inside and out. It’s unusually shiny cover slicks were made of Kromekote cast-coated paper which, according to its parent company CTI Paper, features a “brilliant, mirror-like gloss surface and smoothness.” The front was broken only by the eponymous “The BEATLES” embossed in block type just below and right of center, rising on a gentle slope from left to right, and a black seven-digit number preceded by a capital letter A, a dot or the abbreviation “No.”, in the lower right corner and slightly sloping downward from left to right. With at least thirteen countries printing numbered covers, it’s a good bet that the lower the number the more likely there were several LPs worldwide printed with it. While the back cover of stereo releases was printed with just the designation “Stereo” in very small grey type in the upper right corner, it was only the back of the UK mono releases that was true to Hamilton’s original idea: no text, no design, all white and plain. Inside the gatefold, a song list was in the lower right corner of the left page, and black and white prints of the four John Kelly photos were repeated across the bottom of the right page. As a final touch, Hamilton considered signing each LP, as he would any art print, but that was not to be.

The Beatles was released in the UK on November 22, 1968, and in the US on November 25. Author Richie Unterberger recently noted that by 1970 the album had become more commonly known by the nickname inspired by its cover design: the “White Album.”

Thanks to Anthony Atlas (William N. Copley Estate), John Byrne, Ed Dieckmann, Bill Durrence, Georgie Gerrish (Gerrish Fine Art), Jude Southerland Kessler, Axel Korinth, Mark Lewisohn, Nick Olney (Paul Kasmin Gallery), Peter (WhatTheFont), Patrick Roefflaer, Carol Sanders, Dan Shapiro (Cypher Arts and Galleries), John Stewart (The White Album Project), Roger Stormo (The Daily Beatle), Paul Whitehead and Charlie Yoe.

First published in Beatlefan, Issue #234 (Vol. 39, No. 6, Sept.-Oct. 2018), pp. 16-18. by Ken Orth (published in a slightly edited version)