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Peter Blake: The Story Behind Sgt Pepper and What Came

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ ground-breaking album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Having reached a creative peak following an enlightening trip to India and a new musical independence, The Beatles created a complex and dense, yet thoroughly listenable-to album. Rolling Stone magazine call it a “major canonical work”, and they’re not alone. This year everyone from the BBC to the New York Times are celebrating this 1967 masterpiece, but at the date of it’s release it was not only the music that created waves. The Pepper album art has become legendary in it’s own right. In honour of the primary artist behind this work – Sir Peter Blake – and as an extension to my latest article on the album as artwork, this essay will look at Sir Peter Blake’s life and oeuvre to date with special emphasis on his work within the music industry.

Knighted in 2002 for his services to art, Peter Blake is something of a British treasure. Born in Dartford, Kent, in 1932, Blake had a relatively traditional background in art training. After graduating from Gravesend Technical College he went on to study at the world-renowned Royal College of Art in London. It was here that he honed his distinctly British take on pop-art. Drawing inspiration from artists over-the-pond – including the hugely influential Andy Warhol and the well-respected Joseph Cornell – Blake helped turn a craze into a phenomenon.

In line with the US artists of the time, Sir Peter Blake used his surroundings as his subject matter. These were inevitably English, and inevitably mercantile. Considering the dawn of capitalism in the previous decade and the resulting incessant push for commercial purchases, Blake acknowledged that his medium – that which was around him – was itself commercial and popular. What was so insightful about his work was that he re-contextualised and juxtaposed images from advertising and celebrities with tongue-in-cheek humour, and stark portrayals of universal realities. His creations were not only important, but also immensely likeable. For this reason Blake became a stock favourite of pop musicians at the time, whose new found interest in expressive album covers meant Peter Blake was in high demand.

A colourful merging of yesterday, today and the promise of tomorrow, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band encapsulates Blake’s quirky, self-ironic and aesthetically irresistible style. Along with his then wife, Jan Haworth, Blake created something both timeless yet entirely of its era. In order to complete the final masterpiece, Blake – who was working closely with an original sketch by Paul McCartney – made sure to intimately involve the four loveable Liverpudlians in the art process. The famous 57 characters that make up the imaginary Lonely Hearts Club Band were picked largely by The Beatles themselves and represent a specific tie that each band member had to them. Lennon had originally requested that Ghandi, Hitler and Christ be included, a nod to his infamous and controversial involvement in the politics at that time.

Controversial and political is also a way to describe Blake’s next famous involvement with music: his design for the 1984 Live Aid cover. Replacing the 57 stars on the Lonely Hearts Club Band Album with 47 stars in a London studio, Peter Blake stepped in as the official Live Aid artist. Hired by the project’s leader, Sir Bob Geldof, Blake used his unique ability to catch an audience’s attention at a mere glance as a means by which to drive home the message of the project. The work’s juxtaposition of traditional fairytale images of caucasian, privileged children in glossy, cheery surroundings with the stark image of young starving children from Africa jolts the viewer into reality, shedding light on the real suffering of the people the project was aiming to help. It succeeds in instilling not only awareness but also guilt, an effect which would no doubt have been emphasised in its place on the record-store shelves next to the light and jolly Christmas singles of that year. In a style instantly recognisable as his, and similar to the one he used for the Beatles’ cover, Blake pushed a moralising message in a truthful, visually stimulating way.

Now in his 80s, Sir Peter Blake has just completed a new commission for the luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London. Showing his persistence, diversity of context and style, Blake has created his largest collage work to date. A clear harking back to his Beatles cover, Blake has once again assembled a team of celebrities (including Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr) to adorn the facade of the Hyde Park hotel, currently under renovation. This work, entitled “Our Fans”, is a far cry from the social importance of his Band Aid cover. This perhaps reflects his own personal stage in life being at a point where his aim is much more humble: to just continue to create art. Whatever it is, this author is not a fan of “Our Fans”, but one thing is certain: a Blake is a Blake, no matter where, when and what.

Image © Michael Cooper