Album covers: White album

The Beatles (aka White Album) – Richard Hamilton or John Kelly

In June 1968, shortly after the beginning of the sessions for their next album, the Beatles commissioned various designers to come up with sleeve ideas. One was a psychedelic drawing on a gate fold cover. The illustration presented the title on the front and on the back the Beatles’ faces in a mountainside overlooking a sea. Another idea was a transparent cover which would reveal a colour photograph as the record was pulled out of the wallet.

Some suggest that a drawing by John Patrick Byrne (Patrick), used in the eighties as the front cover of compilation album called The Beatles Ballads, is one of the rejected covers for the album. It was not.

An early attempt at the album cover, when it was still referred to as A Doll’s House.

At that time, John had wanted to call the next Beatles album “A Doll’s House”, after a play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. But that title had to be scuppered when, around the middle of July, “Music In A Doll’s House” arrived, the debut LP from Roger Chapman and Family.

When in the fall there was enough material for a double album, that possibility was considered. The concept of two vinyl albums housed in a gate fold sleeve had rarely been seen outside the classical field. There were only two precedents: Zappa’s “Freak Out” and Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde”. It was decided that the cover of the album had to be in stark contrast to the kaleidoscopic covers of their two previous releases.

Again Robert Fraser was asked for an established artist. This time, he suggested Richard Hamilton (45), the inventor of Pop Art. Paul knew his work and a meeting was arranged at Apple. In Blinds And Shutters, the book of Michael Cooper, Richard recalled the meeting with Paul: “Since Sergeant Pepper was so over the top, I explained, I would be inclined to do a very prissy thing, almost like a limited edition. He didn’t discourage me so I went on to propose a plain white album; if that were too clean and empty, then maybe we could paint a ring of brown stain to look as if a coffee cup had been left on it – but that was thought a bit too flippant.”

As a reference to the Apple label, he suggested to bounce an apple to a bit of paper and create a smudge, “a very light green smear with a bit of pulp.” But because that might prove too hard to print, the idea had to go.

In an interview for Beatles Unlimited (BU 98-99) photographer John Kelly claims the idea of a white album was his: “At the time I did a whole lot of fashion and beauty kind of stuff and I was very much into white. Different shades of white and I made a Christmas card which was all white. I printed matte white lettering on it. You couldn’t really read it unless you held it at a certain angle …. So white was it for me in that period and John Lennon in particular was fond of white. He used to wear all white during that period. I got this idea to do this cover, also the idea of the numbers on the album sleeve. The Beatles liked the idea.”

Paul however remembers it was Richard Hamilton who suggested that each copy was to be individually numbered. “I also suggested that they might number each copy,”agrees Hamilton, “to create the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies.”

EMI was not as enthusiastic as the Beatles about the idea, but Paul persuaded them: “Look, records must go through something to put the shrink wrap on or to staple them. Couldn’t you just have a little thing at the end of that process that hits the paper and prints numbers on it?”

So every LP got a unique stamped serial number. The numbers 000001 to 000020 were for the Beatles themselves and their friends. “We got the first four,” Paul later recalled. “I don’t know where mine is, of course. Everything got lost. It’s all coming up in Sothebys I imagine. John got 000001 because he shouted the loudest. He said ‘Baggy, number one!” He knew the game, you’ve gotta bagsy it!” George Martin got number 000007 and Derek Taylor 000009.

Each factory numbered differently: there are reportedly twelve copies of number 000001.

They numbered over 3 200 000 of them. Collecting variations in numbering style can be an interesting sideline. Obviously the lower the stamped number the greater the value, so now 0050000 would be about £100, whereas 0000010 could be worth £5,000.

But the album still had no title. Richard Hamilton suggested ‘The Beatles’. Because Sgt. Pepper’s was named after a fictitious band and the four of them not always played together as a group, it seemed a good joke to name the double album again after a fictitious band: so The Beatles it was.

Another thing that proved to be difficult was the embossing. John Kelley: “The (title) on the album cover was embossed. It was therefore somehow raising the surface of the album cover. The printer said that they could not get a hundred albums, which is the normal standard packing, in a package to send to people. It could only keep 98 or 99. So there was discussion going on to keep or drop the plan of embossing… It all went through at long last, but it proved to be a bit of a struggle.”

After a while Richard Hamilton had second thoughts: “… but then I began to feel a bit guilty at putting their double album under plain white wrappers; even the lettering is casual, almost invisible, a blind stamping. I suggested it could be jazzed up with a large edition print, an insert that would be even more glamorous than a normal sleeve.”

For a fortnight in October 1968, Paul drove almost daily to Hamilton’s house in Highgate, to work together on the collage. Paul: “It was very exciting for me because I was interested in art, and now I could be his assistant for a week… gather the pictures and make new prints. And then I could watch the whole week while he made the collage. It’s great to watch someone paint. The fine thing was that he eventually filled the whole collage with pictures and then added the white paper to that he sticked everywhere, to give it some space… He explained that it could breathe that way.”

White album poster – Richard Hamilton/Paul McCartney

Most of the recent pictures were taken by John Kelley, though some of the pictures of Paul were taken by his new lover, Linda Eastman.

On the back of the poster, the lyrics are reprinted.

Gordon House suggested to make four portraits, for the inside of the gate fold cover. That’s a job for John Kelly.

Again Kelly states he suggested the idea: “I said: ‘If you have a white cover, you should have some pictures of yourselves inside. Not all together like the “head shot” but individual ones, just straight and simple so the fans have something.’ They agreed to do that and I did them at Apple. Well three of them. A nice easy picture of them, no incredible lightning or so. That was at the time that Paul couldn’t decide to go shaved or unshaven. We had ‘words’ about that and several attempts. Paul’s picture, by the way, was taken at Cavendish Avenue.”

The Beatles individual portraits – John Kelley

The colour photographic prints of the band are also inserted in the sleeves.

The UK issue opened from the top, for the first pressings; the US issue took a more standard approach by opening from the side. Another difference was that the four colour photos were slightly smaller in the US than the UK issue. Early copies were issued with a protector sheet placed on the top of each photo and have custom black inner sleeves.

Taken from Patrick Roefflaer’s excellent article on the Beatles’ album covers.

4 Responses

  1. Kwai Chang says:

    Alright, what's up with the cencored poster? I think Ausralia did remove the TwoVirgins drawing and 'bed' pic. I don't remember them removing the little pic of Paul. Anyway, quite an awesome piece of work. I agree, the story of the different numbering on the cover and all the different 'prefixes' deserves to be explained. Thanks, Roger!

  2. jf says:

    Nice blog. Sorry my first comment on it is a nitpick: The artwork you attribute to Alan Aldridge was actually done by "Patrick," pseudonym of John Byrne. He did a few things for Stealers Wheel and Gerry Rafferty as well.

    Both painters are wonderful, and their work shares a surreal and highly detailed approach.

  3. peerke says:

    Thanks for the correction, jf. Of course you are right about John Byrne. I somehow confused "Patrick" with the illustrator of the Beatles lyrics books, Alan Aldridge.


  4. Donnie says:

    My White Album cover says Electrola Gesellschaft M. B. H. .,Koln-Braunsfeld. Printed and made in Germany by Heinrich Nicolaous G.m.b.H. It is embossed with the title in white and stamped no. 0303157. My mom brought it home to me from Germany. It came from a German called Globus. I think that it is an early copy.

Leave a Reply