Autumn 2005

Multi-coloured mirrors

Alan Aldridge’s art direction of Beatles lyrics gave a graphic twist to the Swinging Sixties

In 1966 The Beatles’ LP Revolver was poised to make pop history, and Nova, the hippest magazine in London, had an exclusive on reviewing the album before its official release. Its editor Dennis Hackett asked Alan Aldridge, a London-based illustrator and art director, to make illustrations based on the song titles. Aldridge was not allowed to hear the songs, but he could read the lyrics for ‘Dr. Robert’ (John), ‘Taxman’ (George), ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (Paul) and ‘Yellow Submarine’ (Ringo). Aldridge made life masks of Ringo and Paul and a plasticine figure of George buried under his tax debt of hundreds of five-pound notes, while John was depicted as heart transplant doctor selling human organs from a dirty raincoat. This was the plum assignment that would catapult the self-taught Aldridge into being an elite member of London’s Swinging Sixties celebrities the British press had dubbed the ‘Young Meteors’.

Nova’s Beatle Issue hit the newsstands on the same day that Revolver hit the record shops and both sold furiously. Yet Aldridge recalls that many fans were aghast at how he had pictured the Beatles: ‘They were used to seeing them as cute and cuddly mop-tops,’ he says. Nonetheless, a week later he received a surprising phone call:

‘Is this Alan Aldridge?’ asked the caller with the distinctive Liverpudlian nasal twang.

‘Yeah this is me,’ Aldridge replied, knowing immediately who it was.

‘This is me, too, John Lennon; I just wanted to say I reeeaaallly like your work.’ [1]

‘Thanks I like yours, too!’

‘D’you sell stuff?’

Aldridge was caught off guard, as he never seriously thought of selling his work.

‘Yeah I got a few drawings!’ he said.

‘Maybe I’ll come by sometime, see ’em?’

‘Sure, I’m in Holborn.’

‘Oh by the way, yer got “Dr Robert” all wrong!’

A week later John Lennon visited Aldridge’s studio in John Street off Theobalds Road, on his way to Abbey Road. He was unrecognisable in his black cap pulled down over his face and a heavy dark blue overcoat with the collar turned up. Lennon was like a little kid ogling the Japanese tin toys arrayed with English lead soldiers on shelves, along with Corgi and Dinky Toys. Aldridge recalls, ‘He fiddled with the red Royal Mail van and said, “Heh, I ’ad wun-o- these,” and continued playing with the Magic Robot, a boxed set of Mr. Potato Head, a Brimtoy train set in mint condition and my favourite, a Dan Dare Walkie Talkie set.’

While Lennon was distracted by the toys, Aldridge grabbed the original ‘Dr Robert’ illustration and offered it to him as a gift, which he accepted with this caveat: ‘Yer got it wrong, Doctor Robert was a New York bloke, a drug doctor, who sold speed, injected vitamins, cured anything. Ta for the pic – it’s great, I gorra go.’ When he left he headed straight to the Abbey Road studio where the band was recording tracks for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

A few weeks later Aldridge received an unexpected package – the manuscript for The Penguin John Lennon, a compilation of Lennon’s two best-selling books of poems, A Spaniard In the Works and In His Own Right. ‘John requested I do the new cover,’ explains Aldridge, who dutifully produced an illustration of Lennon dressed up as a penguin. ‘I thought it funny,’ he says, ‘but the chief editor turned it down because it demeaned Penguin.’ Instead he asked for a photographic portrait and Aldridge, ever the sly accommodator, decided to photograph Lennon as Superman. ‘John was bigger than Christ, in the world’s biggest ever rock group, the world’s number one singer, songwriter, author of two best-selling books, film star, pop star! So I shot John wearing a Superman shirt and also did some close-ups of him wearing glasses with eyes painted on them.’ Everybody was happy until a Penguin lawyer said they needed dc Comics’ permission to reproduce the Superman logo. Ultimately, a triumvirate of executives denied them permission so the ‘S’ was changed to ‘JL’.

Aldridge’s graphic ties to rock royalty certainly enhanced his career. In fact, after seeing the Lennon cover, The Who’s manager Chris Stamp requested that he do their next album, A Quick One. ‘I came up with an idea where I painted ‘the’ and the letters ‘W-H-O’, then shot each letter on separate 35mm stills and asked The Who to come to the studio. Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, the silent John Entwhistle and Keith Moon, who back then looked like a little choirboy arrived.

I projected ‘THE’ on to Entwhistle, ‘W’ on Moonie, ‘H’ on Roger, and ‘O’ on Pete. The separate trannies then went to the retoucher (no Photoshop back then) to be put together. I loved the result and sent the finished 4x5 trannie to their manager, he loved it too. Pete didn’t love it. The ‘O’ on his nose made him look like a clown. He wanted to change the cover to a painted illustration. Worse, the album art was due at the printer in two days. So I worked like a lunatic; took song titles and elasticated them pouring out from a basic key line drawing of the boys filled in with trippy colours. Talk about Karma, when the album came out the cover got more good reviews than the album and Pete got pissed off all over again!’

Despite his lack of an art or design education, Aldridge was on a roll. As a teen he wanted to be Picasso, but had not read books about art or studied other designers, past or present. Although he took an eight-week graphic workshop (‘I thought it maybe had something to do with pornographic’) three evenings a week with tutors Bob Gill, Tony Palladino and Romek Marber who discussed the likes of Doyle Dane Bernbach, Richard Avedon, Gill Sans and television graphics and advertising, he was bored. After leaving one of these sessions another lecturer, Germano Facetti, famed art director of Penguin Books, asked Aldridge if he had paid the tuition fee. ‘I hummed and hawed then owned up to being broke. He gave me his address in north London and a phone number, [and] said he would give me freelance jobs to pay for the tuition.’ Facetti had Aldridge design books. And so as ‘not to be found out as a fraud’ he started educating himself by reading every art book on the local library shelves, where he learnt to steal Ben Shahn’s nervous line, Picasso’s rough and ready treatment of paint and Rauschenberg’s expressive collages.

‘My arty subterfuges seemed to work. Commissions poured in. People started whispering “genius”!’ Aldridge recalls. Eventually, he took over from Facetti as Penguin’s art director and later left the publishers to found his own studio.

Aldridge refused to call himself an artist, illustrator, or designer. Instead he was a self-styled ‘graphic entertainer’, a precursor of today’s designer-entrepreneur, who had created a moderately successful product called ‘Put-Ons’, tattoo skin transfers. He was also always pitching projects that could turn a profit. He even convinced Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager, to produce a book of Dylan lyrics. But when Sgt. Pepper’s was released in 1967, Aldridge had an idea that promised surefire success.

‘I noticed the initials of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ spelled LSD and decided that it would be fun to explore visually the hidden meaning in the Pepper’s lyrics. I called Paul (who I’d never met, but had his home phone number) and said I’d like to interview him [about this], and much to my amazement he not only said yes, he said let’s do it now and come right away to his house in St John’s Wood. You don’t argue with an edict like that.’ The interview and accompanying illustrations appeared in 1967 in The Observer under the headline: ‘A Good Guru’s Guide to the Beatles Sinister Songbook.’ Bags of fan mail rapidly followed. ‘It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that I was on to something. So I pitched a dummy of the book, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, which had three or four spreads of illustrated lyrics, to Peter Brown (Beatle manager Brian Epstein’s partner for many years) at Apple. The book would have all the lyrics from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘A Day In The Life’ illustrated by famous artists; I think I even mentioned getting Picasso, Dali and Magritte! Peter showed the layouts to John and Paul and got the boys’ okay.’

Having Lennon and McCartney’s sanction, however, did not mean Aldridge instantly nailed the book. He still had to present the project to Dick James, owner of Northern Songs, which published and co-owned the Lennon / McCartney lyrics. ‘Dick liked what he saw, then curve-balled me,’ Aldridge winces. ‘An American publisher had come to him with a similar deal, and had offered a lot of money, but since I had the boys’ okay he’d give me two weeks to get a publishing deal that gave him an advance of £20,000, a huge sum in 1968.’ For a week, Aldridge phoned every publishing house in London and New York, explaining the urgency. He was, however, turned down by everyone. ‘Not because of the large advance, but because they all thought the Beatle phenomena wouldn’t last another year.’ Desperate, he contacted British Print Corporation (BPC), one of the largest printers of magazines in the world because he had heard they were looking to start publishing books and had the money to do so.

At the presentation Aldridge told the BPC executives about James’ time frame and money requirements and was convinced they were not interested. On the final day BPC agreed, but as part of the arrangement the content had to be delivered in nine weeks. ‘I commissioned every artist and photographer I admired, sending each a song to do an image for,’ Aldridge recalls. [2] ‘The late 1960s were a time of free love, freedom of expression, an abandoning of morality. This was a book for the Beatles, architects of the Swinging Sixties phenomena, advocates of anti-social rebellion and spiritual mysticism and the contributions reflected this supposed new artistic freedom. When the pictures started arriving at my studio almost every one was pornographic: male and female genitalia abounded. And when I showed the first twenty pictures to the publisher he almost died and banned nineteen from the book. This is the reason I ended up doing so many pictures [myself], I was simply replacing banned pix!’

The illustrations were representative of the new decorative, symbolist, metaphorical, anti-Rockwellian movement, epitomised by the likes of Pushpin Studios and Don Ivan Punchatz. And the book was a veritable catalogue of 1960s illustration aesthetics. Taking a cue from Klaus Voormann’s Revolver cover, each drawing was bathed in symbolic intention. Individually some worked better than others, but as a critical mass they signalled a conceptual direction in popular art that was consistent with the revolution the Beatles triggered in music.

Aldridge’s own images were partly influenced by an unlikely duo: nineteenth-century cartoonist John Tenniel and twentieth-century surrealist René Magritte, yet he often rendered his work with airbrush using manners similar to American airbrush masters Robert Grossman and Charles E. White. They oozed with syrupy colour, psychedelic styling, and looked as though they were sculpted out of clouds. Some pieces, like the illustration for ‘I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,’ were over the decorative top; others set a standard. ‘Interviewers would ask about my influences back in the 1960s, usually after we’d exhausted the subjects of sex, drugs, groupies and the Beatles,’ Aldridge recalls. ‘It was hard to explain that these would Rolodex through the mind and somewhere along this aimless search a door would open and a voice say “come in, here’s where to look”.’ In the free-associative manner of someone on acid Aldridge further explains, ‘You enter, and the images now are more focused, adrenaline starts pumping, you know you’re on to something – Bosch, train stations, fighter planes, old ladies with keyholes sewn to their faces, Indian mystics, English gardens in the rain, Christ crucified, they all speed by accompanied by music that sounds like the final tumultuous strings of “A Day in the Life”, and suddenly there in your mind is the picture. That’s sort of how it works. I can never figure out how it’s possible to imagine a picture that until you draw it doesn’t exist in reality.’ After a moment of quiet contemplation he proclaims, ‘There were also British comics: Beano, Chips, Rainbow and most of all Film Fun. These and many other comics came out weekly and were filled with amazing strips of characters such as Laurel and Hardy, Desperate Dan (ways of eating huge cow pies with horns sticking through the pastry!) and the two tramps Weary Willie and Tired Tim, all beautifully drawn. As a kid I studied the drawings in comics – characters were rendered in a very rounded style, trousers looked like over-inflated sausages, cheeks always cherubic and the toe caps of boots bent upward and shined to a perfection that often cats would check out their reflection in them.’

There was at least one more influence: Aldridge discovered M. C. Escher and desperately wanted his work for the Beatles book. So he flew to Holland and met him at his house in Baarn; he bought a couple of prints intended for the book, but left them on the train. Minus Escher, the Beatles book came out in 1969 with a first printing of 1,250,000 copies. Foreign editions accrued – it was published in fifteen different countries – and its popularity soared. The book became a classic and Aldridge was golden.

Following publication, McCartney asked Aldridge to help with the logo for the Beatles’ umbrella organisation Apple Corps, which was founded as a hub for music, film and other creative products and was famously introduced at a widely broadcast news conference where Lennon announced the group’s utopian plans for creative world domination. ‘When Paul told me the name of the company I said he should get the rights to use the apple in the famous Magritte painting he owned, which apparently had been the inspiration for the name. In the end he went with a photograph and I got to handwrite the copyright notice around the outside of the label.’ Later, Derek Taylor, Apple’s public relations whizz kid, asked Aldridge if he would be creative consultant to Apple.

Work rained from Apple – ‘everything wanted in a rush’ – Apple letterhead, design for the centre of 45s, pr newsletters that were called ‘Lies from Apple’, for which Aldridge used a pear as the logo. Album covers for the Modern Jazz Quartet [Under The Jasmin Tree] who were signed to Apple, album cover for Wonderwall, the film and music by George Harrison, design for trippy wallpaper for the Apple store, design album cover for James Taylor. Then there were designs for Apple Valentine’s cards, and a World Peace postcard with ‘All You Need Is Love’ on it, intended to be sent to every important political and entertainment personality in the world (that never happened).

Apple was only one of Aldridge’s projects. At the time he designed the Goodbye Cream album cover and the Chelsea Girls poster for the premiere of the Andy Warhol film in London, a rather racy specimen that caused London police to issue a warrant for his arrest on pornography charges. ‘So I went into hiding for a couple of days while my lawyer got the charges dropped. Christ, you know it ain’t easy, this was Swinging London and I’m being persecuted and hunted for a pair of nipples.’

The breathtaking pace was probably the envy of any designer. He worked every day with The Beatles as they dreamed up more and more projects. He also worked with The Rolling Stones on their ambitious Rock and Roll Circus, created a children’s animation series with Pink Floyd music, worked on a theatrical project with Peter Sellers, created an Elton John cover and lyric book and put together a second Beatles Illustrated Lyrics.

Then Apple abruptly changed course. Money was flowing out and hatchet men and bean counters were brought in – things got nasty. At the same time that Apple was turning rotten, Aldridge was asked to do a poster campaign for the Labour Party under Prime Minister Harold Wilson for the 1970 general election, which signalled a different kind of disaster. ‘I was called to Downing Street to meet him and his team of PR and advertising specialists,’ recalls Aldridge with a shudder. ‘Would I design their poster campaign they called Yesterday’s Men? They wanted to show the opposition Conservative Party members as tired out old men. A week later I’d done sketches and went to Downing Street to show my proposal of doing Heath and his cabinet, seven men in all, as three-dimensional caricatures looking mean and nasty.’ With Labour’s approval he made the plasticine figures got them photographed and the posters went up all over Britain. A furore ensued with the opposition and many newspapers calling it the worst smear campaign in the history of British politics. Aldridge received his share of the vilification and at the same time Apple financially bled to death.

‘I’d had enough. Swinging London wasn’t swinging anymore. So I bought a 30-room Georgian mansion where I could sit and draw till the cows came home. I would do a children’s book influenced by an 1806 book of poems called The Butterfly’s Ball.’ In 1973, much to Aldridge’s surprise, his psychedelic The Butterfly Ball & The Grasshopper’s Feast sold 50,000 hardback copies in its first three weeks of publishing, and went on to reach 250,000 by Christmas, and over a million worldwide in its first year, in ten languages. It spawned a cartoon movie, merchandise and a hit album and concerts by Deep Purple’s Roger Glover.

‘Young Meteor,’ Aldridge exclaims. ‘A shooting star more like. I’d found a new career, one where I could sit and draw to my heart’s content, and big fat royalty checks fell through the letterbox every few weeks.’ All thanks to a few illustrations of Beatle lyrics, and a book which today remains a classic of its kind.

1. All John Lennon’s dialogue remembered and spoken with mock accent by Aldridge.

2. Included were Milton Glaser, Tomi Ungerer, Jan Lenica, Robert Grossman, Peter Vos, Art Kane, Nigel Holmes, Ronald Searle, James McMullan, John Alcorn, David Hockney, Ralph Steadman, Barbara Nessim, Peter Max, R. O. Blechman, Roger Law, Rick Griffin, Roland Topor, David Bailey and many more.

Alan Aldridge currently spends his time between Los Angeles and London and is currently preparing a book of illustrated BeeGees lyrics.

First published in Eye no. 57 vol. 15.


Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.