At first it was twenty years (ago today), then thirty years, then forty, and now it’s fifty years since the release of this famous Beatles album.
As time recedes this record rises like a landmark from the multicolour haze of the 1960s if not of the entire history of popular music, and it’s still in many ways an odd-looking icon. But how was it first perceived?
Even at the time of its release in 1967 the front cover was depicting a strange selection of people. There were a few obvious heroes like Laurel and Hardy, Marilyn Monroe etc., but probably fifty per cent of the famous faces on the Sgt Pepper album sleeve were complete unknowns to an average member of the buying public – with little more illumination forthcoming when learning their names.
Fifty years on, with the Internet at our fingertips, it’s still difficult to turn up much on the more obscure of these people. By an odd twist of fate some of these otherwise forgotten idols may find they have retained immortality in the greater scheme of history by being featured on this Beatles album rather than whatever else they were famous for. Many of those included were personal heroes to the Beatles, or to Peter Blake or Robert Fraser (the sleeve designer and his gallery dealer). For instance George Harrison’s selection of four gurus was regarded as so off the beaten track at the time that although they were all featured not one of these esteemed gentlemen was asked permission to reproduce his likeness; a courtesy extended to all the other living personalities. The possibility of any of the holy men ever coming into contact with the finished album was regarded as highly unlikely. Several other baffling faces from an earlier era of radio or sport were more in line with the original album concept of a collection of heroes likely to be admired by Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a troupe of Victorian/Edwardian musicians playing at a provincial northern town. The floral display at the foot of the sleeve represented the regimented gardens often found in municipal public parks near open-air bandstands.
Outside the shores of Britain it was only to be expected that certain names from an earlier era of the Beatles’ childhood, like comedians Max Miller or Tommy Handley, would likely draw a blank look. But the life-size hardboard cut-outs contained an almost equal number of British and American celebrities and included several sculptors, artists and designers whose faces would be far less known than their work to almost anybody.
It has never been exactly clear which of the Beatles chose which icon in every case, and it seems likely that much was left in the hands of Peter Blake. John Lennon wanted to round out the collection by including Hitler and Jesus Christ but was persuaded against it, especially after the furore caused by his ‘Beatles are more popular than Jesus’ remark the year before. The original purpose of this present piece of writing was to examine the dates of birth of all the Sgt Pepper icons to find how the sun signs fall, but definitive birth data for the complete list has proven elusive. However an astrological examination of sorts is given further below.
The album release
The album was first released on 1 June 1967. Our chart is set for London at 9am. With the Sun in Gemini (exactly conjunct the Beatles’ composite Jupiter) and the Moon in Pisces, it was communicating its expansive message in an artistic form. And with Mercury and Venus both out of bounds by declination in the twelfth house, that message and its art were seen as bizarre and revolutionary, and initially a little hard to grasp. Certainly no one had seen an album sleeve like this before.
Mixed messages abounded, and usually the wrong ones. One can argue both ways for the note above human audibility inserted for the benefit of dogs and other animals – this sounds entirely like Mercury out of bounds. But the botanical plants in the foreground of the picture, often supposed to be a reference to marijuana, were nothing of the kind. However with Mercury at 0° Cancer, exactly conjunct the composite Sun of the Beatles, the message of this whole package including its words, music, and sleeve design, touched the very heart of the Beatles fame. Despite all previous achievements this remains their most legendary album. One small but relevant feature of the Mercury-Sun contact was to produce the first ever long-playing record to include the words of all its songs in printed form.
Jupiter rises in Leo on this 9am chart making it nothing less than one of the most famous and biggest-selling albums of all time. It was also, in June 1967, one of the most expensive album sleeves ever produced, an open-out ‘album’ in the true sense of the word with cut-out cardboard badges and a thick coloured inner sleeve replacing the flimsy paper bag of yore. The budget was way beyond anything previously sanctioned by EMI. With Jupiter in Leo there are magnitudes of famous people displayed on the front, there is theatricality and pageantry and the Beatles are flamboyantly dressed in gold epaulettes and braid. The central drum contains the word ‘Hearts’ – ruled by Leo.
The other words on the drum can claim certain astrological rulerships. A case can be made for the eleventh house Sun reflecting the group idea of the ‘Club’ band (and for a track called With A Little Help from My Friends). The abbreviated word ‘Sgt’ is a military rank and therefore comes under Capricorn or Saturn. ‘Lonely’ is also a Saturn word, and ‘Pepper’ a hot condiment ruled by Mars. Mars and Saturn are extremely prominent on this chart being angular and in opposition to each other. They display a kind of mutual reception with Saturn in the sign of Mars (Aries) and Mars in the sign of Saturn’s exaltation (Libra). Saturn is particularly strong being exactly sextile the Sun and exactly conjunct the midheaven (less than one degree orb).
Were it not for the excessively theatrical rising Jupiter in Leo the album seems to be aiming totally for the status of a military band, a regimented band, striving for a Saturnian glimpse into the past with potted palms and a general antiquated flavour of Victoriana. All around are statuary images of those who have achieved worldly recognition, mostly from the past. Everyone in the photo stands fixed and immobile, including the two sets of Beatles (Sun in Gemini), one set in wax, one in the flesh, posing stiff and still for a formal old-fashioned group photograph. Saturn is definitely on the midheaven, and as previously stated the album is now a kind of hallowed pillar from which anniversaries are counted. (Saturn the god of Time).
Beside all this Saturnian formality the Moon in Pisces opposing the mighty Uranus-Pluto conjunction provided once again a receptive artistic instrument attuned to the spirit of the times. Because there were two sets of Beatles in the picture, one a dead foursome of waxworks dummies clothed in black and the other the colourful real life Sgt Pepper quartet, it was assumed to mean that the Beatles were reborn. The old Beatles are dead, long live the new Beatles; the old way of life is dead, long live the multicolour new age. And the Beatles name spelt out in flowers in the earth was taken to be the grave of their past, or of all our pasts, from which the revolutionary new future could now emerge.
It wasn’t necessarily meant to mean all that but these grand Uranus-Pluto revolution-transformation themes and others like them found a home in the picture through the Moon of its chart, suitably unfocused in Pisces. Despite the blue sky and the bright Leo colours it was still a dark alien picture to many eyes (Pluto-Uranus opposing a Moon in its dark last quarter phase). The creepy weirdness of life-size dolls and dummies; the corpse-like amalgamation of black-and-white faces amongst others of flushed or tinted flesh; the cloth-doll of Shirley Temple (wearing a Rolling Stones jumper) sitting on the lap of an eerie cloth grandmother partially hidden by undergrowth – this last presented a very dark corner. For every record buyer who saw, as intended, a merry band haloed by people great and eminent (Jupiter rising in Leo, Saturn culminating), there was another who saw it as a hidden code to the changing times, and probably several more who saw a disturbing pack of sinister effigies. But the Beatles were smiling inside the revolutionary gatefold cover-sleeve and the Grand Water Trine (echoing the same configuration on the chart of Revolver) confirmed the inspirational artistic impulse, so we knew everything was all right.
The Sun Signs
Appropriately with Jupiter in Leo on the ascendant there are more Leos in the hardboard cut-outs than any other Sun sign. Leos include: Aubrey Beardsley, Huntz Hall, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, Lawrence of Arabia, Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Bernard Shaw and Mae West – with Taurus, Aquarius and Scorpio coming a close second, third and fourth in the Sun sign tally. The fixed signs are way out in front; over half the people represented on the cover are fixed signs, not surprisingly perhaps as we are analysing a group of fixed immobile objects. Not everyone depicted here is ‘real’ so we can not find dates of birth obviously for the hairdresser’s dummies, the Frank Petty girls and Vargas pin-up, the unnamed legionnaire, the anonymous stone statue, the cloth grandmother etc. Neither does our count include the Beatles, their wax dummies, or the four gurus. Out of 48 cut-out figures whose dates of birth we do know, the results are as follows:
Fixed signs 26
Cardinal signs 13
Mutable signs 9
The theatrical flavour of Leo rising focuses the intention of this album on parodying a music hall performance. At the beginning we hear an audience, and after the title track of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band we hear more applause and the introduction of a vocalist who croons straight in to With A Little Help From My Friends. From that point onwards the introduction of various different acts and make-believe singers gets forgotten, as does the audience, and the album continues with its separate tunes flowing in and out of each other. An aspect of an old-time variety bill is noticeable again in Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, and When I’m Sixty-Four has an obvious vaudeville song and dance arrangement.
As with the cover sleeve, so with the music. The assortment of songs could be classed as represented by either Jupiter on the ascendant or Saturn on the midheaven, and some a mixture of both. This is more complex than just a division into happy songs and sad songs. We will find Jupiterian philosophy amongst rather harsh and sober lyrics as in for example Getting Better and Saturn authority amongst jolly ditties like Lovely Rita. Saturn on the midheaven coming through the lens of Jupiter on the ascendant is also illustrated in the Beatles’ wish to appear in smart military uniforms (Saturn) that are contrastingly as gaudy as peacocks (Jupiter in Leo).
Finally the angular planets Jupiter and Saturn make their mark in the celebrated end track A Day in the Life where the basic sound changes from slow and mournful to perky and upbeat, and then back again. More than this the song and its production has many unconscious facets of the outer planet Uranus-Pluto conjunction. An ordinary man is doing ordinary things, alternating between the despair of hearing the everyday news and the joy of entering a dream. But running beneath the surface of this ordinary day in an ordinary life a devastating power is lurking; a swirling maelstrom of sound that breaks through twice in the course of the song’s length. When the underworld upheaval first appears it is ended and interrupted by an alarm clock, a wake-up call to consciousness perhaps. Then at the finale it builds to a tumultuous climax as the last words of the song drift into it. The simple ‘day in the life’ ends with a brain-searing apocalyptic wake-up call, followed by a triumphant eternal chord. The end-of-the-world chord is E, a major rather than a minor, and incidentally the first proper guitar chord that a self-taught rock beginner would probably have mastered. The album ends on an awesome yet harmonious note in keeping with the Grand Trine of its chart. As a musical interpretation of the impact of the Uranus-Pluto conjunction running beneath ordinary life in the Sixties, A Day in the Life is surely one of the best surviving examples.
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