One of my abiding memories of art school ( okay, I’m one of those people, please don’t hate me) involves a particular incident that occurred during a regular weekly critique class. The professor was a successful professional photographer, not world famous, but known enough. A normal class session with her involved our taking turns hanging our latest masterpieces on the wall, after which she would lead a discussion of the works’ respective “merits”. We were teenagers in NYC so yeah, there were a lot of photos of local landmarks, homeless people, or in my case, parking meters and empty swings ( I was shy so I only took pictures of inanimate objects not people). By the end of the semester she’d grown so frustrated with the quality of our output that she just couldn’t take it anymore. In the middle of a class one day, she snapped. Exasperated, she turned toward us and yelled ” You are all visually illiterate !“. No one responded. My pictures weren’t on the wall at the time thankfully… buuuut, you know, it was pretty clear she’d meant all of us, that we collectively sucked. And I too was an official member of the visually illiterate.
I’ve pondered this observation over the years and narrowed it down to one primary source. If I was visually illiterate™, in my mind there was clearly one main culprit. It wasn’t my lack of art history education that adversely affected my vision, I’d had a whole bunch of that. It’s just that DaVinci, Van Gogh, and Degas couldn’t compete with the behemoth that dominated every creative thought that sprouted within my mind. That behemoth was a book, and that book was The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics. It took a hold of me as a child and kept me in a headlock for years. It acted as the filter by which I absorbed, appreciated and created art. I blame this book for everything.
That’s Alan Aldridge on the right, the man responsible for all this.
Okay so the brief history of the book goes something like this. The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics was published in 1969. It was conceived by illustrator Alan Aldridge who up to that point was mostly known for his slew of stunning novel covers for Penguin Books ( Come look at these, oh man ). His Beatle idea was inspired by an interview he’d done with Paul McCartney for the British Sunday Newspaper The Observer in 1967 which also featured his own illustrations. Upon the articles publication, Aldridge was inundated with approving, excited fan mail. People went nuts for these illustrations. That overwhelmingly positive response gave him an idea, as in if people loved this handful of images this much they might really go crazy over a whole book of Beatle inspired art. Soon after he approached many of the leading graphic artists of the time including David Hockney, Ralph Steadman and Peter Max, and asked if they would be interested in creating pieces of art based on specific Beatle songs. In nearly every case the answer was a resounding YES. It’s amazing to think that at that point The Beatles were so almighty and ubiquitous and had such cultural cache that well known artists in a completely different medium literally jumped at the opportunity to make art about The Beatles art. It was meta before they actually called stuff meta. Aldridge offered the eager artists a list of songs to choose from and those that didn’t get chosen, he would illustrate himself. He also posted multiple ads soliciting fan art to potentially include as well. And so The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics was born.
This is the 1967 Observer cover that started it all.
I met this book by accident. My Mom’s book collection was housed in a tall shelf at the foot of a staircase. The bottom half featured a set of World Book Encyclopedias from 1973 and a myriad of books about antiques. The higher shelves featured more adult fare including Nancy Friday’s “My Secret Garden” ( for those unfamiliar, a then bestseller featuring explicit true life sexual fantasies written by what seemed to be hundreds of suburban housewives) as well as several romantically themed horoscope books ( “Sexual Astrology” anyone?). The books in this “adult section” were the absolute epitome of the beige but swinging seventies. My brother and I had been warned not to touch anything on those top shelves. She’d made it implicitly clear that the books “up there” were “not for children”. That was all the incentive I needed to pursue some in depth exploration. Without really saying anything, Mom had said too much. With that admonition, I made it my mission to get on a step ladder and/or literally use the shelves themselves as steps to examine these illicit books at the top of the mountain whenever she went out. And that’s how I first got my hands on The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics. I knew who the Beatles were, had heard songs on the radio but I hadn’t truly discovered them yet. I was a late pop music bloomer and to be frank didn’t know very much until I turned 10 or so (read about the epiphany here). Still I was inexorably drawn to this book. It was the biggest book on the top shelf and it had a cartoon on the cover. It was essentially a picture book. My attraction to it couldn’t have been greater if it had been covered in chocolate. And so down it came into my kid hands every chance I got.
I experienced a tiny surprise unrelated to its content when I opened it for the first time. Inside the front cover was a crumbling, dried, pressed rose. This book clearly had some secret sentimental value to Mom. Not that I cared, the most important thing I noted upon this discovery was that if I made one wrong move, the flower would slide and rain out of the book in tiny pieces like confetti . So whenever I took it down from that initial point forward, I would sit on the staircase in front of the bookshelf, gently lay it across my lap and read it in a gravitationally sensible way to ensure nothing happened to the flower thus further ensuring that Mom wouldn’t find out that I was perusing her “dirty” books ( because of course in my ridiculous, paranoid little peanut brain, I assumed she was actually dusting for fingerprints and checking to see if books had been shifted around every day. I was an idiot).
The book is laid out simply. There are Beatle lyrics with accompanying illustrations next to them ( or nearby). Some are literal, some are visual interpretations only the actual artist could explain the meaning of. But there is a consistent visual that makes itself known pretty quickly.
Breasts. This book is absolutely brimming with them. Nearly every song’s accompanying artistic interpretation features a breast depiction. There are more breasts in this book than there are pictures of Ringo ( this is not an exaggeration, if you feel like counting you’ll see). To a lot of people, The Beatles were clearly SEX.
And so inevitably there is also some tasteless, misogynistic shit in this book. Though as a child I wasn’t conscious of it and didn’t fully comprehend what I was looking at, the weird subversiveness of some of the art. I took everything at face value. Check out the faces below representing “Dr.Robert”, “Sexy Sadie” and “Helter Skelter” respectively.
Beatles = Breasts
Questionable but know what, I totally love these. Helter Skelter is Helter Skelter.
Of course initially, my absolute favorite works were the ones with the actual Beatles in them. Especially Alan Aldridge’s ridiculously colorful, cartoony and psychedelic ones. I wasn’t even close to what you’d call a Beatle fan at that point, owned no Beatle records, and they were long broken up…but the gravitational pull of even their mere images was indescribably strong, especially the McCartney visage ( it’s official, Paul is magic). I still think the Aldridge depiction of “There’s A Place” (below) is better than the actual song.
I quickly developed favorites and it wasn’t long before I started getting out my tracing paper and copying stuff so I could look at them in the privacy of my room. Not just the ones depicting Beatles, oh no, but the ones of cartoon eyeballs murdering each other. A young man with enormous sideburns making out with an old lady. A “Taxman” eating humans and expelling them, literally. The tightly buttock-ed “Mr Kite”. I could not stop staring at this shit. And so no one was safe from my pencil.
I’m gonna say it: Mr.Kite has a nice ass.
As I got older, I inevitably grew weary of the book, wasn’t moved or shocked by it anymore and forgot about it, meaning I didn’t look at it much, if at all, once I was a teenager. Little did I know it was too late, it had infiltrated my mind forever and was never going to go away even if I never looked at it again. To this day, I love (live) to draw ( in ballpoint pen mostly) and I can see this book in literally everything I make, I can’t deny it. It’s in me.
Yeah, that guy at the end of the top row is Paul McCartney, so we’ve come full circle. In fact my Mom has recent drawings I did of John Lennon and George Harrison hanging in her house. Drawings directly inspired by the ridiculous book she attempted to warn me off.
A friend was in the UK recently visiting his in-laws and mentioned that his elderly father in law insisted on gifting him with a book from his vast home library. The book was not of his choosing. He was specifically offered a vintage copy of…The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics. The fact that his 80-something father in law thought that this particular book was important enough to make a special show of giving it to him as a keepsake, well, I took it as a weird yet beautiful affirmation. The book is unquestionably a product of its time but also a wonderful mess of sometimes questionable, often beautiful imagery: a truly oddball timepiece.
To close, here’s my favorite piece (below). It’s by French artist Jean-Michel Folon and accompanies the lyrics to “Blackbird” in the book. It’s both sad and optimistic and its relationship to the song is loose and interpretable. It’s the blankest, emptiest piece in the whole book …but at the end of the day kind of says it all.