The title and cover artwork
Having dazzled record-buyers with the Peter Blake-designed cover for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles had to carefully consider their next move. They enlisted notable pop artist Richard Hamilton, and the original cover concept was for clear vinyl discs housed in a transparent sleeve. That eventually became a plain white sleeve with the group’s name lightly embossed on the right-hand side.
The album was originally intended to have a clear see-through sleeve on a clear see-through record. When the record company said they couldn’t do that, we decided to have a white record with a white sleeve but they wouldn’t even do that. They’d had red see-throughs when we were in Hamburg in 1959 or 1960. Anyway, a couple of years and ten minutes later, everybody had psychedelic picture discs with this, that and the other.
Fifty Years Adrift, Derek Taylor
Art dealer and gallery owner Robert Fraser arranged for Hamilton to meet Paul McCartney at the Apple offices in Savile Row. On the day, however, McCartney was so late arriving that the artist nearly walked out.
I tried to get him interested in the whole thing. I laid out what it was we’d got. We’d got an album coming out, we hadn’t really got a title for it. ‘I’d like you to work on the cover. We’ve done Sgt Pepper. We’ve worked with a fine artist before and I just had a feeling you might be right.’
In addition to suggesting the minimalist approach, Hamilton also had the idea of consecutive numbered sleeves, which was a feature of early copies. In photographer Michael Cooper’s book Blinds and Shutters, Hamilton described the meeting:
Since Sgt 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 print 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. I also suggested that they might number each copy, to create the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies. This was agreed, but then I began to feel a bit guilty at putting their double album under plain 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.
Later pressings did not feature the serial numbers, and the lower figures subsequently proved highly collectable. However, there were several pressing plants worldwide which each used the same numeric system, so a proportion of copies each bore the same numbers.
Richard had the idea for the numbers. He said, ‘Can we do it?’ So I had to go and try and sell this to EMI. They said, ‘Can’t do it.’ I said, ‘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 a number on it? Then everyone would have a numbered copy.’
I think EMI only did this on a few thousand, then just immediately gave up. They have very very strict instructions that every single album that came out, even to this day, should still be numbered. That’s the whole idea: ‘I’ve got number 1,000,000!’ What a great number to have! We got the first four. I don’t know where mine is, of course. Everything got lost. It’s all coming up in Sotheby’s I imagine. John got 00001 because he shouted loudest. He said, ‘Baggsy number one!’ He knew the game, you’ve gotta baggsy it.
The album bore a gatefold sleeve, which also included a poster designed by Hamilton, with song lyrics on the reverse, and four photographs taken by John Kelly. The UK version also contained black inner sleeves which housed the vinyl discs.
The album’s simple title – The Beatles – was also suggested by Hamilton.
Richard asked, ‘Has there been an album called The Beatles?’ so I referred back to EMI and they said, ‘No. There’s been Meet The Beatles!, Introducing The Beatles in America, but there’d never been an album called The Beatles.’ So he said, ‘Let’s call it that’; which is the official title of the White Album.
The white cover concept went through several revisions, one of which was to have the green stain of an apple.
Richard had a friend from Iceland, the artist Dieter Roth, who used to send him letters smeared in chocolate, and Richard liked that a lot, so then the idea grew; he said, ‘Well, maybe we could do something like that with an apple. We could bounce an apple on a bit of paper and get a smudge, a very light green smear with a little bit of pulp.’ But we ended up thinking that might be hard to print, because inevitably if these things do well, there are huge printings in places like Brazil and India and anything too subtle like a little apple smear can be lost, can just look like they printed it crappy. So that idea went by the wayside.
So now he was saying, ‘Let’s call it The Beatles and have it white, really white.’ I was saying, ‘Well, I dunno. It’s a great concept, but we are releasing an album here. This is not a piece of art for a rather elite gallery, this is more than that. I see the point. It’s a nice idea, but for what we were to people, and still are, it doesn’t quite fit, we’re not quite a blank space, a white wall, the Beatles. Somebody ought to piss on it or smudge an apple on it for it to become the Beatles, because a white wall’s just too German and marvellous for us.’ So the idea then emerged to do the embossing. ‘Maybe if we emboss the word “Beatles” out of the white, that’ll be good. We’ll get a shadow from the embossing but it’s white on white. It’s still white. That’ll be nice.’ But I still wanted something on the white, an idea, like the apple smudging.