A History of the Occult in Rock & Roll

January 8, 2016

On June 1, 1967, the most famous musicians in the world released a new long-playing record whose jacket depicted a gallery of unconventional personalities and one individual whose unconventionality was infamous.

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a widely anticipated album that confirmed the band’s status as the defining tastemakers of their time. It was the soundtrack to the blissful “Summer of Love,” it firmly established the primacy of psychedelic rock music, and it was hailed as a musical breakthrough that offered a mass audience a representation of the marijuana and LSD sensation in sound.

Today Sgt. Pepper is remembered as the classic album of the classic rock era, notable for its pioneering recording techniques and enduring Beatle songs (“With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “A Day in the Life”), although the group’s earlier and later music has aged more successfully.

Even the album’s cover is considered a landmark in the field of record packaging from the years when music was actually presented on physical discs in physical sleeves and millions of fans studied the jacket photo and the puzzling assembly of figures it depicted.

Photographed by Michael Cooper, the Sgt. Pepper cover shot had taken place on March 30, 1967. The Beatles, innovating with every step, decided on a layout that broke with their habit of simply posing the quartet alone in a single portrait.

Designer Peter Blake, a rising star in London’s Pop Art world, later recalled conferring with the Beatles and art gallery owner Robert Fraser on a different approach to the design: “I think that that was the thing I would claim actually changed the direction of it: making a life-sized collage incorporating real people, photographs, and artwork. I kind of directed it and asked the Beatles and Robert (and maybe other people, but I think it was mainly the six of us) to make a list of characters they would like to see in a kind of magical ideal film, and what came out of this exercise was six different sets of people.”

The result was a group shot of almost seventy people, with the four costumed Beatles as the only live bodies in the picture. Among the selections picked by the Beatles, Blake and Fraser were admired contemporaries Bob Dylan and writer Terry Southern; movie stars Fred Astaire, Laurel and Hardy, Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe; and a number of artistic and literary outlaws Edgar Allan Poe, William S. Burroughs, Aubrey Beardsley, Dylan Thomas, and Oscar Wilde.

And in the top left corner of the collection, between the Indian yogi Sri Yukteswar Giri and the nineteen-thirties sex symbol Mae West, glared the shaven-headed visage of a man once known as “the Wickedest Man in the World.” His name was Aleister Crowley.

Most accounts name Paul McCartney as the Beatle who picked Crowley, although the foursome’s more controversial choices of Adolf Hitler, the Marquis de Sade, and Mahatma Gandhi were dropped from the collage. What McCartney knew of Crowley was probably superficial; his subsequent life and work makes no reference to Crowley whatsoever, but in 1967 the Beatle was highly attuned to the prevailing vogues of young Britain and America and the burgeoning counterculture.

At the same time, Peter Blake’s specialty was in “found” pictures from decades past: the Pop sensibility of exhibiting rediscovered advertising and newspaper illustrations with a distancing layer of irony. Together the musician and the designer were sensitive to the revival of Victoriana that characterized British graphics and style in the later sixties (seen, for example, in the uniforms of the Sgt. Pepper bandsmen and the circus poster that inspired the lyrics to the album’s “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”), and Aleister Crowley, born in 1875, was part of that revival.

The Crowley photo used by Blake had been photographed by Hector Murchison in 1913 and, thanks to its promotion by the Beatles, became the most recognizable image of him. Like three of the other cover subjects, the “decadent” artist Aubrey Beardsley, the proto-surrealist author Lewis Carroll, and the scandalous writer Oscar Wilde, Crowley’s reputation was gradually being rehabilitated for a more tolerant time. He was no longer an affront to Britannic majesty but a martyr to moral hypocrisy.

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