Before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band hit stores in 1967, rock music albums were typically collections of stand-alone songs.
But the eighth studio album of the Beatles broke new ground. Music historians identity it as an early “concept album” – an attempt to establish a running theme linking both sides of an LP.
In this case, the theme was the brainchild of Paul McCartney. What if he and his three bandmates, tongue in cheek, pretended to be an old-fashioned Edwardian military band – the kind their parents might have listened to? Their “concert” would be anything but traditional, however. It turned out to be a collage of the Beatles’ latest explorations of cultural issues accompanied by novel instrumentation, including allusions to psychedelic drugs.
Those associated with the project suspected it would become a global sensation. They were right.
A novel album needed a novel jacket. What Sgt. Pepper delivered, according to musicologist Brian Southall, “blew the hinges off traditional album covers.”
A pair of artists, Jann Haworth and Peter Blake, accepted the assignment of creating a concept cover for the concept album. Blake asked the Beatles a provocative question: If your pretend band had just finished playing a pretend concert in a local park, and you posed for a pretend picture at the end, what people, living or dead, would you want to be standing in the crowd just behind you?
McCartney and John Lennon both produced long lists. George Harrison suggested a half dozen Hindu gurus. Ringo Starr said he would be happy with everyone else’s choices.
Some of the proposed faces in the crowd were considered too controversial. Gandhi was omitted, since citizens of India revered him as a holy man and would not approve of his image on a rock album. Nor did Jesus make the cut, since the band was still suffering the after-effects of Lennon’s unfortunate assertion in 1966 that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now.” Hitler was also suggested, but everyone agreed – then and now – that that would have been a serious misstep.
It was also agreed that if a living person’s face was going to appear, that person had to grant permission. Actress Mae West said “No way” – but changed her mind after she received handwritten pleas from each of the Beatles.
In the end, there were 71 images in the shoot. Four of them, at center stage, are the band members themselves, wearing elaborate military costumes. Standing to their right are life-size models of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, borrowed from Madame Tussaud’s wax museum.
The photo-luminaries include Bob Dylan, Fred Astaire, Edgar Alan Poe, Marilyn Monroe, Laurel & Hardy, and Lawrence of Arabia. Someone even included a hairdresser’s wax dummy.
In our present age of digital photoshopping, we need to keep in mind that this was a single picture, not a composite. It was hard work to create life-size photos of dozens of people, then paste them onto hardboard planks. Getting just the right shot took about three hours on March 30, 1967.
The final product won major awards, was hailed as a bridge between art, history, and pop culture, and is widely regarded as the most significant album cover of all time.
Interestingly, the band’s greatest hero was never seriously considered for inclusion in the crowd. McCartney later reflected that Elvis Presley “was too important, too far above the rest even to mention. He was more than merely a pop singer. He was Elvis the King.”
Which brings us to another occasion – not an imaginary affair this time, but an historical event that also drew a crowd (albeit a small one).
Let’s frame things once again with a question: If you could welcome anyone to the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, God’s own entrance into the world as a human being, who would you invite?
God didn’t invite the famous, the beautiful, and the important. He gathered a motley crew of the unexpected, unwanted, and unimaginable.
The shepherds who were summoned by the angels to visit Bethlehem wore the bluest of blue collars in Judea. Imagine waving to the Waste Management guys collecting trash in your neighborhood and saying, “Hey, we just had our baby! How would you like to come in and hold him?” First century shepherds were assumed to be morally compromised. Their courtroom testimony was widely regarded as untrustworthy.
Yet they were the ones God chose to be witnesses to this hinge-point in spiritual history.
The Magi who appear later in the infancy narratives – Jesus may well have been two years old by this time, based on Herod’s maniacal decision to exterminate all the two-year-olds in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16) – were outsiders both racially (Gentiles) and professionally (astrologers).
Faithful Jews had a word for astrologers: idolaters. Anyone who looked to the stars for direction – something created instead of the Creator himself – simply had to be deceived. “Magi” and “magician” share a common root. God’s people wrote off such pagans the way a modern theologian might dismiss someone captivated by crystals.
Yet the Magi received grace. God provided a star. They chose to follow it, which is why they became known as “wise men” – a term that doesn’t appear in scripture.
Even though they were outsiders, the Magi arrived at the right place at the right time to meet the Messiah – something the self-proclaimed “wise people” in Jerusalem somehow missed.
God is like that. He welcomes outsiders, sometimes even providing front-row seats to the biggest moments in history.
Then there’s the couple at the center of everything. We know just enough about Mary and Joseph to conclude that they were almost certainly nobody special. They were young. Mary may not have been old enough to get a job at McDonald’s, and Joseph was presumably in his late teens or early twenties, perhaps just beginning his journey as an independent craftsman.
No one can say for sure how their friends and family reacted to the news that Mary was expecting a child. But it couldn’t have been easy for them.
We know that certain rabbinical writings in the second century cast shame on anyone following “that bastard.” Presumably that was a reference to Jesus. It seems likely that this family’s life was always under a cloud of moral suspicion.
Yet God invited Joseph and Mary to play the central roles in the drama of Jesus’ birth. And she – this young, wrongly judged woman, a nobody from Nowheresville called Nazareth – would be called “highly favored by God” and “blessed among women” (Luke 1:30, 42).
When you study the creche in the middle of your Christmas decorations, you’re gazing at the crowd that God decided would be part of his Big Event.
He invited the unwanted, the unexpected, and the unimaginable.
Most amazing of all, God’s invitations are still going out.
We get to be in the picture, too – right alongside Jesus, the true King.
Would you like to explore previous reflections, and learn more about this ministry? Check out glennsreflections.com.