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how richard hamilton jazzed up the white album (beatles ’68 part 5)

ARTIST RICHARD HAMILTON was a fix­ture in the world of in­ter­na­tional art be­fore the Bea­tles cut their first sides. For the 1956 ex­hi­bi­tion called This Is To­morrow, Richard Hamilton sub­mitted a tiny (10 x 9-inch) col­lage ti­tled “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Dif­ferent, so Ap­pealing?” This one piece brought him to the at­ten­tion of the in­ter­na­tional art world and is often re­ferred to as the first ex­ample of Pop Art.

In 1968, Hamilton’s dealer was Robert Fraser, one of the hippest scene-makers in swinging London and friend to Paul Mc­Cartney. Paul was keen on the world of con­tem­po­rary art and was looking for some­thing dif­ferent for the Bea­tles next album cover.

Fraser had Paul meet Richard, who sug­gested the stark min­i­malism of the all-white ap­proach as a re­ac­tion to the per­ceived ex­cesses of the psy­che­delic al­bums of the pre­vious twelve months:

“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.’ [Paul] 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.”

The idea that an all-white af­fair might be too “clean” is in­ter­esting, given that much of the Pop Art of the ’60s has a very clean look and feel to it. We do not as­so­ciate grungi­ness with this movement—in fact, it’s easier to see it as a bit an­ti­septic. Hamilton con­tinued:

“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.”

This was ac­com­plished by in­cluding large (24 x 36 inches) fold-open poster in­side the album. One side fea­tured an over-busy, un­at­trac­tive col­lec­tion of photos of John, Paul, George, and Ringo while the other side fea­tured the lyrics to the al­bum’s songs.

 

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Peter Blake’s rather busy cover for The Bea­tles (June 1967).

A white wall is too German

Hamilton also sug­gested making the album’s front cover look like a lim­ited edi­tion art piece, hence the edi­tion number with the stamped-by-hand look in that is one of the high­lights of the jacket.

“So now [Richard] 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 mar­velous 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.” (Paul Mc­Cartney)

The album ended up all white with highly glossed cover slicks. The front cover had “THE BEATLES” in raised print and each of the ini­tial jackets had a se­rial number in black type pressed into the lower right corner. The back cover was blank. The inner faces of the gate­fold jacket were also a glossy white with black & white photos of the four Bea­tles and the list of song ti­tles.

 

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Richard Hamil­ton’s com­plete un­busy cover for The Bea­tles (No­vember 1968).

I thought that was a bit mean

The album was an enor­mous suc­cess com­mer­cially and as a work of “art”: sales of the num­bered edi­tion quickly sur­passed 3,000,000 copies in the US and non-numbered copies have sold mil­lions since! The all-white af­fair drew at­ten­tion from all over the mu­sical and artistic spec­trum, as much as Peter Blake’s cover for Sgt. Pepper had during the Summer of Love in 1967, but for com­pletely op­posing rea­sons!

It is a tribute to Hamilton’s vi­sion that the album is hardly ever called to by its ac­tual title, The Bea­tles, but is al­most uni­ver­sally re­ferred to by its un­of­fi­cial, af­fec­tionate nick­name, The White Album.

In an in­ter­view with The Ob­server in 2010, Hamilton claimed that he had been paid a mere £200 for the gig: “I thought that was a bit mean.” Ac­cording to the Con­sumer Price Index cal­cu­lator, £200 in 1968 would be worth ap­prox­i­mately £3,450 in 2019. The CPI cal­cu­lator uses rather con­ser­v­a­tive fig­ures for in­fla­tion, but even if we dou­bled that figure, the fee paid Hamilton was rather mean.

Richard Hamilton passed away at the age of 89 on Sep­tember 13, 2011.

 

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Hamil­ton’s slapdash-looking col­lage of photos for the fold-open poster in­cluded with The White Album was messy, making up for the al­bum’s pris­tine out­side. The lyrics to the al­bum’s song were on the other side. Like the four photos of the Fab Four, many fans who bought the album im­me­di­ately tacked or taped the poster to the walls of the bed­room. For­tu­nately, since mil­lions of the orig­inal photos and poster were printed, they are not dif­fi­cult to find in near mint con­di­tion fifty years later.

We Buy White Albums

The idea of ap­plying a coffee cup stain to the front cover that Hamilton sug­gested was pre­scient, at least to con­cep­tual artist Ruther­ford Chang. He has spent years pur­suing used copies of The White Album in a stag­gering array of con­di­tions, from the used-but-handled-with-care copies (the ones we col­lec­tors also pursue) to copies that had been used as can­vases for bud­ding artists or sheets of blank paper for po­ten­tial poets (the ones we col­lec­tors scoffed at for years be­fore Ruther­ford woke us up).

Aside from amassing a col­lec­tion of more than 2,000 copies of one album, he has used them in an art ex­hi­bi­tion called “We Buy White Al­bums.” Seeing his project for the first time di­rectly con­flicted with my life­time of being a record col­lector, so I wrote about him and his col­lec­tion: “.”

For the Bea­tles new album, artist Richard Hamilton pro­posed a plain white cover with a brown stain printed on it to look as if a coffee cup had been left on it. Click To Tweet

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FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page is Hamil­ton’s tiny col­lage, “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Dif­ferent, so Ap­pealing?” It is a tiny piece (10 x 9-inches) that had a big im­pact on the art that fol­lowed it for years.

“In 1956, Richard Hamilton took part in the This is To­morrow ex­hi­bi­tion at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. For this group show, teams of artists and ar­chi­tects were in­vited to create dis­crete zones that ac­corded with their vi­sion of the fu­ture.

Hamilton worked with artist John McHale and ar­chi­tect John Voel­cker on pre­senting a sort of fun­fair vi­sion of the fu­ture where sen­sual per­cep­tion was stim­u­lated and con­fused and im­ages culled from a range of sources formed an iconog­raphy for the modern world.

This image is among the most fa­mous in British post-war art. It has come to de­fine the rise of con­sumer so­ciety in the mid to late 1950s and is an icon of Pop art, al­though the orig­inal col­lage cre­ated in 1956, on which this print is based, pre-dates that phe­nom­enon by sev­eral years.” (Tate)

 

 

 

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