It was the soundtrack to the blissful ‘Summer of Love,’ it strongly authenticated the primacy of psychedelic rock music, and it was hailed as a musical breakthrough that granted a mass audience a representation of the marijuana and LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as acid, is a psychedelic drug known for its psychological effects) sensation in sound. Today ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is remembered as “THE” album of the classic rock era, notable for its pioneering recording techniques and featuring The Beatles songs ‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,’ ‘A Day in the Life’, although the band’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 (British photographer who is remembered for his photographs of leading rock musicians of the 1960s and early 1970s, most notably the many photos he took of The Rolling Stones in the mid-1960s), the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ cover shot took place on March 30th, 1967. The Beatles, innovating with every step, decided on a layout that broke their habit of simply posing the quartet alone in a single portrait. Designer Peter Thomas Blake, a rising star in London’s Pop Art world, later recollected 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 The Beatles as the only live bodies in the picture. Among the selections picked by The Beatles, Blake and Fraser admired contemporaries like 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 like Edgar Allan Poe, William S. Burroughs, Aubrey Beardsley, Dylan Thomas, and Oscar Wilde also made the cut. 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 Edward Alexander Crowley, better known as Aleister Crowley, an English occultist, ceremonial magician, poet, painter, novelist, and mountaineer. He founded the religion of Thelema, identifying himself as the prophet entrusted with guiding humanity into the Æon of Horus in the early 20th century. A prolific writer, he published widely over the course of his life.
Most accounts name Paul McCartney as the Beatle who picked Edward Alexander Crowley, although the foursome’s more controversial choices of Adolf Hitler, the Marquis de Sade, and Mahatma Gandhi were dropped from the collage. What Paul McCartney knew of Edward Alexander Crowley was probably superficial; his subsequent life and work makes no reference to Edward Alexander Crowley whatsoever, but in 1967 the Beatle was highly attuned to the prevailing vogues of the young United Kingdom and The United States of America and the burgeoning counterculture.
At the same time, Peter Thomas Blake’s speciality was in “found” pictures from decades past: the Pop awareness 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 Edward Alexander Crowley, born in 1875, was part of that revival. The Edward Alexander Crowley photo used by Peter Thomas Blake had been photographed by Hector Murchison in 1913 and, thanks to its promotion by The Beatles became the most recognisable image of him. Like three of the other cover subjects, the “decadent” artist Aubrey Beardsley, the proto-surrealist author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, was an English writer, mathematician, logician, Anglican deacon, and photographer), and the scandalous writer Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (an Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet better known as Oscar Wilde), Edward Alexander Crowley’s reputation was gradually being rehabilitated for a more tolerant time. He was no longer an affront to a Britannic majesty but a martyr to moral hypocrisy.
Born into a brewing fortune and raised in a fanatically devout household, Edward Alexander Crowley was, in some ways at least, a typical product of his class. He was wealthy enough to avoid regular employment from youth onwards; studied at Cambridge and travelled broadly (sometimes on perilous climbing expeditions in the United kingdom, Europe, and Asia); wrote and self-published prose and poetry; experimented sexually with women and men; and freely partook of alcohol, stimulants, and opiates. Had this been all there was he might have been remembered as just another fin-de-siècle libertine, but Edward Alexander Crowley had another pursuit that was not merely the voice of a privileged dandy but an all-consuming passion. Such was his irreverence and appetite for transgression, obvious even as a child, that his mother labelled him as “The Great Beast,” taken from the apocalyptic ‘Book of Revelation.’ For the remainder of his life, Edward Alexander Crowley adopted and sought to live up to the designation, preaching and practising his abiding tenet: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
Edward Alexander Crowley’s earthly exploits were a story of valuable literary gifts and metaphysical scholarship in service to a domineering and abrasive personality. He could both overwhelm with his intelligent mind and frighten with his vicious head-games. “I took an immediate dislike to him,” recounted the novelist William Somerset Maugham of his meeting Edward Alexander Crowley in Paris in the early 1900s, “but he interested and amused me. He was a great talker and he talked uncommonly well… He was a liar and unbecomingly boastful, but the odd thing was that he had actually done some of the things he boasted of. Edward Alexander Crowley told fantastic stories of his experiences, but it was hard to say whether he was telling the truth or merely pulling your leg.” William Somerset Maugham would go on to base the villainous title character of Oliver Haddo in his ‘The Magician’ on Edward Alexander Crowley.
Intelligent and sophisticated yet selfish and domineering, Edward Alexander Crowley had joined The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn mystical sect but fell afoul of its leadership and formed his own circle, the Order of the Silver Star; his “Great Operation” was the transcription of ‘The Book of the Law,’ as dictated by the spirit Aiwass (the name given to a voice that English occultist Edward Alexander Crowley claimed to have heard on April 8th, 9th, and 10th in 1904) through his wife Rose Edith Kelly in Cairo, Egypt’s sprawling capital in 1904. A succession of spouses, lovers, disciples and intimates passed through his life. He exiled himself to the United States of America during World War I, formed a ragtag cult of believers at a Sicilian, Italian abbey in the early nineteen-twenties, and lost a much-publicized libel suit in 1933. At his height, he was a figure of international notoriety for the diabolic excesses of his lifestyle and his gleefully blasphemous writings and art (he even signed his name with an unmistakably phallic A), but his money and press appeal gradually died out. Edward Alexander Crowley’s voluminous treatises on yoga, chess, poetry, Tantric sex, mountaineering and the lost arts of what he always called “magick” drew a steady audience of devotees, yet by the end of his life, only a few remained committed. He died in a boarding house near Hastings, United Kingdom, in 1947, addicted to heroin and largely omitted by the countrymen he had once so shocked. To one witness, his last words were, “Sometimes I hate myself.”
But it was Edward Alexander Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt” that the youth of 1967, both the members of The Beatles and the band’s countless listeners across the globe, most appreciated. To them, Edward Alexander Crowley was not a wicked man but one well ahead of his time, who anticipated the later generation’s rejection of outmoded pieties of duty and restraint. What Edward Alexander Crowley stood for, ultimately, was self-gratification: no mere aimless indulgences but the healthy and liberating pursuit of one’s deepest will and desires against the soulless and shallow expectations of authority. Edward Alexander Crowley’s elaborate credo of ‘Thelema’ (Will) gave young people enjoyment of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll a dimension beyond their immediate pleasures; from a Crowleyan perspective, such joys could be considered sacred.
“We suppress the individual in more and more ways,” ran Edward Alexander Crowley’s 1938 introduction to The Book of the Law. “We think in terms of the herd. War no longer kills soldiers, it kills all indiscriminately. Every new measure of the most democratic and autocratic governments is Communistic in essence. It is always restriction. We are all treated as imbecile children.” These views underlay the complaints voiced by the marchers and demonstrators of the sixties. Though Edward Alexander Crowley is but a footnote in The Beatles’ legacy, it was inevitable that many of the buyers who scooped up Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and gazed through expanded minds at its cover would investigate his biography and apply his teachings to their own circumstances. If Edward Alexander Crowley had incidentally also performed animal sacrifice, vociferously denounced Christianity, and claimed to have called up demons out of the nether worlds, well, those too became part of his legend. That baleful face on the jacket of a milestone collection of popular music was to be the one which launched a million trips.
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