As he first listened to the rough tracks for the Beatles’ Revolver during the spring of 1966, Klaus Voormann was struck by one thought: “This is gonna be a tough job to do a cover!”
The German artist did that cover, of course — an iconic black-and-white collage that signaled the sonic experimentation the Fab Four and producer George Martin delved into on their seventh studio album. Voormann won a Grammy for it in 1967, and his artwork is all over the newly remixed and expanded editions of Revolver that are coming out on Oct. 28.
Looking back on the cover 56 years later, Voormann tells UCR, “I’m very happy with it. There’s nothing I would do differently. I think it captured what I wanted to capture. I think it’s perfect.”
Voormann was no stranger to the Beatles. A bassist and visual artist himself, he met and befriended the band during the early ’60s when the quartet was playing residencies in Hamburg. When Voormann moved to England a few years later, he lived with George Harrison and Ringo Starr in the band’s London flat after Paul McCartney and John Lennon had moved out. So a call from Lennon asking Voormann to come listen to the Revolver tracks, with an eye toward designing the cover, was not particularly surprising.
But the music was.
“They were just rough, not finished, but it was amazing, just amazing. So many great songs,” Voormann says. “And then came ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ which was so amazing because I didn’t expect it. I was sitting there listening to the tracks, and you suddenly heard those birds fluttering and sped-up tapes, backward cymbals, the guitar solo, all this rumble was going on. Immediately I was captured by it and thought it was wonderful. But when it was finished I thought, ‘Oh my God, what are the fans gonna say?'”
The mission for the cover, as Voormann saw it, was to send up a flare to alert listeners that Revolver contained several dramatic sonic departures from the Beatles norm.
“You had… I don’t want to call it split fan unity,” Voormann explains, “but you had fans that liked ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Hold Your Hand’ and all those early tracks, and for them, [Revolver] was a big step in a new direction of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ or even ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ Then you had the newer, a little more sophisticated fans. It was difficult to combine the two things.”
The challenge led Voormann to eschew traditional album cover fare — a single photo, usually color, of the band — and go with a black-and-white collage that could incorporate a wealth of images. “I thought we needed lots of pictures,” he says. “Fans always want to see pictures, and the more they can get, the more fun it is for the fans. That was the main idea. I wanted to have lots of figures and faces of the boys.”
Voormann already had a number of images on hand from German magazines and regular Beatles photographer Robert Freeman, but he also tapped the band members for selections from their own stashes. “I talked to one of the boys and said, ‘Come, you have to go home and pull out your drawer and get all the old photos you’ve got and send them all to me,'” he recalls. “And they said, ‘Well, we can’t do that. They’re terrible photos.’ I said, ‘Look, leave it to me. I’m not gonna pick any bad ones. I’m just gonna pick the ones that are funny and fit the subject.’ And that’s what they did. They sent me a big envelope and everybody put their photos in and I had a big choice.”
Unifying all the images on the Revolver cover is the Beatles’ hair, a swirl that gives the sleeve a psychedelic feel, even in black and white. “Hair’s very important,” Voormann says, “and it’s very difficult for people these days to imagine how important and how sensational those haircuts were. The Beatles hair — we called them ‘mushroomhead’ in Germany. So I thought, ‘That’s a good idea, something with hair.’ Then I came to the conclusion of using lots of hair.”
The Revolver cover went down a storm with the band even before fans saw it. Voormann confirms the oft-shared story that Beatles manager Brian Epstein wept with joy when the artist presented it to him. “That was true, yes. I don’t invent things,” he says with a laugh. “[Epstein] really said that he was worried that the public would not accept the music — the same thought I had. He said, ‘This cover is the bridge. You’ve built the bridge to this new music.'”
Voormann’s connection to the Beatles continued beyond Revolver. He played on solo albums by Lennon, Harrison and Starr and was part of the Plastic Ono Band’s debut show at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in September 1969. He also designed covers for The Beatles Anthology albums, along with artwork for the Bee Gees, Harry Nilsson, Turbonegro and others. McCartney and Starr even played on his debut solo album, A Sideman’s Journey, released in 2009.
Now semi-retired, Voormann still works on occasional art projects, though hand issues prevent him from playing bass anymore. He also remains friendly with McCartney and Starr. “Whenever [McCartney] is in Germany or he does a concert he says, ‘Klaus, I’m here. Why don’t you come?’ He sends me tickets and then we see each other,” he says. “Normally I don’t make an effort, and I’m not one of those guys who pesters other people. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we’re still in contact, because I mostly leave him alone.”
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