Today (Thursday) is the day that Ringo Starr's personal copy of The Beatles, serial number 0000001, goes under the hammer, as part of his and his wife Barbara Bach's auction of personal effects for her Lotus Foundation charity. Auctioneers Julien's estimate that it could fetch $60,000. So this is the perfect moment to look back at the fascinating history of the simple but iconic design of this landmark release.
The design of what we all know as the White Album — in a plain white gatefold sleeve, each copy with an individual serial number — was by pop artist Richard Hamilton, working closely with Paul McCartney. Hamilton had come to The Beatles' attention after staging a Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the Tate Gallery the year before.
The idea of the serial number was, said the artist, done with the intention “to create the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies.” Hamilton further commented: "Paul McCartney requested the design be as stark a contrast to Sgt Pepper’s day-glo explosion as possible. He got it!"
The fact that the front cover didn't include any photography of the group did, of course, cause a great stir on the album's release in November 1968. There were, however, four individual black and white photos of John, Paul, George and Ringo in the gatefold; these were also included as separate colour prints, along with a folded poster, which opened out into a large photo montage, with the song lyrics for the album on the other side.
The very notion that it was Ringo who owned the first copy in the numbered series from the album's first release is a surprise to many. It was long thought that John Lennon got the first one, including by Paul McCartney, who once said that he bagged it "by shouting loudest." Those close to the band were given the honour of low numbers in the series, with producer George Martin getting No. 0000007 and the group's press officer Derek Taylor 0000009.
Lennon gave 0000005 to a close, unnamed friend, and when that copy went to auction in 2008, it raised nearly $30,000. Last year, in a feature on the world's rarest records in the Daily Telegraph, one dealer said that the in-demand low number copies of The Beatles continue to be in huge demand, with those numbered up to 100 raising between £4,000 and £10,000.
The plain white sleeve was not, however, the first idea for the artwork. As Beatles devotees know, the album was originally to be titled A Doll's House, inspired by the Ibsen play. That title was abandoned when, in July 1968 — four months before The Beatles' release, progressive British rock band Family released their debut album, named Music In A Doll's House.
Less well known is the fact that two previous covers were commissioned for what became simply The Beatles, but not used. One was of the quartet depicted as carvings on a cliff over the English Channel; the other was a pop art depiction of them by Patrick, the name used by John Byrne, later to find fame and success as the writer of the hit TV series Tutti Frutti.
After this commission and before his career in television, Patrick's distinctive paintings were used on album covers by Stealers Wheel and, after their split, by frontman Gerry Rafferty on his solo releases. Happily, his Beatles artwork didn't go to waste. Many years later, it was used as the cover of the 1980 compilation The Beatles Ballads, as you can see here.
Highly prized as the "low-number" editions of The Beatles have become, some of Hamilton's other original ideas for the cover could have made it even more groundbreaking. He suggested that the white sleeve should feature a coffee cup stain, an idea that was later used elsewhere, notably by Elvis Costello for his Get Happy!! album. Hamilton also ambitiously proposed that, in the year of the launch of the Beatles' Apple label, the cover be impregnated with apple pulp, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, this was rejected as too impractical. In the end, it was the sheer simplicity of the design that made the look of The Beatles as memorable as the sound.