The Daily Heller: Rick Ward and His Reimagined Beatles Album Covers

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In January 1964 The Beatles made their TV debut in a short concert film shot in England and shown on “The Jack Parr Program”; in February 1964 they appeared live on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” That’s when Beatlemania hit America. Rick Ward was a teen in Zimbabwe when that wave hit. He became a fan. Less than a decade later, as a designer and art director at The Team in London, he started conceiving album covers for the Fab Four’s first legacy albums. I cannot wait to share his story …

The original presentation box, Rick removed the newspaper wrapping as part of creating a build-up to the ‘mystery’ tease. Within the box rested the blank canvas.

How did you come to work with The Beatles?
I was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and studied at Natal College of Art, Durban, in South Africa, then I won a scholarship to study in the UK, where I did a post-grad course in information design at Stafford College of Art. I arrived in the UK in late December, 1967.  

My introduction to The Beatles came through Gordon Murray, who designed F1 Grand Prix cars for Brabham and McLaren F1 race teams. He had come over at the same time; we met, became friends, and he later became a client.

Through my passion for Fairground Art, I met Geoff Weedon, also a passionate devotee; we spent nine years photographing and researching, with Geoff writing and me designing and producing it, to create and publish a seminal book on the history of Fairground Art.

At The Team, I worked with Gordon Murray on the graphics, marketing and launch of the McClaren F1 Supercar. Earlier, he had found himself sitting next to George Harrison (a big F1 fan) on his way back from the Rio F1 GP, as technical director of the Brabham F1 GP Team. They got into conversation, leading them to becoming great friends.

Gordon later contacted me, as he’d been invited to George’s birthday party, and asked me for a signed copy of the book to give to George. Gordon felt that he would appreciate our book.

That resulted in a call from George telling me how much he loved the book, and then inviting me to his place at Friar Park, and we went on to become friends. I did several small design projects leading up to doing his album cover for Live in Japan with Eric Clapton in July 1992. In 1993, it was George, as a result of having privately designed his album, who suggested to Neil Aspinall to let me have a go at Live at the BBC, so I was invited into Apple to discuss and produce concepts for what was the first new album put out by The Beatles since Let it Be.

From the Please Please Me album to the Anthology box set, most of The Beatles’ albums are iconic. You are responsible for some of those icons. What was the process of getting Live at the BBC and 1 through the marketing/design gauntlet as well as getting agreement from the different band members?
Working for The Beatles meant I had five clients. I was given the briefs by Neil Aspinall, but each time I had to go and present individually to Paul, George and Ringo, then over the phone with Yoko. Whenever I approached them with an idea, they always wanted to know was the others thought. I’d see Paul and he’d say, “What did George think?” And then with George, “What did Ringo think?” And so on. But I had to be firm with them and say: “No, I’m asking you, it’s got nothing to do with them. I’ll ask them later.” I think they appreciated it.

Our working relationship is best summed up by the Live at the BBC album. The concept for that album was a fan’s photograph with an autograph on the front. I had found a great image, got the picture retouched, and then just wrote “Live at the BBC” in the corner. It was supposed to mimic the bootleg albums that were cropping up at the time. They instantly loved it, but we had to decide whose handwriting was going to be on the front. I asked Paul, George, Ringo and Yoko to take a pen and write “Live at the BBC” just like they were signing a photograph. I then printed all the versions out, randomly adding mine and Neil’s to the mix. I then sent the options back to the four of them and asked them to choose their favorites. When they came back with their votes, I couldn’t believe it: It was mine!

Ultimately, that was how we worked together. I had to be firm. Because logistics will always come into it and, at the end of the day, that’s going to determine how far anyone can go with an idea. The consequences of not meeting deadlines with the commercial deals they had in place was simply non-negotiable. There’s no way you could go past it. Of course, they knew that and yet they all pushed and pushed and pushed.

When I saw 1 I was a little taken aback, as it didn’t seem to follow The Beatles’ usual visual language—however, it soon became iconic. What made you want to try something different? How did the band members respond?
Neil invited me in to “have a go” at the album and said that two others had had a go without any success. I carefully considered what it was, possible ways that we could express that there were 27 number ones on one CD. The title was The Beatles’ 1. I had always loved the graphic look of basic ticket printing for entry into dances in town halls, then we treated the bold “1” as a piece of graphic art, the “hero,” so to speak. So we kept it minimal, strong and simple. We obviously needed to have pictures of them somewhere in the album, and as the cover had turned quite pop art–ish, I was reminded of the ultimate iconoclastic photos Richard Avedon had taken of them in the ’60s for Look magazine, so I suggested using them. As The Beatles had never used them, had never owned them and they had only ever been used by Avedon himself, they were perfect for it. We negotiated their usage with Avedon, who was very happy that after 25 years The Beatles were to use his photos.

All parties were very pleased with the result, and it went on to become the fastest-selling album of all time, as well as a No. 1 hit.
Original painting by Klaus Voormann

The Anthology series was of massive importance. How was the cover decided upon? How did the idea come about?
It was the largest music project they’d ever considered. Three consecutively released double albums, covering their entire recording career. It was about setting the record straight, telling it in their own words. The Beatles and EMI had been considering it, and George Martin put together a chronological anthology of all they’d done and decided to release it as three double albums. That was the brief.

After thinking it over for a week or two, I went back to Neil Aspinall and suggested it be done as a piece of art because that’s how people discussed their music. The concept was an artist’s painting, a “masterpiece.” But it started with a blank canvas.

From that, I wrote a brief. I wanted to create a timeless classic presentation, reflecting the essence of The Beatles. I approached six artists: David Hockney, Peter Blake, Brian Grimwood, Humphrey Ocean, David Oxtoby and Klaus Voormann. Five of them submitted their thoughts, Peter Blake simply refused. If it was a competition, it was either him, or not.

Klaus Voormann got selected based on his initial thoughts, because he was utilizing existing used old images from promotional materials. He had unknowingly given us a loophole, as all images used had already been approved, so there were no contentious sign-off issues.

We produced a single visual image, working night and day, in a week, and got it approved. I suggested we base the single image on an old billboard poster, with these three images gradually appearing and kind of peeling away, as if they’d been pasted up on a concert hall and weathered over the years. This way we had a “cover” for each of the three album releases and one image for the complete anthology.

It was extremely challenging to lay out due to the varying proportions of the different design formats like cassettes, 45s, 12″ LP covers, LaserDiscs, VHS covers, etc., so on. I developed a grid matrix which we constantly laid over the rough visual to keep checking that it would fit every format, and that each of the four Beatles were equally represented.

Klaus then wanted to paint it by hand, as he was getting into ultra-realism. I told him, “For God’s sake, Klaus. We’ve got to deliver by this time on this day.” A courier company had been booked for the whole day to ship Anthology 1 across the States; as it was released worldwide, on the same day, there was no way we could miss it. He first painted the first third for the first release, followed by the second third for second and so on. That gave us time between releases to paint each section. We just managed to meet the deadlines.

Which of your album designs are you most happy with?
I thoroughly enjoyed working on all of them, as they were each so different in what they were setting out to achieve and all had challenges to overcome. There is no one album that’s my favorite, and I learned so much doing each one. It was always interesting, stimulating and very challenging. Live at the BBC, being my first one, was initially quite overwhelming; being invited to design an album cover for the greatest band in the world was a bit unreal. But upon reflection, the fact that they were asking me meant that they had enough respect for me and my work, and so I was able to accept it, and take it as a compliment, and for the amazing opportunity it was.

There never seemed to be much consistency to their covers. In some ways this spoke to the band’s evolving maturity, in others it symbolized the beginning of their solo careers and moving into that sunset territory. How do you feel the later album covers matured? What do you feel this signified?
To quote Hugh Aldersey-Williams in Graphis magazine some years ago: “The effectiveness and success of an identity [brand/band] depends not simply upon how often we see it, but how often we see it in a positive context.”

The Beatles were so unique and on so many levels. How could you better them and what they produced? What they were was unique on so many levels. They themselves were their image.

The album covers to me reflect exactly that: It portrayed them as they were at that particular time and moment on their journey. In a very short space of time, they simply became four names—John, Paul, George and Ringo; you knew instantly who people were talking about, it summed them up, instantly conveying what they represented.

Each cover evolved as they did at an astonishing rate—14 albums in seven years, something that I doubt will ever be bettered, each album a move forward, experimenting, in a constant evolution from the last. Look at the covers, they reflect this progress clearly, illustrated by the consistency of changing images that portrayed where they were at that moment, and everyone a winner.

At the time of the later albums, the covers did appear to reflect the fact that they were moving into a “sunset” territory and a sense of growing apart. On the early albums one sensed that they were together as a band and a unit, but later they seemed to be apart from each other, a cool distancing as the cohesiveness that they once had was slowly diminishing.

With the announcement that new music from The Beatles will be released with the help of AI, how do you envision the artwork looking? What would you do if tasked with this design?
I received this bit of news with slight trepidation. I believe it is going to be utilizing AI to separate out John’s voice from a messy soundtrack, so that it can be used as a vocal in a new recording of this song, in a sense I suppose, “remastered.”

It’s a slightly provocative topic and it will be interesting to see how it turns out. Personally, I don’t want to listen to music that has reproduced a person singing songs that they never sung or in a style they didn’t sing. It defeats the whole point of what music and song is.

And what would I do? I would first want to hear the music and know more about the content and an understanding of what they are trying to get at. Only once I’d gotten a feel and understanding of the album would I begin to put down some thoughts.