From The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, 'Instant Karma', by Alan Aldridge
The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics: 'Instant Karma'

Alan Aldridge was one of the foremost British graphic designers of the 1960s and 1970s. He worked in a cartoony, fluid, highly flamboyant style with lots of airbrush, which gave him the self-declared nickname "The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes", after the "girl with kaleidoscope eyes" in the Beatles song 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'. Aldridge is best remembered for his psychedelic illustrations and designs for various icons of the swinging sixties, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol and The Who. Later in his career his major claim to fame was the artwork in William Plomer's 'The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast' (1973), which gained further notability as the animated music video to Roger Glover's number one-hit 'Love Is All' (1975).


Still from Love Is All

Alan Aldridge was born in East London in 1938. He left school when he was fifteen and drifted through various jobs, including cargo unloader in the London docks, barrow boy, chicken plucker and insurance clerk. His first venture into graphic arts was a job as scenery painter at Old Vic theatre. This job was quite remarkable, seeing that he actually was a complete autodidact. Aldridge once attended a graphic workshop for eight weeks, but dropped out because it bored him. When he applied for a job at a design agency in 1963 he used his girlfriend's portfolio to make a better impression and was promptly hired. In order to get the required suit for the profession he went to Bethnal Green baths and stole a costume. Bold risks like these eventually paid off when he was hired as a freelance artist for Penguin Books. He illustrated various book covers for them, predominantly science fiction novels. His loose and playful psychedelic style was a result of his lack of professional skill. Before him most Penguin illustrators had graduated from the Academy, but Aldridge just worked on impulse and drew what he felt like. As he got promoted as Penguin's new art director he hired many new young talents who also broke with the tightly structured illustration work of their academy-trained predecessors and just did their own thing.

In 1965 Aldridge received a new assignment, this time by the prestigious Sunday Times newspaper. His job was to make a cover depicting a Austin Mini car. Aldridge felt intimidated by the paper's classy reputation and realized his skills were too limited to pull it off. Faced with writer's block and a rapidly approaching deadline he got a great idea. Rather than make a picture of a Mini he hired a real one, spray-painted it with illustrations and had it photographed. The work became one of the Sunday Times' most iconic covers. Still Aldridge felt he couldn't hide behind excuses and cheap tricks forever. Instead of going to the Academy he borrowed art books from the library and carefully studied them. This improved his skills to a more professional level. Among his main graphic influences were Pablo Picasso, Ben Shahn, Robert Rauschenberg, John Tenniel, M.C. Escher and René Magritte. In the field of comics he loved Dudley D. Watkins' 'Desperate Dan', Tom Browne's 'Weary Willie and Tired Tim' and the magazines The Beano, Illustrated Chips, Rainbow and Film Fun.

The Penguin Book of Comics
Book cover of 'The Penguin Book of Comics' (1967). From top to below one recognizes ? (?), Rupert Bear (Mary Tourtel), The Spirit (Will Eisner), Tiger Tim (Julius Stafford Baker), Dagwood Bumstead (Chic Young), Oliver Hardy (Laurel and Hardy comics), Captain America (Joe Simon, Jack Kirby), Popeye (E.C. Segar), Ignatz and Krazy Kat (George Herriman), Donald Duck (Walt Disney), Happy Hooligan (Frederick Burr Opper), Jiggs (George McManus), The Yellow Kid (Richard F. Outcault), Pop (J. Millar Watt), Piggy (Herbert Foxwell), Weary Willie (Tom Browne), Felix the Cat (Otto Messmer, Pat Sullivan), Li'l Abner (Al Capp), Mutt (Bud Fisher), Superman (Siegel & Shuster), Der Katzenjammer Kids (Rudolph Dirks), Squeak the penguin (Austin Bowen Payne) and Snoopy (Charles M. Schulz).

In 1967 he and George Perry, who was assistant-editor of the Sunday Times at the time, published 'The Penguin Book of Comics'. This was an illustrated history of American and British comics written by Perry. Apart from images from various classic comics the work also featured artwork by Aldridge. He illustrated the eye-catching cover and the first page of each chapter. In 1971 the book was published in a revised edition. The same year Aldridge also designed the poster for an exhibition named 'AAARGH! A celebration of comics', which could be visited between 31 December 1970 and 7 February 1971 and put comic pages of various classic and contemporary artists on display.

During the second half of the 1960s Aldridge became one of England's much sought graphic illustrators. In 1966 the London magazine Nova asked him to provide graphic interpretations of all songs from the Beatles' album 'Revolver' (1966). He was not allowed to listen to the music, but had to base his illustrations on the lyric sheets. They were published in a special issue of Nova which co-incided with the official release of 'Revolver'. Both became immediate best-sellers, though some predictably felt he interpreted some of the lyrics too literally or just plain out wrong. One of them was John Lennon, who personally phoned Aldridge to inform him that 'Dr. Robert' was not literally about a doctor but about a dope pusher. Nevertheless Lennon still liked the illustrations well enough to pay Aldridge a visit. Aldridge gave him the original print of his 'Dr. Robert' illustration and a few weeks later Lennon repaid the gesture by mailing Aldridge a Penguin compilation of his poetry books 'A Spaniard In The Works' and 'In His Own Write'. Lennon had illustrated these books personally, but still asked Aldridge whether he would be interested in making a new cover for this book. Aldridge obliged, depicting Lennon as Superman but had to change the 'S' into 'JL' to avoid copyright problems.


Alan Aldridge's Dr Robert illustration

In 1967 The Beatles released their groundbreaking record 'Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band'. Aldridge had a strong impression that the lyrics and album itself contained hidden messages, particularly the song 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' which seemed to be a homage to LSD. He interviewed Paul McCartney and published their conversations in an issue of The Observer. The article, 'A Good Guru's Guide to the Beatles Sinister Songbook', had illustrations by Aldridge and sold exceptionally well. Naturally the idea came about to publish an entire book delving deeper into the Beatles' lyrics. It would not only compile all their song lyrics, but also offer personal commentary by Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr. Both Aldridge and The Beatles had founded their own company in 1968, his named "INK", theirs "Apple". The group had established Apple as a way to handle their finances and creative projects after their manager Brian Epstein committed suicide in 1967. Aldridge designed the copyright notice around the outside of the Apple label and acted as creative consultant. He designed psychedelic wall paper, Valentine cards and postcards for the company, as well as a few album covers, such as 'Under the Jasmin Tree' (1968) by The Modern Jazz Quartet. John Lennon was so pleased with Aldridge's work that he - tongue in cheek - dubbed him: "His Royal Master of Images to their Majesties the Beatles".

From The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, by Alan Aldridge
From: The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics

INK and Apple would co-create the Beatles' illustrated lyrics book, but Aldridge had only nine weeks to accomplish this. A more lucrative offer had been made by an American publisher, so if he wanted to keep his assignment he had to be quick. Aldridge went through a grueling three months in order to find a publisher. Most were convinced that a Beatles book wouldn't sell anymore, seeing the band was on the verge of splitting. Another problem was finding the right illustrators. Some graphic contributions were so pornographic that the publisher vetoed them. In the end Aldridge had to replace several of them with more chaste artwork. To save time he just illustrated these himself. Eventually 'The Beatles' Illustrated Lyrics' (1969) hit the market. Among the artists featured in the book were John Alcorn, David Bailey, R.O. Blechman, Charles Bragg, Mel Calman, Seymour Chwast, Alan E. Cober, John Deakin, Etienne Delessert, Heinz Edelmann, Erté, Michael English, Michael Foreman, Milton Glaser, John Glashan, Rick Griffin, Robert Grossman, Rudolf Hausner, David Hockney, Nigel Holmes, Allen Jones, Art Kane, Jan Lenica, James Marsh, Peter Max, James McMullan, Tony Meeuwissen, Philippe Mora, Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse, Barbara Nessim, Eduardo Paolozzi, Ethan Russell, Ronald Searle, Jean Loup Sieff, Ralph Steadman, Tiger Takeishi, Roland Topor, Tomi Ungerer, David Vaughan and Tadanori Yokoo. Aldridge absolutely wanted M.C. Escher too and even visited him in his house in Baarn, the Netherlands. Unfortunately he left Escher's prints behind on the train. Contrary to all expectations the book became an immediate and international best-seller.

Through his association with the biggest band on the planet Aldridge also received requests from other British pop acts. In 1966 he designed the cover of 'A Quick One' (1966) by the Who. The front image depicted the band members while their instruments and song lyrics jump out of a canvas. The back cover was simpler and showed the members' four faces, with their band name spelled out over each one of them. The musicians liked the design, except for Pete Townshend who felt the "o" of their band name stuck on his nose made him look like a clown. Aldridge made some last-minute changes and the altered cover was printed just in time. According to rumors Townshend still didn't like his portrayal, particularly when the artwork received more attention and praise than the music. Aldridge also collaborated with The Rolling Stones and designed the poster for their TV concert film 'Rock 'n' Roll Circus' (1968). Unfortunately the movie would only be released three decades later, in 1996. He also decorated one of Jimi Hendrix' guitars and worked on an animated TV series named 'Rollo' with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. The show would have starred a character named Rollo who travelled through space to collect animals for his zoo. Apart fom an unbroadcast pilot the project remained in development hell. Another project which went nowhere was a movie build around Elton John's record 'Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy' (1975). Months of planning went by, but Aldridge and Elton's songwriter Bernie Taupin were just having fun in Barbados instead of actually writing the script as they were supposed to. One of their pastimes there was a drinking contest with famous actor Oliver Reed. While the film got scrapped Aldridge's design for the album cover was nevertheless used. He and Mike Dempsey also published and illustrated 'The One Who Writes the Words for Elton John', a book which compiled Bernie Taupin's song lyrics for Elton John. Aldridge's art also graces the cover of 'Goodbye Cream' (1969) by Cream, 'War Requiem' (1997) by Benjamin Britten, 'Everybody Loves a Happy Ending'(2004) by Tears for Fears and 'Light Grenades' (2006) by Incubus.

Despite his success Aldridge also endured a fair share of criticism. In 1966 he designed the poster for Andy Warhol and Paul Morrisey's experimental film 'Chelsea Girls' (1966), which nearly got him arrested for pornography! The work depicts 16-year old model Clare Shenstone in the nude, with her body transformed into the New York Chelsea Hotel. Its windows cover her tummy, while her vagina is depicted as the door. The London police had already issued a warrant for Aldridge's arrest, forcing him into hiding for a few days. Eventually his lawyer managed to drop the charges. Equally controversial was the poster for Jane Arden's theatrical play 'Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven' (1969). It depicted a nude mother holding two babies while she watches her mirror reflection and cries over the realization that this is what her life will be while Death already grins at her. Just like the poster for 'Chelsea Girls' her body was also turned into something else, in this case a gas oven. The most uproar over an Aldridge image occurred in 1970, when he made a propaganda poster for the British Labour Party. The work portrayed Labour's rivals - the Conservative Party - as mean, nasty and old plasticine figurines. Opponents felt it was a vicious smear campaign and unfortunately it had an opposite effect. The elections ended in a victory for the Conservatives and Edward Heath became the new Prime Minister.


The Great US Disaster (1971)

As the 1960s changed into the 1970s Aldridge felt the psychedelic era was over. Apple went bankrupt and the socialist government which had ruled the United Kingdom for six years were now replaced by the Conservatives. He only made one more notable psychedelic and politically charged poster named 'The Great U.S. Disaster' (1971), which depicted the worst aspects of America:, fascist policemen, The Black Panthers, organized crime, industrialization, oppression of blacks, drug abuse, excessive capitalism and U.S. President Richard Nixon and his running mate Spiro Agnew. The tagline read: "A great place for hamburgers, but who'd want to live there?!" The anti-American illustration quickly became popular and decorated quite some teenage and college walls in the early 1970s.


An ad for Heineken beer (1977)

Aldridge reinvented himself as an illustrator of children's novels, such as Frances D. Francis' 'Ann in the Moon' (1970) and Steve Boyett's 'The Gnole' (1999). He often worked together with Harry Willock, with whom he illustrated Richard Adams' 'The Ship's Cat' (1977) and his own book 'Phantasia: Of Docklands, Rocklands and Dodos' (1981). Their best known collaboration was their illustration work for William Plomer's picture book 'The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper Feast' (1973), in itself based on the eponymous 1802 poem by William Roscoe. The story featured a group of forest animals organizing a party. Aldridge felt quite proud that he'd managed to draw something one of his idols, John Tenniel, never could, namely a wasp in a wig. The book became an unexpected best-seller and was even adapted into an animated short, set to Roger Glover's number one-hit 'Love Is All' (1975), where a guitar-playing frog strums through the forest, gathering animals for the ball. Unbeknowst to many at the time the single was actually sang by Ronnie James Dio. One of the animators on 'Love Is All' was Harold Whitaker. The book lead to several similar insect-related graphic assignments, such as the aforementioned album cover for Elton John's 'Captain Fantastic' and Aldridge's 1977 advert for the Dutch beer brand Heineken which shows a caterpillar turn into a butterfly.

In 1980 Aldridge moved to L.A. For most of his later life he was involved with The House of Blues, a music and restaurant chain by Isaac Tigrett and Dan Aykroyd. Aldridge acted as creative consultant and also designed the logo for their Hard Rock Cafe. Throughout his career his work was often exhibited and awarded, including the Whitbread Children's Book Award (1973). On one of these occasions he published his illustrated autobiography, 'The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes' (2008). The books offers many sensational anecdotes, particularly a meeting between Aldridge and Salvador Dalí at the Nice airport in 1967 where they held an improvisational drawing contest. Alan Aldridge passed away in February 2017.


Alan Aldridge in the 1970s with plastic politician figurines

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