As a young artist, Peter Blake was determined to make art that captured the spirit of his generation's music - and ended up creating the most influential album cover in history. On the eve of his 80th birthday, he talks to Mark Hudson.
"People sometimes ask me if I still do Pop Art," says Peter Blake. "Well, Pop Art as a movement was confined to a short period, roughly 1959 to 1964. But I was making things that might be considered Pop Art before then, and in a way I still am."
Of all the artists who broke through in the early Sixties - David Hockney, R-B Kitaj, the late Richard Hamilton, Allen Jones and many others - Blake is the one who has remained truest to the original Pop spirit: not so much by creating work that is Sixties in feel, but by keeping faith with the tastes that first inspired him.
Entering his west London studio is like stepping into a map of the artist's mind, a mind-boggling but meticulously arranged agglomeration of the things he likes: circus posters; boxing memorabilia; African fetishes; garden gnomes; screws; clay pipes; and hats, from fezes to sombreros. Part-shrine, part-museum, part-giant-three-dimensional collage, dotted with his own works going back to the Fifties, the place is presided over by images of people he admires: Elvis, Bardot, boxer Sonny Liston, represented by an imposing life-size waxwork, comedian Max Miller seen in the cut-out figure from the epoch-defining Sgt Pepper cover.
Seated in a light-filled work area at the centre of all this, Sir Peter, who turns 80 on Monday, cuts a distinctive figure. Dressed in his habitual outfit of black waistcoat over crisp white shirt, his long white beard neatly trimmed, he brings to mind some oriental mandarin with a homely touch of The Wind in the Willows; any sense of the exotic is offset by his matter-of-fact turn of phrase.
Of the various exhibitions celebrating his birthday, perhaps the most revealing is Peter Blake and Pop Music at Pallant House in Chichester. While Blake has probably designed more album covers - from Brian Wilson to Oasis - than any other artist, it's only when you sit down and talk to him that you realise how closely his art and the world of music have been intertwined, from the Fifties to the present day.
Blake taught Ian Dury; the Who drew their entire early look from his brand of Pop Art; Yoko Ono's conceptual sculptures - the ones that attracted John Lennon - were made by his students; Mick Jagger went to school with his younger brother in Dartford in Kent; he was friends with all of the Beatles at one time or another. All of which, and that's just the tip of the iceberg, he explains without a hint of boasting or name-dropping. Indeed, when he mentions a later post-Beatles friendship with George Harrison that occurred via Eric Clapton, it's said as though knowing people "through Eric" is just what everybody does.
"You know everybody!" I exclaim at one point.
"That comes with longevity," he says with a shrug and a rueful smile.
Blake's apparently effortless gift for friendship comes as all the more of a surprise when you learn that as a child he was so pathologically shy he was incapable of entering a shop unaccompanied. National Service in the RAF knocked that out of him. An electrician's son, he studied commercial art at Gravesend Technical College, before going to the Royal College of Art as a painting student in 1953.
"The first year was all life drawing," he recalls. "But from the beginning of the second year I decided to make art that was about the life of a young working-class man and the things that interest him." In his case that was wrestling, pin-up girls and circuses. His preoccupations overlapped with those of the Independent Group of artists and critics at the ICA, which included Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, though the term Pop Art had yet to be coined - a task that fell, famously, to the critic Lawrence Alloway. "I was telling Lawrence that I wanted to make art that a teenage girl would appreciate in the same way she enjoyed an Elvis record. He said, 'You mean a sort of pop art?'?"
So that's how the concept that defined an era came into being?
"That's one version of how it happened," says Blake. "I'm sure there are others."
While his first musical love was modern jazz, it wasn't long before the figures who were shaking up popular culture began creeping into his paintings: Bo Diddley, the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys and, eventually, the Beatles.
Blake got to know the group when he was taken to the filming of their first television appearance, on Ready Steady Go!, in 1963. On a second encounter he and fellow artists Joe Tilson, Robyn Denny and Richard Smith went to meet the Beatles in their London hotel.
"Paul wasn't there," recalls Blake. "But John asked if we knew any clubs. By pure chance I'd been taken to a place called the Crazy Elephant in Jermyn Street the previous week. When we got there, they wouldn't let us in as we weren't members. Please Please Me was playing and John said, 'We're in a group, that's our record.'
But they just said, 'That's what they all say.' Then a voice came from inside: 'Let them in. They're friends of mine'. It was Paul. He was one step ahead, as usual."
If John was 'insecure, but very voluble', Paul was the 'intellectual dandy' of the group, who was already making his own art collection. "They were almost middle class," says Blake. "They'd had an education of sorts, they weren't ruffians.
"When we came to do the Sgt Pepper cover, I asked them each to make a list of their heroes who would be included in the image. John and Paul both made long lists. George's was all Indian gurus, and Ringo just said, 'I'll go along with what the other chaps decide'."
If the Sgt Pepper cover, with its gatefold sleeve, printed lyrics and iconic image of the group with their heroes, had an impact on pop culture almost as great as the music contained within it, Blake has bitter memories of its creation, his then dealer, the late Robert Fraser, having signed away his right to royalties for a derisory fee.
It is only now that he is prepared to discuss the making of the most famous album cover in rock history.
"It was Robert Fraser's idea to get me involved, to make the cover different from anything that had gone before. The photograph was taken by Michael Cooper [the renowned Sixties photographer best known for his work with the Rolling Stones]. We had everything set up with all the cut-out heroes, and flowers from a florist in Regent's Park. Then we were told the group were still recording, and that had to take precedence. So the flowers were sent back, and we started again the next day."
Blake says he had several opportunities to hear the album being recorded. "We went into one room and George was sitting on the floor playing with about 20 Indian musicians. We went into another, and John was on his own doing the vocal to Good Morning Good Morning." Even now, nearly half a century later, his sense of the magic of the moment is undimmed.
While Blake has seen enormous changes in the art world, they've hardly affected him, he says, as his approach has remained so consistent. "There's never been an enormous interest in what I do, but it's never completely fallen away either. I haven't made a massive amount of money, but I suppose I've become a sort of national treasure."
While he's been a supporter of the YBA generation - Hirst and Emin are both friends - at the same time whole new musical generations have come through who've been inspired by his work of the Sixties. Most notable is Paul Weller, for whom he did the Stanley Road album cover.
"Paul sees me as part of the same generation as the Beatles and the Who, and he treats me in the way he would one of them," says Blake. "We've become friends, though he's always respectful and slightly shy. But the other night we went out and he'd had a few drinks. As we were leaving I heard him calling along the street after me, 'I ------- love you, Peter' - which was nice."
Peter Blake and Pop Music is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until 7 October.