The Story Behind the Cover of the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request

From left: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Brian Jones. Photo: Michael Cooper

This week the Morrison Hotel Gallery in Soho is opening a photography exhibit commemorating Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Rolling Stones’ 1967 foray into psychedelia. September 14 marks 50 years since they clustered into a New York studio and posed for the cover shot.

The man behind the camera that weekend was Michael Cooper, who had also shot the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band three months earlier. Throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, Cooper photographed a number of rock bands, artists, and writers, including Eric Clapton and Allen Ginsberg, but aside from the Sgt. Pepper’s cover, his work with the Stones, from both the studio and the road, is his main legacy. He committed suicide in 1973.

The 20-photo exhibit, “Their Satanic Majesties Request — The Making of an Album Cover,” runs from September 8 through September 20, and features many never-before-seen images and behind-the-scenes photos from the innovative shoot. It was curated by Cooper’s son Adam, a filmmaker in his own right, and by Peter Blachley, co-owner of the Morrison Hotel Gallery. We called Adam this week to ask about the story behind the shoot.

Drummer Charlie Watts. Photo: Michael Cooper

How did your father get involved with the band?
A friend introduced him to Keith Richards, and they became very close friends from the beginning. Keith had a great interest in photography and was very interested to know about the process of developing and printing and all of that. And of course Michael had a great interest in music. So the two of them sort of married together from the outset, and that allowed Michael to hang out with them day to day, in different situations. And the thing about Michael was that he always, always — as they say, 24/7 — had a camera around his neck, with film loaded in it, and was ready to shoot. The collection I have is 70,000 images in a 10-year period, and about 3,500 are of the Stones.

When Michael died, I was 9 years old, but here I am now in my early 50s, and I’m still discovering more images pop up, and more people pop up, telling me stories of their experiences together.

When did you start exhibiting his photography?
I inherited the collection when I was 18, because it was held in trust until people deemed that I was responsible enough to look after it. I went through this massive cardboard box of negatives that were completely in disarray. It wasn’t until then that I really discovered the material I had. I first put out a book of his work in 1990. The Stones were touring for Steel Wheels at the time, so we organized exhibitions in major cities around the world, in combination with where the Stones were performing. Keith and Ronnie and Charlie would come down once and a while and be there at the opening.

Photo: Michael Cooper

What’s the story behind the photos for the Satanic Majesties cover?
Well, Sgt. Pepper was such a tremendous success, of course the Stones wanted to jump on that bandwagon and take advantage of it. So they went to Michael as a friend and said, “Look, you’ve done Sgt. Pepper. We want to do a similar type of thing with Satanic Majesties.” Typical of Michael, he wanted to take it one step further, so he said, “Okay, let’s do a 3-D cover.” One of the only 3-D cameras that existed in the world in those days was in New York, so they went off to Mount Vernon Studios.

Both bands were pretty much equal in popularity at the time, but the difference in the attitude of the record companies was completely distinctive. EMI rolled out the red carpet, and the Beatles came in for a three-hour photo session once the set had been built and committed it to history. They literally walked in, put on the uniforms, did some black-and-white test shots, and that was it. They were treated like the most popular band in the world at the moment, which they were. But the Stones were pretty much up there with them, as far as popularity was concerned. They pitched the idea to Allen Klein and ABKCO, which was their recording company, and they said, “Yeah, fine, you can do whatever you want, but you’re going to have to build the set, and you’re gonna have to go out and buy the clothing.” And basically, the Stones, along with Michael, put this album cover together themselves. In the photography that comes across in the exhibition, you can actually see it. There’s Keith down on the floor with a saw and glue. They’re literally building the set.

The tragedy of the cover was that it was supposed to be three-dimensional, so when you angled it in front of your face, the heads of the Stones would change direction. But of course, when Allen Klein and ABKCO received the budget for a worldwide, mass-market edition, it was immediately rejected because the cost was just too much. They ended up doing a 500-copy limited edition, which ended up with lots of friends and family and whatever. And it’s not until now, here we are 50 years later, that ABKCO are actually reissuing the album with the 3-D cover.

It was your father’s design, right?
Yeah, he came up with the concept and the art direction and everything else. It was pretty much a one-man show with the Stones attached to it. Keith says, “There wasn’t a photographer that we would ever have allowed to dictate to us what we should be doing for the cover.”

Bill Wyman checking out hats. Photo: Michael Cooper

The cover also gives a nod to the Beatles. Do you know the story there?
The British press were constantly dreaming up rumors that relations between the Beatles and the Stones were always bad, and they presented this bad-boy image of the Stones and the clean image of the Beatles and all of that. It was a complete invention by the press. People believed it, so the Stones, by 1967, said, “We’ve had enough of this shit. Let’s try to communicate through the cover to tell the public this is not the truth.”

So what you see on the Satanic Majesties cover, amongst the flowers, is the four faces of the Beatles. And in Sgt. Pepper’s, which was released earlier that same year, you see the doll in the right-hand corner of the cover, which says “Welcome the Rolling Stones.” It was their way of somewhat silently communicating between themselves, but also to the public, to say, “This is all a load of crap. We have great relations with the Beatles. We have great respect for them.”

Keith, again, to quote him, says, “We’d get on the phone and we’d talk to John or Paul, and say, ‘Hey, how’s your new album coming along?’ And they’d say, ‘It’s going to be released in a couple weeks.’ And we’d say, ‘Ours is ready as well, but we’ll hold off so that we don’t clash.’” That was the relationship. If you look at the famous “All You Need Is Love” video, which they recorded live in the studio, there’s Mick and Keith sitting on the floor, singing along with the rest of the band.

Charlie Watts and Keith Richards on the left; Mick Jagger in the foreground. Photo: Michael Cooper

Do you think there’s any particular conceit behind the Satanic Majesties cover? With Sgt. Pepper’s the idea was clear: They were playing these characters in an old band that was reuniting after all these years, and they had a director named Billy Shears, et cetera. Do you think there was anything similar going on with Satanic Majesties?
Eh … no, personally, I don’t think so. I think what they were jumping on was the fact that in England, this was the summer of love, flower power was kicking in, there was a lot of influence from drugs of course. I don’t think they were trying to necessarily make a statement. In the ’60s, a lot of bands were pretty much copying each other because of popularity. I mean Sgt. Pepper’s really was a groundbreaking album cover. It had never been done before. Nobody had ever thought, “Let’s put the lyrics for every song on the back cover of this album.” And the Stones jumped onto that popularity and tried to turn it into their own thing.

Do you have any favorite images from the collection?
One of my particular favorites is a shot Michael took of Keith on the day of the Hyde Park ’69 concert, which turned into a tribute to Brian. They were staying in a hotel opposite the park, and they hadn’t performed live for like two years. Unbelievable as it may seem, they were really worried that no one was going to turn up for the concert. So Michael and Keith went up on the rooftop of the hotel to see how many people were turning up. Keith was wearing these reflective glasses, and Michael took this amazing shot of the sunlight beaming out of one of the lenses.

It impresses me so much because it’s a great composition, it’s a beautiful image, but you and I know that you’ve got probably about one second to get that — and he did. I think that’s the beauty of Michael’s work: this ability to get himself into the position, find the right composition, focus, put the right T-stop on the lens, and grab it in seconds. Because 90 percent of the work Michael did with the Stones — it was never rehearsed, it was never planned, it was never commissioned. It was just him being there. Fly-on-the-wall stuff. Great documentary, montage-type material.

Yeah. In that documentary vein, I also like some of the shots that show them putting the physical set together: one of Brian Jones holding a can of spray paint, another of Mick crouching on the floor, cutting a piece of foil or something.
This is why we and Morrison Hotel came up with the obvious title of “The Making of an Album Cover” — because it really is the making of an album cover. But it’s actually the making of an album cover actually by the band that’s performing and appearing on said cover. Morrison gave me the opportunity to try and depict that as a complete process, do you know what I mean?

Richards and Jagger. Photo: Michael Cooper

Do you know how much time they spent on this, between assembling the costumes and the set and doing the shoot?
They arrived on — I think it was September 12, in New York, and they started prepping and producing September 13 and 14, and they shot the session on the 14th, probably through to the early hours of the 15th. And that was it, done. I mean, Keith says that, God knows how he did it, but Michael arranged for the stores in New York to be open on a Sunday so they could go look at things and buy things and traipse back to the studio and put the whole set together, and try on different costumes, and as always, with photographers, they always shoot more than you’re ever going to use. There are lots of Charlie and Bill and Brian posing with instruments in different situations — which was all submitted to ABKCO, and like all record companies, they chose the images that they thought [were] suited best for the album, and then the rest of the material went back to Michael.

Have you ever managed to pry out any specific anecdotes about that weekend?
No, in all honesty, the Stones tend to walk away from the past. And what you also have to remember is that relations between ABKCO and the Stones at that time were not good, because the Stones signed a contract that meant Allen Klein was going to make the majority of the money. They’ve never said the album doesn’t exist, because they can’t, but at the same time, it’s not their best album. Mick says, you know, “We weren’t in the right place at the time. There were too many problems, too many personal things going on, too many problems with the authorities, doing drugs and everything else.” But at the same time, they were there in the thick of it all, you know?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Making of the Cover of Their Satanic Majesties Request