“I call these the parents,” said Ken Orth as we stood on the sidewalk in front of Bill’s Music in Catonsville, Md. He pointed to two original Beatles album covers: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road.”
Arranged all around were the children and grandchildren: nearly 100 album covers and other works of art that inherited the visual DNA of those Beatles records. Here was Plavi Orkestar’s 1985 debut record, “Soldatski Bal,” in which the Bosnian rock band is posed in front of dozens of cutouts, a la “Sgt. Pepper.” There was “Bad Boys,” a Sex Pistols bootleg that shows the punks aping “Sgt. Pepper.”
Nearby was “Baby Road,” a kids album by boogie-woogie pianist Floyd Domino in which four diapered toddlers recreated “Abbey Road.” It’s not to be confused with “Feet on the Ground,” which features a photo of the members of the APO Hiking Society in a crosswalk presumably somewhere in the Philippines, where that band is from.
Ken, a retired Army Corps of Engineers urban planner, has been collecting such parodies/homages since 1982, when he walked into Orpheus Records in Georgetown and saw an album that looked like “Sgt. Pepper” but had a twist: Everyone had their backs turned away from the camera.
“I thought, ‘This is kind of odd,’ ” Ken said.
The record turned out to be by a Japanese synth player named Jun Fukamachi. Ken liked the artwork, which conjured associations of his favorite band. Already a collector of Beatles records, he started buying records that looked like Beatles records but weren’t.
“Pretty soon, before you know it, there’s the beginnings of a collection,” Ken said.
The collection now numbers close to 2,000 different items, each riffing on a Beatles image: the half-shadowed group shot of “Meet the Beatles,” the Peter Max color of “Yellow Submarine,” the pen-and-ink portraits and tiny cutouts of “Revolver.”
Ken goes around the country displaying the collection at various Beatles festivals. He and his girlfriend, Carol Sanders, split their time between Baltimore and Savannah, Ga., so it was easy for him to put up an assortment for a couple of hours outside Bill’s Music.
Pedestrians ambled down the sidewalk, some not quite sure why a bunch of Beatlesque — but not Beatles — artwork was hanging there. But a few folks came just to see it, including Keith Zumbrun of Glen Arm, Md., near Towson. He plays bass in a five-piece Beatles cover band called Saving Sgt. Pepper.
Keith sported a long, rather non-Beatlesque gray ponytail. “We have a girl in the group, so we don’t have the pressure to look like them,” he explained.
“I try to listen to the music to all of these,” Ken said. “Most of them get listened to once, and that’s enough.”
Just because something looks like the Beatles doesn’t mean it sounds like them. Some of the album art telegraphs that there are, indeed, Beatles songs inside. Sometimes the art is meant as a joke or a pointed commentary. Among the latter is Frank Zappa’s “Sgt. Pepper” take-off, “We’re Only in It for the Money.” Zappa is in a dress, and “Mothers” is spelled out in carrots and watermelon.
I’ve been known to do my own parodies, with the Kelly family Christmas cards.
A few times a month, something pops up on eBay that’s interesting enough for Ken to buy it.
“I discovered that at least for a while, I was the only person doing it,” he said.
Now he has competition. And a few unscrupulous dealers try to lure him into buying fakes. Just as there are bootlegs of Beatles recordings, so there are bootleg versions of photos, like the frames shot just before and after that iconic image was taken in a zebra crossing near Abbey Road studios.
Ken said some people Photoshop John, Paul, George and Ringo’s arms and legs so they’re in slightly different positions, hoping a collector will bite.
Ken is in the middle of writing essays about every original Beatles album cover, including “Revolver,” released 50 years ago this week. He and a Dutch Beatles fan named Piet Schreuders have traced the origins of every tiny photo that’s on the front of that album.
Ken describes himself as a first-generation Beatles fan. “I saw the Beatles in September 1964 in Kansas City,” he said. “I was in a band within a matter of weeks. Everybody I knew was in a band within a matter of weeks. That’s the kind of music we cut our teeth on.”
Ken’s latest acquisition is a CD by a Russian singer named Natalya Senchukova. It has a cartoonish “Sgt. Pepper”-style cover. The title is “Vspomni detstvo zolotoe.” That translates roughly as “Remember golden childhood.”
I think that’s what Ken might be doing.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.