This was the December that British artist Chris Barker’s annual Beatles-inspired tribute to the celebrities we lost this year almost didn’t happen. Since 2016, Barker has been posting his quirky homage to the music, art, culture, politics and movie/TV stars who passed in the calendar year, which in 2021 included Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, famed designer Virgil Abloh, Monkees member Mike Nesmith, rappers DMX, Biz Markie and Shock G, as well as “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector and multi-talented actor/singer Cicely Tyson.
“I said I wasn’t going to do one of these again. I’ve said it every year since the first time I did it in 2016 but I really really meant it this time,” Barker tells Billboard in a note accompanying this year’s image, which, as usual, uses the collage format of the Fab Four’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover as a jumping-off point. “The first year I did it, the raw trauma from the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum result combined with the mass exodus of the heroes of our youth (From Bowie to Gene Wilder to George Michael to Carrie Fisher) had made me create a cathartic piece to sum up my emotions.”
In 2017, he did it again after feeling the loses of Bond star Roger Moore and OG Batman Adam West, vowing every year since that he was not going to do it again only to have something happen in November of that year that got him going again. “I wasn’t going to do it in 2020, but it had been such a monumentally terrible year it felt like the wrong year to stop,” he explains. “And a fitting tribute to the worst of all annuses. But that was it. As we entered a new era, with Biden legally elected and the virus seemingly about to be vanquished, I could draw a line under it. Bookending the nightmare of the Trump presidency.”
But, as usual, people kept asking him when it was coming and he realized it is a kind of catharsis for them, too, so once again he reconsidered and took the plunge. He’s always especially keen on making sure the “Front Four” represent the most iconic deaths that year and save for a Prince/David Bowie-type of name, he again wasn’t sure he had what was needed to make this year’s image.
There were plenty of UK-famous folks he could have picked — Girls Aloud’s Sarah Harding, Prince Phillip – but Barker got into his head about what makes a loss important. “The trouble is that the international interest in the annual tribute was skewing the nature of what the piece originally was. It was originally my personal take on the year,” he writes, describing how the list has to come from him and not by committee.
Once he thought about it there were more than enough names for the list, from Watts and Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim to Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls, the Bay City Rollers’ Les McKeown, dub reggae icon Lee “Scratch” Perry, Gerry & the Pacemakers’ Gerry Mardsen, The Wailers’ Bunny Wailer, ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill, UB40’s Brian Travers and Terence “Astro” Wilson, Don Everly, Kool & the Gang’s Dennis Thomas, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Slipknot’s Joey Jordinson, the Moody Blues’ Graeme Edge and Prince Markie Dee of the Fat Boys, among many others (see the key to the image below).
And while the converted cover usually drops in early November, the artist found himself hedging, adding Nesmith at the last minute after the TV actor/country rock innovator/musician passed away over the weekend. “Just as I was about to post the image I got news of Mike Nesmith dying. Suddenly the whole image made sense,” he says. “A Monkee and a Rolling Stone right in the middle. And Merseybeat star Gerry Marsden just near them. Made the whole thing feel absolutely fine and got rid of any worries I had about the piece.”
To be fair, Barker says he loved the made-for-TV Monkees as a kid, studying their music more than that of the Beatles. “Although it did annoy me that they didn’t all have exactly the same haircut,” he jokes. “I liked things to be neat and make sense. I didn’t even like it when John Lennon wore a hat!” If you like this year’s model, Barker suggests you make a contribution to a charity in its honor, perhaps to the RNLI (The Royal National Lifeboat Institute), which patrols the waters around the British Isles rescuing those in trouble.
Check out the image here and key below.
— christhebarker (@christhebarker) December 11, 2021