Historic and Controversial Album Covers
When CD's were first introduced in the early 80's, they were the "next best thing" in the music
world. Certainly an upgrade from cassette tapes, CD's conveniently packed the music and
artwork into a neat, small package. But one of the major flaws is the lack of cover art you get
with a CD, especially when you compare it to the vibrant, lifelike album cover art you get with
vinyl records. And, now, CD's are being phased out by the dreaded download, and album ocver
art is again taking a backseat.
In this two-part series about album cover art, we will explore some of the most legendary
album covers of all time, look at some of the most controversial album covers as well as gauge
the impact that major retailers have on cover art. Let's start with a band that broke the ground
for many of their other fellow musicians.
One of the pioneering bands to take advantage of album cover art and its power of marketability
were, of course, one of the most famous groups of all time, the Beatles. From such famous
album covers as "Yesterday and Today" (1966), "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1967)
and even including the simplicity of the "White Album", the Beatles certainly took full
advantage of the allure of a great album cover (it didn't hurt that the music is legendary).
In fact, their album "Yesterday and Today" (also known as the "butcher album") is highly
collectible and, if you have an original, highly priced and is one of the holy grails of record
collecting. Although Capitol Records recalled the album, many were released as promotional
material to DJ's and critics. Only then did the uproar ensue. You see, the Beatles were tired of
Capitol Records chopping up their albums and repackaging them (the songs on this particular
release are album cuts from previous Beatles' albums including "Help!" and "Revolver"), so they
posed with decapitated baby dolls, slabs of meat and fake blood as kind of a quasi protest, not
ever thinking it would go out to the public; to the Beatles it was just a funny thing to do. Capitol
Records quickly intervened and recalled thousands of record albums and pasted over the
"butcher cover" with what is now known as the "trunk cover." The Beatles Butcher Cover
The Beatles also have one of the greatest album covers of all time (it was selected by Rolling
Stone Magazine as the best) and the group won a Grammy Award (for Best Album Cover) in
1968 for the legendary album cover for "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Created and
designed by Jan Haworth and Peter Blake, the cover features the group posing with a collage of
famous singers, composers, comedians and other worldly figures including Lenny Bruce
(comic), Edgar Allen Poe (writer), W.C. Fields (comic), Fred Astaire (actor), Bob Dylan
(musician), Marlon Brando (actor), Marilyn Monroe (actress) and Karl Marx (philosopher/
socialist), among many others. Nowadays, this type of art can be done with computers, but back
them, this was all staged, the group had to pose with all these cardboard cutouts and lavish
But there were a few people that were originally intended for the front cover, but were excluded,
for a variety of reasons. For instance, Jesus Christ was omitted because the album was released
just a few months after John Lennon had declared that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.
Adolf Hitler was removed at the insistence of Parlophone Records. EMI requested that the
image of Mahatma Ghandi be removed fearing his presence on the cover would offend the Indian
Market. Legendary actress Mae West initially refused, but relented after the Beatles sent her a
personal letter. Additionally, an image of Leo Gorcey was omitted because he had requested a
fee for the use of his likeness. (For a complete list of exactly who is on the cover, please visit:
Another iconic cover, again by the Beatles, is the "Abbey Road" album cover. The now very
famous photo of the four Beatles was taken on August 8, 1969 by photographer Ian Macmillan,
who was only given ten minutes to take the picture of the band crossing a street on Abbey Road.
It has become one of the most imitated album covers in recording history and remains a popular
destination for Beatles' fans.
Moreover, these three Beatles' album covers exemplify the power of a great album cover (and in
the Beatles case, great music). The albums also bring to the forefront the power that record
companies have and the restraints that they can utilize to control the overall album cover
package. With this in mind, let's explore some banned and controversial album covers.
One of the most notorious and controversial albums of all time is "Two Virgins," which was
released in 1968 by "John Lennon and Yoko Ono." On the front cover was a full frontal picture
of both, completely nude, and on the back was a nude picture from the behind. Paul McCartney
had tried to convince Lennon not to release the cover because of the controversy it would
certainly create. In some jurisdictions, the albums were impounded as obscenity and distributors
were forced to sell the release in plain brown wrap wrappers. Incidentally, even with this
provocative and disturbing cover, the album was not a best seller, as it lacked significant content
(it was full of bird noises, tape loops, misplayed organ snippets, and other assorted sound
In that same year, "Jimi Hendrix" released "Electric Ladyland," which featured him with a harem
of naked women. The album created massive controversy and was ultimately banned in the US.
But, it seems that the re-done artwork for the UK version did not arrive in time, so Jimi and the
girls are available in the UK version. The cover was not banned in Europe and import copies of
the album have always been the most sought after imported record in the US. The album was
reissued in the US with a picture of Jimi's face (minus his ladies of course).
In 1969, the super group "Blind Faith" (members Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Steve
Winwood) released their lone album together, appropriately entitled, "Blind Faith." What wasn't
appropriate was photographer Bob Seidemann's picture of a topless pre-pubescent girl holding a
silver space ship. The album was then reissued with an alternate cover which showed a
photograph of the band. According to Seidemann, her fee for the picture was a "young horse"
which was purchased for her by Blind Faith's band manager Robert Stigwood.
In 1974, British rockers Roxy Music released their LP "Country Life." The cover features two
scantily-clad models, Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald. Bryan Ferry met them in
Portugal and he persuaded them to do the photo shoot as well as to help him with the words to
the song "Bitter-Sweet." Although the pair are not credited for their photos, they are credited on
the lyric sheet for their German translation work.
The cover image was considered so controversial in some countries such as the United States,
Spain, and The Netherlands, it was censored for release. As a result, a later American LP release
of Country Life (available during the years 1975-80) featured a different cover shot. Instead of
Karoli and Grunwald posed in front of some trees, the reissue used a photo from the album's
back cover that featured only the trees.
The Rolling Stones make our list for their 1968 album called "Beggars Banquet." It was the first
cover not to feature a band photograph; instead the Stones' decided to use a picture of an
unsightly, filthy bathroom with graffiti-laced walls. The record label in the U.K. (Decca) and the
U.S. label, London Records, both balked at the cover (it was considered to be in poor taste) and a
bitter three-month legal battle began. The Rolling Stones lost the battle and the album was
replaced with an elegant formal party invitation (but the cover was restored for CD pressings in
the mid 80's).
Naughty "bathroom behavior" album cover first surfaced in 1966, when the "Mama's & the
Papa's" released their LP called "If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears." The cover, a picture
of the "flower power" quartet squeezed into an old bathtub next to a toilet, apparently received
so many complaints that the record company (Dunhill) was compelled to rush out a replacement
cover, with graphics that promoted the group's hit singles blocking the offending toilet. They
even went so far as to issue yet another cover, this time removing the toilet completely. The
album covers with the picture of the toilet are worth considerably more than the 'edited' LP covers.
Middle fingers have always been taboo on album covers and the outrage began in 1957 when
Capitol Records released an album by the doo wop group the "Five Keys." An innocent cover, it
pictured the vocal group posing together in snazzy suits. But it seems that lead singer Rudy
West's forefinger was imagined by some to be a specific part of the male anatomy. So a decision
was made for subsequent issues to have the finger in question airbrushed out.
"Moby Grape's" self-titled release in 1967, also had a finger of prominence displayed
incorrectly, but the album cover was quickly airbrushed by Columbia Records.
A misplaced(?) finger/thumb caused another uproar in 1971 when Warner Brothers released
"Alice Cooper's" new album called "Love It To Death." His "gesture" was not taken too well
and was censored, the middle finger being airbrushed away. In fact, four different versions of the
front cover exist, apparently in the picture his thumb could possibly be mistaken for a specific
part of the male anatomy.
In part two of our series, we will again explore some famous and controversial album cover art.
Go to: Historic and Controversial Album Covers - Part 2
Article by: Robert Benson
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