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Historic and Controversial Album Covers

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Author: Robert Benson

Robert writes about rock/pop music, vinyl record collecting and operates ""

Historic and Controversial Album Covers - Part 2

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Historic and Controversial Album Covers
Part 1

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).

Yesterday and Today album cover

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 uniforms.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

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.

Abbey Road album cover

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 effects).

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).

Electric Ladyland album cover

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.

Country Life album cover censored Country Life album cover

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).

Beggars Banquet Beggars Banquet album cover

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.

If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears

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.

Love It To Death Love It To Death

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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