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Historic and Controversial Album Covers

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Historic and Controversial Album Covers
by Robert Benson

part one

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.

In this three 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.The Butcher Cover Album 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. 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” (just a picture of the fab four with a large trunk).

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.

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: http://math.mercyhurst.edu/~griff/sgtpepper/people.html)

Moreover, these two Beatles’ albums 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.

John Lennon/Yoko Ono Two Virgins

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 U.S. But, it seems that the re-done artwork for the U.K. version did not arrive in time, so Jimi and the girls are available in the U.K. 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 U.S. The album was reissued in the U.S. 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 part two of our series, we will again explore some famous and controversial album cover art.

part two

In part one of our article series (one of three) about famous album cover art, we discussed a couple of iconic Beatle album covers and some controversial album covers by other artists. Let’s continue our discussion with part two of our series.

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. Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet 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.

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.

David Bowie Diamond Dogs

“David Bowie’s” cover art featuring a half-dog, half-Bowie figure (painted by Guy Peellaert) for his 1974 album called “Diamond Dogs,” caused quite a stir. Apparently, the record company (RCA) did not like the fact that the “Bowie-dog” was anatomically correct and had the offending appendage airbrushed out on subsequent releases.

Apparently, pulling bubble gum off of a woman’s exposed breast is a major crime, or at the very least, a reason to reissue an album cover. Or so, that is what the German heavy metal band the “Scorpions” found out in 1979 with their album release called “Loverdrive.” Scorpions Love DriveThe album cover features a man and a woman sitting in the backseat of a car, with the man removing the scandalous bubble gum from her breast. It was subsequently reissued with a black cover with a blue scorpion on it (thankfully the scorpion was fully-clothed). The band had another album (“Virgin Killer”) cover nixed because of a nude cover of a young girl.

In 1994, scandal found the rock group called the “Black Crowes,” because their album cover “Amorica” showed pubic hair from a Hustler magazine photograph. The close-up of a woman’s “mid-section” in a bikini, apparently exhibits too much hair and made the public uncomfortable. Pressured by powerful conservative retail chains, the record company (Universal) had to reissue an alternative cover, just a bikini over a black background (sans the offending hair).

In our third part of our series about controversial album cover art, we will again turn our focus to offensive album covers.

part three

In our last of a three-part series about album cover art, let’s again examine a few controversial album covers.

It seems that a major retailer in the U.S. wields a lot of power and influence. When “John Cougar Mellencamp” released his 1996 album called “Mr. Happy Go Lucky,” a picture on the cover of Jesus and the devil had to be changed. Since it did not affect the music and he did not design the cover, Mellencamp obliged and changed the cover to appease the previously named major retailer.

Rapper “Ice-T” joined the foray with his critically acclaimed 1991 album release called “Death Certificate.” It seems an album cover showing “Uncle Sam” on a mortuary slab as well as Ice-T’s violent lyrics, prompted one state (Oregon) to enforce a statewide ban on displaying the rapper’s image in retail stores.

Alternative rockers’ “Jane’s Addiction” singer Perry Farrell caused quite a stir in 1991 as well. When he submitted his original artwork for the band’s sophomore album, “Ritual de lo Habitual,” to his record label (Warner Brothers), they were not pleased. They released it and the sparks flew, and under corporate pressure, the group relented and replaced Farrell’s artwork with a plain white cover and text from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech.

In 1997, “Aerosmith” released their new album titled “Nine Lives” which featured a dancing figure with a cat’s head. The artwork, taken from Hindu imagery, aroused the anger of some Hindus and the band and record company apologized, and then changed the artwork.

Alternative grunge giants, “Nirvana” raised the ire of two retail giants (Wal Mart and K Mart) in 1993 with their album cover art and a song on their album “In Utero.” The back cover of the release was changed to read “Waif Me,” instead of the real title of the song “Rape Me.” Despite the band’s insistence that the lyrics for the song were, in fact anti-rape, these aforementioned retail giants insisted on the wording change. The retail giants also refused to stock the album because of its artwork (which featured an anatomical figure and model fetuses), so a “doctored” version of the back cover was made for them.

The band “Beautiful South” released an album in 1989 called “Welcome To The Beautiful South,” and the original release pictured an image of a woman with a gun in her mouth and a picture of a man who was smoking a cigarette. This album cover was banned by the retailer Woolworth’s because, in their reasoning, it might cause people to start smoking. The album cover was replaced by pictures of a rabbit and a teddy bear.

Arctic Monkeys_Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

Smoking also got the band the “Arctic Monkeys” in trouble with the “censors” in 2006, because of the cover for their release “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.” The cover sleeve depicting a friend of the band smoking a cigarette was criticized by the NHS in Scotland. They claimed that the band was “reinforcing the idea that smoking is OK,” a charge that the band disputed. In fact, the image on the CD itself is a shot of a full ashtray and the band’s product manger declared, “You can see from the image smoking is not doing him the world of good.”

In a sad tale of irony, the band “Lynyrd Skynrd” had their album called “Street Survivors” (1977) pulled by executives after three band members were tragically killed in a plane crash. You see, the first album cover featured a picture of the band surrounded by flames.Lynyrd Skynrd Street Survivors The album was released a week before the plane crash that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and back up vocalist Cassie Gaines. The cover was quickly pulled and the replacement cover, a picture of the band without the flames, was quickly introduced. CD reissues have restored the original cover.

With an increase in the sales of vinyl record albums and a renewed interest in album cover art, we should, and can expect more censorship, controversial album cover art , as well as legendary album cover art to again become part of rock and roll lore.

Author Robert Benson writes about rock/pop music, vinyl record collecting and operates collectingvinylrecords.com, where you can pick up a copy of his e-book called "The Fascinating Hobby Of Vinyl Record Collecting." To contact Robert, send your e-mail to robert@collectingvinylrecords.com.


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