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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.

 


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