A Magical Mystery Tour of Far-Out Album Art
by Allison Ford
Magical were the days when music lovers actually went to the store to buy their favorite band’s new album, instead of just hitting a few keystrokes. Without the Internet to publicize new releases, artists had to rely on amazing covers to make their work stand out from the other music on store shelves. Some of these famous works of album art are political, some religious, some outrageous, and some psychedelic, but they’re all unforgettable.
Sticky Fingers, by the Rolling Stones
The Stones’ 1971 album was voted by VH1 as the number one album cover of all time. The cover was conceived by artist Andy Warhol and featured a provocative picture of a man’s groin in skin-tight denim; the original vinyl release even included a working zipper. Inside was a picture of a man in white cotton briefs with the disclaimer “THIS PHOTOGRAPH MAY NOT BE-ETC,” leading to decades-long speculation about who the well-endowed subject of the photographs was.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by the Beatles
The cover for this album, which has become one of the most-imitated cultural images of all time, is famous for its life-size cardboard collage of famous faces, created by pop artist Peter Blake and titled _People We Like_. The Beatles chose famous musicians and thinkers, such as W.C. Fields, Lenny Bruce, Edgar Allan Poe, Karl Marx, Aleister Crowley, Oscar Wilde, Marlon Brando, and Marlene Dietrich. The album even came with a sheet of cardboard moustaches, military stripes, and badges for listeners to cut out and wear themselves.
The Who Sell Out, by the Who
Intended to poke fun at themselves for agreeing to endorse products in advertisements, the Who’s 1967 album featured Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey on the front cover, hawking deodorant and baked beans, and Keith Moon and John Entwistle on the back cover, shilling for acne cream and bodybuilding courses.
Speaking in Tongues, by the Talking Heads
The limited-edition LP of this 1983 album was a clear vinyl disc inside a clear plastic sleeve. The package also contained three transparent colored collages, and when the LP was played at the correct speed, the images on the collages would line up, revealing art that corresponded to the music. Artist Robert Rauschenberg designed the concept and won a Grammy Award for Best Album Package.
Nevermind, by Nirvana
The image of a baby lured by the promise of money was intended to symbolize the band’s ambivalence about success and financial gain, and to make a statement about mindless consumerism and disillusionment with the recording industry. The baby in the picture belonged to a friend of the photographer, and because of his nudity, many stores refused to sell it.
Days of Future Passed, by the Moody Blues
Designed by artist David Anstey in 1967, the painting on this album’s cover is an ambigram—it can be viewed from any of four directions as a complete and coherent picture.
Ritual de lo Habitual, by Jane’s Addiction
The original artwork for this album featured a painting by front man Perry Farrell with three nude figures. However, some stores refused to stock the album, claiming that it was obscene, so the band created an alternate package just for those outlets. It featured a plain white background with only the text of the First Amendment of the Constitution written in black, as a protest against what they saw as censorship of free speech.
Straight Outta Compton, by N.W.A.
The album, released in 1988, spawned the gangsta rap movement, and its brutal, jarring cover helped perpetuate the image of urban violence with an ominous photo taken from the perspective of a victim staring down the barrel of a gun.
The Velvet Underground & Nico, by the Velvet Underground
Andy Warhol is responsible for perhaps the most famous image of a banana in American pop art. The original album cover, from 1967, featured a sticker with instructions to “Peel slowly and see.” The owner could peel back the yellow banana sticker to reveal a provocative flesh-colored banana underneath.
Bitches Brew, by Miles Davis
The gatefold cover of this 1970 double album featured a psychedelic mural by artist Mati Klarwein, who had studied with Salvador Dalí. Klarwein’s art also appeared on album covers for Santana; Gregg Allman; the Mooney Suzuki; Earth, Wind & Fire; and others.
Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd
The light-dispersing prism on the cover of this album, one of the bestselling in history, was designed by Hipgnosis, a London design firm known for elaborately staged setups, heavy photo manipulation, and avant-garde visuals. The company’s clients included Led Zeppelin, Yes, AC/DC, Bad Company, and ELO.