originally published March 5, 2014
As I’m often heard remarking to strangers in the check-out line at Safeway, music is best when it’s either controversial or being sung by the aural euphony of Michael McDonald. In those sepiatone days when rock music was still gathering its struttin’ legs beneath its warbly frame, artists found new and creative ways to bump their product toward the edge of edgy. And when it wasn’t enough to leave sensitive parental ears cringing in their wake, they’d go a step further.
The visual attack. Shake up that pelvis. Grow that hair. And just when the parents are starting to settle into your schtick, brew up an album cover that will send their socks a-quakin’.
The album cover is most certainly a distinctive facet of its contents’ artistic expression. Perhaps not as much so today, now that its predominant form has shrunk from 12-inch vinyl sleeves to 5-inch CD jackets to a tiny thumbprint embedded into an audio file. But when the Beatles looked up from their album covers at a young fan, rabid and anxious for the tuneage within, it meant something special.
Even when the Beatles were covered in blood, gore and severed doll heads.
For the Beatles’ ninth Capitol album, photographer Robert Whitaker thought it was a good idea for a little conceptual art to spice up the band’s image. The piece was called A Somnambulant Adventure, and it had literally nothing to do with “Drive My Car”, “Day Tripper”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, or any other track on the album. After almost four years of mundane pretend-to-be-happy photo shoots, the band was happy to play along.
About 750,000 copies were printed before horrified dealers began to complain. Paul McCartney called the critics “soft”; John Lennon said the photo was “as relevant as Vietnam.” George Harrison thought the photo shoot was “gross”. Capitol recalled the album and reissued it with perhaps the most boring cover art ever created:
However one feels about this packaged piece of weirdness, it created one of the first rare-record super-finds for a top-tier group. ‘Butcher cover’ copies have sold for as high as $39,000.
Jimi Hendrix had a very specific album cover in mind for his magnificent double-album Electric Ladyland. Linda Eastman (who was not yet known as Linda McCartney) had taken a great photo of Jimi and the Experience in Central Park, gathered around an Alice in Wonderland sculpture with some children. This one, actually:
Instead, Reprise Records used a blurry photo of Jimi’s head – that’s the shot sitting on the front of the CD in my basement. But Track Records, who released the album in England, got a little funky with the inside sleeve. Double-albums had a fold-out gatefold package, and for the inside they dropped a pic of nineteen naked women hanging out with some old Hendrix vinyl. Jimi reportedly found this to be an embarrassment. No doubt countless male British teens back then would have disagreed.
Yep, that’s a topless 11-year-old holding a phallic-looking jet in her hands. This won’t get you slapped onto any government watch-list – it’s actually the cover art to Blind Faith’s much-lauded lone album, released in 1969. Atco, the American record company who released the record, opted for a bland band photo version instead:
Photographer Bob Seidemann has offered an explanation for his controversial vision, something about innocence, technology and the achievement of human creativity. Sure, okay. While there was undoubtedly a bit of backlash, most people were too busy digging the work of Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Stevie Winwood et al to really pay attention to the cover.
Interestingly enough, the offending photo was titled “Blind Faith” by Seidemann, which the group subsequently adopted as their name. Quite possibly the only time a group’s first album cover inspired their name.
Notable dreamers of California, The Mamas and The Papas, were not the kind of group that was known for courting controversy (John Phillips’ strange relationship with his daughter notwithstanding). But the above cover caused a major uproar. Orgy in the bathtub? Nope, that wasn’t it. Here’s the re-release version. See if you can spot how the record company saved our culture from ruin:
That’s right – it was the mere presence of a toilet in the shot that was deemed offensive, enough so that the record company was willing to slap a sticker overtop of all ensuing copies, letting us know which hits we’d find on the record instead. I don’t get it – are we supposed to deny the very existence of toilets? And how did we get from this scandal all the way to Millie Jackson’s Back To The Shit album in only about twenty years?
We are all doomed now, I guess.
More naked children. Rock stars – or those who designed album covers for rock stars – loved naked children back then. Led Zeppelin’s fifth album, Houses Of the Holy, features young Stefan and Samantha Gates clambering over the funky terrain of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Aubrey Powell had been inspired by Childhood’s End, the novel by Arthur C. Clarke. Since Led Zeppelin’s music often came bundled with a literary twinge, it fits.
The kids involved never heard the album that made their posteriors famous, and Stefan always felt there was something sinister about that cover. A BBC-4 documentary in 2010 brought Stefan back to Giant’s Causeway and showed him listening for the first time on a pair of headphones. He dug it.
This one wasn’t replaced by a panicky record company, though Atlantic Records did slap a wrap-around paper strap on the thing. This could be excused by the fact that neither the group name nor the album’s title appears on the cover art. They also did a bit of butt-crack airbrushing, just for good taste’s sake. The disc got a nod by the Grammys for best album package, so perhaps the world was loosening up by 1973.
Nothing controversial there. Just Lynyrd Skynyrd, standing amid some bad-ass fire for their fifth studio album. No sex, only the illusion of violence – and we all know our culture is much kinder to notions of violence over the possibility of visible boobs. And for three days there was no controversy. Then the plane crash happened.
The band was five shows into what was shaping up to be a monstrously successful tour when their Convair CV-300 ran out of gas mid-flight. In the ensuing crash three members of the band were killed, including guitarist Steve Gaines – the guy in the middle, engulfed in flames. Out of respect to Steve’s widow, MCA Records yanked the album and replaced it with a similar shot of the band against a black background.
The deluxe CD re-release in 2007 used the original fiery cover, suggesting that either enough time had passed or else MCA no longer cared about Steve Gaines’ widow. I’m thinking it’s the former; record companies aren’t really known for stirring up controversy themselves.
They leave that to the artists.