It's caused anguish, joy, rage, and controversy at Digit Bungalow, but here are the titles we reckon are the greatest examples of album cover art ever. And the downside – nothing in this century has come close to producing album art from the 1970s heyday. You can blame the CD case and the death of the vinyl LP for that...
Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
Artist: The Beatles
Designer: Peter Blake
Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’s cover – probably the most instantly recognizable in album-cover history – is steeped in controversy. The cut-&-paste collection of people lined up behind The Beatles included an eclectic mix of The Beatles’ heroes, including Bob Dylan, Laurel and Hardy, and Karl Marx – plus H G Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, and former Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe.
The design resulted in a legal minefield for EMI, who needed approval from all the celebrities, but the final result was a colourful, celebratory image. The art team created life-size cut-outs of the celebrities to stand behind the band, and then took the picture.
Shame the legal eagles didn’t spot the fact that the plants lined-up in front of the band were of the wacky-baccy variety. Bonus fact: it was the first gatefold album ever produced.
The Velvet Underground & Nico
Artist: The Velvet Underground
Designer: Andy Warhol/Acy Lehman
The first of two Warhol’s efforts in the top 25 album cover designs, and this typically ambitious design witnessed massive production problems, and delayed the album itself by over a year.
Warhol used his trademark painting style to create a ripe banana - itself a distinctive, suggestive icon – but Warhol went further, and the final design was peelable. When peeled, it revealed a flesh-coloured banana underneath – shocking at the time, quite passé today. Warhol didn’t learn from the production fracas, as his work on The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers would demonstrate.
Artist: Jimi Hendrix
Label: Reprise Records
Photographer: Karl Ferris
Surely not – a rock ‘n’ roll album with (gasp) nudity. Still, in 1968 the album was shocking, with the gatefold sleeve featuring no less than 18 naked women, each holding pictures of Hendrix in ways that preserved their modesty. It certainly caused a storm – always good for album sales. It had to be shipped in brown wrapping paper, and was banned from many shops entirely. In essence, it was the Madonna Sex book of its time, and showed how the use of explicit imagery could boost sales. Interestingly, the cover was created without Hendrix’s knowledge – and it brought down the wrath of the star, and in the US the album design was replaced with a generic psychedelic shot of Hendrix. Bonus fact: a typo in production meant it almost went out as Electric Landlady.
The Beatles (The White Album)
Artist: The Beatles
Designer: Richard Hamilton/
Talk about minimalism: the original album had no name, simply a rough stamp of the band’s name, and a serial number on the first two million pressings. It was quickly labelled The White Album by fans, and the name stuck – but, as with many cover designs, it wasn’t originally meant to be this way. Previously, the album was to be called The Doll House, but that title had been snapped-up by rockers Family, so a quick solution was called for – hence the stark design.
It proved suitable, though; this album saw The Beatles abandon the psychedelic colours and music of their Sgt Pepper era, and return to straight rock ‘n’ roll. The end of an era, in many senses.
Artist: The Beatles
Photographer: Ian MacMillan
At first glance, utterly boring. Yet it quickly gained iconic status – and led to hordes of Japanese tourists attempting to recreate the foursome’s sensible road crossing outside the studios of Abbey Road – when a US radio call-in suggested the scene showed a funeral procession for McCartney, and he was replaced with a look-alike in the picture. Nonsense, of course, but it highlights perfectly the power of image and music together – even when the actual design wouldn’t look out of place in a contrived photo-shoot for a teen magazine.
Weasels Ripped My Flesh
Artist: The Mothers of Invention
Designer: Neon Park
A controversial cover that saw the printers refuse to work with it initially, and Warner Bros deciding it wasn’t up to their standards. It’s pretty tame by today’s cover designs, but the meeting between Family Dog artist Neon Park and Frank Zappa did create a memorable image for its time. The story is that Zappa saw the title as a story in a magazine about a man in a river surrounded by weasels who were swarming all over him. Zappa then asked Park what he could paint that was worse than the story. Park got $250 for the painting, and created one of the first shock-cover art pieces ever.
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Label: Atlantic Records
Designer: Craig Braun
A sexually provocative cover that many shops refused to stock due to the tightness of the model’s jeans. “If you stand back from the cover,” said designer Craig Braun, “you can actually see the guy’s dick.”
The cover was significant in many ways: the packaging was outrageous, with a real metal zip that was unzipped (actually, it was unzipped so it didn’t scratch the album, just dented the label), and two cover photos by Andy Warhol. It also saw the introduction of the Stone’s famous lips-&-tongue logo – a caricature of Mick Jagger’s stage posturing. In the elderly years of the band’s career, the logo has become an instantly-recognizable brand – great for merchandise sales.
Artist: David Bowie
Designer: Duffy Design Concepts
David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane – Bowie certainly brought out the multiple personality in himself, and this iconic cover illustrates that personality-split perfectly. The stark image – simply Bowie on a plain background – allows the star’s make-up to do the talking. The title – Aladdin Sane – is a play on words: Bowie’s brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia around this time, so ‘a lad insane’ is nearer the mark. It’s all double-double meaning of course – Bowie was in two minds about the success of Ziggy Stardust and the price of fame, so this is his split personality in that respect, too. Inspirational in the sense that every space cadet then applied it to their own faces.
Dark Side Of The Moon
Artist: Pink Floyd
Created as a present to the band’s fans – Pink Floyd took a royalty-cut so the album could include two large posters – the artwork consists of two parts: the inside of the gatefold shows the sound wave of a heartbeat, which is mimicked as an actual sound throughout the album; and the outside which shows a prism refracting white light into a rainbow, with the reverse happening on the back of the cover. The cover art was depicting the way that the band used light to a huge degree in their live shows – although over the years it has taken on more of a cosmic significance. Designer Thorgerson says: “The prism was a way to talk about the fact this band, pre-eminently among all bands, would do light. Light and sound.” Bonus fact: the prism on the back of the sleeve defies the laws of physics, as the rays should diverge.
Houses Of The Holy
Artist: Led Zepplin
Reckoned to be one of the greatest album covers ever, and yet another stunningly creative statement from Thorgerson and Powell, with Powell pitching the concept of photographing children on Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway without even having heard the album and without even knowing the title. The idea for the children is based on the Arthur C Clarke sci-fi book Childhood’s End, which Powell says ends when all the children run off the end of the world. The only worry for Powell was that it would be an expensive shoot, but Led Zepplin manager, Peter Grant, replied: “Money? We don’t fucking care about money. Just fucking do it.” The B&W image came about simply because it rained continuously during the shoot, the purple tinge was an airbrushing accident, and the cover is a montage of thirty images, as only two children were used for the shoot. So, now you know.
Artist: Roxy Music
Designer: Bryan Ferry
One of the few influential covers to have been created by a figure in the band, Ferry decided that as women had been used to advertise everything from cars to lipstick, then why not music albums. And – compared to contemporary covers that were very moody – this cover oozed glamour. Ferry used two German fans as models, but after it had been shot, some US stores refused to stock it because of the position of the model’s hands. The upshot was the album was shrink-wrapped with an alternate cover that just showed the leafy background. Scores points for being one of the first out-&-out glamour covers that would set the tone for many other albums to come.
Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
Artist: The Sex Pistols
Designer: Jamie Reid
With a band as infamous as The Sex Pistols, there was little need to put their faces on the cover – besides, cover-designer Jamie Reid dismissed them, saying: “they were ugly anyway”. Instead, Reid deployed “cheap hype” as he put it, and the ransom-note lettering was quickly adopted by hundreds of other bands. In a way, it democratized art and design, making cover art accessible, fun, and easy to produce. However, Reid wasn’t interested in the music: “I saw punk as part of an art movement that has gone on over the past 100 years,” he said, and claims his record covers were designed to “articulate ideas, many of which were anti-establishment, and quite theoretical and complicated.”
Artist: The Clash
Designer: Ray Lowry
An emotive cover that shows how spontaneous action captured in photography can send a powerful message. The image, taken at a Clash gig in 1979, shows the last moments of Paul Simonon’s bass after he decided to take out his frustration with the show “not working for me on the inside”. Captured by photographer Pennie Smith, the photo went on to be voted the best rock ‘n’ roll photo of all time. The album design is actually a visual remix: the typography is taken from Elvis Presley’s first album (which was dangerous stuff when it surfaced in 1956), and the image is meant to reflect the traditional, end-of-show smash up that happened at edgy gigs. Bass-destroyer Simonon says that had he known what an iconic image this would become, he would have lifted his face to the camera a bit more.
Artist: Joy Division
Label: Warner Bros
Designer: Peter Saville
Can you guess what it is yet? The stark, black cover background is a clue: think space, and you’d be half right. The strange graph emblem is actually an image of radio waves recorded from the first-known pulsar, and the artwork is called 100 Consecutive Pulses From The Pulsar CP 1919. The album was a dark, bleak affair compared to most rock music, and something that designer Peter Saville latched onto with gusto, creating a cover that was anti-everything about the dramatic album designs of the period. Its textured cover and scientific-looking image with some tiny, 6pt Helvetica type, showed that a record cover didn’t need to look like a record cover. Utterly different.
Licensed to Ill
Artist: Beastie Boys
Label: Columbia/Def Jam
Designer: World B Omes
Back in 1986, the Beastie Boys were anything but subtle. Their tours caused outrage, and while compared to today’s ultra-aggressive rap music their tracks seem quite twee, the sonic blast of Fight For Your Right (To Party) and No Sleep ‘Till Brooklyn were akin to a plane smashing into a B-Boys gig. Hence the cover that, when folded out, showed the crumpled front-end of the jumbo. The avionic nature summed up the album: large, fast, and simply unstoppable.
Artist: Jane’s Addiction
Label: Warner Bros
Designer: Perry Farrell
For a band that decided to shake the establishment to its utter core, unleashing music that defied boundaries, and fused metal, rock, and even jazz in the way a nuke going off would melt stone, a literal cover was needed. And that’s what the band delivered. The title is astonishingly straight-forward – nothing was taboo for vocalist Perry Farrell. The flaming nude sculpture, ablaze and co-joined, is the stuff of nightmares. Drugs, sex, and the life of a rock star, summed up in two wax figures set on fire. Stores refused to stock it – job done.
Straight Outta Compton
Label: Priority Records
Designer: Helane Freeman/Eric Poppleton
Eminem doesn’t have a monopoly of bad-boy imagery – NWA’s awesome Straight Outta Compton cover is mix of social comment and bad-ass attitude that still hits the mark today. The cover shows the viewpoint of a person who’s either been shot, or about to be shot, by the gun in Eazy-E’s hand – a fusion of art and politics that was to shoot NWA into the public consciousness. A surprise hit, as the lyrics and cover ensured an MTV ban and virtually zero airplay. Confrontational art at its best.
Artist: Sonic Youth
Designer: Kevin Regan/Raymond Pettibon
A deconstructed album design that featured two Raymond Pettibon marker-pen drawings on the front and back of the album sleeve, depicting a getaway by a couple that have just murdered their parents. Upbeat, this is not. The image walks the line between art and illustration, with some enigmatic captioning: “I stole my sister’s boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat and flash...” All the elements look as if they’ve been cut out and stuck down with sticky tape – there’s even a hair caught under one of the strips of tape – and its B&W look established Sonic Youth as an ultra cool band.
Designer: Robert Fisher/Kirk Weddle
An astoundingly provocative image, laden with layers of meaning – from the relentless cradle-to-grave money grab we call life, to images of innocence corrupted – the Nevermind cover is a true landmark. Yet, its design didn’t originally set out to convey this; it all happened by accident. The original image is meant to be a still from an underwater birthing video that lead-singer Cobain had seen, but was deemed too messy by the record company. Stock photos of swimming babies proved too costly, so a photo session was set up with a four-month-old boy, Spencer Elden. Originally, the kid’s penis was airbrushed out, but then left in at the last minute. The dollar bill on the end of a fishing line was added later at Cobain’s suggestion, and composited with the original photo.
Artist: Primal Scream
Designer: Paul Cannell
Absolutely slammed by professional music critics, with Q giving it 2 out of 5, Screamadelica’s cover nonetheless summed up the early nineties perfectly, and led to the band’s first commercial success. The cover – a day-glo sun that’s gone all twisty and fried, is stunningly apt for the content, and signifies songs such as Movin’ On Up, which ends with the rallying cry: “My light shines on!”. Cannell got the job after “starting painting to get me out of a rut,” and he created the band’s covers only knowing the album titles – and not having heard the music.
Label: One Little Indian
Design: Me Company
A pop pixie no more, Bjork had grown up and matured into a cyber-geisha girl by the time Homegenic came out, and this cover – as with so many artists – was a reflection of her changing style and transformation.
The song All Neon Like was the inspiration for the cover artwork, while Me Company’s ability to mix 2D with 3D modelling, with a fantastical eye for colour, is unmatched in terms of album cover design.
Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
Designer: Mark Farrow
Utterly bizarre packaging that aped the music, which has variously been described as medication for the soul. Poetry aside, the album is actual, true-to-life pill packaging, which was put together by a real drugs company in Southampton. Designer Mark Farrow followed the medical concept the entire distance, and the CD itself was shipped in a foil pill packet, complete with dosage instructions. A limited mini-CD edition featured in a 12-pill packet.
Fat of the Land
Artist: The Prodigy
Label: XL Mute/Warner Brothers
Designer: Alex Jenkins
It’s debatable whether the image has any meaning at all. It’s a crab, on a beach, in close-up - although the razor-sharp colours, frenetic blur effect, and aggressive claws-up stance summed up much of what was the height of dance music, and The Prodigy’s influence on the scene. It’s not clever, but it sure has impact.
Artist: Marilyn Manson
Photography: Joseph Cultice
A memorable image in the time of the X-Files, grey aliens, and gender-distortion. Mechanical Animals sees Manson adopting a Bowie/Ziggy Stardust cover approach, with Manson (real name Brian Warner) representing the androgynous alien Omega. The record lacked charm, gave people nightmares, and saw a more glam-inspired side to Manson’s work, but the image was incredible in terms of Photoshopped character creation. Look closely, and you’ll see that Manson has six fingers in the image. In a typically Christian-baiting twist, the design is referencing angels – since the heavenly beings are purported to have six fingers.
Enema Of The State
Photography: David Goldman
At first glance, this provocative cover is representative of little more than the band’s carefully cultivated tastelessness, and a direct appeal to a generation weaned on porn in the mainstream. The double-sided cover art features porn-star Janine donning a rubber surgical glove. On the back she is perched on a stool in front of the band (naked, naturally) welding a syringe. This is a carefully planned double-play: porn star kitsch as a reflection of how people feel in front of an ultra-powerful state that can do as they wish to you. The nurse here is a hostile symbol of control, while the predominantly red, white, and blue packaging is American through and through.