This week’s entry: List of controversial album art
What it’s about: Popular music has always thrived on controversy, and music’s packaging has been no exception. Violent imagery; blasphemy; our nation’s long-standing discomfort with the human body; and even simple copyright issues have gotten artists of all stripes in trouble with censors, audiences, and retailers. We’ll try our best and think of the children as we peek through our fingers and take a look.
Strangest fact: While artists usually exist on releasing controversial art in defiance of their labels, with Jimi Hendrix, it was the other way around. The cover for Axis: Bold As Love used a painting depicting the band members in the pantheon of Hindu gods, which unsurprisingly offended Hindus, and Electric Ladyland’s U.K. cover photo featured a group of naked women. Hendrix was appalled by both. For Ladyland, he had asked for a Linda Eastman photo of the band on an Alice In Wonderland-themed sculpture in Central Park, but was ignored by his labels on both sides of the Atlantic. (The U.S. cover is a blurry, oversaturated close-up of Hendrix’s face.)
Biggest controversy: Hard to pick just one, so we’ll go with the controversy that hit the biggest band. While The Beatles could seemingly do no wrong, their original cover for 1966’s U.S.-only release Yesterday And Today was an ill-conceived piece of conceptual art, in which the lovable mop tops appeared in butchers’ smocks, covered in raw meat and dismembered baby dolls. Paul McCartney insisted on using the photo as the cover, saying it was the band’s commentary on the Vietnam War. Not everyone agreed. In The Beatles Anthology, George Harrison remarked, “Sometimes we all did stupid things thinking it was cool and hip when it was naive and dumb.”
Record stores complained immediately, and Capitol recalled the album. Most of the 750,000 “butcher covers” were destroyed, making them rare collector’s items. Some were simply pasted over with the new cover, and the pasted-over covers are rare and collectible as well.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The Coup has been spared a central role in Truther conspiracy theories. In June of 2001, the band created a cover for their upcoming album, Party Music, of the band members blowing up the World Trade Center, with the top of the towers exploding behind them. What was intended to be anticapitalist commentary became both eerily prescient and the last thing a nation reeling from the 9/11 attacks wanted to see. The release was postponed until November, when the band scrambled to come up with a more innocuous cover.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: While many images of naked women have been censored over the years, record labels were somehow okay with showing underage girls naked. Probably best-known is English “supergroup” Blind Faith’s only album, whose cover shows a topless 11-year-old girl (she reportedly requested a pony by means of payment; she was given £40 instead). Worse was The Scorpions’ 1976 album Virgin Killer, with a photo of a 10-year-old girl in a far more sexual position. The idea came not from the band, but from the record label, eager to attract attention. Rhythm guitarist Rudolf Schenker claimed the label executives said, “Even if we have to go to jail, there’s no question that we’ll release that,” while lead guitarist Uli Jon Roth later said, “It was done in the worst possible taste. Back then I was too immature to see that. Shame on me—I should have done everything in my power to stop it.”
We’re not sure whether it’s better or worse that the naked underage girl on Bow Wow Wow’s See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy was a member of the band. The cover design was a photo recreation of Manet’s Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe, with the band members as the painting’s picnickers, including then-14-year-old singer Annabella Lwin as the nude woman. While it was artier and less explicit than Blind Faith or Virgin Killer (Lwin’s breasts aren’t visible, for one), Lwin’s mother protested, even getting Scotland Yard involved. Despite her efforts, the photo was used in the U.K., and an alternate cover was used in the U.S.
Also noteworthy: Sometimes in battles over censorship, there is no good guy. Jane’s Addiction’s album cover for Nothing’s Shocking depicts a sculpture singer Perry Farrell created of nude, female conjoined twins with their hair on fire. Most record store chains refused to carry the album, and it had to be released with a brown paper wrapper. (MTV also refused to air the video for the album’s second single, “Mountain Song,” because it also contained nudity.) Farrell made a statement against censorship with the band’s follow-up, Ritual De Lo Habitual, which had two alternate covers—one of another Farrell sculpture and one of a white page with the text of the First Amendment on it. It’s hard to be too supportive of Farrell, however. When he dreamed up the concept for the Nothing’s Shocking cover, he asked Warner Bros.’ art department to create the sculpture, watched them work, fired them, and then remade the sculpture himself using the artists’ technique.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The more innocuous controversies on the list are copyright issues—whether a photo of actress Claudia Cardinale used without permission on the gatefold sleeve of Blonde On Blonde or an unauthorized Richard Avedon photo on Sonic Youth’s Sister. The back cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico featured an upside-down photo of Warhol superstar Eric Emerson, which Warhol (who both produced the album and designed the sleeve) put there without Emerson’s permission. Warhol’s “superstars” were his inner personal and professional circle, who he used in his experimental films. While none of them went on to be stars in mainstream film (though Mary Woronov did have a long post-Warhol career, appearing in films like Death Race 2000 and Rock ’N’ Roll High School), the Warhol scene spawned several well-known cult figures, including Edie Sedgwick, Nico, Billy Name, Jayne County, and Penny Arcade.
Further down the Wormhole: Of all the artists attempting to stir up controversy on purpose, few are as obvious as Marilyn Manson, whose Mechanical Animals was banned from both Wal- and Kmarts for a cover that featured the singer naked (sans genitals). Manson has also been portrayed as an extraterrestrial in various promotional materials, and while aliens have been a staple of science fiction, we may be closer to discussing them as actual science. Thanks to the high-powered Kepler space telescope, astronomers have discovered innumerable exoplanets—planets orbiting suns other than our own. The closest, Proxima Centauri b, is only 4.2 light-years away and in the habitable temperature range. Could humans one day visit? We’ll take a look next week.