Many cite the common maxim that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but it seems that the same sentiment doesn’t apply to album covers. Musicians often get in trouble for what they say in their songs, for lyrics that are obscene in some way, but they’ve also gotten in trouble for what they decide to put on their album covers. While old school albums generally feature the band or artist in a fairly tame portrait style shot, through the decades musicians have gotten a lot more creative – and often a lot more risqué.
Why would you risk having an album cover that will get you in trouble, and that might delay the album in some way? Simply put – bad press is better than no press, even in the music world. Covers that are deemed obscene might get interfered with by the corporations stocking the album – many controversial albums end up sold in some form of sleeve that covers the true album cover, or are forced to get a new cover. Alternately, sometimes corporations refuse to even stock an album with an obscene cover. Consequently, most controversial album covers have two lives – the original cover, and the altered, edited, or entirely changed cover that gets slapped on subsequent editions of the album.
However, regardless of what happens, controversy promises one thing – attention. Whether the genre is hip hop, rock, pop, anything, a little extra controversy brings a lot of extra attention. Seems to be one of the best free marketing tactics one could hope for.
Some controversial albums are released by essentially no name bands, bands that might only put out one album and have only a small, loyal fan base. These types largely get ignored. However, a lot of very well known bands or artists release a controversial album cover at some point in their career – most cite artistic creativity as the reason, but even the biggest names aren’t immune to being questioned for their album cover art choices. While they are controversial for different reasons, from explicit sexual imagery or nudity, to copyright infringement, to obscene imagery in some shape or form, the following ten albums have all caused quite a stir at one point in time.
10 Vampire Weekend – Contra
The cover of Vampire Weekend’s second album, Contra, definitely caused some Contra-versy. At first glance it seems entirely innocuous – a portrait of a pretty young girl, who could find fault with that? Well, turns out – the girl herself.
The girl on the cover, a former model named Ann Kirsten Kennis, saw her photograph on the album cover for the first time when her daughter brought the album home. Upset at the fact that an old 1983 photograph of her had been used without her consent, particularly for something as major as an album cover, Kennis sued the band for $2 million.
There’s been a lot of debate about the source of the photograph and who really owns it. Kennis claims it was taken by her mother, who had a love for Polaroid snapshots and would often give cases of her Polaroids away. The photographer, Tod Brody, claims that it was a photograph he had taken and that he had owned the picture in question for years.
The whole group took the lawsuit to court and Kennis ended up winning an undisclosed settlement.
9 Nirvana – Nevermind
If you see the cover of Nevermind, it’s easy to see what people found so objectionable in the image, but in this case the band didn’t set out to start a controversy. Cobain and crew were originally inspired by water births, and got photographer Kirk Weddle on the idea. Weddle took many photographs, including underwater shots of the band members themselves. When he convinced some friends to dunk baby Spencer Elden for a moment, he took a shot that became one of the most recognizable album covers of all time.
Cobain wasn’t one of the artists who easily rolled over and allowed an alternate cover to be issued, and instead resolved the backlash with a compromise – a sticker was placed over the baby’s genitalia that read ‘If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.’
8 The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland
If you look at a picture of the original cover art for the U.K. version of Hendrix’s album Electric Ladyland, it’s not surprising to see the reason for a little controversy. The label selected a photograph of a bevy of naked women with a simple black backdrop to keep all those focus on the women themselves. The cover of the U.S. version, on the other hand, boasted a somewhat blurry picture of Hendrix himself taken by Karl Ferris.
While the image on the U.K. album did garner a fair bit of controversy, no albums were ever pulled or pasted over with new cover images. However, Hendrix’s estate has gone on record to state that the U.S. album cover art is to be considered the official version.
7 The Game – Jesus Piece
For his album Jesus Piece, rapper The Game selected cover art that depicted Jesus with a teardrop tattoo and red bandana, what many have understood to be as a reference to the Bloods gang. While posed in front of what appears to be a traditional stained glass window, the art in fact incorporates cannabis leaves into the window.
The Game’s response to the controversy was somewhat strange, as he stated that he “wanted to make an album where you could love God and be of God, but still get poppin’ in your life.”
Many did not take kindly to his choices (it’s not quite isolated to the album cover – he’s also incorporated Jesus figures into live shows) and claim that they go too far and are disrespectful. Reportedly, even the Roman Catholic Church called his label, Interscope, to discuss the cover once The Game revealed it on his Instagram. The Game welcomed the controversy, claiming it was what he intended to provoke with the album.
6 John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Unfinished Music, No. 1: Two Virgins
5 The Strokes – Is This It?
The shot that ended up on The Strokes’ album cover was apparently a spur of the moment capture, wherein photographer Colin Lane told his girlfriend to put on the leather glove, and subsequently took a few pictures. Apparently, the close up of a woman’s rear was too much for American audiences, as the striking black and white image was banned in the U.S. for being too sexually suggestive. It was replaced for American audiences by a colorful, abstract design. Though the cover sparked controversy, the album managed to go on to be a great success.
4 James – Hey Ma
Indie band James released an album with the image of a baby, the album’s title Hey Ma spelled out in blocks, and… a gun, which the baby is about to pick up. Needless to say, many advertising executives steered clear of the album because of the cover.
James’ album itself has a lot of political content in its lyrics, which is what the cover image is pointing at. For the U.S. release of the album, the gun was edited out of the image.
3 David Bowie – Diamond Dogs
For the cover of his 1974 concept album Diamond Dogs, the ever controversial David Bowie selected a painting by Guy Peelleart. Peelleart’s work featured an image of Bowie as a half man, half dog (a nod to the title, presumably) that was anatomically correct.
RCA Records got a whiff of the controversy brewing and took back the records, demanding that the anatomical bits be airbrushed out.
2 Guns n’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction
One of their most infamous albums, Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction is also known for its two distinct covers. The first one was based on a painting by Robert Williams (also titled Appetite for Destruction) and featured an aggressive metal angel figure geared for revenge, and a girl about to be taken advantage of by a rapist robot. Though the original cover was certainly colorful, it’s no surprise that a plethora of retailers refused to stock the album upon seeing the cover.
Geffen, Guns n’ Roses’ record label, quickly came up with a solution by creating a new cover, a common strategy in controversial album cover issues. They decided on a plain black background with a cross containing five skulls, to represent each of the band members.
1 The Beatles – Yesterday and Today
The Beatles’ 11th album has an album cover which has led it to be colloquially referred to as the butcher album. The album, which was released only in the United States and Canada, portrays the beloved Fab Four clad in messy butchers smocks, and blanketed with bloody chunks of meat and doll parts. The butcher style photos were first sent out in promotional campaigns in their native U.K., and both music critics and DJs quickly became up in arms and strongly objected to the image.
With nearly a million albums having been all prepared – printed, assembled, ready to go – it was too late to entirely start over. The Beatles’ team made a compromise and pasted a new cover, a much more innocuous one featuring The Beatles posing around a trunk, on top of the butcher photo for most of the albums. Some other ones were recalled from stores or simply buried in landfills. Due to its scarcity, mint condition copies of the original album without the new cover pasted on it have become valuable collector’s items.