The Stories Behind 11 Classic Album Covers

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1. The Velvet Underground & Nico, aka "The Banana Album" (1967)

The Velvet Underground & Nico
Design by Andy Warhol

With apologies to Carmen Miranda and Chiquita, the world's most famous banana is the ripe, peelable print on the cover of the Velvets' debut.

Designed by pop artist Andy Warhol, the image was a silkscreen made from simple black-and-white acetate film. In case the genitalia-esque shape wasn't provocative enough, Warhol added the invitation: "Peel slowly and see." Beneath the sticker a pink, flesh-colored fruit was revealed.

"The banana actually made it into an erotic art show," said Velvets singer Lou Reed.

But for Verve Records, the banana was a production nightmare. "Someone had to sit there with piles of albums, peel off the yellow banana skin stickers and place them over the pink fruit by hand," said Warhol's artistic director Ronnie Cutrone.

By 1968, the peelable banana was dropped. Originals now fetch up to $500 apiece. The fruity image has since thrived on everything from art prints to T-shirts to handbags.

2. Who's Next (1971)

The Who
Design by John Kosh and Ethan Russell

Sometimes you can't go when you need to. That's what photographer Ethan Russell found out when he shot the cover for Who's Next.

Turning away from a concrete piling, located in an old English mining town called Easington Colliery, the band appear to have just left their urine signatures on the stone. But Russell recalled discreetly, "Most of the members were unable to go, so rainwater was tipped from an empty film canister to achieve the desired effect.

In 2003, VH1 named Who's Next the second greatest album cover of all time.

3. Skull and Roses (1971)

Grateful Dead
Design by Stanley Mouse

Talk about vintage. The skull and roses that became the Grateful Dead's enduring trademark has its roots in a 19th century woodcut made to illustrate a poem from the 11th century.

I found the original image in the stacks of the San Francisco Public Library," said painter Stanley "Mouse" Miller. "It was created by an artist named Edmund Sullivan to illustrate a poem in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The block print underscores the verse, 'The Flower that once has blown forever dies.'"

"I thought, 'Here's something that might work for the Grateful Dead.'"

Mouse made a name in the '60s as a hot-rod painting sensation (remember Rat Fink?), modifying dragsters and choppers.

His work with the Dead continued through many classic albums, including Workingman's Dead and American Beauty.

4. Houses of the Holy (1973)

Led Zeppelin
Design by Hipgnosis

It was no fun being one of Robert Plant's love children.

"Freezing rain, bad food and turpentine – a nightmare." That's a male model recalling his experience as one of the naked innocents on the cover of Zep's fifth album.

At 4 a.m., every morning for a week, three adults and two children were sprayed silver from head to toe, then driven to Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland to crawl on the rocks toward a sunrise that never rose.

Faced with deadlines and a dwindling budget, design company Hipgnosis took the weather into their own hands, painting a honey-peach dawn and hand-tinting bare bottoms to a rosy glow.

Worried that those bare bottoms might cause controversy, Atlantic Records tied the finished album with a Japanese-style band of paper called an "obi." Printed with the title in Celtic style letters, it was the world's first rock 'n' roll Huggie.

5. Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

Pink Floyd
Design by Hipgnosis and George Hardie

For a band who once sang, "We don't need no education," it's ironic that the cover image of their best-selling album is based on a school textbook illustration.

The Floyd was "bored with the photos" from their earlier LP covers and wanted something "smarter."

"The prism represented both the diversity and cleanliness of the sound of the music," designer Storm Thorgerson said. "In a more conscious way, it worked for a band with a reputation for their light show. The triangle is a symbol of ambition, one of the themes Roger was concerned with. So you had several ideas coming together."

Of the finished result, Thorgerson said, "It's either a brilliant piece of art direction or perhaps just a jammy idea... but it worked really well in its context."

6. London Calling (1979)

The Clash
Design by Ray Lowrie and Pennie Smith

Pink and green should never be seen, goes the old fashion dictum.

But the colors, framing a black and white photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass on stage, made for a vivid combination on the Clash's breakthrough album.

Designer Ray Lowry acknowledge the design's inspiration when he said, "It was intended as a genuine homage to the original unknown genius who created Elvis Presley's first rock 'n' roll record."

As for the photo, Simonon said, "The show had gone quite well that night, but for me, inside, it just wasn't working well, so I took it out on the bass. If I'd been really smart I would have got the spare bass out, as it wasn't as good as the one I smashed up. When I look at it now I wish I'd lifted my face up a bit more."

7. The Joshua Tree (1986)

U2
Design by Steve Averill and Anton Corbijn



The Joshua Tree is a slow-growing shrub with sharp-tapered leaves, indigenous to the desert in the American southwest. It was named by a band of 19th century Mormons. The tree's unique shape reminded them of the Biblical story of Joshua reaching out to the heavens.

It was this strange timeless aspect of the tree that lured U2 into Death Valley National Park in California. The cover photo, snapped by Anton Corbijn, proved a perfect foil to the grand rock hymnals on the album.

"It's supposed to be the oldest living organism in the desert," said drummer Larry Mullen, Jr.

It must have been pretty old, because it fell over and died in 2000. U2 fans have since built a makeshift shrine in the desert to commemorate the famous tree.

8. Licensed to Ill (1986)

Beastie Boys
Design by Steve Byram and World B. Omes


Private jets and fatal plane crashes are the heads and tails of rock 'n' roll's fateful coin.

The Beastie Boys tapped into this idea with a gatefold sleeve whose glamorous front unfolds to a charred and smoking back.

Producer Rick Rubin said the idea came from reading about Led Zeppelin's luxurious private jet. "The Beastie Boys were just a bunch of little guys and I wanted us to have a Beastie Boys' jet. I wanted to embrace and somehow distinguish, in a sarcastic way, the larger-than-life rock 'n' roll lifestyle, the excesses and the destruction."

Collage artist World B. Omes assembled the Beastie Boys jet from photographic elements (American Airlines later complained that it looked like one of theirs), then drew over and hand-colored it with water soluble crayons.

Trivia: The plane's identification number on the tail – 3MTA3 – reads "Eat Me" if you hold the cover up to a mirror.

9. Nevermind (1991)

Nirvana
Design by Robert Fisher and Kirk Weddle

Spencer Eldren's first time swimming was a memorable one.

At four months old, Elden was one of several babies on hand at a Pasadena public pool to audition for Nirvana's album cover.

"I showed Kurt the baby picture," designer Robert Fisher said, "and he liked it but felt it needed something more. We threw all kinds of ideas around and Kurt jokingly suggested a fish hook. We spent the day thinking of all the things you could put on a fish hook. Although Kurt never gave me a rational for the design, I must assume that the naked baby symbolized his own innocence, the water an alien environment and the hook and dollar bill his creative life entering into the corporate world of rock music."

As for Elden, now 20, he says, "Most bands around today can't even get near to what Nirvana did on that album, and I'll always be happy to be a part of it."

10. Odelay (1996)

Beck
Design by Beck Hansen and Robert Fisher

Look up in the sky. It's a mop. It's a throw rug. No, it's a Komondor. The airborne dog, a Hungarian breed with matted, cord-like fur, provoked a lot of "Huh?"s when this landmark album was released.

Which was exactly what Beck hoped for. A quirky artist who often relies on found objects and unintentional mistakes to inform his process, Beck stumbled on the Komondor picture in a vintage book of dog breeds.

Art director Robert Fisher said, "The photo was taken by a famous dog photographer called Ludwig, who lived a few blocks from the office. She was in her late seventies, and was enthusiastic to have a visitor.

"Beck felt that it was kind of ambiguous, unrelated to the music, and was chosen almost at random. The viewer could read into the cover whatever they wanted. Odelay also sounded a bit like a dog command."

11. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Wilco
Design by Lawrence Azerrad

In early 2002, fans gazing at the cover of Wilco's fourth album were asking, "What the heck are those things? Stacks of poker chips? A microscopic close-up of hair shafts? An allusion to the recently fallen Twin Towers?"

But to anyone living in Wilco's hometown, Chicago, the image was instantly familiar. Marina City, designed in 1959 by Bertrand Goldberg, is comprised of two cylindrical residential / commercial towers that cut a futuristic profile on the ChiTown skyline.

Wilco wasn't the first to show Marina City to the world. In 1973, Sly and the Family Stone featured the towers in a collage on the back cover of their classic LP There's A Riot Goin' On. And anyone who watched The Bob Newhart Show in the early '70s would've seen those towers in the opening titles sequence.

Designer Lawrence Azerrad went on to do more striking artwork for Wilco, including the cover of 2011's The Whole Love.

See Also: The Stories Behind 11 MORE Classic Album Covers

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December 11, 2011 - 9:11am
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