Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and you know you’ve made a legendary impact in art and culture when your work becomes a touchstone ripe for references, parodies, and reworking. Call it postmodern, call it lazy, call it whatever you want, but there’s something incredibly fun and joyous about seeing a piece and connecting it with what is either an obvious reference or a not-so-obvious influence.
Album covers have long ago transformed into an art form themselves. Originally just a means to an end, often featuring song titles and album information along with a standard picture of the artist, album art started to embrace its graphic nature in the mid-1950s when performers like Elvis Presley were able to translate their excitable nature without the audience ever having to hear a single note of their music. You could simply look at the album covers to see the wild, manic energy that they exuded.
As the ’50s turned to the ’60s, experimentation began to take hold. Moody lighting and conceptual sleeves began to replace the stock images and generic artist portraits. Some musicians and record companies experimented with the fame of their artists by not including essential information like album titles or band names on the sleeve. Soon, having an album cover that stood out became an essential tool in converting those who didn’t know your music: a cool looking cover was often reason enough to add an album to your collection.
Some of the album’s featured here take direct inspiration from the record sleeves that came before them. Some are sworn to be coincidences by the people involved. We’ll be the judges of that as we take a look at ten of the best album covers that (may or may not) have been inspired by previous classic album covers.
10 album covers inspired by other artists:
The Clash – London Calling
This is one we can say with absolute certainty: The Clash’s seminal double album London Calling was directly inspired by Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut LP in 1956. From the black and white performance photo to the green and pink text adorning the sides, the cover was meant as a thorough juxtaposition between the rebellious ’50s allure of Presley and the “kill your idols” ethos of The Clash.
Both Presley and The Clash were transgressive figures for their times, but there’s a clear difference in approach. Presley, in his photo, is all swinging hips and vibrant vocal stylings, communicating a youthful exuberance and sex appeal that was sorely lacking from popular music in 1956. Paul Simonon’s smashing of his bass was something else entirely: combustion, release, and palpable danger. Punk rock had no time for the histrionics of Elvis. They were going straight for the throat.
The Rolling Stones – Their Satanic Majesties Request
The Rolling Stones were at a confusing impasse in 1967. Having explored baroque and psychedelic pop with tracks like ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?’ on Between the Buttons, The Stones were soaking in the allure of LSD and the influence of their peers, most notably The Beatles, as the Summer of Love was officially in bloom.
Everything about Their Satanic Majesties Request reads as either a parody or pale imitation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, down to the vibrant dress up on the front covers. Their Satanic Majesties Request might not have the large gathering of Sgt. Pepper’s, but it’s still very clearly based on the latter’s design and ethos.
Motley Crue – Too Fast For Love
Admiration is a two-way street: sometimes you’re the devoted, other times you’re the devotee. Once The Stones abandoned all that hippie-dippy nonsense and got back to their roots in rock, country, and blues with Beggar’s Banquet, the band were once again able to forge their own identity, creating some of the best albums – and album covers – of all time.
When it comes to swaggering sex, drugs, and rock and roll, it’s not hard to see how Motley Crue might have taken a page or two out of The Stones’ manual. As a nodding acknowledgement, they made a homage to Sticky Fingers’ scandalous crotch shot with their own leather-clad take on full frontal. The Crue couldn’t quite match the lasciviousness of the original, but perhaps that’s for the best.
Bob Dylan – Desire
Now for a slightly more contentious example. Bob Dylan doesn’t really seem to care one way or the other whether anyone thinks he’s stolen his ideas from other sources, but there are plenty of accusations. He famously plagiarised his own Nobel Prize speech, for example. In fact, Joni Mitchell famously called him as much in an interview with the L.A. Times in 2010. There are plenty of musical examples to sort through too, if you’re so willing. Laziness or expert level trolling: you decide!
Another addition to this list is the cover for Dylan’s 1976 album Desire, which culls liberally from John Phillips’ John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of L.A.), so much so that the two appear to have shopped at the same bohemian country outlet store. The hats, the fur coats, the direction they’re both facing, it’s all a little too on the nose to be a coincidence, but such is the eternal push and pull of Bob Dylan’s toeing of the line between inspiration and straight-up theft.
Britney Spears – …Baby One More Time
Here in America, the cover to Britney Spears album …Baby One More Time shows the teen pop star sitting W-style against a pink background smiling up at the camera. It’s an innocent, if slightly weird album cover, but it’s certainly unique in its own right. When it came to the international editions, however, there was a similarity that was noticed almost immediately.
I have no idea if Spears listened to Björk or was aware of her first record, Debut. I have no idea if Spears’ handlers, whether they be at her record company or in her personal life, had ever seen that cover before. But the fact that they’re both standing in an identical stance, with hands in prayer in front of their mouths, is bizarre enough to begin contemplating the possible connection between Björk and Britney. I’m coming up blank, except for these covers.
Tom Waits – The Heart of Saturday Night
In the deep recesses of his whiskey-soaked soul, Tom Waits is a crooner. He might not have the range or technical schmaltz of the Rat Pack stars, but he still sings about starlets and harlots, booze and brandy, painful loss and eternal love in a way that I’m sure Dean Martin would have killed for.
Recorded during his early career where Waits was still trying to pass as a piano man lothario instead of a wildly experimental and cracked-voice hermit, The Heart of Saturday Night plays into Waits unique contributions to jazz and folk. In order to more firmly establish his connection with the former genre, he decided to pay homage to Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours. Waits doesn’t have the blue-eyed soul of Sinatra, as his inner demons are far too omnipresent, but it’s fun to think of an alternate universe where Waits is croaking out ‘My Way’ in Vegas.
Eminem – Kamikaze
Let’s get it out of the way early: Kamikaze is not a good album. It ranks low on Eminem’s discography, one that’s spotty at best when it comes to full-length LPs. It’s got some virulent homophobia on it, but even more offensive is how dated and uninspired the production and performances on it are. It’s as if Eminem wanted to take a time machine back to when goofy white guys were still able to conquer.
In fact, the album cover to Kamikaze does just that by appropriating the cover of the Beastie Boys seminal debut License to Ill. That album hasn’t exactly aged gracefully either, especially compared to the Beastie’s later embrace of experimentation and their punk roots, but it still has its charms. In a wild case of serendipity, Ad-Rock famously wanted to call their first album Don’t Be A Faggot — and history continues to repeat itself.
Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out
One of the many great things about eternally cool punk rockers Sleater-Kinney is that their range of influences are far deeper than most punk bands would dare to explore. The scorched earth approach to legacy acts didn’t carry over to the Washington trio, and when it came time to create a cover for their now-legendary third album Dig Me Out, they went with a classic homage.
The Kinks’ The Kink Kontroversy shares a number of nominal connections to Dig Me Out: it’s both acts’ third album, and both albums see their respective artists branching away from the basic fuzzy punk of their original sound. Maybe the girls in Sleater-Kinney felt all of those connections on a deep level, or perhaps they just thought it was an excellent cover, but either way, the similarities go beyond the artwork.
Iron Maiden – Powerslave
Alright, hands up, who believe in their very heart of hearts that Iron Maiden, the legendary English heavy metal outfit, were influenced by American R&B/disco-adjacent funksters Earth, Wind, and Fire? Yup, just as I suspected.
Two bands that have absolutely no business even being in the same sentence, the two are now forever bound together thanks to the cover of Maiden’s 1984 album Powerslave. Call it coincidence, call it unintended inspiration, but Earth, Wind, and Fire happened to have the same Egyptian theme, down to the orientation of the pyramid, on their 1977 album All n’ All. There’s likely no chance of any crossover, but part of me really wants to believe Bruce Dickinson was taking notes on Philip Bailey’s falsetto to reach his own glass-shattering high notes.
Gorillaz – Demon Days
Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s virtual band are able to take on any guise that they choose. They can reference anything, adapt to any surroundings, and play off any inspiration because they’re meant to be a free-flowing, all-encompassing reflection of culture itself. So if you’ve made what you believe is your best album, why not visually compare yourself to, say, the biggest band of all time?
The four-quadrant portrait approach of Demon Days harkens back to the classic cover of The Beatles final album, Let It Be. Albarn is, of course, too much of a music nerd not to have noticed the connection, and certainly, Hewlett would have known the graphic similarities, but both have yet to officially comment on the matter. Confirmation isn’t necessary: it would be stupider if it wasn’t an intentional homage.