Music and controversy have always walked hand in hand. Especially in rock, there’s a sort of laissez-faire attitude that has allowed artists free rein to be as provocative, free-thinking and disgusting as they please. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the controversial world of album covers.
Rob Reiner recognised the rock world’s obsession with pushing the envelope when he made 1987’s Spinal Tap, a mockumentary about the life and wild times of a stadium rock band. During an interview about their new album Smell The Glove, Spinal Tap are confronted with the kind of questioning Mick Jagger was very familiar with: “You put a greased naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck, and a leash, and a man’s arm extended out up to here, holding onto the leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it,” a journalist points out. “You don’t find that offensive? You don’t find that sexist?” Apparently not.
Indeed, whether it’s objectifying depictions of women, infanticide or – as is the case with one album on this list – a picture of someone’s sphincter, there’s usually a sense that the cover has been made to upset bourgeois sensibilities. Given that artistic integrity is practically synonymous with sticking it to the middle classes, it’s no wonder musicians have been tempted to push their artwork beyond the reaches of acceptability.
Here, we’ve bought you ten of the most controversial album covers of all time; artworks that have either been banned, condemned or both. Strap in; it’s going to be an unsettling ride.
The 10 most controversial album covers of all time:
Yesterday and Today – The Beatles
Yes, everyone’s favourite group of cheeky chaps also liked to overstep the line in the name of marketing. In June 1966, The Beatles released Yesterday and Today in the US and Canada. The studio release contained a mixture of tracks from Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver.
The initial copies of this record were packaged with a now-famous photograph of the ‘Fab Four‘ wearing white gowns and holding dismantled toy baby body parts and cuts of meat. The almost immediate backlash saw Capitol Records recall 750,000 copies of the album as it was deemed too provocative for the US market. Many derived that it was a protest against the ongoing US war in Vietnam, while others have dismissed these claims calling it a harmless bit of fun.
Nevermind – Nirvana
It says a lot about the controversy surrounding the Nevermind cover that the artwork appears in the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture alongside a note from art director Robert Fisher that reads: “If anyone has a problem with his dick, we can remove it”.
Kurt Cobain wasn’t taken with the idea of censoring his own album cover, maintaining that the only way he’d agree to remove the penis would be if he were allowed to place a sticker over it reading: “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet paedophile”. Today, the controversy surrounding the photograph on the cover of Nevermind endures. Spencer Elden, who was photographed for the album artwork as a baby, claimed that the band photographed him naked without the consent of his legal guardians. The suit has since been dismissed.
Diamond Dogs – David Bowie
David Bowie’s follow-up to the 1973 covers album Pinups was yet another step into the oddity of the Starman’s mind. The Diamond Dogs LP was released with a gatefold sleeve. On the front cover, a lean-looking Bowie is lying down on the floor with his lower body trailing out of the shot to the left.
Upon folding out the cover, the back end of Bowie’s body is shown to be that of a dog. The artwork, created by Belgian Painter Guy Peellaert was named “the dog’s bollocks”, and the original copies printed were true to the name with full canine nudity. The cover was censored before the official release of the album, but some very rare copies of the so-called “Genitals Cover” exist and are one of the most sought-after Bowie collectables despite never being issued with a record inside.
Island Life – Grace Jones
First featured in New York Magazine in 1977, Grace Jones’ much-gawped at cover for Island Life caused consternation, fascination and outrage on release. Along with her appearance in James Bond’s A View to Kill, the compilation record from 1985 helped to propel Jones from cult acclaim to one of the world’s most provocative household names.
The crafting of the controversial cover required Jean-Paul Goude to photograph Jones’ body in various positions before fragmenting and reassembling the images to create a superhuman pose. Many accused Goude of objectifying, fetishising and exoticising black skin and features, which he frequently referred to as “savage aesthetics.” According to Jones, though, Goude’s photographs weren’t “racist all all”. talking to NPR about whether photos like the one on Island life might make modern viewers feel uneasy, she said: “I don’t care. Some people feel uncomfortable with certain types of art, but it’s an art form for me.”
Appetite for Destruction – Guns N’ Roses
Guns N’ Roses’ debut studio album Appetite for Destruction contained some of the group’s biggest hits, including ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, ‘Paradise City’ and ‘Welcome to the Jungle’. The artwork we now associate with the LP is the crucifix with the cartoon skulls resembling the band members placed over it, but upon its original release, the album was associated with a much more disturbing image.
The record was named after the painting by artist Robert Williams which was the original central image for the album’s artwork. The image shows a robotic rapist about to be gobbled up by a bigger and weirder predator in the sky. The disturbing image was met with enough objection that the group were forced to change the official artwork for reissues.
The Origin of the Feces – Type O Negative
This is, for me, the most instantly vile and repelling of the lot. I apologise yet also feel it my duty to direct your attention to the cover of Type O Negative’s second studio album, The Origin of The Feces. In the spirit of the album’s Darwinian namesake, the band’s late frontman, Peter Steele, decided to show us all a lovely close-up of his anal sphincter.
The album didn’t sell particularly well upon its first issue – presumably, people didn’t want the CD case, and god forbid the 12″ sleeve, in their homes – and so the controversial and nauseating cover art was changed to a more palatable green and black depiction of Michael Wolgemut’s 1493 painting, The Dance of Death.
Ritual de lo Habitual – Jane’s Addiction
Jane’s Addiction released Ritual de lo Habitual in 1990 with cover art depicting a diorama made by the band’s lead singer Perry Farrell. The sleeve design refers to the threesome Farrell sings of in ‘Three Days’ and while the nudity is just on a diorama, the exhibit’s religious connotations made it a little hot for some to handle.
The album was widely censored and in response, Jane’s Addiction offered the album up in an alternative plain white sleeve. However, they didn’t submit quite so easily and opted to emblazon the record with text from the First Amendment protesting the band’s right to free speech.
Blind Faith – Blind Faith
If this one was distasteful by 1969’s standards, it’s downright illegal by today’s. Apparently, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood were unsure of what to name their new supergroup until they laid eyes on Bob Seidemann’s controversial art piece ‘Blind Faith’.
The image of a naked female holding a model aeroplane seems like an acceptable precursor to some of Roxy Music’s more bawdy album covers of the 1970s. It’s only when one learns that the topless model, Mariora Goschen, was 11-years-old at the time that the distaste becomes apparent. At a glance, she may seem like a young lady, but upon closer inspection, the youthful innocence of her face says it all.
Editor’s note: We have censored the image below.
Party Music – The Coup
You’d think the chances of a hip-hop group predicting the most devastating terrorist attack in American history would be pretty slim. Well, think again. In June 2001, Oakland duo The Coup set about creating an album cover which would artfully convey their belief in the power of music to destroy capitalism.
Their efforts concluded when they settled on an image of band members Pam the Funkstress and Boots Riley standing at the foot of The World Trade Center, an explosion having just occurred. Following the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, the band decided to replace the original image with a flaming martini glass. Still, it’s chilling how accurately The Coup’s cover foreshadowed those tragic events.
Virgin Killer – The Scorpions
The intent behind The Scorpian’s 1976 Virgin Killer cover doesn’t make it any less shocking. The band were well aware that depicting a naked 10-year-old girl with the word ‘Censored’ covering her genitalia would cause controversy, and that it did. Although the band alleged that the image was supposed to symbolise the loss of innocence, rhythms guitarist Rudolf Schenker also claimed that they were using the cover “only to get attention. That’s what we do”.
By the time the album was banned – the image replaced with a group photo – there were enough albums with the original artwork floating around that it couldn’t be undone. Many years later, Schenker told Blasting-Zone: “We didn’t actually have the idea. It was the record company. The record company guys were like, ‘Even if we have to go to jail, there’s no question that we’ll release that.'”
Editor’s note: We have censored the image below.