Album artwork is a tricky game. There’s really only one rule to follow: be memorable. Whether that’s through an abundance of colours and vibrant tones, or perhaps more muted and monochromatic images, ideally, an album cover should match the contents of the album, thematically or sonically. But even that notion takes a back seat to pure visual splendour and the lack of ability to forget what you just saw.
Often, an artist will find inspiration in pre-existing images. Sometimes these are adapted and manipulated in some way to add a unique spin on the visuals, while other times, they’re simply lifted wholesale due to their striking qualities and bold nature. Today, we’re looking at some of the most iconic images of all time and how they wound up on some of the biggest albums ever made.
For this list, we’re looking at album covers with photographs that were already well-known by the time they were used as album art. That means iconic photography that is solely associated with its parent album, like the front covers to London Calling or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, are omitted. In some cases, the fame of the album has now eclipsed the original fame of the photograph. But in all cases, these photographs were in the public eye before the musicians got a hold of them.
10 iconic photographs used as album covers:
10. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin I
Needing to separate themselves from their previous New Yardbirds moniker, Jimmy Page shopped around a potential name that would complement the power and heaviness of his new outfit. It was then that he remembered what Keith Moon had quipped during the recording of ‘Beck’s Bolero’: that a supergroup between Page, Beck, John Entwistle and Moon would go over like “a lead balloon.”
With a few grammatical changes, Led Zeppelin was newly christened and set for its maiden journey. Their first album contained a new hard-hitting style on tracks like ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ and ‘Communication Breakdown’, and the band needed an appropriately volatile image to go with both the music and the name. Enter Sam Shere’s iconic photo of the Hindenburg disaster, where the exact moment of combustion for the doomed vessel was the perfect illustration of Zeppelin’s hard rock style.
9. Electric Light Orchestra – Eldorado
In terms of cinematic images, it’s impossible to get any more iconic than Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz. As The Wicked Witch of the West reaches out to claim her fallen sister’s shoes, a potent mass of sparks shoots back at her. Those slippers would forever be associated with Dorothy’s journey home and the inherent goodness that she brought to the land of Oz.
Jeff Lynne needed an image of this calibre to communicate his themes of escape and fantasy from Electric Light Orchestra’s 1974 concept album Eldorado. But no mere approximation would do: Lynne went straight for the memorable film still to end all memorable film stills, perhaps the most famous shot in cinema. That takes a certain gall, but Lynne was thoroughly beholden to grandiosity on an epic scale, so the culling of such an iconic image feels fitting.
8. Big Star – Radio City
William Eggleston was renowned for his ability to take colour photography and create bold, indelible images from even the most basic and universal of equipment. His photos were at once stark and vibrant, taking ordinary settings and making engrossing results from even the most mundane of items. The Red Ceiling is his most famous work: a Mississippi ceiling with a light fixture that nevertheless holds a stirring and palpable quality to it.
The ethos of taking the every day and making it magical could also be applied to Big Star, the Memphis power-pop group who were already in shambles by the time they finished their second LP Radio City. Band leader Alex Chilton wanted to contrast the interpersonal drama that the band were going through and visualise it with mundane audacity. His friend Eggleston showed him his acclaimed Red Ceiling image, and the rest was history.
7. Dead Kennedys – Plastic Surgery Disasters
The Dead Kennedys knew the power of confrontation. Their name alone caused an uproar with arbiters of good taste due to its apparent flippancy regarding the national tragedy that was the assassination of the Kennedy brothers. The band’s first album contained images of the several police cars on fire after Dan White was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, related to his killing of Harvey Milk.
So when the band became even more confrontational on their second album Plastic Surgery Disasters, they needed an even more harrowing image for the cover. Michael Well’s “Hands” shows the startling difference between the size and robustness of a starving Ugandan child’s frail hand against a white missionary’s palm. The image was politically charged and aggressively upsetting, which made it the perfect combination with songs like ‘Government Flu’ and ‘Terminal Preppie’.
6. The Smiths – Meat Is Murder
Subtlety was never really Morrissey’s thing. Whether it was through his lyric writing on tracks like ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ or his caustic comments in interviews, the Smiths lead singer was predisposed to whacking you over the head with a message rather than letting you interpret it yourself.
The photograph chosen for the Meat Is Murder front cover is one of the more notable images from the Vietnam war: a young soldier with the phrase “Make War Not Love” stencilled in his helmet. The image was perhaps most famous for its use in the documentary In the Year of the Pig, and Morrissey, ever the film buff, could likely have seen the poster featuring the soldier and took inspiration.
5. George Michael – Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1
George Michael‘s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 (we are still waiting on volume two, but I personally wouldn’t hold my breath) was intended as a significant artistic leap for the singer, incorporating elements of a quiet storm and more mature songwriting to his potent blend of pop. The one-two punch of ‘Praying for Time’ and ‘Freedom! ’90’ certainly accomplish that, and Michaels wanted an image that kept his own face out of the marketing scheme.
So his solution was to choose a giant group photo by influential New York City street photographer Weegee featuring an impossible mass of people at Coney Island in 1940. The image was throwback in nature, and would feature none of the Michaels-focused sex appeal of the Faith album and promotional cycle. It’s about as impersonal as one can get, complimenting Michaels step back from superstardom.
4. Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine
In 1963, Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức executed the ultimate protest against Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm’s systematic oppression of his religious cohorts: he calmly sat in the middle of a busy intersection and burned himself alive. The resulting images from photographer Malcolm Browne would earn the World Press Photo of the Year award and alert the entire world to the atrocities perpetrated by Diệm’s government.
What better visual complement to the radical, fiery, and fiercely political sounds of Rage Against the Machine. The band needed a strong first impression for their debut, and the content of their sound was so aggressive and in-your-face that a simple band photo wouldn’t suffice. The image Đức going up in flames was the only appropriate companion. Nothing else could have communicated the band’s ethos so thoroughly.
3. The Strokes – Is This It
The original cover photo of The Strokes debut LP Is This It, featuring a naked women’s hip and butt with a suggestively placed glove, was the best way to communicate the band’s raw and robust indie rock. The only problem was that lead singer Julian Casablancas didn’t like the photo. So he went around looking for something else.
What he stumbled upon was one of the first-ever images of a subatomic particle photographed in magnificently magnified detail. Little did Casablancas know that the same photo had already been integrated into the collage of images on Prince’s Graffiti Bridge album.
2. Antony and the Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now
English experimental pop singer Anohni had staged a major coup in recording her second LP as Antony and the Johnson’s, I Am A Bird Now. Recruiting prominent musicians like Boy George, Rufus Wainwright, and Lou Reed, she created a tapestry of baroque soul that won her the Mercury Prize in 2005.
For a visual representation of the tragedy and macabre contents of the album, Anohni turned to former Reed compatriot Candy Darling, who was best known as a Warhol Superstar in the ’60s. The transgender actress was dying of lymphoma at the age of 29, and her final image, taken by photographer Peter Hujar, was the one chosen to adorn the cover of I Am A Bird Now.
1. Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me
Brand New were experts in the aggressively whiny form of rock and roll known as emo, and credit where credit is due, they were by and large one of the most musically talented propagators of the genre. They also loved stark images for their album covers, as opposed to the busy and lurid ugliness of their peers.
The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me features prominent themes of death and religion, so the photograph “Untitled #44” from Nicholas Prior’s “Age of Man” collection was the perfect counterpart to illustrate the stark, everyday aspects of Brand New’s morbid curiosity.