There have always been artists willing to push socially acceptable boundaries to the brink of breaking point. Some do it on stage with their performances, some do it with their lyrics or their outlandish solos, and others use their album artwork to push the envelope. Having a provocative or controversial album cover has often been the sign of a band who has a serious intent to impose their artistic will. It’s also a sign of an artist unwilling to bend or conform to the masses. Put simply; it’s the sign of a good record.
Below, we’re looking back at 15 controversial album covers that were banned from public release after either the record label retracted them, or public opinion saw the stores themselves remove them from the shelves. From David Bowie to Alice Cooper and Guns ‘N’ Roses to Kanye West, some artists have always found a way of upsetting the middle of the road, finding the outliers of the industry just too much to bear.
Let’s not get it twisted; the ability to upset the fragile apple cart of western society has never been challenging. From nudity to silly pranks, there have been countless album covers that have upset retailers and publishers and seen themselves thrown on the rubbish pile of the industry, even if they aren’t really that offensive at all. Naturally, contrary to established beliefs, the banning of the albums often contributed to their cult status, making them more desirable than ever.
It’s a part of the music industry that has now been so widely exploited that to be banned by a publisher or retailer means you would have had to have done something very wrong indeed.
Even then, with publishing such an easy thing to achieve in the 21st century, the chances of any album cover being banned like these are doubtful. So why not enjoy these relics as the museum pieces they are slowly becoming.
Below, you’ll find the 15 most controversial album covers of all time.
15 albums that were banned:
David Bowie – Diamond Dogs
The front cover of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs seemed innocent enough until the gatefold image created by Belgian Painter Guy Peellaert was rightfully labelled “the dog’s bollocks”. It would seem that the phrasing was too apt for some publishers and retailers.
The art saw Bowie with the body of a dog and his penis on full show. It was just a freaky image before, but now the nudity had put censors on red alert and saw it put up on the chopping block ready to be axed.
A piece of quick thinking saw the hindquarters of the hound quickly airbrushed for a Barbie-like smooth groin, and the record returned to sale.
Alice Cooper – Love It to Death
Alice Cooper wasn’t quite the dark lord of costume design we know him to be when he released his third album, Love It to Death, but with the success of the lead single ‘I’m Eighteen’, the singer was becoming the face of America’s shock rock scene.
It’s an area he would dominate for decades to come, regularly killing himself every night of his stage show.
But with this LP, the singer nearly found himself in some hot bother without the need for a metal spiked coffin or swinging axe. The record almost didn’t have the huge impact it did on the singer’s career after Cooper decided to use an image that saw the rocker use his thumb as a mock penis.
Scandalous? Not really. Silly? 100%. Still, it saw Cooper’s entire right arm airbrushed out and eventually the LP go on sale with the additions made.
Blind Faith – Blind Faith
A rare entry on this list that looking back from 2020 seems more controversial now than it did in 1969. Rumours are that Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood’s supergroup Blind Faith didn’t have a name until they saw Bob Seidemann’s art piece ‘Blind Faith’.
The cover sees an 11-year-old model, Mariora Goschen, shirtless holding her counterpoint in the universe, gleaming technology in her hand, it makes for uncomfortable viewing. Add to this that Goschen was promised, but never received, a horse as payment and the decision to pull this cover and replace it with an image of the band seems like a good one.
It’s an incredibly difficult image to look at and one of the few times on this list that we’ll agree with the censors.
The Beatles – Yesterday and Today
Surely not the Fab Four? They couldn’t be so controversial, could they? Of course, if you’re a fan of the band, you’ll already know countless stories will prove they were as anti-establishment as anyone.
One of the most well-known stories surrounding The Beatles saw Capitol Records pull 750,000 copies of the album Yesterday and Today out of the market after The Beatles cover for the record was deemed far too provocative for the US market. It is a little tame by today’s standards, but it is clear that the group had a plan they were trying to put into action.
Many believe it was America’s overreactions to pop culture that The Beatles were trying to highlight with their image of decapitated toy dolls and slabs of meat. Others say they were protesting the Vietnam War and others still suggest it was just a joke.
Either way, it all feels a bit benign these days.
Roger Waters – The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking
Another entry in the “I can’t believe they banned it” list sees Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters first solo album be quickly banned for the image of an illustrated butt-crack. The keyword there being ‘illustrated’.
The cartoon shows a leggy blonde, naked except for a backpack, trying to hitchhike. It offended US censors and saw Waters slap a classic black box across her behind. It passed the test and Waters’ established his solo career.
It’s a somewhat preposterous idea today, but the image of an animated derriere clearly upset the establishment enough to see it routinely banned by censors.
Prince – Lovesexy
Back in 1988, Prince’s new album Lovesexy was pulled from the shelves after the photograph of the singer on the front of the album was deemed too sexy for stores.
It sees the singer sitting on a flower, and although he’s covering his modesty, US censors were none too pleased. It was removed from shops, and some covered it in black wrapping.
If this image of Prince goes anyway to offend you, then we suggest you avoid some of the singer’s music too. With songs almost exclusively about sex, Prince’s image sitting atop an open flower while naked is comparatively pretty wholesome.
Nirvana – In Utero
The cover of the follow-up to Nevermind, which itself struggled with censors after it featured the penis of a baby, may have included the image of a naked woman, but it was a song title that saw it banned from K-Mart and Walmart in the US.
The stores were upset with the song ‘Rape Me’, suggesting the song’s title was too provocative. Cobain eventually relented and changed the name of the song ‘Waiff Me’ on some albums.
Of course, the song was an anti-rape track, and the covering up of the word just went further to highlight society’s inability to deal with sexual assault on any large scale level effectively.
Tad – 8-Way Santa
Tad’s 1991 album was a marvellous piece of found-art. The group had picked up the image of a shirtless man cupping the breast of his female partner in a thrift store but it wouldn’t last long as the cover of their album 8-Way Santa.
Tad would realise soon enough that the couple were not happy with the use of their image. One of them had become a born-again Christian and the pair sued Sub-Pop.
The label relented and changed the cover and left Tad with red faces but with a big tick in their rock ‘n’ roll crusade.
Jane’s Addiction – Ritual de lo Habitual
The 1990 album from Jane’s Addiction is a photograph of a diorama made by the band’s lead singer Perry Farrell. The album’s cover is in reference to the threesome Farrell sings about in ‘Three Days’ and while we can see how the connection could see the record banned, it still felt a little far from what we’d expect standards to be in 1990.
The nudity of the illustration made a lot of retailers uncomfortable despite being somewhat rudimentary and mawkish. With the censors looking to put the LP on permanent relief, the band also offered a plain white cover. However, they had a plan up their sleeve, the record was emblazoned with the text of the First Amendment and the band’s right to free speech.
Poison – Open Up and Say…Ahh!
Now this one really struck us as odd. Another entry of the softer side of the censors saw the hair rock band’s striking image of a demonic girl sticking out her tongue be marked as unsavoury by those in power. It left a lot of big wigs with a knot in their stomach.
Whether it was because of the ongoing Satanic Panic that was sweeping the world and especially in America, where parents were troubled by the idea of their children becoming Satanists, or indeed because it was deemed too provocative for retailers. The final product saw most of the image covered up.
Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction
The album that turned Guns N’ Roses into a rock behemoth was named after the Robert Williams painting that was originally the focal point of the front cover. However, the image was deemed too dangerous for sale and was shelved after it was met with disapproval. For the life of us, we can’t see why.
It sees the image of a robotic rapist about to be dealt with by a bigger predator. It was quickly lambasted with complaints that the group changed it to the five skulls we all know today.
Axl Rose had originally wanted an image of the exploding space shuttle Challenger, so at least they saved themselves form that.
The Mamas and the Papas – If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
The simple and quite frankly baffling reason for The Mamas and the Papas 1966 album being banned is that it featured a toilet on the album artwork. A toilet.
It saw the band crammed into a bathtub and the image of a toilet in the corner of the album cover. It was enough to anger censors and see the band place a text box over the lavatory before it was eventually airbrushed out entirely.
It seems utterly ludicrous today to think that a lavatory could be quite so offensive but, as we’re often told, they were truly different times.
Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
This may be one of the only entries in this list that was propelled by the artist himself. West deliberately told artist George Condo that he wanted to have an album cover that would get banned and he wasn’t disappointed.
Condo provided the perfect image when he illustrated West being straddled by a naked woman with wings but no arms and a polka-dot tail. When the record got banned, West also provided a cover with a ballerina on it, clearly pleased that yet another career goal had been checked off his list.
Van Halen – Balance
A photoshopped image of conjoined twins was enough to upset the censors back in 1995 as the album artwork for Van Halen’s Balance was banned for the disturbing image on the record’s front cover.
Intended to shock and grab customers’ attention, the censors felt the image was too difficult to bear.
Although we can’t argue with that, the image is hardly ban-worthy, in the grander scheme of thing. But it was enough for some areas to not only change the cover but to completely airbrush the artwork to include only one twin.
The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet
In 1968 The Rolling Stones suffered the same fate as The Mamas and the Papas as their original artwork for their album Beggars Banquet was routinely rejected by their record company as it featured, dare we say it, a lavatory.
The photo was of a toilet wall full of graffiti that could be found in a Porsche dealership in Los Angeles. It was replaced with an all-white cover with illustrative font, made to look like an invitation.
The album was delayed and the original artwork wouldn’t resurface until the eighties where it was gobbled up as a collector’s item.