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The Cover Uncovered: Jimi Hendrix's battle for 'Electric Ladyland'

In all honesty, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland was an album that was so hotly anticipated before its release that it could have been an hour of silence, and people would have bought it. At this stage in his career, Hendrix was the voice of a generation, and everybody knew it.

So, the fact that it would need some promotional stunt to get people to buy it seemed redundant. Still, the backstory for the album cover art for the third and final studio album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience is engrossing. Upon its release, it created quite the stir in the 1960s music scene.

While the album was one of the Experience’s most successful, it was also one that lead-vocalist Hendrix did not quite align with. Musically, yes, sure, the record is Hendrix through and through. But the rest of the package remained completely at the hands of the record label, and neither Hendrix nor the band was quite happy about it. The record label took over the artistic direction and left Hendrix reeling.

A prime example of this was the cover art for the album, which was probably one of the most badly handled aspects of the release. The album was originally released in the UK in 1968, with the album cover consisting of a photograph of a group of nude women on a black background. This, evidently, caused a huge commotion following its release because of its uncensored portrayal of provocative imagery. Hendrix, on the other hand, had visualised the cover completely differently and elaborately. His mistake, so to speak, was that he was a little late in getting his thoughts regarding the cover across to his record label, thereby making them take matters into their own hands.

Hendrix’s UK label, Track Records’ chief Chris Stamp, sent photographer David Montgomery to a speakeasy to conduct a photoshoot for the album. According to the book Electric Ladyland by John Perry, Stamp paid a group of 19 women to pose for the cover – £5 if they went topless and £10 if they went completely naked. The end product was, however, unimpressive and quite underwhelming in its effect. “Everyone looked great, but the picture makes us look old and tired. We were trying to look sexy, but it didn’t work out,” one of the models said in an interview, “It makes us look like a load of old tarts. It’s rotten.”

While the album has gone down in history as having one of the most distinctive covers of all time, the fact remained that most people didn’t find the image attractive. This included everybody from the retailers to the critics to the audience, and even Hendrix himself. When it came to making his displeasure with the final result known, Hendrix didn’t step back. “Folks in Britain are kicking against the cover. Man, I don’t blame them,” Hendrix commented, “I wouldn’t have put this picture on the sleeve myself, but it wasn’t my decision. It’s mostly all bullshit”.

Since we’re on the topic, let’s delve a little deeper, shall we? Imagine this. You go into a record shop and find shelves full of more-or-less visually basic records and then amongst them is this record with an almost pornographic cover art standing out from the rest. That certainly does pique your interest, doesn’t it? But thinking about it critically, what is really happening here? The photo of nude women is being used as bait to make the public buy the record. A clever tactic, but an extremely problematic issue.

For starters, the intention behind using a photo of naked women for the cover was not for the sake of art, but instead, for the sake of an increased sale. Essentially what they did there was use the naked women’s body as a mode of attracting attention – a trope that has been used in popular media since the dawn of time.

Now, coming back to the Electric Ladyland cover again, we see an attempt on Hendrix’s part to portray his ideas about a possible revised cover for the release of the album in North America. Hendrix wrote a long letter to Reprise, his record label at the time, apologising for being so late in coming up with the design for the cover art and laying out how he would like the cover art to be. His original idea was to get Linda Eastman to photograph the band sitting on a sculpture from Alice in Wonderland in Central Park with kids surrounding them. He even drew pictures to portray his thoughts more accurately. But Reprise completely disregarded his requests and went on with producing an album cover of their choice – the blurry red and yellow Hendrix photo that has become quite popular now.

For Hendrix, as an artist working on the album since its inception, this lack of control over his own work must have been quite frustrating. Over time, however, he made his peace with it. The album cover, too, despite being initially shunned by both the artist and the public, went on to become one of the most popular cover arts of all time.

Original release