From Pink Floyd to The Beatles: Stories behind the most famous album covers of all time
An album cover is a curious thing. Despite sometimes feeling an inconsequential part of the recording process, the packaging is, as many marketers will tell you, almost as important as what is inside. It’s this theory which saw the explosion of pop almost directly coincide with the explosion of definitive and well-designed album artwork. From Pink Floyd to The Beatles, almost every band worth their salt has had an iconic album cover in their day.
As an audience, we only see the final product, the image or the collection of images that face us when pawing through the shelves at our local record store. Below, we’re trying to rectify that by bringing you the stories behind some of the most famous album covers of all time. When you know how much effort and time goes into such things you’ll appreciate them a lot more.
That, of course, is if you don’t appreciate them already. Some album covers can arrive as a fine piece of art, from fine artists even, while others evoke the feeling of dropping the needle on your favourite record for the very first time. Whichever way you cut it, it’s hard to ignore the impact the album artwork can have on its audience.
Here, we’ve rounded up ten of the most iconic album covers of all time with a view to giving you a little bit of extra back story as to how the band or artist came up with their unique style. Some are seemingly plain sailing while others are shrouded in mystery but all add an extra dimension to the albums and artists they derive from. Below, we telling those stories.
Sgt. Pepper – The Beatles
One of the most famous pieces of album art ever created is that of The Beatles’ 1967 record Sgt. Pepper. A patchwork set of images of the most famous people in the world has since become so beloved because of it’s apparent clues to a mystery surrounding Paul McCartney and his alleged death which was supposedly covered up.
The story goes that McCartney stormed out of a session with The Beatles, working on their album and, ironically, McCartney’s masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and got into his Austin Healey car. He floored it, went off into the night and was killed in a car crash, some even saying he was gruesomely scalped during the crash. Improbably, McCartney was then replaced by a lookalike called either William Shears Campbell (apparently referenced as Billy Shears on Sgt. Pepper) or William Sheppard (supposedly referenced in ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’) who could not only look like Macca, but sing and write songs like him too. Quite the find.
The reality is obviously that no such event took place — but that hasn’t stopped people finding ‘clues’ in the cover artwork. The album cover consists of flowers which are supposed to symbolise McCartney’s left-handed bass, at the bottom of the image the Hindu God Shiva, the destroyer is pointing at Macca. Many thought the badge on McCartney’s arm read OPD standing for “officially pronounced dead” but, really, it came from the Ontario Provincial Police.
There are also apparent references to the time and date of McCartney’s alleged death, with the original pressing featuring a picture of the band with Harrison apparently pointing towards the previously mentioned lyrics “Wednesday morning at five o’clock.” If you put a mirror down the centre of the Sgt. Pepper bass drum you will get the phrase ‘I ONE X IX HE DIE’ which many have interpreted as “11 9 HE DIE”, a reference to the date of the accident. While it all reads as fans trying to find clues that aren’t there, it does give us something to do while listening to the album after we’ve pointed out all of the famous faces, of course.
Rumours – Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac is a band who have become synonymous with their inter-group relationships, the in-fighting and sexual mischievousness which all famously bled out in their 1977 LP Rumours. The album is one of the most commercially successful records of all time, one which has currently sold over 45 million copies and keeps on growing every single year, largely thanks to the authenticity that shines through on every single song. Even the album artwork paints a picture of the journey that the listener is about to embark upon, a mystical quality which sums up the puzzling relationships between the bandmates.
The cover art sees singer Stevie Nicks parade in dark robes as she holds hands with drummer Mick Fleetwood who, for some unknown reason, is resting his foot on a stool and displays two wooden balls falling down from between his legs. The cover is extremely confusing and deliberately so. The question remains, what does it all mean?
It’s undoubtedly one of the strangest album covers of its era, if not all time. The photographer who was behind the masterpiece was Herbert Worthington and the creation which would go down as being his most famous work by some margin. Worthington would provide the concept, inspiration, and even brought along with him the footstool that featured on the Rumours album cover.
The cover created imagery such as the mystical crystal ball that Fleetwood is grasping on to, an object which is intrinsically linked with the band so heavily even 40 years later. It’s an invitation into the world of Fleetwood Mac and the crystal ball was the perfect embodiment of everything that was going on with the band at that time.
London Calling – The Clash
London Calling is often seen as being not only The Clash’s finest moment but the watershed moment for the punk movement as a whole. The album cover captures the punk movement in one simple photograph that sees bassist Paul Simonon in a moment of pure rage on stage as he smashes up his bass into the stage of the New York Palladium on September 21, 1979—a visual that epitomises everything great about The Clash’s anti-authoritarian stance.
The person behind the iconic image was British photographer Pennie Smith, an artist who accompanied The Clash on their US tour. Remarkably, Smith initially disliked the photo and tried her hardest to stop it from being made the album cover as it was slightly out of focus due to her attempts to avoid being hit by Simonon. Simonon explained in a 2011 interview with Fender that he smashed the bass out of frustration when he learned that the bouncers at the concert would not allow the audience members to stand up out of their seats; “I wasn’t taking it out on the bass guitar, cos there ain’t anything wrong with it,” the bassist said.
“It’s very pleasant to be praised, but I can’t see that picture now,” Smith said in 2003. “It’s been used in various forms so many times that it’s a bit like wallpaper. Of all the Clash photos I took, there are others that perhaps I prefer, for all sorts of reasons. Yes, I like that picture, but it’s so long ago now. I’ve seen it too many times to get the gut reaction I had at the time.”
The cover artwork itself was designed by graphic designer Rob Lowry who paid homage to the design of Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album, adding pink letters down the left side and green text across the bottom. Bizarrely, the legendary cover would later be immortalised in the form of a Royal Mail postage stamp in place of the Queen’s head in 2010—a message which was not what the band would have ever foreseen upon its release but confirms how engrained the cover is in British culture.
Abbey Road – The Beatles
The image of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr striding across the famous zebra crossing is forever ingrained on pop music’s iconography. We’re peeking behind the covers of The Beatles’ final recorded album Abbey Road and finding the inspiration behind the most famous road crossing in the world. Now with its own dedicated webcam and countless crossers, there is something special about Abbey Road.
The image was largely dictated by laziness on the band’s part. The group, who were near-breaking point during the recording sessions, had originally intended for the album to be called Everest in honour of the cigarettes studio engineer Geoff Emerick smoked during sessions. But when the idea to shoot the cover in the foothills of the Himalayas was mentioned, the concept was quickly put down.
The group, instead, decided to turn their attentions to somewhere a little closer to home. They went with the easiest plan possible, called the album Abbey Road and shot the cover right outside. The record sleeve’s designer, John Kosh, later claimed that the bosses at EMI were angry about the decision and worried about record sales. The designer argued: “The biggest band in the world, you don’t have to say who they are – everyone knows who they are.”
Of course, Abbey Road is also subjected to the Paul is dead myth with Macca’s lack of footwear being the principal ‘clue’ fans point to. For us, it’s just a cracking image of a group who were beginning to lose touch with their fame.
Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
Released on 12th September in 1975 through Columbia, the album has gone down in history as one of the greatest rock music has ever produced. Expertly performed by David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright, the record is arguably Pink Floyd’s finest work—and that passion and poignancy extend to the artwork too.
Wish You Were Here was sold in one of the more elaborate packages to ever accompany a Pink Floyd album. Storm Thorgerson, the renowned graphic designer, has worked with everyone from AC/DC to XTC and all those in between. He was tasked with the creation of an iconic record sleeve and he didn’t disappoint. The designer decided to accompany the band on their 1974 tour and had given serious thought to the meaning of the lyrics of the band’s new songs, eventually deciding that the tracks were, in general, concerned with “unfulfilled presence” rather than Barrett’s illness as suggested latterly.
This theme of absence was reflected in the ideas produced by his long hours spent brainstorming with the band. Thorgerson had noted that Roxy Music’s Country Life was sold in an opaque green cellophane sleeve—censoring the cover image in the process—and he copied the idea, concealing the artwork for Wish You Were Here in black-coloured shrink-wrap and therefore enacting his vision and making the album art “absent”.
The album’s iconic cover images, featuring two men standing across from one another while one is on fire, was photographed by Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell, Storm’s partner at the Pink Floyd design studio Hipgnosis. The striking image was inspired by the idea that people tend to conceal their true feelings, for fear of “getting burned”, and thus two businessmen were pictured shaking hands, one man on fire.
Horses – Patti Smith
Patti Smith’s stunning 1975 album Horses will go down in history as one of the most iconic LPs to come out of the New York punk scene. The seminal record from Smith wasn’t only a sonically incredible album but its cover has remained one of the most iconic images of the 1970s. The story behind the stark and beautiful image is a beautiful reminder of love and friendship.
However iconic the image may be, with Patti Smith in black and white standing strong and confident against a blank wall, the beauty of the image is held in the truth of the relationship of Smith and her photographer and boyfriend/partner of the time the legendary photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. In her memoir, Just Kids, Smith details their relationship and the scene of her most iconic album cover.
When talking about the shoot, Smith said: “I had no sense of how it would look, just that it should be true. The only thing I promised Robert was that I would wear a clean shirt with no stains on it.” That ‘clean shirt’ was specifically selected from the Bowery Salvation Army with the monogram of ‘RV’ with the hope it had belonged to Roger Vadim shot in Jean Genet in 1947. The outfit is something which does elevate the shot. Smith looks every bit the punk-crooner she’d show she was on Horses. Complete with braces that mean business and the steely gaze of a determined soul. “I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow.”
The pair eventually settled on the one image which Mapplethorpe said had “the magic”. For Smith, the album cover now represents Mapplethorpe’s memory, she said: “When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.”
Heroes – David Bowie
If there is one man in rock who didn’t mind a photo session it was David Bowie. Equally, the Starman was well aware of the power of imagery and so was always on hand to help enact his creative vision when it came to album covers. The shots for his seminal record Heroes is one of the most iconic rock images of all time.
The picture was snapped by the esteemed photographer Masayoshi Sukita during one of Bowie’s trips to Tokyo. At the time, the shoot was not in any way connected to the album and was instead a simple flash and go situation. But, as soon as Bowie saw the contact sheet, he knew that they had unwittingly tapped into something brilliant for his new record.
That feeling was only accentuated when the two men decided on exactly the same shot as their favourite. Featuring Bowie having just run his fingers through his hair, the image remains one of the most landmark moments of Bowie’s illustrious career. Bowie also wins the prize for the most subtle artistic input on an album sleeve when he put Heroes in quotation marks, suggesting he’s not a fan of heroism at all.
Sticky Fingers – The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers is one of the most iconic album artworks of rock music as you’d expect it to be. It was created by none other than the pop artist and cultural icon Andy Warhol. The artist had lent his hand to a number of record sleeves when he was asked by The Rolling Stones to contribute to the artwork of their new album.
Mick Jagger even wrote a letter to him saying that in his “short sweet experience, the more complicated the format of the album, e.g. more complex than just pages or fold-out, the more fucked-up the reproduction and agonising the delays.” He then added, “But, having said that, I leave it in your capable hands to do what ever you want.”
The image on the sleeve is that of a shot of Joe Dallesandro‘s denim-clad crotch, a working zip, and, perhaps most importantly, for the very first time, the band’s famous tongue and lips logo from design John Pasche. The sleeve, for that reason alone, will go down in history.
Young Americans – David Bowie
Not as famous as the previous addition, David Bowie’s album cover for Young Americans is still a definitive part of his iconography. The image of Bowie staring wistfully into the camera was not actually what the Starman originally wanted for the cover artwork.
The album remains one of Bowie’s more divisive records. Standing out as his most deliberate attempt to hijack American culture, the Starman was keen to go one step further with the artwork for Young Americans and draft in one of the United States’ most beloved painters, Norman Rockwell. Bowie was keen to have the celebrated painter, who completed most of his work in the ‘40s and ‘50s, paint the cover of his album with a portrait of himself. It was an idea that centred on the juxtaposition of Bowie’s sexuality and liberal freedom with Rockwell’s conservative tone and nature.
“I really wanted Norman Rockwell to do an album cover for me. Still do. I originally wanted him for the cover of Young Americans. I got his phone number and called him up. Very quaint,” said the Thin White Duke in The Bowie Bible.
“His wife answered and I said, ‘Hello, this is David Bowie,’ and so on. I asked if he could paint the cover. His wife said in this quavering, elderly voice, ‘I’m sorry, but Norman needs at least six months for his portraits.’ So I had to pass, but I thought the experience was lovely. What a craftsman. Too bad I don’t have the same painstaking passion. I’d rather just get my ideas out of my system as fast as I can.”
Born in the U.S.A. – Bruce Springsteen
This is the album that changed everything for Springsteen. Simply put, everything after this album had a chart-topping universally loved LP to match up to—no easy feat. It’s an album that has also suffered a great deal from its popularity. Sounding like Independence Day on crack, the songs on the album are intensely buoyant and supercharged with the red, white and blue, no matter which side of the battleline they’re fighting from.
It’s this exact idea that photographer Annie Lebovitz and Andrea Klein envisaged when they were tasked with creating the cover artwork for Springsteen’s smash-hit record. Lebovitz is a renowned photographer and was keen to capture the intensity of Springsteen’s character, one which had been shown so intently on the album. She took lots of images of Springsteen but he decided on this one saying, “the picture of my ass looked better than the picture of my face.”
Many have suggested that Springsteen is urinating on the flag in his image but that is something he has vehemently denied. What we do have, however, is one of the most famous bums in the business.