Cover It Up! - A Collection of Controversial Album Artwork
For rock stars, getting your album cover banned by the authorities can earn you some serious cred – and get you a ton of free publicity. Here are just a few collectible albums whose covers were banned for strange, absurd or – in some cases – fairly good reasons.
The Five Keys - On Stage! (Capitol, 1957)
The Five Keys were one of the most influential vocal groups of the 1950s, who performed a blend of rhythm and blues, gospel and pop. Hardly the leading candidates for our list, but don't forget this was the 1950s – a decade in which the sight of a man dancing from the waist down was regarded as dangerous as Communism.
And so the group's album 'On Stage' caused an uproar when it hit record stores in 1957 due to a misplaced thumb. Eagle-eyed, easily offended customers decided that, in the album's apparently innocent cover image, singer Rudy West's protruding thumb looked like an extra member of the group.
This was enough for executives to remove it from stores, and then remove the distressing digit from future copies in case people's heads exploded.
Today, original copies with West's thumb still lurking suspiciously in the background can sell for around $300.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono - 'Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins' (Apple, 1968)
11 years later, and the world had changed a little. Instead of the slightest accidental hint, the cover of the 1968 album 'Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins' presented Beatles fans with the startling, full-frontal sight of John Lennon's junk.
The idea behind the cover was to depict the couple as "two innocents lost in a world gone mad", although Lennon later described the photograph as featuring "two slightly overweight ex-junkies".
The experimental album was the first time Lennon had recorded without the other Beatles, and having heard the series of tape loops and random ambient noise, it took them six months to agree to release it on their own label.
Just 5,000 British copies were pressed, with good examples now worth around $500. In the US, the album sold around 25,000 copies, but they all came inside brown paper packaging to hide the offending parts, and many stores refused to stock it completely (due to the nudity, rather than the fact that it's almost unlistenable nonsense).
The Beatles – Yesterday and Today (Capitol, 1966)
Two Virgins wasn't the first time a Beatle had appeared on a controversial album cover. Two years earlier in 1966, the Fab Four had sat for an experimental photo shoot with Robert Whitaker, as part of his conceptual art piece 'A Somnambulant Adventure'.
The shoot involved butcher's aprons, slabs of raw meat and creepy doll parts, and so obviously the band thought it would be hilarious to send the photos out as publicity shots. One of the images then bizarrely made its way onto the cover of the band's US only album 'Yesterday and Today', and everybody freaked out.
750,000 copies were shipped out to stores, and complaints started rolling in before the delivery vans had even returned to the plant. John and Paul tried to claim the photo was their comment on the Vietnam War, but it was clearly just four blokes sick of endless photo shoots messing around (particularly George, who looks completely deranged).
Almost all the copies were quickly returned, and new covers glued over the top – but some had already been snapped up by eager fans, and others escaped uncensored in the hands of record company employees. Today the albums are known as 'Butcher Covers', and sealed copies have been known to sell for more than $125,000 each at auction.
The Mamas & the Papas - If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (Dunhill, 1966)
The Mamas and the Papas released their classic debut album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears in 1966, at the height of the Summer of Love.
By this time, acid heads on the West Coast were tuning in and dropping out; the Civil Rights movement was fighting back against intolerance; and demonstrations against the Vietnam War were turning violent across America.
In one of the most turbulent periods in American history, you'd have thought people had more to complain about than the appearance of a toilet on a folk album cover. They really didn't.
For censors, the sight of four fully-clothed consenting adults sharing a bath together was fine, but the toilet in the corner was deemed indecent and had to go. Copies of the album with the original sleeve were pulled from stores, and a second edition – featuring a scroll covering the offending WC – was quickly shipped out, as the album soared to #1 on the Billboard chart.
Today, if you find an original version with the controversial can still intact, it could be worth up to $100.
Blind Faith – Blind Faith (Polydore/Atlantic, 1969)
Blind Faith were one of the rock world's first 'supergroups', consisting of Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, and Ric Grech, and released one self-titled album in 1969. The deliberately confrontational cover artwork featured a topless pubescent girl holding a phallic silver aircraft model, and was instantly banned across the board in the US, replaced by a shot of the group by their American record label.
In a statement typical of the pretentious, overblown world of late 1960s rock, photographer Bob Seinmanns said the cover was meant "to symbolize the achievement of human creativity and its expression through technology a space ship was the material object. To carry this new spore into the universe, innocence would be the ideal bearer, a young girl, a girl as young as Shakespeare's Juliet. The space ship would be the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the girl, the fruit of the tree of life."
In other words, any publicity is good publicity.
The girl featured on the cover was a London resident, photographed with the consent of her parents, and reportedly asked for a horse as her fee for the shoot. Instead she received £40, but should perhaps have just asked to keep the model aircraft, made by jeweller Mick Milligan, as it later sold at Bonhams in 2014 for £7,500.
Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde (Columbia, 1966)
Sometimes album covers are banned for depictions of grotesque violence, explicit nudity or blasphemous imagery. Other times, they're banned for the incredibly boring reason of breach of copyright. However, this doesn't make them any less collectible, particularly where Bob Dylan is concerned.
The original release of Dylan's seminal 1966 album Blonde on Blonde featured a gatefold sleeve with images by photographer Jerry Schatzberg. His now iconic, slightly blurred cover portrait was complimented inside by nine black and white photographs, all selected from his portfolio by Dylan himself.
One of the photos featured the Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, but it was used without her permission and, after her lawyers threatened legal action, the second pressing had the photograph removed. Today the earlier pressings are sought after by collectors, but it's the mono rather than the stereo edition you want, as these can fetch around $250 in good condition.
David Bowie - Diamond Dogs (RCA, 1974)
The original cover for the classic 1974 album Diamond Dogs featured artwork by Belgian artist Guy Peellaert, depicting the singer as a weird half-man, half-dog hybrid. So far, so Bowie, but when RCA executives noticed the rear half was undeniably a male dog, they quickly got the airbrush out and neutered it.
Although the original sleeves never hit the stores, a handful escaped the pressing plant and were distributed for promotional purposes. Today these uncensored albums are regarded as amongst the most valuable and collectible records of all time, and can sell for upwards of $10,000.
To be fair, any censors looking to disguise the size of Bowie's package should probably have taken a look at his costume in Labyrinth as well.
The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones Records, 1971)
Regarded as one of the Stones' finest albums, Sticky Fingers also features one of their most memorable covers.
Designed by Andy Warhol, the artwork featured a photograph of a male crotch in eye-wateringly tight jeans and a working zipper, which could be undone to reveal a pair of cotton briefs within.
The image was too provocative for the Franco regime in Spain, and an alternative cover was produced – with the far more unpleasant image of a collection of apparently severed fingers inside a jar of treacle. The Spanish release also included the band's live cover of the Chuck Berry track 'Let It Rock', rather than 'Sister Morphine', and today original copies can fetch around $75.
The album was also banned in some record stores as the metal zipper tended to scratch other records in their racks. To solve this problem, the album could often be found for sale with the zip undone to minimise the damage. Which is exactly how Mick would've wanted it.
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