From photos that encapsulate the relationship between the photographer and the subject to art that was chosen because the musicians felt the artist captured exactly what they wanted to convey; here are the stories behind some great album covers. Covers that provoked discussion and inspired countless musicians, artists and music lovers.
Patti Smith – Horses (1975) - photo by Robert Mapplethorpe
Controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo is probably the most recognizable image of Smith. The two lived together as lovers in the Chelsea Hotel during the ‘70s. Smith encouraged Mapplethorpe to pursue photography and many of their collaborations became album covers for the Patti Smith Group. Mapplethorpe’s work was very diverse and included BDSM, pictures of children and floral still life. When the relationship ended, the two remained friends and collaborators. Mapplethorpe died of complications from AIDS in 1989. Smith’s memoir detailing their relationship, Just Kids, was released earlier this year.
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988) - photo/painting by Gerhard Richter
Sonic Youth’s breakthrough album features a photo-realistic piece by German artist Gerhard Richter. Richter would usually create his work thorough a multi-step process of representations. Gehard would begin with a photo, usually his own work, which he would then project on to a canvas and trace the image exactly. He would end the process by painting the image to look almost identical to the photograph. Gehard was such a fan of Sonic Youth that he allowed the use of Kerze (Candle) at no charge. The original piece, which is over 7 meters in size, now hangs in Sonic Youth’s NYC studio.
Cream – Disraeli Gears (1967) & Wheels of Fire (1968) - designed by Martin Sharp
Australian Martin Sharp is best known for his freaky, psychedelic posters of Bob Dylan and Donovan. Sharp met Cream front man Eric Clapton while at the famous London nightclub the Speakeasy in the late ‘60s. Sharp told Clapton about a poem he had recently written and Clapton informed Sharp that he was looking for lyrics to accompany some new music. Sharp in turn wrote out the poem on a napkin and gave it to Clapton. This odd collaboration gave birth to the song “Tales of Brave Ulysses” the B-side of “Strange Brew”, appearing on Disraeli Gears which Sharp designed the cover for. The following year Sharp designed the Wheels of Fire cover and won the New York Art Director’s Prize for Best Album Design.
King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) - painting by Barry Godber
The cover of In the Court of the Crimson King conjures up thoughts of madness, desperation and insanity. However disturbing the painting may be, what is more depressing is that the work found in In the Court of the Crimson King are the only compositions to ever be commercially produced by computer programmer Barry Godber. Godber died of a heart attack at age 24. The original work is now owned by King Crimson member Robert Fripp.
Fripp had this to say: "Peter [Sinfield] brought this painting in and the band loved it. I recently recovered the original from EG's offices because they kept it exposed to bright light, at the risk of ruining it, so I ended up removing it. The face on the outside is the Schizoid Man, and on the inside it's the Crimson King. If you cover the smiling face, the eyes reveal an incredible sadness. What can one add? It reflects the music."
Led Zeppelin IV (or Led Zeppelin’s fourth album or Led Zeppelin’s four symbols) (1971) - painting by unknown
Led Zeppelin IV is one of the best selling albums of all time having moved 37 million units world-wide and placed third on the best selling albums in the US list with 23 million. Jimmy Page has said that the inspiration behind the cover art was bringing over the city and country theme first explored on Led Zeppelin III.
“It represented the change in the balance which was going on. There was the old countryman and the blocks of flats being knocked down. It was just a way of saying that we should look after the earth, not rape and pillage it,” Page told Trouser Press.
The 19th century oil painting was purchased in Reading, Berkshire. The painting was then hung on the internal, papered wall of the partly demolished house for the photo.
Page has also stated regarding the meaning of the cover: “The cover was supposed to be something that was for other people to savor rather than for me to actually spell everything out, which would make the whole thing rather disappointing on that level of your own personal adventure into the music.”
Elastica - The Menace (2000) - photo by M.I.A.
After the resounding success of Elastica's 1995 debut came this less successful effort. Band leader Justine Frischmann sought out burgeoning London-based graffiti artist Maya Arulpragasam, M.I.A., to create the pastiche of lips you see below. M.I.A. documented the band's tour in support of the album and became fast friends with Peaches (Canadian-born Merrill Nisker) who was the opening act. Peaches introduced M.I.A. to the Roland MC-505 drum machine and encouraged her to experiment. With an Academy Award nom for Best Original Song and two Grammy noms, I'd say it was a push in the right direction. M.I.A. also directed the video for the single Mad Dog God Dam.
The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) - painting by Andy Warhol
Perhaps the most recognizable album cover of all time. Early copies featured a slogan inviting the listener to “peel slowly and see” which would reveal a flesh coloured banana. These editions are now sought after collector’s items.