Behind the Cover

The following is an article from Uncle John's 24-Karat Bathroom Reader.

With CDs and digitally distributed music, album covers aren't as important or as memorable as they once were. But from the 1950s to the 1990s, some became iconic pieces of popular art unto themselves, and many have great stories about how they came to be.

Artist: Van Halen

Album: 1984 (1984)

Story: When the art department at Warner Bros. Records asked Van Halen what they wanted for the cover of their sixth album, singer David Lee Roth said, "Dancing chrome women." (He didn't say why.) The Warner Bros. art department brought in Margo Nahas, an airbrush artist and cover designer with a knack for photo-realism. They'd used Nahas before -she'd done Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants and Autograph's That's the Stuff, which actually did depict a metallic woman. Nahas signed on, but after a few weeks, she just couldn't get the chrome women to look real enough to suit her. So she sent her portfolio to Van Halen, hoping it would give them some ideas. But instead of being inspired, they picked one of Nahas paintings that was already done: a winged cherub smoking a cigarette. Naha had painted it from a photograph she'd taken of a friend's four-year-old son (holding candy cigarettes). 1984 went on to sell 10 million copies.

Artist: Rolling Stones

Album: Sticky Fingers (1971)

Story: The Rolling Stones liked to shock and titillate, and they aimed to do the same with the cover of Sticky Fingers. They knew they'd get something controversial if they hired legendary pop artist Andy Warhol to design it. Warhol's idea: a photo of a man's crotch in a pair of tight blue jeans. Warhol then hired several male models and invited them all to his New York studio, The Factory, for a photo shoot. In all, six men were photographed, but Warhol never took notes about who they were and never revealed whose image actually ended up on the album cover. Among the candidates: Jay Johnson, the twin brother of Jed Johnson, who was Warhol's lover at the time, as well as Painter Corey Tippin. (It definitely wasn't, as an urban legend suggests, Mick Jagger.) But a crotch wasn't suggestive enough for Warhol. He designed the jeans on the cover to include a real, working zipper. When zipped down, a glimpse of white cotton underwear was revealed with the message "This photograph may not be, etc." After the first pressing, the real zippers were replaced by a picture of a zipper because the real ones were too expensive to produce (and they damaged the record inside).

Artist: The Clash

Album: London Calling (1979)

Story: The British punk band hired photographer Pennie Smith to take pictures during their 1979 U.S. tour. At a show in New York City's Palladium theater, Smith snapped a shot of bassist Paul Simonon hunched over, about ready to smash his instrument in a moment of urgency, anger, and passion -a very punk moment. Later that year, when the band was trying to decide on a cover shot for their upcoming album London Calling, they asked Smith for her tour shots. All four band members agreed on the shot that best represented their music and its destructive, cathartic, cynical emotions: the one of Simonon about to smash his bass. Smith thought it was a terrible shot (it was slightly out of focus). All the better, thought the Clash, and CBS Records agreed.

Artist: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass

Album: Whipped Cream & Other Delights (1965)

Story: Can you guess what 1960s band rivaled The Beatles in album sales? It was the Tijuana Brass, an instrumental group popular with adults. In 1965 A&M Records' head Jerry Moss suggested to Alpert (also an A&M founder) that the Tijuana Brass should do an album of food-themed songs. They had a lot of familiar standards to choose from- "Whipped Cream," "A Taste of Honey," "Tangerine," and "Lollipops and Roses," among others, and Alpert titled the album Whipped Cream & Other Delights. A&M art director Peter Whorf had an idea for the cover that was very edgy for its time: a naked woman covered in whipped cream, giving the camera a seductive look. He set up a shoot with Dolores Erickson, a model who'd appeared in ad campaigns for Max Factor and on other A&M albums (she was a friend of Alpert's). Two notable facts about the naked woman in whipped cream: 1) she wasn't really naked -she was wrapped in a white cotton blanket; and 2) She wasn't really covered in whipped cream -it was shaving cream, which doesn't disintegrate under hot studio lights as quickly as the dairy stuff. (She was also about three months pregnant.) Alpert and Moss had major reservations about the image -they thought it would get censored, or at the very least, rejected by older, conservative listeners. Neither thing happened. Whipped Cream & Other Delights sold six million copies. The most memorable part of that album? The cover.


Artist: The Who

Album: The Who Sell Out

Story: In 1967 The Who were preparing their first album for Track Records, a new label formed by the band's managers. They had complete creative freedom, and guitarist Pete Townshend, the band's primary songwriter, decided they'd do a concept album about the increasing commercialization of rock music. Between the songs were real jingles recorded by a real jingle-recording company for real products, implying that the band had "sold out." The Who wanted the sleeve to look like the band had sold out as well, so graphic designers David King and Roger Law came up with an idea for four panels, each depicting one of the four members in an advertisement for one of the products mentioned in the album's jingles. Rock photographer David Montgomery shot the four scenes: One the front, Townshend applies a giant stick of Odorono deodorant to his underarm, and singer Roger Daltrey sits in a bathtub full of Heinz baked beans. On the back, drummer Keith Moon uses a giant tube of Medac pimple cream, and bassist John Entwhistle wears a leopard-skin Tarzan suit and stands next to a bikini-clad woman in a parody of the Charles Atlas bodybuilding product ads. While the cover helped propel the album to the Top 20 in both the U.S. and Britain, the band was sued by makers of the real products for copyright infringement. The disputes were settled, but Medac had to be changed to Clearasil for the album's release in Australia. (Another problems: the beans that Daltrey sat in arrived in two giant, frozen cans, and he claimed to have caught a mild case of pneumonia.)

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The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's 24-Karat Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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The picture of Van Halen's album cover caught my eye... I went to high school with Eddie and Alex Van Halen, and never thought they would amount to anything. If you knew them - their album cover's artwork wouldn't surprise you at all, and there wouldn't be any deep message there either (ha!)
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