Album artwork and liner notes are a lost art in today’s world of music as a digital medium. The modern generation rarely gets the gratification of peeling back the shrink wrap from a vinyl LP (or even a CD), gazing into the artwork, and studying the liner notes from the artists, producers, and record label. We are now a culture that requires instant gratification and will settle with a lossy computerized mp3 file rather than the soft feel of connecting the needle to the wax for a journey that can take us all away from reality; if even only for a side A and side B. Sometimes the stories behind the album artwork are as interesting as the songs themselves.
The Clash’s “London Calling” (1979)
Not only is it an homage to Elvis Presley’s debut album, but it also contains the title track that launched a million clichéd “London montages” in movies. Q Magazine named the cover image the greatest rock and roll photograph of all time in 2002 stating that “it captures the ultimate rock n’ roll moment; a total loss of control.” The cover contains a simple picture of bassist Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar on the stage at the Palladium in New York City on September 21st, 1979. This artwork was also honored by becoming a postage stamp issued by Royal Mail in the United Kingdom in 2010.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” (1975)
It took photographer Eric Meola over 900 shots to get the perfect one, but he pulled it off eventually. As with many great pieces of album artwork, simplicity is sometimes the key to greatness. It’s a simple black and white of Springsteen, holding a Fender Esquire guitar, leaning into saxophonist Clarence Clemons. It was the album that launched Springsteen into mainstream stardom, and the accidental pose that has become so iconic that many such as Cheap Trick and even Sesame Street have tried to duplicate.
Rage Against the Machine’s “Rage Against the Machine” (1992)
No band or musician has ever based their entire career on pushing political messages and agendas except one; Rage Against the Machine. The cover of their 1992 self-titled debut album featured a photo of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk burning himself to death in Saigon in 1963. He was protesting President Ngô Đình Diệm's administration for oppressing the Buddhist religion. The photograph itself drew international attention and persuaded U.S. President John F. Kennedy to withdraw support for Ngô Đình Diệm's government. It was taken by Associated Press correspondent Malcolm Browne; and earned the award of World Press Photo of the Year in 1963. What a way for a band to make an entrance! And best of all, it worked.
The 2 Live Crew’s “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” (1989)
It was the album that put southern rap on the map being that it was the first rap album not out of New York or Los Angeles to achieve platinum status. It was also the album that ended up being banned in several counties in the 2 Live Crew’s home state of Florida. A Federal judge deemed the album ‘obscene.’ Shortly after, three of the four band members were arrested for performing the songs live. Citing the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution, the charges had to be dropped and the album continued to sell. The cover photo signified the subject matter of the album perfectly and simply; 4 guys between the legs of 4 girls. It was an image that changed rap music forever for better or worse.
Nirvana’s “Nevermind” (1991)
Front-man Kurt Cobain picked the title “Nevermind” because he saw it as a metaphor for his attitude on life; along with it being grammatically incorrect. The cover photo shows a young boy underwater with a dollar bill on a fish hook just out of his reach. Cobain got the idea from watching a television show about underwater births. The shot was taken at a swimming pool for babies (yes, those exist). 3-month-old Spencer Elden was photographed underwater and history was made. Geffen Records was a bit worried that the infant’s penis was completely visible on the album cover and suggested a ‘penis-less’ version. Cobain countered by suggesting that the penis be covered by a sticker that read ‘If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.’ In the end, nothing was censored and “Nevermind” went on to be one of the most influential records ever recorded.
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