The Stories Behind Controversial Album Covers


Today, in 1990, a defiant Fort Lauderdale record store owner was arrested, convicted, and fined after selling 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be. The explicit album was embroiled in a massive obscenity trial. It was deemed illegal and unfit for store shelves by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The ruling was later overturned, but the case became a landmark for artists fighting for the freedom of speech. But it wasn’t just the sexual lyrics that caused a controversy. It was the album’s fleshy cover, too. We tracked down the stories behind some of music’s most controversial album covers — those artworks that were banned and misunderstood in their time. Here are just a few albums that have been put through the wringer.

2 Live Crew, As Nasty As They Wanna Be

Two young fashion photographers documenting the upcoming Miami beach scene were hired for a gig shooting an up-and-coming group of rap artists. The musicians showed up at their home studio, but photogs Mac Hartshorn and Andy Thurman had no idea who the group was or what to expect. The resulting photo from that meeting set off an obscenity controversy that would propel an ongoing movement for artists to gain freedom of speech. The group was 2 Live Crew, and the album was the bare-bottomed As Nasty As They Wanna Be.

“Super nice guys, first of all. Very open to everything. We were out on the beach, we’d done some pretty casual shots, stereotypical what me and Mac were used to, and then we thought ‘let’s get a little goofy with this,’ Thurman recalled in an interview earlier this year. “Those guys were showing a little bit of, considering the lyrics, they were kind of moved with the part. Played with the part,” Hartshorn said. “And the girls were there, and Andy I thought that they were probably just pros pretty much hired right on the spot just to be there. Take the word ‘pro’ however you want [laughs]. But they were just hired, I guess, and they seemed to be very encouraged to do whatever you asked them to.”

Hartshorn and Thurman’s images from the shoot went on to grace the covers of three 2 Live Crew Albums. “One of the things I am proud of though, is that kind of picture led to a real rewriting of the rights of censorship and freedom of speech. I’m proud to have been a part of that,” Hartshorn stated.

David Bowie, Diamond Dogs

Posing as a half-man, half-dog, Belgian artist Guy Peellaert’s freakish painting of David Bowie for the 1974 album Diamond Dogs was controversial for showing off the beastly Bowie’s genitals. The cover was later airbrushed. A raspy, post-glitter, cane-wielding Bowie spoke to Dick Cavett on his show in 1974 about the origin of the cover. After spotting a copy of Peellaert’s book Rock Dreams at Mick Jagger’s house, he “nicked” the idea for his album. His comments start around the 14:25 mark. See images from the photo shoot with Terry O’Neill preceding the Peellaert cover that helped inform the final artwork over here.

The Beatles, Yesterday and Today

Who can forget the “butcher cover” of The Beatles ninth album Yesterday and Today? Dressed in white smocks and draped with decapitated dolls and slabs of meat, photographer Robert Whitaker captured a conceptual side of the band, intending the image to be part of a triptych he was working on. Most members of the group felt the resulting photo was a relevant comment on the Vietnam War. Reportedly, McCartney pushed to feature the confrontational image as their next album cover, with Lennon in agreement. The bespectacled singer stated the artwork was “inspired by our boredom and resentment at having to do another photo session and another Beatles thing. We were sick to death of it.” Harrison wasn’t necessarily comfortable with the idea, finding it “gross” and “stupid.” After complaints by record dealers, label Capitol ordered warehouse copies to be destroyed and slapped a new cover image over the old one on the remaining artworks. Those sell for a pretty penny today.

Roxy Music, Country Life

Eric Boman photographed the scantily clad models featured on the cover of Roxy Music’s 1974 album Country life, Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald. Singer Bryan Ferry met the women in Portugal. Before they knew it, Karoli and Grunwald were translating lyrics for “Bitter-Sweet” into German and nabbing a writing credit on the new work. “People thought we were lying down and masturbating, but that was never the intention. Neither did we choose the photo, but Bryan did ask us if we were d’accord with it. We didn’t think it was scandalous anyway,” Grunwald later recalled of the session. “I think there was a lack of the slickness that he was used to, but gradually everyone realized that there was another quality, hard to put your finger on, of ambiguity and, as we now call it ‘rawness’ that worked,” Boman said of the final image. The United States, Spain, and the Netherlands didn’t react kindly to the erotic photo. Country Life was reissued in America with a thatch of foliage, the image of the women gone.

Ice-T, The Iceberg/Freedom Of Speech… Just Watch What You Say!

“The concept of that picture is, ‘Go ahead and say what you want. But here comes the government and here come the parents, and they are ready to destroy you when you open your mouth,'” Ice-T said of the artwork on his third album, The Iceberg/Freedom Of Speech… Just Watch What You Say!. The image depicts a man (most likely the artist himself) with a gun shoved in his mouth and two pistols pressed against his temples. It was quickly banned from numerous stores. The concept of the album is as dark as its cover, confronting Ice-T’s own dalliances with censorship, directly addressing the most hated person by explicit ’80s and ’90s musicians, Tipper Gore: “You’re gonna change the world by a sticker on a record sleeve / Cos once you take away my right to speak / Everybody in the world’s up shit creek.”

Manic Street Preachers, Journal for Plague Lovers

In a maddening misinterpretation of one of their own, UK supermarkets censored the cover for Manic Street Preachers’ Journal for Plague Lovers by packaging it in a plain slipcase in order to hide the Jenny Saville painting on the cover. Retailers insisted the rouge-colored image of the boy was too gory. “We just thought it was a beautiful painting,” singer-guitarist James Dean Bradfield said. “If you’re familiar with [Seville’s] work, there’s a lot of ochres and browns and reds … Perhaps people are looking for us to be more provocative than we are being. We just saw a much more modern version of Lucian Freud-esque brushstrokes.” Grocers didn’t agree, and the Cambridge artist’s work was hidden from view. “You can have lovely shiny buttocks and guns everywhere in the supermarket on covers of magazines and CDs, but you show a piece of art and people just freak out,” Bradfield said. “We’re not going to censor it or anything… It is what it is.”

Nicky Wire spoke to The Quietus about the band’s involvement with the artist:

Me and Richey were reading a Sunday supplement feature on art and she was featured in the piece. We got in touch with her and after Richey talked to her she gave us the use of one of her pieces of art for free. We were lucky, I guess. Apparently it’s next to impossible to get permission to use art like that normally because there are so many hoops you have to jump through first. We were lucky this time as well as she let us use another piece of art for the sleeve. We had a wish list of stuff that we wanted for this album: lyrics by Richey, Albini to record it, artwork by Jenny. I guess you could say she’s a beautiful person.

Death Grips, No Love Deep Web

After staying at the famed Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles for two months leading up the leak of their album No Love Deep Web (an act of defiance after a struggle over the release date), Death Grips ignited a second controversy with the album’s cover. An iPhone snap of group member Zach Hill’s erect penis, with the album title written on it, sparked a media frenzy. Hill spoke about the meaning behind the graphic image in a 2012 Spin interview. The group intended the photo as a statement on preconceived notions and not a prank:

Yeah, that’s mine. It was difficult to do, honestly, in general, it was very difficult. It’s difficult even telling people that’s the source of it; it feels sacrificial in a sense. That idea existed long before, by the way. This is going to sound funny to other people, but we saw it as tribal, as spiritual, as primal. Also, it comes from a place of being a band that is perceived as … such an aggressive, male-based, by some, misogynistic-seeming band. If you can get past this and still enjoy the music…. It’s a display of embracing homosexuality, not that either of us are homosexual. Am I making sense? People are still going to think that it’s macho, but that’s not the source of where it comes from.

In a Pitchfork interview the following month, Hill expounded upon his earlier statement:

People should be able to look deeper into something rather than just seeing some dick. It’s also a spiritual thing; it’s fearlessness. As a group, we’re perceived in large part as male or very aggressive, but we don’t think about those things. There is no gender to this group. It’s androgynous. But we know that perception. Peoples’ hangups with sexuality, gender, and nudity– it’s similar to how I feel about organized religion. It’s toxic and poisonous to the human mind, and the development of humans in the modern world. In our own modest way, through our artwork, that’s what it represents: pushing past everything that makes people slaves without even knowing it.

Nirvana, In Utero

It would take less time to discuss the aspects of Nirvana’s third and final album, In Utero, that weren’t controversial. The long-awaited 1993 album was perhaps the most talked-about and hotly debated release that year, its production plagued by last-minute track and title changes, and a tug of war between the band, the record label, and producer Steve Albini over In Utero‘s commercial viability. Following its release, the album’s back cover art, designed by Cobain himself — who had aspirations of being a commercial artist during his teenage years and designed most of the group’s artwork — caused a stir with retailers. Cobain’s collage — featuring plastic fetuses, mannequin body parts, and flowers — was banned by stores like Walmart and Kmart (just as they had the group’s previous album, Nevermind). The image was photographed by Charles Peterson, captured from an impromptu collage Cobain set up on his living room floor. The singer described it as “Sex and woman and In Utero and vaginas and birth and death.” Cobain later agreed to release a different version of the album art (also changing a few song titles). Having grown up in Aberdeen, Washington where the only places to buy new music were stores like Walmart, Cobain wanted to make sure the music was “available to kids who [didn’t] have the opportunity to go to mom-and-pop stores.”