The Beatles. The picture-perfect, squeaky-clean pioneers of pop-rock. Peddlers of the world’s most catchiest tunes. Cheerful lads you want to just simply hang with. Musical geniuses. Skilled performers. Gentle jesters. Baby butchers. What?! Did you say, baby butchers? Yes, of course, that album cover! Red torn flesh. Disembodied baby heads. Cackling Beatles. Bad Beatles. What went horribly wrong?
The line between creative artwork and bad taste can get a bit hazy in the world of rock marketing. For the most part, record companies try to stop offensive designs before the covers ever leave the plate makers’ plant. But sometimes, community standards or government officials step forward to demand a rock album’s artwork be banned or covered up. Once an album sleeve is withdrawn and replaced, the original version can soon fetch up to thousands of dollars in the nostalgic world of vinyl collectors. And this is where our story begins…
The Beatles were riding the wave as one of the most over-exposed pop groups ever to conquer the planet. From dolls to lunchboxes to postcards to fan books to jigsaw puzzles, the four moptops from Liverpool had their likenesses plastered on just about every imaginable piece of merchandise. The same photos featured the same poses, the standard publicity shots with four smiling Beatles sitting in chairs, pointing to the sky, or some such innocuous image. While they toured the world throughout 1964 – 1965, an Australian photographer named Robert Whitaker was invited by The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein to join the entourage and snap photos of the group during their forays into lands unknown. The quality of Whitaker’s work garnered him praise from the band, and they soon went into a London photo studio one afternoon on March 25, 1966 and set about taking the infamous “baby butcher” shot. Actually, there were several shots taken that day of The Beatles in white smocks with raw meat and plastic baby doll parts strewn about their clothes and in their laps. The majority of Beatles fans assumed that the photos were the group’s “statement” against their American distributor, Capitol Records, who until that point, had taken their songs, originally released on Parlophone Records in the U.K., and chopped them into completely different album line-ups for staggered release in the States. But in a 1991 interview with Goldmine magazine, Whitaker said that the photo session’s theme was his idea, and that, contrary to popular belief, the photos were not a “protest” against Capitol. He claimed that he and The Beatles wanted to take some shots that were completely different from the constraining publicity stills the boys had suffered through on countless occasions. They were sick of routine photos. These shots were never intended to wind up an album cover.
In fact, the “Butcher” photo had already been used for a print advertisement in England for the group’s “Paperback Writer” single and on the cover of Disc Magazine, before Capitol Records chose to put it on the cover of their album “Yesterday…And Today” in late June 1966. Capitol sent the copies with the “butcher” covers to music reviewers, radio stations, and some giant department store chains, as advance promotional issues, around June 10th. Within a few days, the furor over the shocking image caused the company to mail out a statement by Capitol’s president, Alan W. Livingston, to the parties who had earlier received a copy. The letter read, “The original cover, created in England, was intended as ‘pop art’ satire. However, a sampling of public opinion in the United States indicates that the cover design is subject to misinterpretation. For this reason, and to avoid any possible controversy or undeserved harm to The Beatles’ image or reputation, Capitol has chosen to withdraw the LP and substitute a more generally acceptable design.” He asked those who had received the advance album with the controversial cover to kindly return it to Capitol. The “Butcher”-covered “Yesterday…And Today” was never sold to the general public. A photo, also snapped by Robert Whitaker, depicting the group posing by a steamer trunk was pasted either over the few retail “Butcher” covers awaiting sale or placed on new cardboard sleeves of the album. Many individuals who purchased a pasted-over “Butcher” album or had a copy of the advance promo version were savvy enough to hold on to them for collectible value. Livingston himself kept about a dozen albums of the original in pristine, sealed condition for many years until his death. His son has since sold a few copies of the collection, which now fetch several thousands of dollars per record. The Beatles had effectively started, if anything, by sheer ignorance, a trend of controversial covers that would extend throughout rock history to the present.
A primary target on album covers deemed controversial in their design were those that depicted public figures in a questionable light. In particular, it seems that the British government has been far more proactive in its censorship of these kinds of covers than their American counterparts. When a Birmingham quintet called The Move formed in 1966, they tried to achieve notoriety by staging many of the same destructive antics as The Who had pioneered in their performances a year before. Smashing amplifiers and burning effigies onstage were noteworthy shenanigans for this new British band, but when they released their pop psychedelic single “Flowers In The Rain” in September 1967, the group drew attention to the song with a publicity mailing of a postcard to the press and critics depicting the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson in a nude caricature rendering. Miffed by the chutzpah of these anarchic rockers, Wilson had his barristers promptly haul the matter before a judge in a libel suit. The Move subsequently lost the case and were forced to give all of the royalties earned from the record to charity as part of the settlement. The band went on to relative obscurity by 1971 but fashioned themselves into another line-up led by Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood. They would change their name to Electric Light Orchestra and stay clear of controversy for the rest of their prosperous career.
By the mid-‘70s, British bands were even more outspoken against their authority figures than their ‘60s counterparts. The rise of punk brought forth The Sex Pistols, and with their audacious rants against the monarchy, the Queen herself became caught up in controversy. After the group got themselves fired from their contract with A&M Records in the United States in March 1977, the group had immediately signed with Virgin Records in England. Their first single for Virgin, “God Save The Queen,” was destined to raise the ire of those respectful of their country’s royalty. On May 17, 1977, workers at the Virgin pressing plant were stamping out copies of the single and after hearing the track, they decided to walk out on strike. It took several placating calls to get them back to the presses. The next day, a subsequent protest took place at the plate maker’s shop that was printing the sleeve artwork, and again, several calls by management were needed to cool down angry laborers. Even though the BBC banned the single on May 31st, deeming it “in gross bad taste,” the song went to number 1 on the U.K. charts despite virtually little airplay. Its second verse, “God save the Queen, she ain’t no human being, there is no future, in England’s dreamland,” rankled the demeanor of conservatives nationwide. By June 7th, the authorities were fed up with the Sex Pistols’ anarchic behavior, and arrested the group on public nuisance charges after they rented a boat, named the “Queen Elizabeth,” and shadowed the Queen’s silver jubilee motorcade from the Thames River, blaring the single at high volume. On November 5, 1977, Christopher Seale, a manager of a Virgin Records store in the town of Nottingham was arrested after a policewoman spotted a promo poster in his window advertising the Pistols’ debut Virgin album “Never Mind The Bollocks – Here’s The Sex Pistols.” Because of the use of the word ‘bollocks,’ a Middle English word literally referring to testicles, the confused manager was hauled off under the enforcement of an obscure 1898 Indecent Advertising Act. Other record stores in the U.K. chose to either prohibit the sale of the album altogether or hide it under their front counters for fear of prosecution. When Seale was eventually brought to court, an English professor was solicited by his defense to explain the usage and historical significance of the word in questionable taste. The judge dismissed the case and ruled The Sex Pistols’ cover “decent.”
The howling vocal gymnastics of Bruce Dickinson, lead singer for the metal band Iron Maiden, had propelled the group’s eponymous first album to number 4 on the U.K. charts in April 1980. Part of the band’s early stage show involved a huge mask that would spurt liquid from time to time on the drummer. The prop was christened “Eddie The Head.” By the time the group began releasing its records using the cover artwork designs of artist Derek Riggs, an illustrated zombie character with one arm became known as “Eddie.” The release of two singles from their debut album featured Eddie in the artwork on both singles’ sleeves. For the record “Sanctuary,” released in May 1980, Eddie was shown standing over a knife-slashed, dead Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who lay bleeding on the ground. Catching wind of this violent depiction, the PM’s office threatened legal action on the group. The record company resolved the issue by painting black marks obscuring the Maggie Thatcher figure’s eyes, thus, masking her identity. The band took one last dig at the Prime Minister when they issued a follow-up single in October 1980 called “Women In Uniform” with Riggs’ artwork depicting Thatcher clutching a black machine gun, vengefully hiding behind a wall, observing Eddie picking up on women. No legal action was initiated over this cover, and Iron Maiden went on to feature Eddie, sans Thatcher, on numerous other record sleeves in the decade to come.
Sometimes the objections over design did not stem from British public officials but instead from British celebrities. Such was the case in January 1984, when the cult- favorite band The Smiths released the single “What Difference Does It Make?” The band’s bohemian/arthouse leanings had always led them to issue their singles and albums with stills captured from obscure films, television programs, or books. A shot of Rita Tushingham in the film “A Taste of Honey” was used for their “Hand In Glove” single sleeve. A still from the Andy Warhol film “Flesh” featuring actor Joe Dallesandro was used for the band’s debut album cover. For the “What Difference Does It Make?” single, a photo of the actor Terence Stamp from the 1965 film “The Collector” was chosen to grace the sleeve. The single was first released in a 12” version to the U.K. and Holland, with the shot of Stamp on the cover and no reference to the band’s name. The black & white photo is of a smiling Terence, standing near a door, holding a chloroform pad, looking off camera at his “specimen” in the film, the abducted actress Samantha Eggar. When Stamp learned of his likeness being plastered on a pop record, he put a stop to the unauthorized usage immediately. The band, undeterred, simply posed the group’s singer, Morrissey, in the same clothes, the same grin, the same spare background, and in the same lighting (this time holding a tall glass of milk instead of the chloroform pad), and issued the single with this new photo in April of that year. Eventually, as often happens in the fickle world of celebritydom, Stamp gave his blessing to the use of his photo, so the single went out again, this time with the Terence shot and the band’s name on the sleeve, to all countries, except the U.S.
Tragedy can play a part in prompting the removal of an album cover’s design. An instance where this occurred took place in late 1977, after a small plane carrying some members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd plummeted from the sky, crashing in a Mississippi swamp. Singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and back-up vocalist Cassie Gaines perished along with three other passengers on impact. The group had already scored Top 40 hits with songs like “Freebird” and “Saturday Night Special,” and on October 17, 1977, MCA Records, the band’s label, released their album “Street Survivors.” Containing the hit single, “What’s Your Name,” the album’s cover featured the Lynyrd Skynyrd line-up standing amongst the tall flames of a roaring fire. The flames almost appear to be shooting out of several members’ heads. Three days later, the air crash occurred. Even though the plane never caught fire, MCA was sensitive to possible accusations of morbid exploitation. They quickly withdrew the design, recalling outgoing shipments, and replaced the front cover shot, with the original album’s back cover photo. This image featured the band lined up under a limbo spot from above, everyone cast in a soft white light, which resulted in a much tamer “traditional” group shot. Needless to say, the rare “flames” album cover is a much sought-after collectible in the LP trade world.
Exploitative violence or disturbing imagery, even if it is completely fabricated, can land a band’s artwork design in hot water. The Beatles obviously were the first to encounter this kind of outcry, but they certainly weren’t the last. Sometimes the protests are simply laughable, as was the case in 1984 when Bruce Springsteen released his landmark album “Born In The USA.” Featuring the extraordinary title cut, as well as the number two-charting single “Dancing in the Dark,” The Boss’ album was well-known for it’s cover photo of Bruce’s jeans-clad derriere facing the camera with a stars and stripes flag draped prominently in the background. As unbelievable as it now sounds, some individuals, namely very conservative critics, voiced their concerns that Springsteen was actually urinating on the flag in the shot. His right hand appears to be curved inward towards his midsection, so with fevered imagination, one might assume he’s got ahold of the wobbly warhead. But there is truly no evidence of any hygienic relief being captured in the shot. Calls for boycotts by these critics fell on deaf ears, and the album went on to ride the top of the U.S. charts for seven long weeks during the summer months of 1984.
A far more controversial matter concerning disturbing imagery arose in the following year, when the San Francisco hardcore punkers, The Dead Kennedys, released their album “Frankenchrist” in 1985. Under the direction of their lead vocalist Jello Biafra, the Kennedys had fostered an underground following that was adoringly devoted to their brand of anti-political and anti-social thrash metal since their formation in 1978. When the “Frankenchrist” album was issued through the indie label Alternative Tentacles, a poster was included inside the cover sleeve. Painted by famed Swiss artist H. R. Giger (known for designing the “creature” look of the alien in the “Alien” films), the album insert reproduced his painting called “Landscape XX, Where Are We Coming From?” It also was known as “Penis Landscape,” and the work showed disembodied images of female and male genitalia and anuses. A year after the album was released, the Los Angeles deputy attorney, having received a consumer complaint about the insert, dragged Biafra and the record label’s manager into court on charges of distributing harmful materials to minors. While the prosecution argued the Dead Kennedys’ actions were irresponsible, Biafra countered by citing that the poster was both a literal and figurative illustration of “people screwing each other over,” and therefore, integral to his album’s themes of racism, poverty and political corruption. Facing a possible year’s incarceration, Biafra sighed relief when the jury was unable to reach a verdict. The legacy left in the aftermath of this first-of-its-kind legal case, in which a rock album was put on trial, saw the disbandment of the Dead Kennedys, an end to Biafra’s marriage, and a whopping debt in legal fees totaling more than $55,000.
In the case of Guns N’ Roses’ big label debut, Geffen Records capped off any chance of an uproar by effectively quashing the original artwork for the bluesy rock ‘n’ rollers’ album when it was released on July 31, 1987. Infamous underground cartoonist/artist Robert Williams had painted a piece called “Appetite For Destruction.” Known for his paintings that featured tumultuous wacky scenes of overt violence, abused women, oversized animals, ravenous demons, crazed clowns, and flying spaceships, the band must’ve thought his work would make a perfect match to their raucous set of singles like “Welcome To The Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” But Geffen Records instead replaced Williams frenetic, hallucinogenic artwork with that of a simple design. The Guns N’ Roses debut album, “Appetite For Destruction,” ultimately hit the streets with an illustrated cover that featured an iron cross with the band member’s faces, depicted as skulls, affixed to its four points and intersection.
Another set of nervous record executives, over at the Warner Bros. label, requested their in-house bad boy, Mr. Antichrist Superstar himself, Marilyn Manson, remove two Polaroid shots intended for the cover artwork of his debut album before it was to be released to the general public. One shot was of a particularly bloodied figure and the other showcased Manson at the age of six, completely naked. Rather than raise hell, the satanic-loving rocker respected their wishes and the “Portrait of an American Family” album was released, sans the two photos, on July 12, 1994. Manson’s ensuing tour in support of the record probably fostered more ulcers in those executives than the photos on the album cover ever could, as he performed naked and was arrested in Jacksonville, Florida, and as he ripped up the Book of Mormon onstage in Salt Lake City, Utah.
While album cover designs of violent imagery have been a definite push-button for reactionary censors to poke at over the years, sexual imagery has also managed to bring nervous distributors’ blood to a boil. When Jimi Hendrix and his Experience released the album “Electric Ladyland” in the United States in November 1968, featuring his blistering rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” the fold-out cover art featured Jimi and his bandmates in a bleached orange and red psychedelic photograph. The U.S. has been notoriously skittish about nudity in its mainstream consumer products, and this was the case with MCA Records new LP at this time. “Electric Ladyland” had already been released in England a week or two earlier on October 25, 1968, and its cover in the U.K. featured naked women lying about with photos and artifacts of the band in their laps. Fearing consumer backlash, MCA slapped the revised photograph on the album when it came time for its release in the States.
Later in the month of November 1968, another controversial cover was being wrapped in plain brown paper for distribution. John Lennon and his new love Yoko Ono were deeply involved with each other, and together, they decided to release their first album. With her avant-garde leanings, Yoko had influenced John in his samplings of natural sounds and bizarre effects. Capturing these atonal, unconnected noises on their home recorder, the duo were adamant about releasing the pieces through The Beatles’ record label, Apple. For the cover work of their album, which was titled “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins,” John had the idea to pose naked with Yoko, thus, emulating the vulnerable imagery of virginity. Yoko was not very keen of his concept, yet complied to her lover’s enthusiasm, and one afternoon, the two shy artists set the automatic shutter on their camera and captured the two images which would grace the front and back covers of the album. The front cover image was, naturally, a full-frontal nude shot, and the back cover featured the pair turned with their backs to the camera. Apple Records was distributed through the Beatles’ original recording company, EMI, and when the chairman of the corporation, Sir Joseph Lockwood, caught sight of the cover shots, he queried Lennon and Ono (according to author Ray Coleman), “You will be damaged and what will you gain? What’s the purpose of it?” Yoko said, “It’s art.” Sir Joseph replied, “Well, I should find some better bodies to put on the cover than your two. They’re not very attractive. Paul McCartney would look better naked than you.” Suffice to say, EMI declined to distribute the album, so Lennon and Ono turned to a start-up distribution company named Track, which was owned by Kit Lambert and Chip Stamp, managers of The Who. Track agreed to ship the album, provided it was wrapped in paper. When the LP reached American shores, customs officials at Newark Airport in New Jersey seized 30,000 copies for indecency reasons. The album was drubbed by the critics and failed to make any kind of profit. John and Yoko did not seem to mind, and they soon followed this experimental foray with another “Unfinished” LP.
In 1969, the superstar line-up of Rick Grech, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Ginger Baker were about to get their one shot of recorded history as a band called Blind Faith when they released their first and final album in July of that year. Hailed as a critical masterpiece with soulful blues tunes like “Had My Cry Today” and “Can’t Find My Way Home,” the album was released with a cover photograph taken by an American artist who lived in London named Bob Seidemann. The shot was of an 11 year-old girl holding a metallic spaceship. The “fuselage” of the ship looked extremely phallic, like a sex-shop vibrator, and she held it pointing down towards her lower torso. While Polydor Records in England did not feel the artwork would be particularly troubling to British society, Atco Records, which handled the record’s distribution in America, felt otherwise. Sensing its provocative and controversial nature, Atco released Blind Faith’s album with a cover shot featuring the band members. Bassist/violinist Rick Grech later tried to explain the meaning behind the original artwork. “The young woman represents purity and hope, the spaceship represents continued progress through technological advancement.” Whatever you say, Rick. After the album topped both the U.S. and U.K. charts for two weeks, Atco Records decided to drop the “softer” second cover design because it wasn’t selling as well as the British counterpart. Subsequently, the “tamer” photo version debut album is ironically the more collectible and rarer record on the vinyl scavengers’ lists these days.
As the years passed into the early 1970s, more promiscuity surged to the forefront of the general media, particularly in the world of motion pictures and men’s magazines, however, rock albums were still monitored carefully with an eye towards self-censorship. An English outfit with an ever-changing line-up loped to the progressive rock fields during this period and brought a kind of renaissance folk flair to its output. The band was Caravan, and in October 1973, they were getting around to releasing their fifth album, “For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night.” The cover photo chosen to grace this effort was of a naked pregnant woman. Their record label, Decca Records, summarily dismissed this idea before releasing the LP, and substituted a shot of the same woman, still pregnant, but instead she now wore a flimsy nightgown in the revised photo. The album did not garner much of a profit and by the early ‘80s, Caravan’s career had, for all intents and purposes, ‘grown dim in the night.’
Flimsy garments of another kind, namely lingerie, figured prominently on the album cover of Roxy Music’s “Country Life” when it was released in November 1974. The slinky glam-pop-rock sounds of Bryan Ferry and his band had been perfectly complemented by the sexy photographic designs of the group’s previous album covers. Featuring high fashion models of the day, Roxy Music’s album artwork oozed hot passion and carnal come-ons. So it was no surprise to delighted male teen fans when the cover for “Country Life” showcased two models, one in see-through lingerie panties and bra, and the other model only in panties with her hands masking her topless breasts. Record shop owners were less than enthusiastic about the smoldering sleeve, especially in the United States. Roxy’s record company wound up selling the album in an opaque green shrink-wrap. With several complaints still filtering into their offices, it was decided that an alternate cover needed to be manufactured. A horribly amateurish photograph of an evergreen tree was used to replace the image of the two erotic gals, and the revised LP was shipped primarily to the American marketplace. Roxy Music would continue to use beautiful women on future covers, including Bryan Ferry’s and Mick Jagger’s former flame Jerry Hall on the album “Siren,” but their poses would not be quite so scandalizing.
Reeling off the gigantic success of their anthemic singles “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions,” the flamboyant pop rock group Queen was looking for a way to top themselves during the summer of 1978. As they recorded new songs at a studio in France, the country’s annual sporting event, the Tour de France, was being broadcast on television. The song “Bicycle Race” sprang as inspiration from watching this fortuitous programming, and when the band considered doing a promotional video to support the single, someone hit on the idea to fill the Wimbledon Tennis Stadium in London with 50 naked women on bicycles. We’re not talking a plot-heavy concept here. In order to lure fifty women to take their clothes off for a sunny afternoon in front of cameras, the band offered to feature the girl they felt the most attractive of the bunch on their cover for the single “Bicycle Race.” And sure enough, they kept their promise. The lucky winner’s face, and very naked body, was printed on the sleeve of the record. Outrage, particularly in the feminist contingents throughout the country, prompted Queen’s record company to airbrush a bikini on the girl. The single was included as a track on the band’s next album entitled “Jazz,” which was released in November 1978. The album came with a poster insert of all 50 naked girls on their bicycles. Yet another uproar erupted, and the album was subsequently manufactured, sans poster, but with a postcard inserted in its sleeve, which enabled randy teen boys to simply send off for the busty bicycle print. Naturally, “Jazz” broke into both the U.K.’s and United States’ Top Ten charts.
A sticker, not an airbrushing technique, was used in 1979 to cover up another sexually-sensitive piece of artwork, this time on the cover of Whitesnake’s “Lovehunter” album. Truly in a mid-career void between his days of singing for Deep Purple and his glory years of the mid-to-late ‘80s in which he would deliver power ballads like “Here I Go Again” and “Is This Love,” vocalist David Coverdale was struggling with his new band Whitesnake. “Lovehunter,” their fourth release, would not yield him any hit singles or critical notoriety. However, its cover would bring notoriety of a different kind when shop owners, both in Europe and in the U.S., requested some kind of censor solution. The album’s artwork featured a painting of a naked woman sitting with her back and buttocks exposed on a huge serpent, whose mouth hung agape and its forked tongue probed outwards towards the nubile blond. No costly paint touch-ups were required. EMI Records simply plastered a sticker directly over the woman’s pronounced bum, and the record store owners were suitably placated.
Record retailers needed soothing again in 1988. Perry Farrell, a singer in Los Angeles was introduced to Eric Avery by a mutual friend named Jane. Soon a band was formed with the two musicians bringing aboard two other members and calling themselves Jane’s Addiction. Steeped in arty alternative rock trappings, the group was famous in the late ‘80s club scene as being provocative and abrasive. When they landed a major label contract with Warner Bros. Records, Jane’s Addiction released the album “Nothing’s Shocking.” Farrell, an accomplished artist, supplied the company with the cover art, which consisted of a sculpture he had made of two naked women, sitting in a loveseat, joined at the hips and shoulders, with their hair on fire. Although they were merely art pieces, the image was shocking and sexually strong enough that several retailers refused to sell the album. Warner Bros. did nothing to alter the photograph. However, when Jane’s Addiction released its follow-up album, “Ritual De Lo Habitual,” in 1990, an alternate version of the cover was subsequently released. Originally, the ‘Ritual’ sleeve featured another Farrell sculpture, one that showed a menage a trois between two women and a man, their paper-mache naked bodies intertwined, surrounded by occult objects. Candles, fruit, and paper halos all figured in the piece, symbols of the Santeria religion, a Caribbean faith that involves possession by saints. Too many complaints filtered across the record company’s door over this album cover, so a replacement sleeve was issued on which the only items seen were the band’s name, the title of the album, and a copy of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Despite relatively little airplay, no hit singles, and this revamped album cover, “Ritual De Lo Habitual” wound up getting a platinum certification a year later. Jane’s Addiction, however, would stop needing the ‘fix’ of playing together and go their separate ways in 1992.
Ultimately, retailers seem to have the final say-so when it comes to determining whether an album will be readily accessible to the consumer or not. If a product is not suitable for display in their estimation, sales will invariably suffer. However, with the continued explosion of sales exchanging across modem lines on the Internet these days, the marketplace is slowly evolving its economic dynamics. But up until the last three or four years, no one commanded record selling power greater than the huge department store chains across the world. For a band to lose its exposure at a Wal-Mart, a Woolworths, or a K-mart, the fallout from such a disaster could spell the difference between the sales zing of a Sting and the plummeting revenue losses of Insane Clown Posse.
When Wal-Mart notified Polygram Records of complaints they were receiving from their customers over the Scorpions’ 1984 release “Love At First Sting,” the band was certainly not unaccustomed to being in the spotlight for issuing controversial covers. The German heavy metal group’s cover of their 1976 album “Virgin Killer” featured a naked pre-pubescent girl sprawled out on a bare black background with a strategically-cracked piece of glass barely covering her genitalia. There was no way this image was going to get past custom officials in the U.S. An alternate image, showcasing the band’s members leaning into the camera lens with looks of defiance, was substituted in place of the original photo for export to the States. The band went on to release their 1979 LP “Lovedrive” with a cover photo depicting a man’s hand literally stuck to the ‘gummy-flesh’ of a woman’s breast. The back cover photo showed the couple holding a picture of the band, the woman topless and laughing. Once again, this album’s design was banned in the United States (even though Playboy magazine dubiously cited it as the best rock album cover of the year). An illustration of a large blue scorpion laying on the band’s logo replaced the ‘sticky-fingered’ original for the benefit of squeamish American retailers. When the band released yet another controversial cover, this time for that “Love At First Sting” album, they were nonplussed about the usual commotion. The design featured a couple locked in an embrace. The man is shown giving the woman a tattoo on her leg, while one of her breasts is relatively exposed in a loose ‘spaghetti-type’ dress. To placate the Walton family’s shopping emporium, Polygram touched up the photo to minimize the woman’s exposure. Bosom or no bosom, the album turned out to be the breakout worldwide success The Scorpions had been hoping for, and the band subsequently rode high on the charts through the latter part of the 1980s.
The department store Woolworths cried foul in October 1989 when a Hull, England band known as The Beautiful South, an alternative pop-rock sextet consisting of some former members of the Brit-band The Housemartins, released their debut album. Known for their cynical, clever lyrics, the group, whose cheery name was a sarcastic concoction, decided to juxtapose shocking images with that upbeat moniker. Thus, the original artwork to their first LP, “Welcome To The Beautiful South,” featured two sepia-toned photographs on a plain green backdrop. One photo depicted a woman in frilly hat and blouse sticking the barrel of a rather large revolver in her mouth, with her thumb on the trigger. The other photo showed a skinhead gent lighting up what looks like a joint. After the renowned retail chain banned the album, an alternate cover was soon issued. Again two photographs were displayed on a green background, however, this time they were shots of a cuddly toy teddy bear and a furry rabbit. Controversial or not, the band’s output was extremely successful over the years in the United Kingdom, but The Beautiful South barely made a dent in the American market.
In the early ‘90s, the most successful band on the planet was the grunge-laden, sonically-melodic Nirvana. Their breakthrough album, “Nevermind,” sold over 7 million copies, and while the follow-up LP consisted primarily of B-sides, outtakes, and demos, “Incesticide” flew off the shelves at a record pace as well. So, when the band released their 1993 album, “In Utero,” one would assume that every retailer would welcome it with open arms. Au contraire, mon frere. Both Wal-Mart and K-Mart refused to stock it. Specifically, they objected to two album cover items. One was the name of a song called “Rape Me.” The department stores felt it was an inciting phrase and did not want it displayed on the outside cover. The second objection regarded the photo on the back cover of the record, which featured a scattering of bone-like objects mixed in with what could be perceived as aborted fetuses and brain matter. To gain favor with the behemoths of bargain shopping, and after the record had reached number 1 in the United States, Geffen Records re-issued the “In Utero” album with a ‘softer’ display. The title “Rape Me” printed on the back cover was changed to “Waif Me” (I have no explanation either), and the back cover photo itself was filled in with more floral detail and a small turtle. The giants of blue-light specials were satisfied, and Nirvana’s stock rose.
A little boy named Vance got Wal-Mart’s panties all in a bunch again in early 1996. New York rockers The Goo Goo Dolls had toiled on the road and in the studio for nearly a decade before their 1996 album “A Boy Named Goo” (a play on the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue”) broke them through the barrier to superstardom. The hit single “Name” went to number 5 on the U.S. chart. All seemed to be going well for the band, when, suddenly, after having sold over 50,000 copies of the group’s album, the folks at Wal-Mart yanked the rest of its “A Boy Named Goo” stock off the shelves. What seemed to be the problem? Vance was the problem. For the cover of their album, the Dolls had used a photo taken 13 years earlier of a little baby boy who had smeared his face with blackberry juice. Hailing from California, Vance, was now in his mid-teens. Why the uproar then? A few reactionary customers had peered at the cover and thought that the kid looked like a poster child for toddler abuse. It was blackberry juice on Vance’s cheeks, but as a result of whatever hayseed it was who saw fit to complain, the retail tycoons pulled The Goo Goo Dolls’ disc from their stores. Fortunately, for the band’s sake, their years of hard work hadn’t turned them into an ‘overnight’ flash-in-the-pan. With their song “Iris” included on the “City of Angels” soundtrack, sales skyrocketed, and the Dolls have begun forging a bonafide career.
On June 19, 1999, it was K-Mart’s turn to squelch a band’s release. In 1992, the world ‘got’ Ministry. Up to that point, they were considered another gloomy thrash-industrial group. But their “Psalm 69” album turned heads. Yes, they were heavy rock ‘n’ rollers, but they also threw their mix onto a heavy dance beat that never let up. Their music translated to all-night raves, and the band truly made a name for itself. Since that time, their star has faded a bit with subsequent releases. So, when the band issued its recent album with fanfare, it’s surprising K-Mart sat up and took notice. What they saw was an album cover they found objectionable. They did not choose to ban “Dark Side Of The Spoon,” the record’s name, because of the reference to drug use in the title. Nor did the potentially-offensive religious writing on a chalkboard, which read “I will be god” repeatedly, seem to set them off. Instead it was the image of a naked overweight woman, sitting with her back to the camera, and wearing a dunce cap, that sealed the prohibited fate of Ministry’s latest release. K-Mart shoppers were spared the sight of stumbling upon an image of a less-than-perfect model and were able to amble over to the Jaclyn Smith cosmetic collection unaffected.
Assessing what’s acceptable and what is reprehensible can be a very daunting task in the marketplace of public opinion. For the most part, those albums that have been deemed controversial over the years probably have not suffered much in sales because of this tainted status. In some instances, their outlaw image may have promoted further purchases of the product. In the end, to tamper with a common cliché, most people will judge a compact disc not by its cover, but by its inside tracks.
© 2000 Ned Truslow