Whether you’re a die-hard rock and roll fan, or just a casual listener, everyone has a favorite album cover. Album covers have a way of sticking with you forever. Like any piece of good art, they are just as emotionally triggering as the music they represent. But the design process can put a lot of pressure on the band and their design teams, who will often go to crazy lengths to produce the artwork they want.
Often times, the stories behind famous album covers are overlooked. From The Beatles to Led Zeppelin, we rounded up the most iconic pieces of album artwork in music history, including the stories behind them. Let’s see if your favorite cover made the cut!
Say goodbye to moptops and hello to Mary Jane. The Fab Four finally grew up with the release of their sixth studio album, trading in their clean-cut looks for something more psychedelic. The theme of the album was curiosity, with emotion and humor going hand-in-hand.
The title, Rubber Soul, is a pun. The Beatles wanted to combine rubber-soled shoes with the falseness of pop music at the time. Paul McCartney thought of the title after hearing an American critic call the singing style of Rolling Stone’s frontman, Mick Jagger, “plastic soul.” This was also the first time that a Beatles album didn’t have the band’s name in the title. We don’t know if this was intentional, but given that the album had a more mature sound than their previous works, our best guess is that it was.
Photographer Robert Freeman snapped the picture of the band in John Lennon’s garden. The stretched effect was actually a mistake made while the band was looking at Robert’s samples. He projected the image onto a cardboard cutout, but when the cardboard fell backwards, the image became stretched. The band ended up loving the image and felt like it was a perfect depiction of their new sound.
The album’s typography was designed by Charles Front. He used the title as inspiration and created a typeface style that was used for psychedelic and flower-power designs. Charles also added another hidden element to his lettering. The title reads “Road Abbey” if you hold the album upside down in front of a mirror.
Apologies to The Lady in Tutti Frutti Hat’s Carmen Miranda, but the world’s most famous banana is the peelable print on the cover on The Velvet Underground’s debut album. The year was 1966, and The Velvet Underground was featured in artist Andy Warhol’s multimedia event tour, Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The event was classic Warhol, provocative and controversial.
Aside from The Velvet Underground, whom Andy was managing at the time, the event was made up of screenings of Andy’s films as well as dance performances by members of his studio. It was during this time that The Velvet Underground recorded their first album and asked Andy to design the album cover using his signature silkscreen technique. Andy, of course, agreed and got to work.
Andy, who was rumored to have been inspired by a banana printed on a cheap ashtray, created the image with silkscreen made from black-and-white acetate film. Andy took the image one step further by turning the banana into a sticker that could be peeled off, revealing a pink banana underneath.
Although the idea was great in theory, it was a production nightmare for Verve Records. Workers had to peel off the printed, yellow banana sticker and manually place it on each album, one by one. This delayed the album’s release by a year and creating tension between the band and Andy. By 1968, the sticker was dropped, and the band found a new manager. You can still find an original album today, but for a hefty $800 apiece.
When the cover art becomes a nickname for the actual album, you know it’s iconic. That’s exactly what happened with The Beatles’ ninth studio album. Designer Richard Hamilton collaborated with Paul McCartney on the album artwork, which was dubbed the “White Album.” The stark, white cover, was the complete opposite of the psychedelic artwork from their previous album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The band’s name, written in Helvetica, was crookedly printed onto the album’s bottom right corner. Each of the early copies also had a unique serial number that was stamped onto the cover. In 2015, Ringo Starr’s personal copy of the album, complete with a 0000001 serial number, was sold at an auction for $790,000.
Not only was Who’s Next a glorious follow-up album to Tommy, but its album cover is still considered one of the best. The cover was shot by American photographer Ethan Russell, who previously worked with guitarist Pete Townshend on his Lifehouse project. Ethan still remembers the day of the shoot as if it were yesterday.
The band was on their way home after a performance when Pete asked Ethan if he had any ideas for the cover. Just as Ethan was about to answer, they passed by three or four cement pillars next to the road. Ethan pointed them out, and before he knew it, Pete swung the car back around and headed back to the pillars, followed by three other vans carrying the rest of the band and crew members.
With nothing to lose, the band walked up to one of the pillars and started to pose. After Ethan snapped a few images, Pete started urinating on the cement and tried to get the other band members to do it too. They tried to follow suit, but no one could go.
Instead, the band threw some rainwater on the pillar to get the same effect. Ethan only took a few shots, but the next day, one of his photographs was turned into the album cover that we know and love today. It was only after the fact that Ethan and The Who found out that the cement pillars were used to keep garbage in place. They had done a photoshoot in a garbage dump.
Sometimes an album cover is famous because of the band’s music. Other times, it’s memorable because of the designer. But, in this case, the album cover is iconic because of both. The Rolling Stone’s eleventh studio album, Sticky Fingers, defined the band. By the time the album was released, the band was at their peak, rough around the edges, and impossible to ignore.
The controversial artwork was designed by none other than pop artist, Andy Warhol, and it even included a working zipper in the early album copies. After Andy designed the cover, artist Craig Braun was in charge of turning the design into a functional album cover. After realizing that the zipper dented the vinyl inside, Craig decided to employ workers to move the zipper down a few centimeters after the glue already dried, creating a production nightmare.
As iconic as the album cover was (and no, the man in the photograph was not Mick Jagger), it is also famous for debuting The Rolling Stone’s infamous tongue logo. Designed by John Pasche, the logo became just as recognizable as the Nike logo, which coincidentally was also created in 1971. It was Mick Jagger who came up with the initial idea of the tongue logo.
He wanted Pasche to design a simple, classic logo that would be instantly recognizable. The only direction he gave John was a picture of the Hindu Goddess, Kali, who is depicted with an open mouth and pointy tongue. Paul also wanted the icon to have a sense of rebellion. “It’s the kind of thing kids do when they stick their tongue out at you,” Paul said. “That was the main reason I thought it would work well.”
For a band who’s known for the lyric, “We don’t need no education,” ironically, the inspiration behind the cover of their best-selling album comes from a school textbook. Designers Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell came up with the original cover art during a late-night brainstorming session.
Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters gave Storm and Aubrey complete artistic freedom. His only request was that the album be “clean, elegant, and graphic.” While the two designers were brainstorming, Storm started playing around with a black-and-white image he saw in a physics textbook: the dispersion of light by a prism. The next day, the designers presented the band with several ideas, but the prism design was approved almost immediately.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Storm said that there were two elements that he and his design partner wanted to incorporate into the cover art. The first was Pink Floyd’s infamous light shows from their concerts, which up until then, were not celebrated by the band. The second was the image of a triangle.
As a symbol of thought and ambition, designers thought it was a perfect representation of the band’s lyrics. Storm and Aubrey created many versions of the cover, one of which had a surfer painted silver, almost exactly like the Marvel character, Silver Surfer. Good thing the band didn’t like this version, or else they would have found themselves in the middle of a long copyright dispute.
With memorable tracks such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and With a Little Help from My Friends, The Beatles’ eighth studio album cover art had to be iconic. Designed by painter Peter Blake and his wife Jann Haworth, the album cover was an Edwardian design complete with the Fab Four and a crowd of 58 life-sized cardboard cutouts of famous people, from Marilyn Monroe to Karl Marx.
The cover also features two different versions of The Beatles: wax figures from their moptops phase and the real band dressed in colorful military uniforms. This album cover was one of the most expensive covers in music history, mainly because the band had to pay each celebrity a hefty price to use their image.
Aside from holding the title of one of the most influential musicians in history, David Bowie was also the most photogenic. Although Bowie released several iconic covers throughout his career, Heroes definitely stands out. David was on a trip to Tokyo when photographer Masayoshi Sukita snapped this picture. The photographs from the shoot weren’t initially meant for the album’s artwork, but he fell in love with the images after seeing the prints.
Masayoshi and Bowie both decided that their favorite photograph was the one taken right after Bowie ran his fingers through his hair. Bowie also decided to add quotations around the album’s title, Heroes, because he didn’t believe in flouting one’s success. We could be “heroes, but just for one day.”
Although Led Zeppelin’s debut album was iconic (it launched one of the greatest bands in rock and roll history), designer George Hardie wishes that he had used a different image for the cover. The album’s artwork famously features a black-and-white image of the Hindenburg disaster. It was actually the band’s guitarist, Jimmy Page’s idea, to use the image, which was based on the famous photograph taken by Sam Shere.
George had a different idea for the album’s cover. He wanted an image of Led Zeppelin in the sky, but it was rejected by all of the members of the band. To avoid copyright infringement laws, George had to turn the photograph into an illustration. “We were already in the world of Andy Warhol and a lot of other American pop artists were using existing images to do things,” George said.
At 79 years old, artist Stanley “Mouse” Miller has lived quite the life. As a part of the psychedelic rock scene in the 1960s, Stanley was a close friend of Janis Joplin and was responsible for creating all of the commercial artwork for the Grateful Dead. One day in 1966, Stanley and his collaborator Alton Kelley went to the San Francisco library hoping to find some inspiration for new rock posters.
After going through a pile of books and bouncing ideas off of each other, Stanley stumbled upon an image that “has Grateful Dead all over it.” The original image was created in the 19th century by an artist by the name of Edmund Sullivan. Sullivan was hired to illustrate a book of poems from the 11th century called The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
As soon as Stanley saw the image, he knew that it could be used by The Grateful Dead. Since the library wouldn’t let Stanley and Alton take out the book, they were forced to improvise. “I hate to say this, but [Anton] cut it out with a pen knife,” Stanley told The Washington Post. “I always say that we Xeroxed it, but there weren’t Xerox machines back then.”
The skull and roses ended up becoming the Grateful Dead’s trademark image. Stanley made a name for himself in the 1960s as a car painting sensation. He would airbrush psychedelic paintings onto hot rods, dragsters, and helicopters. Stanley continued to work with The Grateful Dead throughout many of their albums, including American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead.
As one of the most iconic sleeves from the 1970s, you would think that the cover art was carefully thought over and planned out. Sorry to disappoint, but this iconic image was created without much forethought.
There were two people responsible for the London Calling cover. The first was, of course, bass player Paul Simonon, who was photographed destroying his guitar on the stage at the New York Palladium in September 1979. Although the show was going well, Paul felt like his playing was off and took his frustrations out on his guitar. “If I was smart, I would have got the spare bass and used that one because it wasn’t as good as the one as I smashed up,” Paul said.
The second person responsible for the cover was Pennie Smith, a British photographer traveling with the band on their US tour. At first, Penny didn’t want her photograph to be used. The image was out of focus because she was stepping back, trying to avoid being hit by Paul.
Even today, Pennie still isn’t a fan of her famous photograph. “It’s very pleasant to be praised, but I can’t see that picture now,” Pennie said in an interview in 2003. “It’s been used in various forms so many times that it’s a bit like wallpaper.” Pennie also said that there are several unseen Clash photographs, and she would have preferred that one of those be used for the cover.
Graphic designer Steve Averill knew that designing a cover for U2’s The Joshua Tree was going to be difficult. The lyrics were riddled with strong political and religious imagery, while the sound was completely different than anything U2 had done before. The Joshua Tree had more of a blues, gospel, and folk sound, compared to their earlier albums.
Although the tracks weren’t fully completed, Steve knew the direction of the album and what kind of image the band wanted to capture for the cover. At first, Steve and photographer Anton Corbijn looked for locations where either civilization broke down or where nature and civilization clashed. The Mojave Desert in southwest America became their main focal point.
Steve, Anton, and the band drove around the desert in a tour bus looking for meaningful locations that would match the depth of their lyrics. One of the first locations they visited was Bodie, an abandoned mining town in the Sierra Nevada that was completely taken over by nature. The photograph was a top contender for the album cover but ultimately didn’t make the cut.
As the band made their way to Death Valley National Park, Anton looked out the window and saw a single, Joshua tree out in the distance. Named after the Prophet Joshua, the unique tree can grow in the most adverse conditions, fitting perfectly with the album’s theme. The band loved what the tree symbolized so much that they ended up using its name for the album title.
For a decade that had many strange album covers, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours cover was definitely the strangest. But, as weird as the photo was, everyone had to get their hands on a copy. Photographer Herbert Worthington snapped the bizarre picture of singer Stevie Nicks holding hands with drummer Mick Fleetwood, who is resting his foot on a stool.
Herbert’s vision was to capture an image that had a musical quality to it, which is the reasoning behind Stevie’s flowing robes and dance pose. As for the dangling spheres between Mick’s legs, he stole them from a toilet flushing chain a few years before the photograph was taken. He came to think of them as his good luck charms and insisted they be incorporated somehow into the album’s cover.
Few album covers immediately sum up their bands as well as Kiss’ debut record, Kiss, which was released in 1974. The photograph was taken by none other than Joel Brodsky, who famously created cover art for Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, and the Doors, among several others. But, when the band walked onto the set for the first time, Joel was taken back.
He wasn’t familiar with the band’s unique look and thought they were dressed up like clowns. “We threatened to walk out, and he finally realized that we were serious, and he took the picture,” Kiss bassist Gene Simmons said in a 1994 interview. Joel and the band decided to pose as The Beatles had on their 1963 album, With the Beatles.
The album cover was designed by Storm Thorgerson, who also designed Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Storm was inspired not only by the album’s lyrics but by the ethos of rock and roll: sticking it to the man. The most famous image from the album’s artwork was taken by Storm’s design partner, Aubrey Powell.
Stuntmen Danny Rogers and Ronnie Rondell were hired for the photoshoot. The winds were so gusty that day that the flames blew into Ronnie’s face, burning off his mustache and eyebrows. Storm decided to continue with the salesman imagery and put a photograph of a faceless salesman, who lacks wrists and ankles, on the back of the cover.
After a decade of moody seventies rock, many people were ready for the return of fun and glamour. British band Duran Duran was among the leaders of the New Romantic movement in the late seventies and early eighties, and some even say that the band invented the classic sound that the eighties are known for.
The cover was designed by Malcolm Garrett and drawn by pop artist Patrick Nagel, who was well-known for his contributions to Playboy Magazine at the time. Patrick’s minimalist design, sleek lines, and bright colors were a stark contrast to the band’s first album cover, which featured a framed shot of the band members. It was a great statement piece and definitely reflected a change in the times.
Parallel Lines was Blondie’s third studio album. The title actually came from an unused song written by the band’s lead singer, Debbie Harry, and it inspired the cover’s artwork. The cover was shot by photographer Edo Bertoglio, and, although the band disliked the photo and rejected it, manager Peter Leeds chose it anyways.
Well, Peter was onto something because several music journalists, including Tim Peacock, called the cover “iconic” and “instantly recognizable.” Even to this day, Blondie’s cover is continuously ranked as one of the best album covers of all time. After its release, the album shot up to the number one spot in the UK and number six in the US, marking the band’s official commercial breakthrough.
The Beastie Boys made a splash with their debut album, Licensed to Ill, introducing themselves to the world as crude, loud, and in your face. While most designers would have trouble fitting the trio’s outrageous attitude into one image, designer Steve Byram and artist World B. Omes exceeded all expectations.
Like all great works of art, the album cover was a collaborative effort. It was actually Rick Rubin, the album’s producer, who came up with the idea after seeing a photograph of Led Zeppelin’s private jet while reading Hammer of the Gods. “The Beastie Boys were just a bunch of little guys, and I wanted us to have a Beastie Boys’ jet,” Rick said. “I wanted to embrace and somehow distinguish, in a sarcastic way, the larger than life rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.”
The jet Rick was referring to was the infamous Starship, a Boeing 720 converted into a rad living space, complete with bedrooms and fireplaces. The Starship could be rented by anyone, but Led Zeppelin was their most frequent customer. Nothing says, “I’m a famous rock star,” quite like a plane with a fireplace.
After coming up with the idea, World, who was still in college at the time, began working on the jet. He combined different photographs, traced over them, and then colored the image in with crayons. He also added a fun Easter egg on the plane’s tail. The identification number, 3MTA3, reads “Eat Me” if you hold the image up to a mirror.
It’s a mop! It’s a throw rug! No, it’s a Komondor! It may take you a few tries to understand what you’re looking at, but the leaping creature is a rare Hungarian herding dog famous for its mop-like coat. Unlike most many rock and roll album covers, Odelay’s artwork is iconic just because it makes us smile.
According to the American Kennel Club, the Komondor is a “medium energy” dog, and its dreadlocks are officially called “white chords.” Besides being a great piece of dog trivia, what does this information have to do with Beck? Do trainers shout “Odelay” to get the dog to jump? Does the dog’s “white chords” symbolize a theme from the album? Maybe the dog was Beck’s?
Sorry to disappoint, but the truth behind the cover is much more dull. Apparently, it was Beck’s girlfriend, Leigh Limon, who first stumbled upon the image while looking through a book about dog breeds. Robert Fisher, the album’s art director, then tracked down the original image, which was snapped by photographer Joan Ludwig. Joan, who lived a few blocks from Robert’s studio, still had the image tucked away in a cardboard box in her garage.
After cropping the image to make it square, Beck finally had his album cover. The cover caused quite the stir because people weren’t quite sure what the image meant. But this was exactly the intention. The only comment Beck’s record company made about the cover was that they were relieved that the album was released on time.
The Allman Brothers’ third studio album, Eat a Peach, is undoubtedly the best collection of songs in the band’s repertoire. With classics like Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More and Melissa, it was the last album that guitarist Duane Allman recorded. The 24-year-old was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident just four months before the record’s release.
The band took the album’s name from Duane’s answer to an interview question shortly before his death: “How are you helping the revolution?” Duane immediately replied, “There ain’t no revolution, only evolution, but every time I’m in Georgia, I ‘eat a peach’ for peace.” At the time, Duane was a huge fan of T.S. Elliot, who used “peach” as a metaphor for life. Peaches are messy, but you can always wash your hands.
According to designer W. David Powell, the album cover is a collection of found artwork. The images were from postcards that he bought in Athens, Georgia. He then added the band’s name on the trucks and glued the postcards onto a background that he had spray-painted pink and blue. On the inside of the album sleeve, David and fellow designer, Jim Holmes, came up with the idea to paint a mushroom fantasy world complete with strange creatures walking around.
The design team was inspired by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, who was famous for his wild illustrations of different religious themes. The team was also inspired by something more psychedelic. “I don’t want to reveal the background psychotropics that were involved,” David said. “But we were not in a particularly rational state of mind.”
When fans first saw this album cover, they were probably asking themselves, “What are those things? Honeycombs? Poker chips?” But every Chicagoan knew exactly what they were. In the heart of the city stands a pair of identical towers officially called “Marina City.” But since the release of Wilco’s fourth album, the towers have been dubbed “The Wilco Towers.”
The buildings, which were designed by Bertrand Goldberg in 1959, add a futuristic feel to Chicago’s skyline. Like the honeycombed towers, Wilco is a unique Chicago landmark, and designers wanted to capture that for the album’s cover. Chicago designer Lawrence Azerrad worked with photographer Sam Jones to capture the now-iconic shot. “In hindsight, it ended up being the perfect building to end up using,” Lawrence said.
The cover of this classic country gospel album walks a fine line between silly humor and all-out seriousness. But there’s something devilishly funny about the brothers’ faces while they are standing in front of a devil and surrounded by fire. The album was created long before Photoshop was invented, so everything you see on the cover is real.
The set, which was built by Ira Louvin, included a 12-foot-tall devil made out of plywood and a real fire. “We went to this rock quarry and then took old tires and soaked them in kerosene, got them to burn good,” Charlie Louvin said. “It had just started to sprinkle rain when we got that picture taken.” The brothers survived the dangerous photoshoot, but sadly Ira was killed in an accident six years later.
Spencer Elden’s first time in the water was a memorable one. He was just four months old when underwater photographer Kirk Weddle asked Spencer’s parents if he could participate in a photoshoot for an up-and-coming band, Nirvana. Initially, Kirk went to mommy and me swimming classes to get the perfect shot, but he couldn’t capture what Geffen Records was looking for.
Spencer was one of many babies at the photoshoot audition, which took place at a public pool in Pasadena, California. When the day was over, Kirk and album cover designer, Robert Fisher, decided on Spencer’s photo. When they showed the image to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, he liked it but thought the design was missing something.
Kurt and the design team were throwing around ideas when Kurt jokingly suggested that they add a fish hook to the image. The designers actually liked the idea and spent all day coming up with things that could be added to the fish hook. Kurt never explained the reasoning behind his idea, but Robert has his own theories.
He believes that the image of a baby symbolizes Kurt’s innocence, the water is an unfamiliar experience, and the dollar bill represents chasing money in the corporate world of rock and roll. The Nirvana cover still remains one of the best album covers of all time. “Most bands around today can’t even get near to what Nirvana did on that album,” now 29-year-old Spencer says. “I’ll always be happy to be a part of it.”