The Countdown

‘We’re all naked really’: The 13 most controversial album covers of all time, from The Beatles to Nirvana

From flagrant nudity to cartoon bestiality, there are all sorts of reasons cover art can spark controversy. Kevin E G Perry picks some of the most memorable examples

Tuesday 11 January 2022 18:40
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<p>Top left clockwise: Artwork for the Sex Pistols, Cannibal Corpse, Guns N’ Roses, and The Beatles</p>

Top left clockwise: Artwork for the Sex Pistols, Cannibal Corpse, Guns N’ Roses, and The Beatles

What makes an album cover controversial? In the classic 1984 rock mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, record industry executive Bobbi Flekman (played by the great Fran Drescher) finds herself embroiled in an argument with band manager Ian Faith about exactly that, while discussing the proposed artwork for new record Smell The Glove.

“You put a greased naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck, and a leash, and a man’s arm extended out up to here, holding onto the leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it,” points out Flekman. “You don’t find that offensive? You don’t find that sexist?”

Faith can’t see the problem: “Well you shoulda seen the cover they wanted to do,” he shoots back. “It wasn’t a glove, believe me.”

The answer, of course, is always going to be subjective. One person’s amusing provocation is another’s shocking outrage. Even in the “anything-goes” world of rock’n’roll, there have been plenty of album covers that have either been banned or censored due to their scandalous nature.

Featuring the Sex Pistols, Guns N’ Roses and Scorpions, here are the 13 most controversial album covers of all time.

13. The BeatlesYesterday and Today

In 1966, between the release of Rubber Soul and Revolver, Capitol Records put out a compilation album of Beatles music for the American market, titled Yesterday and Today. It’s mostly remembered for its startling cover photograph by Robert Whitaker, which showed the Fab Four dressed as butchers while covered in decapitated dolls and raw meat. The band claimed it was an oblique statement against the war in Vietnam, while some fans believed it was intended as a cheeky protest about Capitol “butchering” their records. Either way, record shops complained and the album was soon withdrawn and reissued with a much quainter image of the band.

12. Blind Faith – Blind Faith

In 1969, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker of Cream formed a supergroup with the Spencer Davis Group’s Steve Winwood and Family’s Ric Grech. They released just one album together, Blind Faith, which takes its name from the photograph adorning its cover, by artist and photographer Bob Seidemann. A former flatmate of Clapton’s, Seidemann conceived the image of a young girl holding a spaceship as a representation of human achievement through technology. However, the fact that it includes a topless 11-year-old girl, Mariora Goschen, proved too controversial for the supergroup’s American label, who replaced it with a photograph of the band.

11. NOFX – Heavy Petting Zoo

The cover of California punks NOFX’s 1996 record Heavy Petting Zoo takes that titular pun and brings it vividly to life. Mark deSalvo’s illustration of a man doing more than just giving a sheep a cuddle was used for the CD version, while the vinyl release pushed things even further by featuring the same pair 69ing, and the new title Eating Lamb.

10. Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols

The cover of the Sex Pistols album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’

Some album covers prove controversial due to their titles alone. When the Sex Pistols released Never Mind The Bollocks… in 1977, a record shop owner in Nottingham named Chris Searle was arrested for displaying the records and charged with contravening the Indecent Advertisement Act 1889. He was eventually found not guilty in a high-profile court case.

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9. Mom’s Apple Pie – Mom’s Apple Pie

Mom’s Apple Pie, a 10-piece Ohio rock band, are best remembered not for their musical exploits but for the cover of their self-titled 1972 debut record. The illustration of the titular pie by Nick Caruso included a subtle depiction of female genitalia, causing it to be banned and replaced shortly after it was released. The original version is now a highly sought-after collector’s item.

8. John Lennon and Yoko OnoUnfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins

To shoot the cover art of this experimental record from 1968, Lennon and Ono photographed themselves naked using a time-delay camera. Lennon commented that the cover “just seemed natural for us. We’re all naked really.” Record label EMI weren’t quite so free-spirited and refused to distribute it. When the album was eventually released, it was sold clandestinely inside brown paper bags.

7. Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction

Guns N’ Roses replaced their original artwork with their now-iconic Celtic Cross logo

The debut album from LA rockers Guns N’ Roses takes its name from “Appetite for Destruction”, a painting by the cartoonist Robert Williams. Originally the plan had been for the artwork to appear on the record sleeve, but the image of a robotic rapist being descended on by an avenging metallic beast proved too much for record shops. After several refused to stock the album, the cover image was replaced with the band’s now-iconic skull-studded Celtic cross logo.

6. Cannibal Corpse – Eaten Back To Life

After the American death metal band Cannibal Corpse released their debut album Eaten Back To Life in 1990, it was banned from being sold or displayed in Germany because of its graphic cover art and extreme lyrics. The band weren’t even allowed to perform songs from the record in the country until the ban was lifted in 2006. Not everyone finds the cover art by graphic gore artist Vincent Locke so offensive: last September, Kourtney Kardashian was photographed wearing a long-sleeved Eaten Back To Life shirt. While her outfit choice raised the eyebrows of many a metal fan, it made more sense when you remembered she’s engaged to Blink-182 frontman and producer, Travis Barker. Her stylist later revealed she did indeed borrow the shirt from his wardrobe.

5. Chumbawumba – Anarchy

Three years before releasing their accidental mega-hit “Tubthumping” in 1997, Lancashire anarcho-punks Chumbawamba put out their sixth album, Anarchy. The cover is memorably graphic, featuring a close-up of a baby’s head at the very moment of birth. Some shops refused to sell it, and today streaming services such as Spotify replace the baby picture with an illustration of some nice flowers.

4. Scorpions –Virgin Killer

German rockers Scorpions knew exactly how provocative they were being with the Steffan Böhle-designed cover for 1976’s Virgin Killer, which depicts a naked 10-year-old girl with only a superimposed shattered glass effect covering her genitalia. “We’re using this only to get attention,” admitted rhythm guitarist Rudolf Schenker. “That’s what we do.” The cover was highly controversial and remains so: in 2008, the album’s Wikipedia page was placed on a blacklist by the Internet Watch Foundation as they believed the image could be regarded as child pornography. (They reversed their decision four days later.)

3. NirvanaNevermind

The cover of Nirvana’s album, ‘Nevermind’

In the Nirvana exhibition at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, Kirk Weddle’s photograph of a baby swimming underwater is displayed along with a note from Geffen art director Robert Fisher, which reads: “If anyone has a problem with his dick we can remove it.” Kurt Cobain pushed back against any attempted censorship, maintaining that the only compromise he’d agree to would be a sticker covering the penis reading: “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.” Controversy over the album cover reemerged last year when Spencer Elden, the now-adult baby in question, filed a lawsuit against the band claiming that the use of his likeness was done without his consent or that of his legal guardians, and that it violated federal child pornography statutes. The suit was dismissed by a judge last week.

2. Death Grips – No Love Deep Web

Given how phallocentric so much of rock’n’roll is, it’s sort of surprising that it took until 2012 before some bloke decided that all they really needed for an album cover was a photo of their own erect penis with the title written on it in sharpie. The penis in question belongs to Death Grips drummer Zach Hill, who has said that the band “saw it as tribal, as spiritual, as primal”. His d**k pic appears heavily pixelated on streaming services.

1. The Coup – Party Music

In June 2001, Oakland hip-hop group The Coup wanted to create cover art for their forthcoming album Party Music which would illustrate their belief that their music could help destroy capitalism. To visualise this idea, they came up with an image of band members DJ Pam the Funktress and Boots Riley posing in front of an exploding World Trade Center. Riley is holding what looks like a detonator, but is in fact a guitar tuner. Looking at the cover now, it is eerie quite how much the image resembles the events of September 11, so it’s little surprise that by the time the record was actually released in November, it had been replaced with a flaming martini glass.

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