They’re images you’ve seen a thousand times, but what do they mean, and how did they end up on the cover of your favourite ever albums?
We rounded up 50 of the most iconic pieces of album artwork from indie releases from Joy Division, David Bowie, Amy Winehouse, Nirvana, The Smiths, Strokes, Killers and more and dived into their back stories. Some of the tales of these covers’ creation are as interesting as the albums themselves…
The Smiths – Meat Is Murder: The original photo of this soldier, Marine Corporal Michael Wynn, was taken in 1967. He had the words “Make war not love” inscribed on his helmet. It was used as the image for Emile de Antonio’s doc ‘In the Year of the Pig’ in 1968, but The Smiths changed the wording to “Meat is Murder” for their ’85 album. Wynn is reportedly still alive and living in Australia.
Amy Winehouse – Back To Black: Amy arrived four hours late to this shoot, having been partying all night at her friend’s wedding. Shot in a black room at photographer Mischa Richter’s house in Kendal Rise, which had blackboard paint on the cupboards, this was the last shot of the day, with early evening light streaming through a bay window to the right. It was the last time Richter saw Amy.
Nirvana – Nevermind: Conceived after Cobain and Grohl watched a program on water births, the iconic sleeve was eventually shot in a public swimming pool with three-month-old baby Spencer Eldon. When concerns regarding the image showing the baby’s penis were raised, Cobain suggested a sticker saying “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet paedophile”.
Radiohead – Kid A: “The overarching idea of the mountains was that they were these landscapes of power, the idea of tower blocks and pyramids,” says sleeve artist Stanley Donwood. He and Yorke – under the Tchock alias he uses when making art – were also inspired by a photograph of the war in Kosovo, which ended in 1999.
The Clash – London Calling: Photographer Pennie Smith didn’t want this blurry live shot to be used for the cover, but Joe Strummer and the band’s graphic designer Ray Lowry overrode the decision, adding in the distinctive pink and green lettering of Elvis Presley’s debut album. The remains of the shattered bass are now on display at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures: Renowned artist Peter Saville designed the sleeve, which is based on an image of radio waves taken from the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy. The original image, created in 1970, was then reversed so that black was the dominant colour, leading to an instantly recognisable print that’s been replicated on merchandise ever since.
Oasis – Definitely Maybe: One of the most iconic sleeves of them all (an exact replica of the room was recently mocked up for a special exhibition), ‘Definitely Maybe’s artwork was shot in Bonehead’s living room with numerous prominent cultural reference points – a scene from The Good. The Bad And The Ugly, a poster of Burt Bacharach – on display.
Led Zeppelin – IV: As a ‘fuck you’ to the critics who’d put the success of their first three albums down to hype, Led Zeppelin decided to release their fourth untitled. Instead of any words, the cover features a painting singer Robert Plant found in an antiques ship in Reading. The record itself displays four symbols, or runes: one for each band member.
Blondie – Parallel Lines: This classic sleeve got the band’s manager, Peter Leeds, fired. Without telling the band, he chose the image, which had been rejected by Debbie Harry – “I don’t think it’s a great design, personally,” she said – without informing the band, who were hoping it would show them fading in and out of the monochrome stripes. Leeds was replaced by Shep Gordon.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea: Based on a vintage postcard, Mangum asked artist Chris Bilheimer to replace the face of the woman with a potato. The resulting image tiptoes a thin line between cheery nostalgia and something much eerier.
Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: Shot in 1963, this one has Dylan and his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo strolling down Jonas Street, NYC. Critic Janet Maslin once wrote that the cover “inspired countless young men to hunch their shoulders, look distant, and let the girl do the clinging,” but actually Dylan was just chilly.
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground: The front and back cover photos were shot by artist Billy Name, who lived in Andy Warhol’s debauched NYC studio The Factory at the time of the album’s release. He’s namechecked by Lou Reed in ‘That’s The Story Of My Life’.
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation: A section of the painting ‘Kerze’ by German artist Gerhard Richter, who was known for his photorealistic works. The original was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2008 with a guide price of £2.5m, but it sold for £7.1m.
Jeff Buckley – Grace: Designer duo Nicky Lindeman and Christopher Austopchuk came up with the cover concept, and much of the focus is on the singer’s good looks. Speaking to ‘Interview Magazine’ in 1994, Buckley rejected the poster-boy tag: “The way you look doesn’t mean shit if you can’t sing, or if you’re mean to people”.
Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights: Inspired by minimal colour palettes and the Bauhaus art movement, artist Sean McCabe eventually ended up using a photograph taken inside a London cinema as the bold image on the front of Interpol’s debut. “They knew their sound and look had a presence to it, and they wanted [the artwork] to have a sense of awe and wonder,” he says of the sleeve.
The Killers – Hot Fuss: Despite the band’s well-documented Vegas roots, the buildings pictured on the front of their 2004 debut were actually located at a construction factory in Shanghai, China. The Chinese characters on top of the buildings read ‘construction material development’.
Foo Fighters – Foo Fighters: The cover photograph of an antique Buck Rogers XZ-38 Disintegrator Pistol was taken by Grohl’s then-wife Jennifer Youngblood. The image caused controversy because of the way that Kurt Cobain had died, but was only intended to tie in with the sci-fi theme of the band’s name (‘foo fighter’ was a wwII term for a UFO).
The Stones Roses – The Stone Roses: The cover art is a Jackson Pollock-influenced painting by Roses guitarist John Squire (also a noted artist), which is said to make reference to the May 1968 riots in Paris. The lemons that are featured on the sleeve refer to the fruit that was used as an antidote to tear gas.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever To Tell: Cody Critcheloe, frontman of electro-punks ‘Ssion’, created the illustrations of Karen, Nick and Brian. Karen later said she was taken by his “wacked-out artistic sensibility”, saying of the artwork: “It is my belief that Cody is a cult legend in the making. I was helpless to its electric, raspberry charm”.
AC/DC – Back In Black: The cover of the classic 1980 LP was a simple design of plain, stark black in honour of former AC/DC singer Bon Scott, who passed away the same year after drinking himself to death.
Kraftwerk – The Man Machine: A striking take on Lissitzky and Rodchenko, this Constructivist image feels oppressive, but not directly communist or fascist: as percussionist Karl Bartos has said, it had “a strong paramilitary image, but it is a contradiction because we wore red shirts and not brown.” To make the artwork even more perplexing, the title appears in four different languages.
PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love: Her first two album covers had featured the wok of Polly’s friend and long-term visual collaborator Maria Mochnacz. The ‘To Bring My Love’ shot was taken by fashion photographer Valerie Phillips on the set of the ‘Down By The Water’ video, directed by Mochnacz.
The Strokes – Is This It: The shot, taken by photographer Colin Lane, is of Lane’s then-girlfriend and was taken spontaneously after she emerged naked from the shower. “We did about 10 shots. There was no real inspiration, I was just trying to take a sexy picture,” says Lane of the image.
Portishead – Dummy: A still from the 10-minute short film ‘To Kill A Dead Man’, a spy movie homage starring Barrow as a rooftop assassin and Gibbons as the distraught wife of the man he’s contracted to kill.
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: Surfacing so soon after 9/11, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s’ cover image of two towers picked out against a blank background had a particular resonance. They’re actually the twin Marina City towers, on the north bank of the Chicago river, and the cover was finalised before the catastrophic events.
Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley: For 47 years it was believed that this photo – taken on July 31 1955 in Tampa, Florida – had been taken by Popsie Randolph. It was August 2002 when Elvis expert Joseph A. Tunzi discovered the shot was actually taken by William V “Red” Robertson. The cover style has been echoed over the years by everyone from Tom Waits to Chumbawamba.
Pixies – Doolittle: ‘Doolitle’ was the first album where 4AD’s in house designer Vaughan Oliver had access to the lyrics beforehand. Thus the monkey references in the track ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, while the booklet also contains oblique references to the likes of ‘I Bleed’ and ‘Gouge Away’. Oliver said in 2013 that it remains his favourite 4AD sleeve.
Lou Reed – Rock N Roll Animal: The cover shot is credited to little-known photographer DeWayne Dalrymple, who worked during the ‘60s and ‘70s with artists including Wilson Pickett and psych-folk band The Trout.
Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand: In conversation for an exhibition of Domino Records’ sleeve art in 2007, art director Matt Cooper recalled: “For such a simple design, this went through a surprising number of permutations. At one stage the back cover was the front. The angle of tilt on the logo – 13 degrees – will be forever ingrained upon my memory!”
David Bowie – Diamond Dogs: Bowie appears as half-man, half-dog character Halloween Jack, leader of the Diamond Dogs gang. Photographer Terry O’Neill took the pictures, which were then given to Belgian artist Guy Peellaert to render as a painting. RCA execs worried about the dog genitals on show, and censored the image. “I thought it was very sad,” Peellaert said afterward.
Slint – Spiderland: The cover shot, which depicts the band standing in an abandoned quarry, was taken by none other than Bonnie Prince Billy (aka Will Oldham). ‘Spiderland’, however, is the singer’s only notable foray into sleeve design.
The Kinks – The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society: The cover shot for ‘Village Green…’ took place at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath. Melody Maker photographer Barrie Wentzell took the pictures. ‘Village Green…’ would be the last album to feature the original Kinks line-up, with bassist Pete Quaife leaving in 1969.
Morrissey – Your Arsenal: Both the front and back cover images are live shots taken at a 1991 gig at New York’s Nassau coliseum. The photographer was visual artist and punk singer Linder Sterling, whom the singer has described as “steadfast and constant in [his] life” since they met in 1976.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Deja Vu: Civil war buff Stephen Stills wanted the cover to look like a photo from that era (1860s). To achieve that, the band rented lookalike outfits from a costume store and requested that photographer Tom O’Neal use an old-fashioned wooden box camera for the shoot, which took place in David Crosby’s rental house.
The Cure – Disintegration: Paul Thompson and Andy Vella had designed all of The Cure’s artwork until this point, but for ‘Disintegration’ Robert Smith was thinking of using someone new. In response, Thompson and Vella moved from their usual abstract designs into one that focused on Smith’s face, which some saw as a conscious ploy to curry favour.
The Prodigy – Music For The Jilted Generation: There are two pieces of art on this album – the screaming cover, by Stuart Haygarth, and the gatefold, by horror illustrator Les Edwards. Liam Howlett found a plaster head at Camden Market and asked Haygarth to sculpt it as if it were breaking through skin. Many interpreted it to be a visual response to the criminalisation of raves in 1994.
Pink Floyd – The Dark Side Of The Moon: Floyd’s label weren’t happy about the prism gatefold sleeve, insisting it was too minimalist. ‘…Dark Side’ ended up being their biggest-selling album all the same. Art group Hipgnosis, the team behind the design, have said the prism is meant to celebrate the group’s famous light show.
Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: Illustrator Ian Beck was chosen for the sleeve thanks to his work on singer-songwriter Jonathan Kelly’s ‘Wait Till They Change The Backdrop’. Elton’s Rocket Record Company were so smitten they originally wanted to use the same picture. Elton looks so long-legged because Beck asked his taller friend Leslie McKinley Howell to pose for framing shots.
Belle And Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister: Early in their career Belle And Sebastian would refuse to have their picture taken, so all their artwork was taken from archive photos and shots of friends, in homage to the classic Smiths sleeves.
The Smashing Pumpkins – Adore: Corgan’s then girlfriend, Ukrainian-born Yelena Yemchuk, who had been involved with the videos for the singles from ‘Mellon Collie…’, is credited with the art direction of ‘Adore’. Compared to the whimsy of ‘Mellon Collie…’, the gothic darkness of the main image was a signpost to the bleakness within.
The Ramones – Ramones: The punk legends originally wanted a cover similar to ‘Meet the Beatles!’ for this self-titled album, but after a disastrous shoot which cartoonist John Holmstrom described as like “pulling teeth”, opted for stark simplicity: the band lined up against a brick wall, expertly captured by photographer Roberta Bayley.
Bloc Party – Silent Alarm: The bare winter landscape was photographed by freelance Ness Sherry and expresses a desolate theme of isolation, loneliness and depression. A negative version of the same photograph was used on the later release, ‘Silent Alarm Remixed’.
Kate Bush – Hounds of Love: The shot of Kate reclining seductively on the cover takes on a rather creepier tone when you discover it was taken by her own brother, John Carder Bush.
The Kinks – Kinks: The cover shot was taken by Klaus Schmalenbach, who went on to work with the band on several of their subsequent releases. He later became a record executive at BMG.
Kaiser Chiefs – Employment: Designed by veteran art director Cally – whose credits include records by Nick Drake, Scott Walker, Tricky and more – the sleeve was designed to resemble the battered box of a 1940’s board game. A deluxe edition even came with a wad of Monopoly-style money
The Replacements – Let It Be: The front-cover photo was taken by Dan Corrigan and features The Replacements sitting on the roof of the Stintsons’ family home. Left to right, it’s Paul Westerberh, Bob Stintson, Chris Mars, Tommy Stintson. The picture is said to be a homage to the Beatles’ final rooftop concert during the 1969 ‘Let It Be’ sessions.
Elastica – Elastica: Renowned German fashion photographer Juergen Teller who was worked with artists including Sinead O’Connor, Bjork, Elton John, took the black-and-white snap for Elastica’s debut – a cover that, with its sparse, sparing style, stood apart from the elaborate and conceptual sleeves favoured by Blur and Suede.
The Cure – Boys Don’t Cry: The sleeve for ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ featured a fridge, a vacuum cleaner and a lamp – the latter apparently representing Smith. The same designer, Polydor art director Bill Smith, produced a similarly artful sleeve for ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, albeit one that seems to interpret the track ‘Fire in Cairo’ quite literally.
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem: After years spent performing in punk bands, James Murphy’s transition into an unlikely 35-year-old dancefloor king was cemented with LCD Soundsystem’s 2005 debut. What better image to show this than a disco ball? Effortless, precise and perfectly executed, it was typical Murphy.
Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen: “Music is medicine for the soul,” said Jason Pierce, deciding on minimalist pill-themed artwork for his third album sleeve: “1 tablet 70 min” it reads. Pierce actually cut several minutes from the album in order to round off the figure and make the typography look neat. Designer Mark Farrow has since said he regrets the gimmicky packaging.