In an era when the whole concept of the "album" is going away, we're also missing out on iconic album covers. Nirvana's naked pool baby, the Beatles crossing Abbey Road -- these are some of the best-known images in pop culture history. But many of these bands almost made history for a different reason -- by producing albums with covers that would have traumatized (or at least confused) a generation.
In June of 1966, the Beatles were well into their highly publicized love affair with drugs of all sorts. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was less than a year away from changing everything, and 1965's Rubber Soul had signaled a groovy new direction for the world's first boy band.
Apparently John is the only one who knows where the camera is.
It was like when the Jonas Brothers released that "rock" album a few years ago, except with good songs and people you don't want to punch. Given the increasingly psychedelic circumstances of the time, though, you'd think that the officially sanctioned cover art for the band's Yesterday and Today album would have a little more edge to it. Instead, we got this:
"We'll close the trunk on the next album and get rid of McCartney entirely."
After all, this was sandwiched between the aforementioned Rubber Soul and Revolver's acid-trip doodle collage cover art.
"We really wanted to go for the Highlights hidden picture look."
So what's with the boring-ass "open steamer trunk and off-duty wardrobe" look of Yesterday and Today? As it turns out, that JC Penney family photo snoozer was merely a last-second replacement for something far more befitting the "experimental" nature of the band at the time.
Wait, did they mean experimental as in "music" or experimental as in "Mengele"?
There's the stuff. Hacked up babies, baby -- it's what all the hippies were into. That's not true, of course, but what hippies were more receptive to was being totally against war, and that's exactly what the Beatles had in mind during the borderline terrifying photo shoot that produced this album cover.
Succinctly commenting on U.S. foreign policy in the way that only a dismembered Cabbage Patch Kid can.
It was intended to be a statement against the escalating war in Vietnam, and when that unsettling photo was chosen as the band's next album cover, no one had any reason to believe it would be a problem. After all, this was practically the exact same image that adorned promotional materials surrounding the release of the "Paperback Writer" single a few months earlier:
And the June 1966 issue of Disc magazine:
Get it?? Carve-up, like ... like the babies?
Here's the thing, though: That promotional poster is black and white, and that magazine cover features zero dead babies, making it simply a picture of four men sitting around draped in various cuts of meat. That's more of a statement against mental health than anything. The "butcher cover," as it's affectionately come to be known, however, featured lots of babies and was in full blood-spattered color. Before the album was even officially available for purchase, calls started pouring in from angry retailers who were, for some reason, hesitant to stock a record featuring the least threatening band in the world sitting among a pile of baby parts and cow blood.
The record label recalled the albums, and in a cost-saving move, just placed an album-art-sized sticker featuring that lame steamer trunk cover over the nightmare-inducing version that was causing so much outrage. To this day, if you can find an original pressing of the Yesterday and Today cover with that steamer trunk on it, a terrifying glimpse into what rich Brits thought Vietnam looked like is waiting for you just below the surface.
There's definitely something to be said for striking while the iron is hot, but it's not always an easy thing to pull off without looking obvious. A young Michael Jackson and his massive team of handlers learned this the hard way when it came time to produce a cover for the pop legend's second album, the somewhat confusingly titled Ben.
Who is called "Steve."
The problem was, the song that gave the album its name is the very definition of the word "fluke." For starters, it wasn't even supposed to be a Michael Jackson song. Donny Osmond -- who was for all intents and purposes the Mormon church's answer to Michael Jackson at the time -- turned down a chance to record the song because of a scheduling conflict. So MJ stepped in and killed it, and the song became a massive hit.
Naturally wanting to capitalize on the song's popularity, Jackson's label scrambled to put together a new album. What they came up with was a mishmash of cover tunes that gave absolutely no hint or clue as to who this "Ben" that young Michael Jackson was serenading actually was. That's a problem the label chose to fix with the original version of the Ben album cover.
Oh, ohhhhhh, now it makes sense.
Holy shit. Keep in mind, Michael Jackson was 14 at the time, which meant that his fan base was disproportionately young. And here, on the cover of their favorite singer's sophomore album, was going to be an army of rats that look like they were bred solely for the purposes of terror chasing a doomed crowd of screaming victims. Why in the hell would this be? Simple: The song was actually written for the movie Ben, which is the sequel to a movie called Willard, which fans of truly awful horror films will recall was about a boy who befriends a killer rat.
And, later, George McFly, which is a surprisingly logical conclusion to his character arc.
Ben, on the other hand, is about a boy who befriends a killer rat that has lots of killer rat friends. So naturally you're going to want a tender love ballad scene in a movie like that.
And who's going to buy a Michael Jackson album if they don't know that it's very loosely related to a rat movie of the same name? Everybody, that's who. At some point, less idiotic heads prevailed, and Ben was put on store shelves sans the terrifying rat imagery, eventually reaching No. 5 on the U.S. charts. Not bad for the creepiest fucking love song ever.
Actually, it's not that creepy when you take into account that young Mike did in fact have an army of rats of his very own that he loved and cherished right up until the point where they started eating each other. We're not joking about that, except for the part where we say it makes this song less creepy. It makes it so much creepier. So much.
The Coup is a hip-hop group that frequently writes music that is political in nature, but if you think the above cover is a tasteless reference to the 9/11 attacks, you have it all wrong. That cover design was created months before, and the attacks happened just a week before the album was scheduled to hit shelves.
That's right -- it's pure billion-to-one coincidence that the design that was completed in June of 2001 perfectly recreates the attacks, unless it was created by that guy from Heroes who could paint the future. Boots Riley, the group's founder, fought to keep the original cover, which he said was a "metaphor for the capitalist state being destroyed through the music." Yeah, we're pretty sure the events of that September obliterated any chance of you getting that message across, dude.
Needless to say, the release was pushed back anyway while they found a more suitable cover.
They also removed the track titled "Death to the Infidel Pigs."
Riley protested, claiming that the reasons for the cover being censored were political and not out of respect for the victims. Meanwhile, his desire to keep the cover as is? Totally out of respect for the victims.