Behind some of the Most Iconic Classic Rock Album Artworks

Anyone can agree that a lot of things must be taken into consideration before releasing a record to the public. In addition to music, being the most influential and important factor for distinguishing an artist and attract a fan-base, there are several other elements and areas which can boost the sales and provoke an additional interest. Since the era of the mass production of vinyl records, the cover artwork has become probably the most fascinating and carefully-thought of record detail that not only provides another venue for artistic expression (in addition to music), but also allures and triggers a reaction from the public…and if the response is good, it definitely contributes to the sales of the record.

The cover art of an album needs to meet several conditions. First and foremost, I believe that regardless of the genre or the artist, the cover artwork should be directly related with the songs and the music of the album. Whether the artist and the company chose to go with a painting, a photograph, a collage, a composition; or whatever effects, fonts, messages or styles they choose, they need to understand that if the cover art is not in harmony with or does not represent or describe in a way the music of the album, things can go wrong. Secondly, needless to say, throughout the years the vinyl record, the CD, the cassette, the DVD – they have all became mass manufactured products. Therefore, what you choose to depict on the “face” of the record will determine how people will look at the particular album and whether they will pick it up from the shelves and buy it. I don’t want to get into any marketing product analysis right now, however as an expert I would like to say that the goal of every product release is to attract neutral or undecided member of the population (because well, you already have your devoted fans who will most certainly buy it). I understand that music speaks for itself and should be enough, however in my personal opinion, it’s not just about music anymore and it hasn’t been for the past 30 or so years.

I have been interested in this issue for as long as I can remember and therefore I decided that it was high time I wrote a publication about the importance and influence of the album artwork. Since I’m mostly interested in rock music and this is a blog about classic rock music, I decided to gather up 10 of the most iconic and emblematic classic rock album artworks that proved to be as essential and as responsible for the success of the records as the music itself. The selection is personal, of course; however I do believe that many of my readers would like it and hopefully learn something new for at least one or two of those artworks I selected. I hope you would all enjoy it! Here we go…


Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)


I am going to kick things off with “The Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd, because in my opinion this is THE MOST emblematic and memorable album artwork of all time – I mean just think about the amount of T-shirts you see every day, bearing this image (and some people don’t even know about it, by the way). This is one of the cases in which, the artwork of one album became synonymous with the band itself – I don’t know about you guys, but every time I hear or think about Pink Floyd, this is the pyramid and the rainbow is the first image that comes to my mind.
The artwork was designed by Storm Thorgerson – a famous graphic designer that made the covers of numerous other rock music albums of artists such as Alan Parsons Project, AC/DC, Peter Gabriel, Black Sabbath and many others. As we can see, the design is quite simplistic but very mysterious and intriguing. It depicts a triangle (prism) – which is said to be the symbol of ambition, thought and the strength of human spirit. The other elements are inspired by Pink Floyd’s live light show – the light goes through the prism and comes out as a rainbow. The rainbow here represents the music of Pink Floyd – the album and the lyrics. If I have to describe this masterpiece record, I would say that it’s quite psychedelic, philosophical and conceptual – and thus I believe the artwork depicts it quite well.

Van Halen – 1984


This one has to be my favourite of them all – I mean just look how cute but ridiculous it looks at the same time. It’s a little cute and innocent cherubic infant and you are all “awww” – till of course, you realize that this innocent little baby is actually smoking a cigarette and doesn’t really care about it. That album artwork is probably Van Halen’s most distinguished and easily-recognizable one. Not to mention that this is their most successful album ever!
The iconic artwork was made by graphic artist Margo Nahas. Nahas was first asked to create an artwork featuring four chrome women dancing around and having fun, however she refused to do it. Her husband brought her portfolio to the band and they chose a little putti who was stealing some cigarettes – they immediately chose this design idea. The model for the artwork was Carter Helm – the child of one of Naha’s best friends. Calm down, of course she photographed him holding a candy cigarette – not a real one.
It turned out the cover was too controversial for the UK so it got censored. In addition, a sticker was placed on the cigarette and on the package. I guess it was just too difficult to watch this grotesque depiction of true rock and roll. That’s what it was all about, after all – a living proof that this wild and intense industry can corrupt anyone or anything. Regardless of how pure or innocent you are, sooner or later, the rock ‘n’ roll life and the pressure you get from the multi-million dollar music business can’t but change you.

The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)


The perfect combination of humor, art and music comes once again in the form of a very famous and emblematic record cover made by none other than Andy Warhol, who also happens to be the Velvet Underground’s manager and producer. The artwork features a print of a banana – quite amusing, don’t you think? I mean what does a banana has to do with music? The early copies of the album would also invite the owner of the copy to actually “peel slowly and see” – after you take off the banana skin (sticker), you could see a fresh-colored banana underneath. You can imagine that such rather complicated and unconventional album covers cost a lot. However, companies were basically hoping that the name “Andy Warhol” will make up for their large investments. Time went by, and the original peel-off banana sticker records were replaced by a “regular banana with no sticker to peel-off sticker” (how boring, right). The original copies are now considered very rare collector’s items that cost quite a lot, actually. On the 1996 CD reissue of the record, you can see the peeled off banana beneath the CD on the case. I don’t own a copy; however I’m sure it looks pretty cool. As much as we love and appreciate the simplicity and uniqueness of the artwork, the album itself was a complete disaster. It didn’t match the expectations and was even described as “a full-fledged attack on the ears and on the brain”. We can conclude that this is probably one of the cases in which the artwork became more successful than the music itself. Even nowadays, the banana appears on many T-shirt designs and all kinds of merchandise – we cannot get rid of it!

The Clash – London Calling (1979)


This right here – this is pure rock ‘n’ roll – crazy, wild and untamed! This time the cover of the Clash’s most famous record – “London Calling” features the bassist Paul Simonon, smashing his Fender Precision Bass against a stage. Can you imagine this – I mean this thing has to weight a lot! The moment was photographed during their 1979 USA tour by photographer Pennie Smith. Originally, she didn’t want the photo to be used in the album because it was just too blurred and out of focus. However, her decision was overruled by the band’s graphic designer – Ray Lowrly who thought that it would make a perfect cover for their album. The fact that this photograph was named “the best rock and roll photograph of all time by Q magazine”, probably means that he made the right call! The magazine described it as an outstanding photograph that “captures the ultimate rock’n’roll moment – total loss of control”.

In addition to the awesome picture, the cover is also a tribute to the design of the king of rock ‘n’ roll – Evlis Presley’s self-titled debut album. Just like in Evlis’ cover, “London Calling” features green letters on the bottom and pink letters down the left. (I don’t think Elvis has ever smashed a guitar in his life, however it’s still a nice tribute)
Overall, the cover generated a very positive response from the public and from the fans as well. As a result, even nowadays it is often referred to as one of the best rock album covers of all time – you can even see it on a postage stamp in the UK! Oh and by the way, if you want to check out the guitar from the photograph, go to Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Metallica – Master of Puppets (1986)


Metallica has many philosophical and cogitative album covers that always carry a very special and important message. I chose to talk about their most quintessential album artwork featured on their album “Master of Puppets”. The cover was originally designed by Metallica and Peter Mensch and eventually painted by Don Brautigam. It illustrates a soldier cemetery field of white crosses, all of which tied to numerous strings and manipulated by a pair of hands – a faceless master, coming out of a blood-red sky. According to Lars Ulrich (the drummer), the artwork perfectly summarizes the lyrics of the album – people are being subconsciously manipulated and unable to control what they do or think – there’s something else, bigger than us that controls people and we are not even aware of that or truly apprehend it.
Instead of going for the Satan and the occult, like many other trash metal bands of the 80s, Metallica chose to focus on real-life evil with this cover and this album. To some it may be too controversial or political; however along with the music and the lyrics, the album cover remained one of the most talked about and appreciated statements. The themes of the record include loss of control and abuse of power – once again perfectly aligned with the cover artwork.

The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)


How can I go without this one? This street-crossing photograph of the Beatles is also one of my most favorite album covers and not just to me but to millions of people all over the world. It was designed by Apple records creative director Kosh. Interesting fact, it’s the only original UK Beatles release that doesn’t show the name of the band or the title of the album on the record. But – do we actually need this information? I mean we are talking about the Beatles – the most famous band in the world – we are well aware of who they are!
The photograph was taken on the 8th of August, 1969, outside EMI Studios on Abbey Road. The idea was based on some sketches made some time ago by McCartney. The photographer – Iain Macmillan was given exactly 10 minutes to capture this image because the traffic had to be held up. On the photo, we can see the fab 5 on a zebra crossing with John leading, followed by Ringo, Paul and George. We can immediately spot that Paul is the only one who is barefoot and out of step with the other band members. There’s also a white beetle motor-car whose owner was unfortunate enough to park it there – due to the popularity of the image, the number plate was repeatedly stolen from his car till he sold it eventually.
Anyhow, the legacy of this album cover is quite significant. Not only it became a very famous tourist attraction where every day thousands of fans take pictures and try to recreate the moment, but there’s also a webcam live feed of the attraction. The cover was also imitated and parodied from many artists and on many occasions.

I feel like I should also address one very intriguing speculation, regarding this cover and the Beatles. One of the biggest hoaxes in the music industry traveled around the world during the late 60s – yes, I’m talking about the “Paul is Dead” theory. Everyone started speculating whether Paul was dead or alive and thought that for years he has been replaced with an impostor. Fans truly believed that and even found traces and little hints from many of their songs and albums. When the Abbey Road album was finally released, all the speculations demised at an all-time high. Many believed that this album cover is actually depicting a funeral – Lennon, who was dressed in white, symbolized the clergyman or the heavenly figure, probably an angel; Ringo Starr, wearing a black costume was exemplifying the undertaker or the mourner; George Harrison – he was wearing denim jeans and shirt was supposedly illustrating a gravedigger; and finally Paul McCartney – barefoot and out of step – he was symbolizing the dead man.
Well – Paul is alive and still kicking! So, to me the whole thing was just one very interesting marketing strategy! Nevertheless, no one can deny the influence and legacy of this album artwork!

Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (1973)


I just had to include the mighty Led Zeppelin because all of their album cover arts are very special and always come along with an interesting background story. With “Houses of the Holy” we have a very distinctive and famous artwork that even got to #6 in on VH1’s 50 Greatest Album Covers. The design was made, once again by Hipgnosis design studio. Interesting story, the original design was made by none other than Mr Storm Thorgerson, who unfortunately was fired by Zeppelin due to the band being a bit frustrated with him and his implications about their music. Eventually, they hired Aubrey Powell – a designer from the same studio, who carried out the project.

The cover art was based on the ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “Childhood’s End”. For those of you who are not quite familiar with the book, the story is basically about a peaceful alien invasion. The artwork depicts the scene in which children are climbing off the end of the world. I haven’t read the book, however based on the plot synopsis I found I think it might be quite interesting… Back to the cover, it features a collage of several photographs, edited and placed together. The two golden-haired and (at least to me) ghostly and even unearthly children that can be seen on the record cover are actually siblings – Stefan and Samantha Gates. We can see them crawling up basalt columns towards some kind of distant light. The photographs were taken at the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland which is a very beautiful and breath-taking area to visit and take pictures of. In addition to the beautiful nature of the place, the columns were said to have been built by a giant. Overall, the artwork combines numerous interesting elements, it’s wrapped up in lore, legend and mythology and it’s even a bit sinister – just like Led Zeppelin and the album.

David Bowie – Diamond Dogs (1974)


This one is quite absurd, if you ask me – I mean I know we are talking about David Bowie, but this cover artwork is just too hilarious…
The bizarre half-dog, half-man David Bowie was painted by Belgian artist Guy Peellaert. He transformed the photographs of Bowie, previously taken by photographer Terry O’Neill, into this surrealistic and abnormal composition. I should say that in this particular album, David adopted the persona of Halloween Jack, leader of the Diamond Dogs gang.
The full painting made by the artist was apparently too sensitive and controversial to be displayed as it was clearly showing the genitals of the hybrid creature…OH MY GOD the HORROR!!! Eventually, of course, the dog genitalia had to be airbrushed and the record was released without anyone seeing something they should not see. By the way, you can still buy the original records with the “provocative” dog genitalia for just a few thousand dollars. It’s extremely rare and it’s considered to be one of the most expensive and hard to find record collectibles of all time.
I don’t really like the design, if I have to be completely honest, however I do think that it perfectly matches David’s personality, as well as the character he portrayed in this album.

Asia – Asia (1982)


I cannot talk about iconic classic rock album artworks without mentioning Roger Dean. For those of you who don’t know him or are a bit unfamiliar with his works, I will say that he is probably one of the most notable and talented artist who is responsible for so many album covers. Mostly, he worked with bands such as YES and Uriah Heep and eventually when the members of YES and King Crimson recorded their first album as a new band called Asia, Roger Dean once again stepped in to make a brilliant artwork.

On the cover of their debut self-titled album we can see a pictographic image of a beautiful sea creature (a leviathan), gazing at a shining crystal orb. His designs often portray similar exotic, organic-looking, galactic and fantasy landscapes and creatures – this one is not an exception. I included it in the list not for its deep philosophical meaning and connection with the music of Asia, but rather to pay tribute to one of the greatest and most visionary album cover designers ever. Check out some of his other works…

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)


This is a very special album with a very emblematic cover. The photograph was shot in 1963 and it portrays Bob Dylan and his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo walking down a street in New York. The picture was taken by Don Hunstein near the place where the couple lived at that time. It’s very sweet and lovely shot of them – very eye-pleasing and warming. During an interview in New York Times, Suze recalled the time of the photography: “He wore a very thin jacket, because image was all. Our apartment was always cold, so I had a sweater on, plus I borrowed one of his big, bulky sweaters. On top of that I put on a coat. So I felt like an Italian sausage. Every time I look at that picture, I think I look fat.”
Furthermore, she also wrote a memoir, explaining the significance of this record cover: “It is one of those cultural markers that influenced the look of album covers precisely because of its casual down-home spontaneity and sensibility. Most album covers were carefully staged and controlled, to terrific effect on the Blue Note jazz album covers … and to not-so great-effect on the perfectly posed and clean-cut pop and folk albums. Whoever was responsible for choosing that particular photograph for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan really had an eye for a new look.”
Interesting, Critic Janet Maslin wrote that this record cover became so significant and notable because it “inspired countless young men to hunch their shoulders, look distant, and let the girl do the clinging”. Personally, I think Bob was just feeling too chilly…

I do hope that this publication made you guys think about the gravity and magnitude of importance of an album cover artwork. Mostly, I hope you enjoyed reading about some of the most iconic classic rock album covers and learning about their backstory…
Till next time…


“Best Album Covers of All Time”, retrieved from http://www.billboard.com/photos/6715351/best-album-covers-of-all-time/12
“50 Iconic Indie Album Covers: The Fascinating Stories Behind The Sleeves”, retrieved from http://www.nme.com/photos/50-iconic-indie-album-covers-the-fascinating-stories-behind-the-sleeves/376825#/photo/1#0IzZTdXTlDd7qMeR.99
“50 Coolest Album Covers”, retrieved from http://www.shortlist.com/entertainment/music/50-coolest-album-covers#gallery-20 P.S. I don’t own any audio or visual material used in this publication. All the rights and credits go to the owners and/publishers.
The publication expresses my personal opinion and in no way is trying to make a generalized statement. Please be kind and considerate when you read and/or comment.

5 replies »

  1. Nice article.
    I should get out more as I only own one of these albums. Of course I am aware of some of these iconic covers, especially Dark Side of the Moon and London Calling. That is a great photograph of The Clash’s bass player. Of course, 1984 holds a special place for me. The sweet little angel baby having a ciggie. Awwww.
    Very informative.


    • Hello,
      Thank you for the comment!
      Dark side, london calling, 1984 and the beatles one are my favs among these – i just love album covers….
      I have only 2 out of these on hard CD copy though …. need to visit the local CD store these days!haha


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