Behind The Music: V Ranks the Most Notable Album Covers

Behind The Music: V Ranks the Most Notable Album Covers

Behind The Music: V Ranks the Most Notable Album Covers

Image makers share the illustrious stories behind some of the most impactful album art.

Image makers share the illustrious stories behind some of the most impactful album art.

Text: Alexandra Ilyashov

This article originally appeared in V109, on newsstands now. Order your copy here.

Album covers often inspire the fashion industry, but it's not just the clothing that's mood board-worthy. Crossing lines—between photography and pornography, art and ad, or even bad and good—keeps a cover feeling new and titillating.

Pennie Smith, responsible for the Clash's London Calling cover, recalls how spontaneity led to the sensational Slits' Cut album cover. Lead singer Ari Up's idea was "tribal," so the band marked their faces with lipstick—which Smith deemed silly. "Somebody had watered the rose bed and I said, 'Why not do it for real, get well mucked up?' Ari just dove in and the others followed." Reportedly, the band's label wasn't thrilled that the all-woman punk band was wearing nothing but loincloths and mud, but it never flustered Smith. "It wasn't done with provocative intent; it was just Ari being bonkers as usual," Smith explains.

Fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, known for his music videos for everyone from Madonna to David Bowie, also shot covers, like Björk's Debut and Prince's Lovesexy. He underscores the longevity factor: "The artist or the band will have to live with it all their life, so it'd better be good." A contentious album cover can boost sales, but in the 1970s and '80s, it could hinder visibility. Lovesexy was, in some countries, too sexy, and the record was banned from many stores (though, ironically, the Sistine Chapel inspire the cover concept). "It was bad news. Some people couldn't get a hold of the record to listen to it," recalls Mondino. "There was no YouTube or Amazon back then."

For Andy Earl, who has shot album covers for Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd, and the Cranberries, his first was the most controversial: Bow Wow Wow's See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy!, art directed by Sex Pistols creator Malcolm McLaren and inspired by Edouard MAnet's 1863 impressionist painting Le Déjuner sur l'herbe. "The boys in the band were dressed in Vivienne Westwood's first collection, and Malcolm persuaded [lead singer] Annabella [Lwin] to take her clothes off," Earl recalls. "We had to be quick with the photographs as we surprised a group of schoolchildren and their teacher on a nature walk. When the police visited after a complaint from Annabella's mother, I realized Annabella was 14, and they confiscated the images. Well, most of them." The image inspired outrage and the record label refused to pay for the shoot, but it ultimately worked out, at least for Earl: "Malcolm negotiated a ridiculous fee with the record company that allowed me to buy my first professional camera and flash equipment," Earl says. "So, I have Malcolm to thank for setting me up for a career shooting album covers."

Though it wasn't banned, there's a similar raw, vulnerable quality to Hole's Live Through This cover, featuring model Leilani Bishop as a smudged-up beauty queen. Ellen von Unwerth, then known for her black-and-white Guess ads, was an odd choice for an album cynical about Hollywood and fashion. "I talked a lot with Courtney Love about the concept," von Unwerth recalls. "We shared an obsession with the movie Carrie, so we decided to recreate the crucial scene." The result captures a '90s tension—a commercial image challenging the notion of a woman's commercial value—and von Unwerth sees the shot as "iconic of the time." Perhaps a perfectly preserved glimpse into a certain era is, after all, what ultimately makes for a memorable album cover.

PRINCE, "LOVESEXY" (1988)

UP NEXT

Women In Fashion: How Eve Denim Reinvents The Blues
The Americana fabric gets a new lease of life.