50 years ago on 1 June 1967, The Beatles released their psychedelic landmark eighth album – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Hailed as one of the iconic album covers 90s fashion greatest and most influential albums of all time, the 13 tracks (which included songs such as ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ and ‘A Day in the Life’) helped kick-start the ‘summer of love’ and marked a watershed in artistic freedom and imagination.
And it wasn’t just about the music. The cultural impact of the album’s elaborate cover, one of the most recognisable album sleeves ever, was also significant, heralding a new era in album artwork design.
To celebrate this milestone we present our picks for the most iconic album covers of all time. An accompanying Spotify playlist list is available for your listening pleasure at the bottom of the page.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles
Sgt Pepper’s album cover was designed by pop artist Peter Blake and his then wife, Jann Haworth, from an ink drawing by Paul McCartney. The cover features a total of 71 figures on the cover. The front row is three-dimensional with The Beatles standing in the middle and behind them mannequins, waxworks (borrowed from Madame Tussauds) and life-size dolls. The rest of the figures were made up of two-dimensional celebrity faces, which Blake and Haworth created by pasting 57 black and white figures onto hardboard – Haworth then tinted them by hand. Originally John Lennon had requested that Jesus, Hitler and Gandhi be included, but these were considered too provocative. At the time album covers typically cost around £50 to produce, but the final cost of the Sgt Pepper cover was almost £3,000 – a sum unheard of in those days. Despite this Blake and Haworth were paid a mere £200 for their design and construction!
Dark Side of the Moon - Pink Floyd
Designed by the celebrated art house collective Hipgnosis, who between 1967 and 1982 were responsible for album cover artwork for artists such as Led Zeppelin, 10cc, AC/DC, Scorpions, ELO, Yes and Black Sabbath, the Dark Side of the Moon cover was originally released in a gatefold LP sleeve so that the spectrum continued on the inside of the cover, around the back and eventually connected again with the front cover. The prism design represents three elements: the band's reputation for amazing stage lighting, the album lyrics, and band member Richard Wright’s request for a ‘simple and bold design’.
Aladdin Sane - David Bowie
The striking image of David Bowie with a lightning bolt across his face marked the end of an era for Ziggy Stardust, the alter ego who had propelled him to stardom, and ushered in a new schizophrenic persona, Aladdin Sane. This 1973 cover was a collaboration between Bowie (who came up with the bolt design, rumoured to be inspired by a symbol on an electric oven), photographer Brian Duffy and make-up artist Pierre Laroche.
The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground
Recognisable for featuring an Andy Warhol print of a banana, early copies of the cover of The Velvet Underground’s debut album invited owners to peel back the banana skin to reveal a flesh-coloured banana underneath. A special machine was required to manufacture these covers, so most do not feature the peel-off sticker; the original copies are now rare collector’s items.
The Best Of - Blur
The cover to this greatest hits compilation was designed by artist Julian Opie, who created the ‘digital drawings’ by sketching onto photographs of the band. The original painting can be found in the National Portrait Gallery.
Parallel Lines - Blondie
This striped monochrome cover, complete with red typography, is now a classic, perfectly capturing the ‘new wave’ genre Blondie were famous for. However, the band themselves did not like how it separated Debbie Harry from the rest and their manager was sacked as a result.
London Calling - The Clash
This album’s front cover, which features a photograph of bassist Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision Bass against the stage at The Palladium in New York City on 20 September 1979 during the Clash Take the Fifth US tour, perfectly captures the ‘ultimate rock ‘n’ roll moment. The pink and green text are an homage to the design of Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album.
Fleetwood Mac - Rumours
Featuring a stylised shot of just two band members, Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks (dressed in her ‘Rhiannon’ stage persona), the cover to Rumours was photographed by Herbert Worthington. The balls hanging between Fleetwood’s legs on the cover were already a staple of his stage get-up and were in fact toilet chains taken from a club the band used to play in during their formative years.
Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin
The cover to Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut studio album was chosen by guitarist Jimmy Page and features a black-and-white image of the burning Hindenburg airship, photographed by Sam Shere. The image refers to the origin of the band’s name itself and was created by George Hardie of Hipgnosis, who rendered the famous original black-and-white photograph in ink using a Rapidograph technical pen and a mezzotint technique.
Queen II - Queen
The Queen II album cover features a photograph taken by Mick Rock of the four band members standing in diamond formation against a black background. Rock took inspiration for the cover from a still of the actress from the 1932 film Shanghai Express, but it was nearly rejected by the band on the grounds of it appearing too pretentious. Soon convinced otherwise, Queen reused the image for the promotional video of their 1975 single ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘One Vision’ (1985).
American Idiot - Green Day
Feeling that the album artwork should reflect the political content contained on American Idiot, Green Day drew inspiration from Chinese communist propaganda art and recruited artist Chris Bilheimer to create the cover. Bilheimer took note of the lyric ‘And she's holding on my heart like a hand grenade’ from the song ‘She’s a Rebel’ and used this as his basis for the striking design.
Brothers in Arms - Dire Straits
The guitar featured on the front of the album cover is lead singer and guitarist Mark Knopfler’s 1937 National Style 0 Resonator, photographed by Deborah Feingold. Continuing the theme, the back cover features a painting of the same guitar, by German artist Thomas Steyer.
Dangerous - Michael Jackson
Artist Mark Ryden went all out on the symbolism for the cover of Michael Jackson’s 1991 album Dangerous. The main theme most draw out from the cryptic artwork is the discord between a life of celebrity and its dark underbelly, although some fans claim that there are references to the Masons and the Illuminati. Elements of Jackson’s life that were reported on in the tabloids are recognisable - the Neverland rollercoaster, the chimpanzee above his eyes, the regal portrait (as ‘King of Pop’) - but his body is mostly hidden. It took Ryden six months to fully complete the painting.
Born in the U.S.A - Bruce Springsteen
Photographed by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, the red, white and blue cover shows only a rear view of Bruce Springsteen, the ‘everyday working American man’ in blue jeans standing in front of the national flag. Despite it’s simplicity, the strong symbolic and political message of both the song and image caused controversy - then-president Ronald Reagan mistook the song for a patriotic anthem and American Republicans believed the photo showed Springsteen urinating on the American flag. He wasn’t.
Definitely Maybe - Oasis
The photograph on the front cover of the album, depicting the band in the front room of guitarist Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs’ house, was taken by rock photographer Michael Spencer Jones and is said to be inspired by the back cover of 60s Beatles compilation A Collection of Beatles Oldies, on which the Fab Four are sat around a table in a Japanese hotel room. Cultural reference points include the Clint Eastwood film The Good, The Bad And The Ugly playing on the TV and a poster of Burt Bacharach (one of Noel Gallagher’s idols) in what some think is also a nod to Pink Floyd and their positioning of the Gigi soundtrack on the Ummagumma album cover.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - Elton John
llustrator Ian Beck was chosen to design the sleeve thanks to his work on singer-songwriter Jonathan Kelly’s Wait Till They Change The Backdrop (Elton’s record company originally wanted to use the same picture). In the image Elton looks much taller that he really is because Beck asked his friend Leslie McKinley Howell to pose for the framing shots.
Hotel California - Eagles
The front cover artwork is a photograph of the Beverly Hills Hotel by David Alexander with design and art direction by Kosh. According to band member Don Henley, the sleeve of the Eagles’ 1976 album Hotel California was intended to convey an atmosphere of ‘faded glory, loss of innocence and decadence’. To get the perfect picture, Alexander and Kosh perched atop a 60 ft cherry picker over Sunset Boulevard in the rush hour and shot blindly into the sun. According to reports bookings at the hotel tripled after the release of the album.
It’s Blitz! - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The cover for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs third album featured nothing more than a high-speed photograph of frontwoman Karen O crushing a raw egg in her hand. Acclaimed conceptual artists Urs Fisher took the lead in art direction for the album and produced something completely new with this eye-popping artwork.
Different Class - Pulp
Initial copies of the album came with six different double-sided inserts of alternative cover art, each a snapshot of everyday British life, and a sticker inviting the listener to ‘choose their own front cover’. However all standard copies thereafter album featured the wedding photograph as the actual cover, which was shot of a real wedding. Calling in favours from friends, Dom and Sharon O’Connor married in Molesey, Surrey, in August 1995. Their friend Donald Milne agreed to take the photographs if they’d pose with cutouts of a band he was working with. No prizes for guessing who that band were...
Let It Bleed - The Rolling Stones
This surreal cover was designed by Robert Brownjohn and depicts an unusual cake with layers made from a tyre, clock face, film canister and a pizza, decorated with white icing. Miniature Rolling Stones figurines top the cake which is perched on a record player, with a Rolling Stones album playing below. The cake parts of the construction were prepared by then-unknown cookery writer Delia Smith.
Never Mind the B, Here’s the Sex Pistols - Sex Pistols
Jamie Reid’s cover concept for the Sex Pistols’ debut album forever shaped the punk aesthetic. Manager Malcolm McClaren wanted to ‘make ugliness beautiful’ and so Reid, refraining from using a picture of the group, instead used lurid dayglo red and yellow colours with cutout lettering to create a finish which resembled a crude ransom note – something which perfectly encapsulated punk’s DIY ethos.
Power, Corruption and Lies - New Order
Peter Saville’s design for the album cover is a reproduction of the painting ‘A Basket of Roses’ by French artist Henri Fantin-Latour, found by Saville on a postcard bought at the National Gallery. Similar to the New Order singles ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Confusion’, the cover has a colour-based code and a decoding wheel was featured on the back cover to help decipher the band’s name and the title of the album.
Tubular Bells - Mike Oldfield
Designed by Trevor Key of Cooke Key Associates (with Brian Cooke) the triangular bell on the album cover was inspired by a tubular bell Oldfield had dented while playing.
Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik - Red Hot Chili Peppers
The album’s cover illustration is credited to is credited to ‘Henky Penky’ (Henk Schiffmacher, a Dutch tattoo artist who had inked lead singer Antony Kiedis) and features the four band members’ faces positioned around roses, with their tongues stylistically transformed to become entwined tribal tattoo-like thorns. This artwork represented something of a cultural shift, as before the dawn of the 90s tattoos were not mainstream and often still the preserve of sailors and bikers.
Original Pirate Material - The Streets
The towerblock pictured in the cover artwork is ‘Towering Inferno’ by German photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg and is the south face of Kestrel House on City Road in Islington, London. The Streets debut, in narrating everyday urban life’s mundanity, captured the realism of being British for a generation and the cover artwork superbly complimented the overall aesthetic.
American IV: The Man Comes Around - Johnny Cash
Released in 2002, American IV, the 87th studio album by Johnny Cash, was the final album recorded during his lifetime. Lauded as a seminal work, the majority of songs are covers which Cash performed in his own unique sparse style, so the stark, solemn black-and-white cover is particularly fitting. The profile of Cash which adorns the cover was taken by photographer Martyn Atkins, who worked on all of the ‘American Recordings’ albums, and has also designed sleeves for the likes of Depeche Mode, The Teardrop Explodes and Echo & The Bunnymen.
Nevermind - Nirvana
The Nevermind album cover shows a naked baby boy, alone underwater with a US dollar bill on a fishhook just out of his reach. According to lead singer Kurt Cobain, he conceived of idea while watching a television program on water births with drummer Dave Grohl. Cobain mentioned the idea to the record company art director Robert Fisher but the idea of featuring a water birth was dismissed as it would have been to graphic. Settling on the idea of a baby swimming underwater, aquatic photographer Kirk Weddle was contacted when the record label could not find a workable stock shot of their concept. Weddle set up a shoot at a swimming school in Pasadena and invited parents to being their babies down, one of whom was Rick Elden, a friend of Weddle, who brought along his four-month-old son, Spencer. Weddle shot a few different babies that day, but the photo of Spencer was the one that made the cut. The anti-capitalist message was added later when the label’s art department added in the fish hook and dollar bill.
Screamadelica - Primal Scream
The psychedelic ‘sunburst’ album cover for Screamadelica, the anthemic soundtrack to the 90s house music scene, was painted by Creation Records’ in-house artist Paul Cannell. The sunburst design was originally used on the posters and sleeve of Primal Scream’s single ‘Higher Than the Sun’ and Creation boss Alan McGee thought it would look good as an album sleeve if painted in primary colours. As to the origins of the sunburst, some sources allege that Cannell was inspired by a damp water spot he’d seen on the Creation Records offices ceiling after taking LSD.
Coldplay - A Rush of Blood to the Head
The album cover for A Rush of Blood to the Head was designed by photographer Sølve Sundsbø, after singer Chris Martin approached him after seeing one of his unique shots in the fashion magazine Dazed & Confused. The shots were created using a three-dimensional scanning machine, but the scanner could not properly identify the colours on the model and could only scan around a foot of the image - this is why the digital spikes appear and the head was chopped in the final image.
Abbey Road - The Beatles
Like Sgt Pepper, the iconic photograph of The Beatles on the zebra crossing outside the Abbey Road studios, was based on an ideas sketched by Paul McCartney. The photograph was taken on 9 August 1969 outside the EMI Studios in Abbey Road and photographer Iain MacMillan was given just 10 minutes to take the photo whilst he stood on a step-ladder and a policeman held up the traffic behind the camera. McCartney is the only one of the band who is barefoot and all of them, except George Harrison, are wearing suits designed by Tommy Nutter. The images of the group on the crossing have gone on to become one of the most famous and imitated in music history.
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