(Parental Advisory: Explicit Content)
There have been plenty of controversies in the history of modern popular music. From John Lennon’s infamous claim that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus to Janet Jackson’s notorious Super Bowl halftime show “wardrobe malfunction,” there are countless examples of things musicians have done that have offended some people. Sometimes it doesn’t even take a sacrilegious comment or an exposed nipple on live television to send the censors into a tizzy. In some cases, all it takes is an album cover. Here’s a look at some of the album covers that have gotten records banned merely based on appearances.
1. The Dead Kennedys, Frankenchrist
In 1987, Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra was acquitted on charges of distributing pornography due to the H.R. Giger artwork for the band’s Frankenchrist album. Giger’s painting, called Landscape #XX, or Penis Landscape, was included as a poster in the album sleeve. Although technically the image wasn’t on the cover (the image above was), it still managed to get the album banned.
The painting features rows of penises entering rows of vulvae. Biafra was prosecuted over the artwork by an attorney after the attorney’s daughter bought a copy of the album for her brother for Christmas, according to a brief history of banned rock music from the radio station Rock 103. Copies of the album were seized and destroyed, and the resulting trial nearly bankrupted Biafra’s record label, Alternative Tentacles Records. The trial gained Biafra a reputation as a proponent of free speech, and the label was kept alive on the support of fans.
2. Prince, Lovesexy
In 1988, copies of Prince’s album Lovesexy were removed from shelves after the cover photograph was deemed too … sexy. The cover art features a photograph of Prince naked, sitting on a flower, and although he’s strategically covering himself, some stores considered the photo too risqué to sell. Some outlets wrapped the album in black paper, which was a bit misleading, considering the same year Prince released (and then quickly withdrew) The Black Album, which had an all-black cover.
That strategy was not very appreciated by fans, as The Black Album got great reviews and was a highly coveted bootleg, while Lovesexy got mediocre reviews and was not so highly desired. With Lovesexy wrapped in black paper, you couldn’t tell the difference between the two in the store, according to Time. Lovesexy would end up being Prince’s least successful record since 1982, more likely due to lackluster reviews than that controversial photo.
3. Nirvana, In Utero
The cover art for Nirvana’s third album and follow-up to its massive success Nevermind is kind of creepy. It features a female anatomical mannequin with angel wings and enough weird nudity to inspire bans, but it wasn’t the artwork that got this album pulled from the shelves at Kmart and Wal-Mart. The title of the song “Rape Me” is what made the chain stores angry, and frontman Kurt Cobain relented by changing the title on the back of the cover of the records sold at those locations to “Waif Me.”
While Cobain’s punk ethos was against censorship, he said he made the change so that his fans living in the middle of nowhere who had to get their music from big chain stores would still be able to buy the album. “I just feel bad for all the kids who are forced to buy their music from big chain stores and have to have the edited music,” Cobain said, according to Mental Floss.
That wasn’t the first time Nirvana caught flack for an album cover. The photo used for the band’s major-label debut Nevermind is one of the most famous album covers of all time, though it was met with some controversy when sales blew up in the wake of the band’s massive fame. The picture of a naked male baby floating in a pool, swimming toward a dollar on a fishing hook, faced censorship over the baby’s visible penis. According to band biographer Michael Azerrad, the label wanted to place a sticker over the penis, but Kurt Cobain would only agree if the sticker said “If this offends you, you must be a closet pedophile.” The album art went to stores unaltered.
3. The Mamas and The Papas, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
At first glance, this cover to the Mamas and the Papas’ 1966 debut album seems pretty benign. Sure, all four members are crammed into a bathtub together, but they’re fully clothed and there’s not even any water in it. The thing people had a problem with, it turns out, was over in the corner of the room in the photo: the toilet. Censors were offended by the mere presence of a toilet in the album cover photo, and the toilet was first covered by up a text box and later completely cropped out of the picture, according to Rolling Stone.
4. The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet
The Rolling Stones’ 1968 album, Beggars Banquet, was another cover that suffered from the “no toilets” rule. The iconic cover art is a wall of bathroom graffiti at a Porsche dealer in Los Angeles, but that cover artwork didn’t come out until the ‘80s. The album release was delayed for months while they came up with a more suitable, albeit boring and plain, cover.
5. Blind Faith, Blind Faith
This supergroup composed of Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Steve Winwood didn’t have a name until they saw the photograph that would make the controversial cover of their album. Taken by Bob Seidemann, the photo is of a topless 11-year-old girl holding a toy airplane, with her innocence juxtaposing the technology she’s holding.
According to Rolling Stone, the model Mariora Goschen said that she was promised a horse in exchange for posing for the picture, but had to accept 40 pounds sterling instead. The photo of a naked prepubescent girl was too outrageous for sale in the U.S., though it didn’t provoke as much outrage in 1969 as it might now, and that photo was replaced by a more standard picture of the band.
6. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Some artists seem to be asking for trouble with their graphic and/or bizarre album art, and some artists actually ask for cover art that will be banned. Kanye West reportedly told artist George Condo that he wanted an album cover that would get banned, and Condo responded with a painting of a naked West being straddled by a naked white woman with wings and a polka dot tail.
West got what he asked for, and when some retailers refused to carry the album due to the painting on the cover, he substituted one of a ballerina instead. “Banned in the USA!!! They don’t want me chilling on the couch with my phoenix!” West wrote on Twitter, per Pitchfork, when reports came out that retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy wanted changes made to the cover if they were to sell the album. “In all honesty … I really don’t be thinking about Wal-Mart when I make my music or album covers #Kanyeshrug!” West added.
7. Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time
Sometimes a controversial album cover can make a new artist. No one really sells albums anymore anyway, so getting a record pulled from the few shelves that still stock them isn’t all that detrimental to sales, while getting the press from a raunchy cover is advantageous. That’s how things worked for underground pop singer Sky Ferreira and her debut album Night Time, My Time.
Ferreira chose a nipple-baring photo of herself in the shower looking like a scared child for the cover of her debut record. Her label also released a version with her nipple cropped out, but the vulnerable pose was still fairly shocking. “It says a lot to me … my face says it all. I don’t really feel like my left nipple is all that important … and yeah people are going to make that the main focus, but I don’t really have an issue with nudity,” Ferreira said to Stereogum of the cover, which she repeatedly defended in interviews about the album.
Via Jacqueline Sahagian, Cheat Sheet