Love 'em or hate 'em, controversial album covers tend to be effective. The designer might get raked over the coals upon release, but time has proven that controversial records sell. And keep selling. And the reason the most memorable record covers ever made are so memorable (and profitable) is explicit because they are, well… explicit. And while some are so horrible they will make your skin crawl, others are actually stunning works of art – if maybe a bit over the line. You can decide for yourself in this breakdown of a few of the world's most controversial album cover designs.
This may be the hardest to find Beatles album. The original cover featured the band covered in decapitated baby dolls and chunks of raw meat. It caused an outrage and was recalled immediately upon release. But we figure it probably wouldn't even raise an eyebrow in today's music world.
A 1976 photograph from 'Hustler' featuring a bathing suit with pubic hair prominently peaking out of it. While it was probably popular in Brazil, most stores wouldn't carry it so the band released an alternate cover.
Art History majors may remember this record cover that pays homage to Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe ("The Lunch on the Grass"). The painting caused an instant controversy in 1863 and so did this Bow Wow Wow cover in 1981. The cover featured lead singer Annabella Lwin at 15 years old. Her mother was outraged getting Scotland Yard involved.
One of the most expensive pieces of vinyl out there is a promotional copy of this 1974 release from David Bowie. When the gatefold is opened, it reveals a half-dog/half-Bowie creature with its genitalia exposed. It ended up getting neutered by airbrush right before the mainstream release.
While Hendrix was known to make a scene wherever he performed, he had little to do with this salacious cover. Hendrix wanted to picture the band posing with children near a statue of Alice In Wonderland. Instead, the label went with some 30, young, naked girls brandishing copies of his previous releases.
While this cover killed the band's relationship with its advertisers, it is a pretty well-designed cover. Most controversial albums tend to sacrifice style for the sake of being intentionally controversial but this composition of a baby posed between a gun and his toys evokes an ominous tone, perfect for the album's music.
Lennon and Ono were not quite sure if they wanted to release this cover and it's rumored Paul McCartney strongly suggested they decide against it. They went ahead with the design and retailers went ahead and put it inside a brown paper bag. Some US copies were impounded for obscenity.
Since a Mick Jagger crotch shot wasn't racy enough for this Stones cover, they added a functioning zipper to push it over the top. This is a graphic designer's ideal situation: to have the freedom and the budget to dream up anything you can imagine and then actually create it.