Censored and Withdrawn Album Art: A Retrospective

- May 23, 2012

"Sit tight, folks, this blog involves some naughty pictures"

Throughout the years, there have been vinyl LPs packaged in controversial cover art that ended up being changed. Perhaps the most notable is the so-called "butcher cover:” The Beatles made news when word of their original Yesterday and Today cover depicting bloody baby dolls hit the streets. See my May 27, 2011 blog, The Beatles As Butchers, for the full story.

When CDs became the norm, I foolishly thought that, due to their size, no one would push the limits. Why bother? Who ever really pays much attention to the 5x5 format anyway? Turns out that 25 square inches can wreak havoc after all.

There are numerous reasons cover art can be controversial but nudity, real or imagined, ranks high on the list. Among the earliest examples in modern music is the Five Keys’ 1957 album On Stage! The five-man vocal group is shown lined up, one behind the other, in proper suits and ties. While their left arms and hands are extended in a typical stage pose, member Rudy West has a bit of his right hand showing at waist level. This was seen as too phallic by some so the questionable digit was subsequently airbrushed out. Alice Cooper courted similar concern on 1971’s Love It To Death. His waist-level protruding thumb disappeared on later pressings.

Explicit animal anatomy has undergone censorship as well. David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs had complete male canine parts that quickly disappeared.

No surprise, more women than men are portrayed with too much skin. For Golden Earring’s Moontan (containing “Radar Love”), the naked woman cover got a complete makeover showing nothing more titillating than a female ear. Roger Waters’ The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking initially had an in-the-buff female...hitchhking, but she soon had her derriere blocked out. Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds by White Zombie had a nude reclining in a hammock but suddenly a bikini was added, at least for display in those national chain stores we’ve all heard about. The Black  Crowes’ Amorica CD, with its pubic hair-displaying bikini crotch shot, got a similar makeover for the big box shops. The equal opportunity award goes to John Lennon and Yoko Ono for their full birthday suit front and back shots on their 1968 Two Virgins release. The art was too much for Capitol Records so it was distributed by a different company, with the cover tastefully packaged in a plain brown wrapper. Honorary mention goes to U2’s Achtung Baby with a tiny naked Adam Clayton. He later sported an “X” or four leaf clover over the sensitive area.

Heavy metal bands are notorious for their glorification of women, in a positive or negative manner, and cover art is no exception. Germany’s Scorpions are consistent with their controversial graphics, and many are altered prior to their US release. Their 1986 Lovedrive, with its image of female breasts fully exposed, managed to land on our shores before being retooled into a bland alternative. In Trance went through a similar breast cover-up. The group’s original, decidedly un-PC covers for Virgin Killers and Taken By Force never made it here unscathed.

More mainstream metal-related bands to have their covers modified include Poison for Open Up And Say...Ah! (too much satanic tongue), Great White for Hooked (a naked woman on the fishing line) and Guns & Roses for Appetite For Destruction (a mechanical rapist).

Extreme examples include Pantera for Far Beyond Driven (a drill bit into an anus, replaced with a drill bit into a forehead), Type O Negative for Origin Of The Feces (fairly self-evident) and most releases by Cannibal Corpse (take a guess).

Politics and religion also play into withdrawn artwork. The September 11, 2001 attacks affected a number of artist’s work, most notably the Coup’s Party Music. The intended cover for their scheduled September, 2001 release was a photo of them remotely blowing up the Twin Towers. The art was wisely scrapped and the issue date pushed forward with a revised image. Heavy prog band Dream Theater had a release titled Live Scenes From New York scheduled for 9-11-01 but its cover depicted NYC landmarks in flames. Back to the drawing board for these guys as well. The west coast hip hop group Dilated Peoples had a single out in 2001 titled “Target Practice,” with artwork depicting targets, including NYC, on an electronic world map. This got pulled from shelves. Aerosmith took liberties with Hindu art for their Nine Lives CD, but didn't realize the images were sacred. Along with an apology came a revised cover.

A group as innocuous as Three Dog Night was prompted to revise two, count ’em, two covers: 1970’s It Ain’t Easy was to show the group seemingly nude, although in fact they were wearing body stockings. Oddly enough, the photo was later incorporated into their Golden Biscuits greatest hits release. The group’s Hard Labor LP from 1974 initially showed a hospital room scene with an alien giving birth to a record album. Subsequent pressings had a large bandage over the focal point.

Copyright issues have dogged a few covers. Bob Dylan’s 1966 groundbreaking Blonde On Blonde had an unauthorized photo of actress Claudia Cardinale inside its gatefold sleeve. The layout was soon redone, minus her image. The Rolling Stones also had a run in with celebrities on their Some Girls artwork. Lucille Ball, Farrah Fawcett, Raquel Welch and others soon became blanks behind the die cut cover windows. The influential Velvet Underground and Nico LP (you know, the one with the banana on the front) had a photo of the group in concert on the back. The light show behind them included an image (upside down!) of one Eric Emerson who, when he saw the cover, decided to sue. Rather than pay, the band’s label had his image covered with a sticker. On subsequent pressings, his likeness was darkened out. Eclectic singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens learned a legal lesson with his Illinois release, whose Chicago skyline cover included Superman. Predictably, DC Comics came calling and now the sky is clear.

Anticipating controversy, some labels offer alternate artwork issues. One cover for Blind Faith’s only album had a topless, young teen woman while the other displayed a simple group photo. Roxy Music, known for their female-themed visuals, had two shear underwear-clad women on Country Life, with a sanitized version—sans the ladies—also available. Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual De Lo Habitual had a choice of covers; the original with naked paper maché figures and a second that was mostly blank white with an excerpt from the First Amendment. Both versions warranted the parental advisory notices though. Voodoo U, by the Belgian electronic band Lords Of Acid, sported a lesbian devil orgy but offered a cropped art version that was more likely to get stocked by mainstream retailers.

The Mamas and Papas first long player, If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears, had the group getting cozy in a bathtub. Since they were clothed that was OK, but the toilet included in the photo had to be obscured.

Moby Grape’s self-titled debut showed group member Don Stevenson’s “one-fingered salute” but that soon fell victim to an airbrush.

The radical-for-their-time MC-5 had liner notes purged from their Kick Out The Jams album, presumably for use of the f-word, a word now displayed shamelessly on the front of some albums.

The plane crash that decimated Lynyrd Skynyrd prompted changes to their Street Survivors cover, originally showing the group within flames.

Kanye West deliberately provoked contention with his 2010 release My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. As though the title weren’t enough, the artwork is a painting of him (nude) being straddled by a winged, armless white naked female. His one concession to the commercial market was there were five different covers printed in the CD booklet, such that less-touchy alternates could be displayed.

The limits of what is considered free speech continue to be challenged by the music business, despite the reduced size of cover art.

In addition to the four images here, more can be seen online. Enter “Censored album covers” in your search engine and you’ll find plenty of graphic examples.