As so often, The Beatles led the way. Barely a month before Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” comments got their records burned in America, The Beatles almost pole-axed their “lovable Moptops” image with the sleeve for a US-only album, Yesterday… And Today. Satirising their US label’s latest mincing of their UK records into an extra LP, the Fabs kitted themselves up as butchers for the cover, chopping up dolls with gleeful grins. The Beatles as a premonition of Alice Cooper was all too much, and quickly recalled copies had an innocuous publicity pic glued over the grisly bloodbath.
Two years later, when the intended cover for Jim Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland’s wasn’t ready in time, the title was taken literally and Soho strippers were corralled from their lunchtime trade to nakedly adorn the gatefold sleeve. Two York record shops banned it, and the Gramophone Retailers’ Committee protested, secretary Christopher Foss telling the Sunday Mirror: “This type of album sleeve is almost certain to reduce the sale of records.” Actually, the paper reported, Electric Ladyland sold 35,000 in its first four days. The US still went with an alternative shot of Hendrix’s fiery face.
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Ever since, controversial cover art has annoyed the grown ups and assisted sales, from Blind Faith to Bon Jovi, from Roxy Music to Roger Waters. The censors’ distrust of rock peaked when Tipper Gore’s prudish and pig-ignorant Parents Musical Resource Center (PMRC) pressured the major labels into defacing CDs with “PARENTAL ADVISORY” stickers. It was the content that was feared: Missouri Representative Jean Dixon declared rock rebellion was “like witchcraft”. But covers still got it in the neck, too - like the long-tongued demon on Poison’s Open Up And Say…Ahh!, which had to be covered so all you could see was its evil eyes - all the better, surely, to mesmerise impressionable rock fans into Satan’s ways.
The response in rock’s embattled new underground was more extreme than ever, if usually short-lived, like the industrial drill-bit entering an arsehole (quickly changed to a skull) in Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven. Walmart and K-Mart stores meanwhile exercised a Taliban-like refusal to stock anything remotely offensive. Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking disproved its title when its cover, showing conjoined, nude women with flaming heads, had to be sold in brown bags. Tad self-censored their 1991 album Undertow, released showing just the barcode, with the preferred, nudity-heavy booklet available by post.
“We made the censored version for those kids who don’t have skate shops or cool record shops in their town,” bassist Paul D’Amour explained of their Walmart-appeasing decision. “Besides, we’d miss out on all that money…”
Our gallery presents some of rock’s most famous banned sleeves… and their eventual replacements.