Tarkus by Emerson, Lake & Palmer: the inside story of a classic album cover

Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Tarkus album art
(Image credit: BMG)

The cover artwork of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus album is one of the most recognisable and enduring progressive rock images. 

Depicting an animal/machine hybrid that is part tank, part armadillo, the painting was done by William Neal, who had been handed the project after a number of other artists had produced artwork for the cover but had failed to come up with anything suitable. 

“The company I worked for were laughed at, as we were given reggae sleeves to do,” Neal recalls. “We got fed the odd rock album when no one else could come up with anything, and that was how we got involved with the ELP project. 

“We struggled with the project, except that at the bottom of one of my drawings was a doodle of an armadillo with tank tracks on it. Keith Emerson liked it and wanted it to be developed into a cartoon story to match a piece of music he was working on. And that turned out to be Tarkus.” 

Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Tarkus cover art

(Image credit: BMG)

After designing the sleeve for ELP’s follow-up album, Pictures At An Exhibition, Neal bowed out of working on record sleeves, and in fact completely disappeared from public view and also lost touch with the members of the band. He was eventually tracked down to collaborate on the 2000 ELP biography The Show That Never Ends.

“Let’s just say that at the time, we didn’t sit around and drink lemonade,” he smiles. “I was on a self-destruct thing, and Carl [Palmer] quite rightly thought that I had committed suicide or something. After a year, with artificial substance abuse and such, I really started to lose it in a big way. The kinds of images that I was producing were becoming demonic and scary. I really didn’t need that, so I dropped out from that scene completely.” 

Now living near Stranraer in Scotland, Neal works as a landscape painter, but he is still rightly proud of his work with ELP. 

“It’s extraordinary that something as innocuous as a doodle turned out to be an album cover that’s still talked about,” he says. “Even if people didn’t like the band, it kinda typified an era.”

For more of William Neal's artwork, visit his website.

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