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Behind the Music: Iconic Album Cover Models Edition

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Nirvana's Nevermind album turned 20 this past weekend, which tends to make folks who consider Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to be the groundbreaking album of all time feel extremely old. Besides some great music, Nevermind also boasted that other all-important feature that ensures an album's place in future coffee table books – a memorable album cover. The life and times of Spencer Elden, the aquatic naked baby on Nirvana's album, have been covered extensively amidst all the 20th anniversary super deluxe special box set release hype, so he's not included here. But despite this lack of Spencerness, we hope the following look at some famous album cover models will trigger some warm fuzzy trips down memory lane. [Note: Some of these covers are a little risqué.]

Blind Faith

Blind Faith was one of the earliest so-called "supergroups," consisting of Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, and Ric Grech, all of whom had impressive resumes that featured names like Cream, Traffic, and the Spencer Davis Group. Blind Faith recorded just one album together, and while hardcore fans probably remember it for its musicianship, the rest of the world will always recall it as the record with the naked pubescent girl on the cover.

Photographer Bob Seidemann, a personal friend of Eric Clapton, spotted a fresh-faced London schoolgirl named Sula Goschen on the London subway one day in 1969 and approached her about posing for an album cover. She was wary at first but ultimately agreed and arranged for Seidemann to come to her home to meet her parents. After chatting with her family, Seidemann decided that Sula was too old (at age 14!) and that her younger sister, 11-year-old Mariora, was the perfect subject. Egged on by her older sister ("He'll buy you a pony!"), Mariora assented and became a part of rock and roll infamy. Today, Mariora (at left) is in her early 50s and works as a certified massage therapist in London.

1984 – Van Halen

Van Halen's 1984, which included the number one hit single "Jump," was the band's last studio album featuring David Lee Roth as lead singer. Originally the band envisioned four dancing chrome women on the cover of their upcoming album and, thanks to a friend of a friend at Warner Brothers records, photographer/artist Margo Nahas was contacted. Nahas had done illustrations of chrome images in the past, but it was another illustration in her portfolio that caught the attention of Eddie and Alex Van Halen and changed the artistic direction of the cover – a portrait of a cigarette-smoking angel. Nahas, who had a fascination with both angels and devils, had taken the photo a few years earlier utilizing Carter Helm, the four-year-old son of her best friend, as her model. Carter didn't like having heaps of gel massaged into his hair, but he perked up when he was given a candy cigarette to pose with. (Yep, the butt he is holding as well as the packs on the table are of the chocolate-wrapped-in-paper variety of faux smokes.) Nahas painted in the angel wings and marble table top (Carter was actually sitting at a picnic table), but that blue sky was courtesy of Mother Nature in Malibu, California.

Country Life – Roxy Music

Although Roxy Music had been successful in their native England for several years, they didn't make a dent in the American charts until they released their fourth album, Country Life. Lead singer Bryan Ferry had ventured to Portugal in order to clear his mind and write songs for the album. He met two German models, Constanze Karoli (cousin of the late Can guitarist Michael Karoli) and Eveline Grunwald, at a club and struck up a friendship with them. After several days of socializing, he asked them if they'd be willing to pose for an album cover he had in mind. His idea was to portray the antithesis of Britain's stodgy Country Life magazine, which usually featured top-hatted men hunting foxes on the cover. The two women eagerly shopped for some lacy lingerie and then posed in a garden lit only by the headlights of the photographer's car. The resulting cover was a sensation throughout Europe, but the scantily clad duo ended up being replaced by extra pine needles on the U.S. version of the album.

Sticky Fingers – The Rolling Stones

Sticky Fingers was the first Stones album released in the 1970s and also the first on their new eponymous record label. The original cover art was extremely innovative for 1971, and pretty much unthinkable in today's era of CD packaging. The band enlisted Andy Warhol to act as art director, and he came up with the idea of a photo of a close-up of a jeans-clad male crotch. Original pressings of Sticky Fingers had a working zipper on the cover that revealed white briefs underneath. That 3D version of the cover was replaced with a photograph after record stores complained that the zipper was scratching the covers of the other albums in standard sales bins.

That famous bulge, by the way, belonged to Joe Dallesandro, who had been working as a street hustler since his teens when he happened to meet Andy Warhol. Dallesandro became one of Warhol's factory superstars and appeared in several of the artist's underground films. That particular photograph wasn't posed specifically for the album cover; it just happened to be among a series of pictures Warhol had snapped of Joe in a pair of tight-fitting jeans. Today Dallesandro (at left), who identifies as bisexual, manages a hotel in Hollywood with his third wife.

Candy-O – The Cars

Dave Robinson, the drummer for the Cars, was also the band's artistic director. He was a great fan of the famous pin-up posters drawn by Alberto Vargas; when it came time to design the cover for the band's Candy-O album, Robinson contacted the 83-year-old artist and convinced him to come out of retirement. (As it turned out, Vargas' great-niece was a big Cars fan and she urged him to agree to the project.) Vargas needed a photo from which to work, so a leggy model named Nancy Beth was chosen to pose on the hood of a 1972 365 GTC/4 Ferrari at a dealership in Beverly Hills. Beth had second thoughts about appearing semi-nude in record stores at the last minute, however, so another model, Candy Moore, stepped in and loaned her face to the mix. The resulting cover was completely hand-drawn, with no air-brushing, but Elektra execs did insist on a do-over after the first drawing was submitted. They wanted the model to be, er, less anatomically detailed, which is why the girl on the cover appears to have been born without nipples.

Honey – The Ohio Players

The Ohio Players were well known not only for their funky bass-heavy songs, but also for their provocative album covers. Their 1975 album Honey achieved particular infamy not only for the nude model on the cover drenched with actual honey, but also for the rumors that surrounded the photo shoot. Did she actually become stuck to the floor when the honey hardened? Was she stabbed to death by the band, with her final screams dubbed into the intro of the number one hit "Lover Rollercoaster"?

The answer to both questions is a very emphatic NO. Ester Cordet (at left), the cover model, was a Playmate of the Month in October 1974. At the time of the album cover shoot, she was working as a flight attendant for Pacific Southwest Airlines. She is currently alive and well and has been married for many years to motivational guru Robert Ringer.

Breakfast in America – Supertramp

She wasn't scantily clad, but she was still a female used to sell an album. Supertramp had decided at their inception that they would not appear on their album covers – they wanted to remain "imageless," and according to keyboardist Rick Davies, "We wanted to be around a long time, and we didn't want people watching us getting older." After the tracks for Breakfast in America were in the can, their album designer suggested a cover featuring Cheerios cereal pieces rolling down a mountain in a flood of milk. The band rejected that idea and suggested an image of the Statue of Liberty holding a glass of orange juice.

The designer came up with a compromise – a diner waitress with an upraised tray. He chose Kate Murtagh from a catalog that featured character models, and she was dubbed "Libby" as a nod to the band's original Statue of Liberty concept. Ms. Murtagh (at left) still works in TV and film as a character actress.

Houses of the Holy – Led Zeppelin

Aubrey Powell, part of the legendary creative team known as Hipgnosis, was hired by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and manager Peter Grant to come up with a cover concept for the band's fifth album. He envisioned a scene from a science fiction novel called Childhood's End, which involved a multitude of nude children running off the end of the world. Even though the final album cover appears to feature dozens of kids, it was simply a multiple-exposure photo manipulation of just two tots – five-year-old Stefan Gates and his older sister Samantha.

The pair (far left) was flown to Northern Ireland's Giant Causeway where they crawled naked over the rocks both at dawn and dusk in order to catch a variety of photographic light. Today UK TV viewers know Stefan Gates (near left) as the host of BBC2's Cooking in the Danger Zone. His sister is now a screenwriter living with her husband and daughter in Cape Town, South Africa.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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