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The Stories Behind 11 Classic Album Covers

1. The Velvet Underground & Nico, aka "The Banana Album" (1967)

The Velvet Underground & Nico
Design by Andy Warhol

With apologies to Carmen Miranda and Chiquita, the world's most famous banana is the ripe, peelable print on the cover of the Velvets' debut.

Designed by pop artist Andy Warhol, the image was a silkscreen made from simple black-and-white acetate film. In case the genitalia-esque shape wasn't provocative enough, Warhol added the invitation: "Peel slowly and see." Beneath the sticker a pink, flesh-colored fruit was revealed.

"The banana actually made it into an erotic art show," said Velvets singer Lou Reed.

But for Verve Records, the banana was a production nightmare. "Someone had to sit there with piles of albums, peel off the yellow banana skin stickers and place them over the pink fruit by hand," said Warhol's artistic director Ronnie Cutrone.

By 1968, the peelable banana was dropped. Originals now fetch up to $500 apiece. The fruity image has since thrived on everything from art prints to T-shirts to handbags.

2. Who's Next (1971)

The Who
Design by John Kosh and Ethan Russell

Sometimes you can't go when you need to. That's what photographer Ethan Russell found out when he shot the cover for Who's Next.

Turning away from a concrete piling, located in an old English mining town called Easington Colliery, the band appear to have just left their urine signatures on the stone. But Russell recalled discreetly, "Most of the members were unable to go, so rainwater was tipped from an empty film canister to achieve the desired effect.

In 2003, VH1 named Who's Next the second greatest album cover of all time.

3. Skull and Roses (1971)

Grateful Dead
Design by Stanley Mouse

Talk about vintage. The skull and roses that became the Grateful Dead's enduring trademark has its roots in a 19th century woodcut made to illustrate a poem from the 11th century.

I found the original image in the stacks of the San Francisco Public Library," said painter Stanley "Mouse" Miller. "It was created by an artist named Edmund Sullivan to illustrate a poem in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The block print underscores the verse, 'The Flower that once has blown forever dies.'"

"I thought, 'Here's something that might work for the Grateful Dead.'"

Mouse made a name in the '60s as a hot-rod painting sensation (remember Rat Fink?), modifying dragsters and choppers.

His work with the Dead continued through many classic albums, including Workingman's Dead and American Beauty.

4. Houses of the Holy (1973)

Led Zeppelin
Design by Hipgnosis

It was no fun being one of Robert Plant's love children.

"Freezing rain, bad food and turpentine – a nightmare." That's a male model recalling his experience as one of the naked innocents on the cover of Zep's fifth album.

At 4 a.m., every morning for a week, three adults and two children were sprayed silver from head to toe, then driven to Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland to crawl on the rocks toward a sunrise that never rose.

Faced with deadlines and a dwindling budget, design company Hipgnosis took the weather into their own hands, painting a honey-peach dawn and hand-tinting bare bottoms to a rosy glow.

Worried that those bare bottoms might cause controversy, Atlantic Records tied the finished album with a Japanese-style band of paper called an "obi." Printed with the title in Celtic style letters, it was the world's first rock 'n' roll Huggie.

5. Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

Pink Floyd
Design by Hipgnosis and George Hardie

For a band who once sang, "We don't need no education," it's ironic that the cover image of their best-selling album is based on a school textbook illustration.

The Floyd was "bored with the photos" from their earlier LP covers and wanted something "smarter."

"The prism represented both the diversity and cleanliness of the sound of the music," designer Storm Thorgerson said. "In a more conscious way, it worked for a band with a reputation for their light show. The triangle is a symbol of ambition, one of the themes Roger was concerned with. So you had several ideas coming together."

Of the finished result, Thorgerson said, "It's either a brilliant piece of art direction or perhaps just a jammy idea... but it worked really well in its context."

6. London Calling (1979)

The Clash
Design by Ray Lowrie and Pennie Smith

Pink and green should never be seen, goes the old fashion dictum.

But the colors, framing a black and white photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass on stage, made for a vivid combination on the Clash's breakthrough album.

Designer Ray Lowry acknowledge the design's inspiration when he said, "It was intended as a genuine homage to the original unknown genius who created Elvis Presley's first rock 'n' roll record."

As for the photo, Simonon said, "The show had gone quite well that night, but for me, inside, it just wasn't working well, so I took it out on the bass. If I'd been really smart I would have got the spare bass out, as it wasn't as good as the one I smashed up. When I look at it now I wish I'd lifted my face up a bit more."

7. The Joshua Tree (1986)

U2
Design by Steve Averill and Anton Corbijn



The Joshua Tree is a slow-growing shrub with sharp-tapered leaves, indigenous to the desert in the American southwest. It was named by a band of 19th century Mormons. The tree's unique shape reminded them of the Biblical story of Joshua reaching out to the heavens.

It was this strange timeless aspect of the tree that lured U2 into Death Valley National Park in California. The cover photo, snapped by Anton Corbijn, proved a perfect foil to the grand rock hymnals on the album.

"It's supposed to be the oldest living organism in the desert," said drummer Larry Mullen, Jr.

It must have been pretty old, because it fell over and died in 2000. U2 fans have since built a makeshift shrine in the desert to commemorate the famous tree.

8. Licensed to Ill (1986)

Beastie Boys
Design by Steve Byram and World B. Omes


Private jets and fatal plane crashes are the heads and tails of rock 'n' roll's fateful coin.

The Beastie Boys tapped into this idea with a gatefold sleeve whose glamorous front unfolds to a charred and smoking back.

Producer Rick Rubin said the idea came from reading about Led Zeppelin's luxurious private jet. "The Beastie Boys were just a bunch of little guys and I wanted us to have a Beastie Boys' jet. I wanted to embrace and somehow distinguish, in a sarcastic way, the larger-than-life rock 'n' roll lifestyle, the excesses and the destruction."

Collage artist World B. Omes assembled the Beastie Boys jet from photographic elements (American Airlines later complained that it looked like one of theirs), then drew over and hand-colored it with water soluble crayons.

Trivia: The plane's identification number on the tail – 3MTA3 – reads "Eat Me" if you hold the cover up to a mirror.

9. Nevermind (1991)

Nirvana
Design by Robert Fisher and Kirk Weddle

Spencer Eldren's first time swimming was a memorable one.

At four months old, Elden was one of several babies on hand at a Pasadena public pool to audition for Nirvana's album cover.

"I showed Kurt the baby picture," designer Robert Fisher said, "and he liked it but felt it needed something more. We threw all kinds of ideas around and Kurt jokingly suggested a fish hook. We spent the day thinking of all the things you could put on a fish hook. Although Kurt never gave me a rational for the design, I must assume that the naked baby symbolized his own innocence, the water an alien environment and the hook and dollar bill his creative life entering into the corporate world of rock music."

As for Elden, now 20, he says, "Most bands around today can't even get near to what Nirvana did on that album, and I'll always be happy to be a part of it."

10. Odelay (1996)

Beck
Design by Beck Hansen and Robert Fisher

Look up in the sky. It's a mop. It's a throw rug. No, it's a Komondor. The airborne dog, a Hungarian breed with matted, cord-like fur, provoked a lot of "Huh?"s when this landmark album was released.

Which was exactly what Beck hoped for. A quirky artist who often relies on found objects and unintentional mistakes to inform his process, Beck stumbled on the Komondor picture in a vintage book of dog breeds.

Art director Robert Fisher said, "The photo was taken by a famous dog photographer called Ludwig, who lived a few blocks from the office. She was in her late seventies, and was enthusiastic to have a visitor.

"Beck felt that it was kind of ambiguous, unrelated to the music, and was chosen almost at random. The viewer could read into the cover whatever they wanted. Odelay also sounded a bit like a dog command."

11. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Wilco
Design by Lawrence Azerrad

In early 2002, fans gazing at the cover of Wilco's fourth album were asking, "What the heck are those things? Stacks of poker chips? A microscopic close-up of hair shafts? An allusion to the recently fallen Twin Towers?"

But to anyone living in Wilco's hometown, Chicago, the image was instantly familiar. Marina City, designed in 1959 by Bertrand Goldberg, is comprised of two cylindrical residential / commercial towers that cut a futuristic profile on the ChiTown skyline.

Wilco wasn't the first to show Marina City to the world. In 1973, Sly and the Family Stone featured the towers in a collage on the back cover of their classic LP There's A Riot Goin' On. And anyone who watched The Bob Newhart Show in the early '70s would've seen those towers in the opening titles sequence.

Designer Lawrence Azerrad went on to do more striking artwork for Wilco, including the cover of 2011's The Whole Love.

See Also: The Stories Behind 11 MORE Classic Album Covers

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Chloe Efforn
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Animals
John Lennon Was a Crazy Cat Lady
Chloe Efforn
Chloe Efforn

John Lennon was crazy about cats, and though he owned a couple of dogs (Sally and Bernard) over the years, he was better known for getting by with a little help from his feline friends.

1. ELVIS

Growing up, Lennon's beloved mother, Julia, had a named cat after Elvis Presley, whom Julia and John were both crazy about. The Lennons later realized they had misnamed Elvis when "he" gave birth to a litter of kittens in the cupboard, but they didn't change the cat's name based on that small mistake.

2. AND 3. TICH AND SAM

He had two other cats as a boy growing up in Liverpool: Tich and Sam. Tich passed away while Lennon was away at art school (which he attended from 1957 to 1960), and Sam was named after famous British diarist Samuel Pepys

4. TIM

One day, John Lennon found a stray cat in the snow, which his Aunt Mimi allowed him to keep. (John's Aunt Mimi raised him from a young boy through his late teenage years, and he affectionately referred to her as the Cat Woman.) He named the marmalade-colored half-Persian cat Tim.

Tim remained a special favorite of John's. Every day, he would hop on his Raleigh bicycle and ride to Mr. Smith's, the local fishmonger, where he would buy a few pieces of fish for Tim and his other cats. Even after John became famous as a Beatle, he would often call and check in on how Tim was doing. Tim lived a happy life and survived to celebrate his 20th birthday.

5. AND 6. MIMI AND BABAGHI

John and his first wife, Cynthia, had a cat named Mimi who was, of course, named after his Aunt Mimi. They soon got another cat, a tabby who they dubbed Babaghi. John and Cynthia continued acquiring more cats, eventually owning around 10 of them.

7. JESUS

As a Beatle, John had a cat named Jesus. The name was most likely John's sarcastic response to his "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" controversy of 1966. But he wasn't the only band member with a cat named Jesus: Paul McCartney once had a trio of kittens named Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

8. AND 9. MAJOR AND MINOR

In the mid-1970s, John had an affair with his secretary, May Pang. One day, the studio receptionist brought a box of kittens into the recording studio where John and May were. "No," John immediately told May, "we can't, we're traveling too much." But she picked up one of the kittens and put it over her shoulder. Then John started stroking the kitten and decided to keep it. At the end of the day, the only other kitten left was a little white one that was so loud no one else wanted it. So they adopted it as well and named the pair Major and Minor.

10. AND 11. SALT AND PEPPER

John owned a pair of black and white cats with his wife Yoko Ono. As befitting John's offbeat sense of humor, many places report he christened the white cat Pepper and the black one Salt.

12. AND 13. GERTRUDE AND ALICE

John and Yoko also had two Russian Blue cats named Gertrude and Alice, who each met tragic ends. After a series of sicknesses, Gertrude was diagnosed with a virus that could become dangerous to their young son, Sean. John later said that he held Gertrude and wept as she was euthanized. 

Later, Alice jumped out of an open window in the Lennons' high-rise apartment at the Dakota and plunged to her death. Sean was present at the time of the accident, and he remembers it as the only time he ever saw his father cry.

14., 15. AND 16. MISHA, SASHA, AND CHARO

In later years, John also owned three cats he named Misha, Sasha, and Charo. Always an artist at heart, John loved to sketch his many cats, and he used some of these pictures as illustrations in his books.

This piece originally ran in 2012.

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entertainment
The Time Sammy Davis Jr. Impersonated Michael Jackson
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Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. was known for his impersonations—check out his rendition of “As Time Goes By” as 13 different people. So when he hit the stage with Jerry Lewis for a 1988 TV special, he decided to show the audience that his talents weren’t just limited to acts from his era.

Though he briefly mentions Rod Stewart, his main target was Michael Jackson. Davis and Jackson were extremely close; when Jackson was just in his twenties, he would often show up at Davis’s house unannounced to immerse himself in the archives, a room downstairs that contained videos of Davis’s performances over the years.

“Michael Jackson is more than a friend," Davis—who was born on this day in 1925—explained, while also alluding to the fact that the King of Pop borrowed some dance moves from him. "He’s like a son.” And then he launched into this impression:

Jackson returned the favor during a special on February 4, 1990, in which Hollywood’s biggest stars gathered to honor Davis, who was celebrating six decades in show business:

Sadly, the anniversary show was the last time Davis would perform in public. Though throat cancer had mostly stolen his voice by this point, Davis let his tap shoes do the talking. He died on May 16, 1990—just three months after the tribute aired.

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