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Behind The Covers - Pink Floyd, Nirvana and Black Sabbath

Have you ever wondered the meaning behind your favourite album cover? What the artist or band were trying to convey with this visual? For most of us, the artwork can be the first part of an album we see or experience. The image leaves that critical first impression, forming the faint ideas of what we expect to hear upon listening. Album covers can be meticulously thought out by the artists and artwork designers or are randomly devised with little direction and tenuous links to the musical and lyrical content of the record. Here we reveal the stories behind three of the world’s most recognisable album covers of all time.

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon probably has the most memorable album cover of all time.

The artwork design represents three basic elements: the band’s stage lighting, the album’s lyric themes of ambition, alienation and materialism, and keyboardist Rick Wright’s request for something simple, bold and dramatic. The artwork is smart. It’s classy. It’s graphic. When you see the design you immediately think “Pink Floyd”.

The image was inspired by a photograph of a prism with a colour beam projected through it that designer Storm Thorgerson found in a photography book. Several artwork ideas were presented to the band and the prism cover was approved almost immediately – the final design depicts a glass prism dispersing white light into bright colour, striking against the black background. Interestingly, the spectrum emanating from the prism contains only six colours, missing indigo as the traditional division conveys.

The spectrum of light continues through to the gatefold and includes the suggestion blip of a heartbeat on the inside, reflecting the heartbeat sound used throughout the album. The back cover shows another prism recombining the spectrum of light. Inside the record were two posters – one of the band overlaid with scattered letters forming Pink Floyd and an infrared photograph of the Great Pyramids of Giza taken by Thorgerson. The prism design decorating the front and back covers facilitated interesting sleeve layouts in record shops, such as repeating interlocking prisms.

Without any of the band members explaining the artwork’s meaning, the mystery remains open to interpretation today – the symbol of a band who communicated through both their music and visuals. The mystery surrounding the ubiquitous question “what does the album cover mean?” left fans to add their own meanings to the album, a process dependent on repeated listens and discussion with other fans.

Despite the artwork not identifying the band or name of the record, and a total lack of promotion, when the album was released it was an immediate commercial and critical success. The cover became a visual icon of Pink Floyd; the prism is the logo that absolutely defines the record.

Nirvana – Nevermind

Another of the most recognisable album covers of all time is that of Nirvana’s Nevermind. The artwork shows a naked baby, submerged underwater and swimming towards a fishhook with a U.S. dollar bill dangling inches in front of him.

Kurt Cobain conceived the idea whilst watching a documentary about water births with Dave Grohl. Cobain thought the image would make a cool cover and relayed the concept to Geffen Records' art director Robert Fisher, who found stock images of underwater births – all of which were too graphic for the record company to use.

The band and label compromised on the graphic vision with a swimming baby. Fischer employed photographer Kirk Weddle to capture images of infants at a pool for babies. At the Pasadena aquatic centre, complete with wetsuit, snorkel and an underwater studio, Weddle photographed five babies, because, in his own words “you can’t count on a baby to do anything you want”. The baby photographed in the chosen image is Spencer Elden, the son of a friend of Weddle, who was four months old at the time.

The shoot was small-scale as Nirvana weren’t on anyone’s radar at the time – Weddle received a budget of $1000 to cover the gear, including lights, an underwater camera on a tripod and the cost of a rescue diver. The babies were passed in front of the camera by assistants or their parents, standing in the shallow end of the pool. Spencer slowly sank towards the bottom for a few seconds, while an assistant blew air in his face to wrinkle his nose. Elden was paid $250 for the photo and later presented with a triple-platinum album by Geffen Records’ president, Ed Rosenblatt.

Once the bottom of the pool had been removed and the band and album names were added, Fischer realised the cover needed something else. The fishhook with dollar bill was later added to the photo at Cobain’s direction. Still to this day the intrigue of Neverminds artwork continues – it was only recently realised that upon closer inspection of the famous photograph you’ll find the parent’s handprint ever so slightly visible on the baby’s chest from holding him in the water. Regarded a design classic, the cover now features in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection.

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

Paranoid’s artwork is one of the most transformative moments in the early history of Black Sabbath.

A soldier wielding a scimitar and pointy shield approaches, terror-stricken eyes visible beneath a bright white helmet, pink and orange suit illuminated in the midnight scene. This was the autocratic War Pig of the album’s belligerent opening track and original title. Marcus Keef’s long-exposure photograph paints a streak of glowing neon across the album cover.

The artwork was created to fit with the album’s intended title “War Pigs”. However, the name was changed due to the ongoing Vietnam War. The record label, Vertigo, wanted to avoid any potential controversy in an era of civil unrest – there was concern that a title with the word ‘war’ in it could create a backlash of some kind. The album’s first single ‘Paranoid’ was climbing the charts long before the entire record was released and became the band’s only Top 20 hit, peaking at Number 4 in the UK. The title was switched to match the second song on the record instead of the first.

The most interesting part of the story behind the cover is that the artwork did not change to reflect the new title. Long after the album was released, frontman Ozzy Osbourne stated in an interview that he couldn’t see the connection between the man dressed as a pig holding a sword and being paranoid. He also suggested that the title change had nothing to do with the Vietnam War and everything to do with naming the album after the successful single.

This discontent with the cover has been mirrored by band members Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi. Butler, Black Sabbath’s bassist, stated in an interview “the cover was bad enough when it was War Pigs, but when it was Paranoid it didn’t even make sense”. Iommi, the band’s guitarist, agreed with his comment that the man with a sword “remotely made sense” with the title War Pigs. The disconnect between title and artwork was not received well by the band. But this disconnect is exactly what makes Paranoids man dressed in a pig outfit so memorable.

Were those stories what you expected? Learn more about these albums by watching our classic album documentaries on Amazon Prime below:

Pink Floyd - Dark Side Of The Moon

Nirvana - Nevermind

Black Sabbath - Paranoid