Something up the sleeves
Albums are all about the music. Surely, it’s the most important component of an album, but you can’t ignore the impact an album cover art makes in promoting a record, and the artist. It is the equivalent of a book cover. There is a saying says, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, in the case of these album covers, however, it’s worth taking another look because there might be messages hidden behind the images and symbols that might mean more to what meets the eye. Maybe the saying should go “don’t underestimate how cryptic an album cover can be”. Let’s look closely at these famous album covers and unlock their mystery.
Santana – “Santana” (1969)
On Santana’s debut album, the art may seem like just a mere drawing of a ferocious lion. However, if you look really closely, the lion is just the big picture and, it is made up of an amalgam of assorted images. The head of the lion is actually made up of nine faces and the chin is a hula skirt, with the dancer’s legs standing below it. The dancer can also be seen naked, crosing her arms around her chest. The images within the lion can be seen more vividly the closer you look.
Boston – “Boston” (1976)
At first glance, the Boston debut album cover art just looks like a very vibrant and bold spaceship. But actually, if you turn the image upside down, the spaceship is a guitar with flames shooting up from it. Below the band’s logo is the bridge and sound hole of the guitar, and you can see the guitar’s body stretching back to the neck and tuning pegs. The meaning of the art would’ve been the band on a mission to rock the world.
Fun fact: the same visual illusion was done again on the cover of their second album.
David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
David Bowie’s final futuristic and forward-thinking album has art that is minimalist at best. The album was released shortly before the Thin White Duke’s death. The album cover just features one large black star in the middle with little fragments of black stars beneath. The fragmented black stars are used to spell out “Bowie”. What is mysteriously fascinating about this album art is that when it is held under ultraviolet light, the star glows blue. When the inner gatefold sleeve is exposed to sunlight, the stars show up there as well. The meaning is up to interpretation but the album artwork designer Jonathan Barnbrook says,
“I think the creative process of putting those elements together and coming up with a reason what the secret message is, actually is something that [Bowie] absolutely would have approved of.”
Beastie Boys – “Licensed to Ill” (1986)
The album art for Licensed to III features a simple drawing of a jet plane’s tail end showcasing a logo of the Beastie Boys. Beside it is the plane’s serial number reads 3MTA3. Reverse, that says, simply, ‘EAT ME’. Rick Rubin, the producer of the “Licensed to III” read from a Led Zeppelin biography that they had a private jet. Rubin also came to a realization that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Big Bopper, and some of the original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd died because airplane crashes. The art is sort of a dig at those facts.
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975)
The album cover shows two guys in suits shaking hands to depict the internationally-recognized image of businessmen making a deal. The one striking thing about the simple gesture is that one of them is on fire. For the shoot, the design studio Hipgnosis, who did and conceptualize the image, hired a stuntman and lit him on fire. The photographer got the iconic picture on the 15th shot. The designer and the band wanted the image to reflect the tone of destructiveness in the music industry. Such tone was also reflected in songs like “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have a Cigar”. The album art is mocking the music industry by literally depicting the then-common expression, “I’ve been burnt”.
Paul McCartney – Ram (1971)
Paul McCartney’s solo album looks like it’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s called “Ram” and Macca is holding a literal ram. This album, released under Apple records, was made in collaboration with his wife Linda McCartney, just one year after The Beatles’ break-up. Written on the right side of the album art are the tiny letters ‘L.I.L.Y.’ which stands for “Linda I Love You.”
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
In the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s monster hit Rumours, only two of the band’s five members are featured. “Rumours” was recorded amidst tension of break up among the band members. Singer Stevie Nicks in a black flowy ballet outfit and formation, drapes her thigh over drummer Mick Fleetwood’s as he rests his foot on a short stool. Fleetwood holds Stevie’s hand and stands over her. The drummer donning two little balls dangling in front of his crotch.
Those balls are indeed actually tiny spheres that became a lucky charm for the drummer.