Hip Squares

New doc uncovers the stories behind classic album art

Despite the old maxim about books, we’re expected to judge a record album by its cover. By careful design, these 12-inch squares meld art and marketing in iconic images and photographs that often make the LP a work of visual, as well as musical, creativity.

Many have come with unknown but fascinating backstories, nuggets of cultural history that Marin filmmaker Eric Christensen mines in his new documentary The Cover Story.

“Some of the stories behind the albums I knew—they’re legendary—but with many, I uncovered stories of what it took to take the photograph or do the artwork,” he explains. “One of the really interesting ones is the Doors album cover that Henry Diltz did for Morrison Hotel, how they had to sneak into the hotel and take one shot and that was it.”

Along with photographers, graphic artists are the stars of The Cover Story, including several who are “intrinsically linked” with specific performers, among them Roger Dean (Yes), Storm Thorgerson (Pink Floyd) and Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley (the Grateful Dead). They naturally welcomed the chance to discuss their work, Christensen says, but musicians, too, were happy to contribute. “They sort of lit up when asked about how the artwork links with the music, and what went into the decisions” about their covers, Christensen says.

The stories behind other album art, like Nirvana’s Nevermind, took considerable digging. The swimming baby seen underwater is now a young adult, who seems rather bemused by the whole thing.

More intensive detective work was required to identify and locate the then-11-year-old girl seen topless and holding a model spaceship on the original cover of the lone album by 1970s supergroup Blind Faith.

Even though the photographer refused to help, Christensen found her—and persuaded her to tell her story on camera. “She was a young girl and had no compunction about posing for it,” he recounts. “The way she feels now is she’s glad that people talk about it and are interested in it.”

Blind Faith was quickly repackaged with a standard band-photo cover in the United States, making it the second high-visibility case of what Christensen calls “banned covers.” (The first was the Beatles’ hastily recalled “butcher” cover for Yesterday and Today.)

“There’s a funny one where the Mamas and Papas, fully clothed, are in a bathtub, but Dunhill records put a sticker over the toilet, ’cause the toilet was dirty and they thought that was too gross,” the filmmaker notes. Several others are also featured in the film.

“A lot of these have become collectibles,” he notes, and “have a certain place in the history.”

‘The Cover Story’ screens April 13 at the Sonoma International Film Festival and April 15 at the Rafael Film Center.