Famous First Drafts: Rejected Early Versions Of 15 Iconic Album Covers

Some of the most enduring images in pop culture have come straight off of famous record sleeves, becoming almost as important as the songs contained within. It sounds silly, but it’s actually a little upsetting to imagine zillion-selling, generation-defining records looking different.

Obviously it shouldn’t matter if the music stays the same, but thinking of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon without the prism, or Guns ’n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction without the skulls, or the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper without the crowd…it bums us out, man! It’s freaky to know how close we came to having totally different images gracing the covers of these famous works. Either censorship reared its ugly head, or the band simply changed their mind, but some of these iconic shots were not the first choice. Read on and see some early alternate versions of beloved album covers

15. Yesterday and Today by the Beatles (1966)

The clash between artists and record labels over the control of album art can be traced to the height of Beatlemania, when the Fab Four insisted on putting out this charming little number, known ever after as “the Butcher Cover.”

It was allegedly their comment on war, a satirical take on pop art, or their protest against Capitol Records “butchering” their records by cutting several songs from each album in order to stretch a few extra discs out of the band—it depends on who you ask. The cover actually went out into stores briefly, but the outcry led to a new cover being pasted over the baby meat.

Word went around, and for a brief time it became a fad to steam the record sleeve and try to peel off the new “trunk” cover, revealing the original banned photo underneath. If you ever find one, hold onto it for dear life. They’re now a SERIOUS collector’s item. This became the most famous example of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s alternate cover-art, but there was much more alternate-reality weirdness to come.


14. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles (1967)

The Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper was a major leap forward for record production and quality, and the cover designed by fine artist Peter Blake has gone on to become one of the most recognizable (not to mention parodied) images of the 20th century. But the same probably wouldn’t be true with their first choice of cover art…

Yup, this Dr. Seuss-like psychedelic landscape designed by the Dutch art collective The Fool was by far and away the Beatles’ first choice. It was to be a wrap-around cover, with a portrait of the band  in the white oval and album title in the rectangle. In the end they were talked out of the image by their friend, famed London art dealer Robert Fraser, who dismissed the work as “not good art.” And that’s not the last time they nearly went with a pretty wack cover…


13. The Beatles (commonly known as The White Album) by the Beatles (1968)

Not to keep picking on the Beatles, but this was almost the cover to their ’68 self-titled album, commonly known as “The White Album.” Although from the looks of it, it probably would have become known as “The Jungle Album.” The band originally planned to celebrate the diverse nature of their thirty-track epic by calling it A Dolls House, and creating a cover with little flap-out doors (like an advent calendar) revealing doll house items that relate to each of their songs. But then they learned that the group Family had an album coming out around the same time called Music In A Doll’s House

Rather than flex their Fab muscles and make the lesser band change titles, the Beatles decided to go the eponymous route for the first time. They also took a similarly minimalist approach to the cover, seen as a reaction against the elaborate and colorful design on Sgt. Pepper. At first, they wanted to have a light smudge from an apple on the otherwise pristine white cover (a shout-out to their new record label, Apple Records), but that proved too hard to produce. Thus, we got the famous plain-yet-elegant white cover, and the White Album was born. The first editions were also stamped with numbers, showing the order in which they were produced. If you have a lower number, it means that it was an earlier copy (and therefore worth a little more…)


12. Let It Be by the Beatles (1970)

The Beatles’ swan song was 1970’s Let It Be, a collection of tracks taken from weeks of filmed sessions from over a year before. The project was originally titled Get Back, and was designed as a way to “get back” to their simplistic rock ’n’ roll roots.

In keeping with the titular spirit, John Lennon had the idea to re-stage the cover from their debut album, Please Please Me, 6 years (and several lifetimes) later. The photo was shot and mock-ups for the proposed album cover were made, but the Get Back album never materialized. The mountains of unrefined session tapes proved too daunting, and they were temporarily shelved. The Beatles set about making Abbey Road, their final recorded album.

It took over a year for producer Phil Spector to edit (and some would say “ruin”) the hours and hours of Get Back session tapes into the record that became Let It Be, complete with new cover. The unused photo from the Get Back session shoot would instead be used to grace the Beatles 1967-1970 (or “Blue Album”) compilation several years later.


11. Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)

This was a strange situation of the artist actually wanting an image much sweeter and gentler than the one that the suits had in mind! Hendrix strenuously wanted an image of himself, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding playing with three children (symbolizing their inner children). It was to be similar to the image taken by Linda McCartney above. But the record company took a slightly different approach, giving us…

Well, they definitely played up the “ladyland” aspect! Jimi apparently loathed this ludicrously sexual cover. He hated it so much that he didn’t even show up on the day they took the shot, hence why they made due with just a photo of the guitar god. The cover went out in England, but it proved too hot for the American record stores, who insisted they swap the cover out for something else. The result was this slightly blurry close-up.

To recap: the Brits got naked women, we got an out-of-focus headshot. Life isn’t always fair.


10. Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones (1968)

The Stones were always keen to play to their bad-boy image, and their ’68 landmark originally had a cover that seemed designed to be banned right from the start. First, there’s the quasi rude graffiti on the bathroom wall, featuring references to drugs, religion and nudity. But what was deemed most offensive was, weirdly, the toilet. The Mama’s and the Papas already got into trouble for featuring an innocent commode on their 1966 debut (it was covered up with a label).

So the cover was cast off, and Mick and the boys were forced to go with this (very White Album-esque) invitation card.

However, the toilet version was reinstated on subsequent CD reissues.


9.Who’s Next by the Who (1971)

With tracks salvaged from the fruitful but chaotic sessions for Pete Townshend’s sprawling epic Lifehouse, Who’s Next was destined to become one of the greatest albums of the classic rock era. The classic cover of the guys having just peed on a massive stone monolith was meant to be a cheeky take on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as a giant rock ’n’ roll “F U”. But it started life a little differently…

Apparently this collage was briefly considered early in the process, but discarded for the obvious censorship reasons. It was relegated to being used in promo ads instead. They also did a photo session featuring eccentric drummer Keith Moon in S&M drag…

But it too was abandoned and saved for use in ad campaigns.


8. Ben by Michael Jackson (1972)

12-year old Michael Jackson sang the theme to the film Ben so well that we completely forgot that he was crooning about a rat. But record execs didn’t, and sought to remind us on the original cover of the album.

WAHHHH!!!!! KILLER RAT ARMY!! This early printing went out in stores, but was deemed too terrifying for little MJ’s teenybopper audience. The more common edition features the rats cropped out entirely.


7. The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd (1973)

The late Storm Thorgeson’s cover for the gazillion-selling Dark Side has gone on to become one of the most recognizable images in pop culture. He apparently presented seven potential cover designs to the band, and they all immediately zeroed in on the prism. The six alternative ideas have tragically been lost to time, but Storm does remember that one of them was heavily inspired by the Silver Surfer Marvel comic.

Ehh, somehow it just wouldn’t have been the same.


6. Street Survivor by Lynyrd Skynyrd (1977)

Sometimes bands censor themselves, too. This was the cover of the southern rockers’ fifth album, recorded just before the devastating plane crash that claimed the lives of band members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines. It was chosen over their original design, which featured the group (particularly Gaines) surrounded by flames.

Obviously the cover was designed before the crash, and in the new context it proved far too painful. So out of respect for their fallen mates (and at the request of Gaines’ widow), they withdrew the art for the most somber black approach.


5. Kill ’Em All by Metallica (1983)

Metallica celebrated the 30th anniversary of their debut Kill ’Em All just a few weeks back, but originally they had a different title in mind. Oh, and a different cover too…

Yup, that’s a sword sticking out of a toilet. A+ for originality. But it also got an A+ for vulgarity, and the offended record company refused to put out an album with that title or artwork. So they went with Kill ’Em All, which likely summed up their feelings toward the execs.


4. Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi (1986)

While most of these cover rejections have to do with controversial artwork, censorship and other intense themes, this one is a bit simpler. Jon Bon Jovi apparently just hated the pink border! So the wet t-shirt cover was given the elbow in favor of a wet black plastic bag. We have to admit, we kind of question that marketing logic. He must have REALLY hated pink!


3. Appetite For Destruction by Guns ’n’ Roses (1987)

The original cover for G ’n’ R’s debut was this painting based on the artwork of Robert Williams, showing a “robotic rapist” about to get pwned by a “metal avenger” (thanks, Wikipedia). But it was deemed too freaky for mass consumption, and hidden inside the record instead. 

It was definitely less offensive than Axl’s first idea for a cover: an image of the exploding space shuttle Challenger that graced the cover of Time Magazine. Label head David Geffen demurred, for obvious reasons. Led Zeppelin might have gotten away with using images of destruction ripped from the headlines on their debut, but the NASA wounds were far too fresh.

In the end, they went with the familiar skull and cross design, each one representing a member of the group.


2. Is This It by the Strokes (2001)

Lower East Side kids the Strokes, fronted by the awesomely named Julian Casablancas, packaged the American release of their seminal debut with a magnified image of subatomic particles in a bubble chamber. But for the album’s earlier release in Europe and Australia, they went with this suggestive photo of a woman’s bottom with a black leather glove resting on top.

The photo was spontaneously taken by photographer Colin Lane, when his then-girlfriend stepped out of the shower one day. He intended it to be an homage to the stark-but-sexy black and white photos of fashion photog Helmut Newton, but some felt that it was blatantly sexist (a la Spinal Tap’s Smell The Glove). Fearful of alienating big box American retailers (as well as thinking that the new image was cooler), the cover was eventually changed worldwide.


1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West (2010) 

Yeezy was very vocal about the struggles he went through over the cover of his 2010 opus. Artist George Condo listened to the rough tapes of the record and then created eight or nine paintings that he felt reflected the music. The original first choice for the cover was the above image of a decapitated king, but Kanye was even more fond of the painting that showed a man (presumably Kanye himself) having sex with a phoenix. Despite the fact that it looked like a vaguely obscene finger painting, the cover was banned by Wal-Mart and other major retailers. “Banned in the USA! They don’t want me chillin on the couch with my phoenix!” he angrily tweeted.

In the end, they went with this painting of a ballerina as the main cover, but four of the other paintings were included in the record sleeve.


BONUS: Party Music by the Coup (2001)

It’s fair to say that Party Music by hip-hop group the Coup isn’t exactly an iconic album on par with the rest of the ones on this list. But just wait. Originally due out in early September 2001, the first version of cover art makes it about as notable (and subtle) as a kick in the crotch.

Ooof. Yup, this already-questionable cover (shot in June 2001) took on totally new degrees of offensiveness in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. The album release was delayed until November, obviously featuring a new cover.

VH1 Music Editor + Seltzer Enthusiast