When I was a child, I was fascinated by the enigmatic individuals featured on vinyl album covers. I often wondered where Roxy Music acquired their seemingly endless pool of alluring women. The rugged fisherman displayed on the cover of The Cure’s Standing on a Beach also piqued my curiosity – how did he have a connection to the band? Like many kids, I mistakenly believed that the nine famous faces on the cover of Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run were actually part of the band, causing me to question how they all worked together in the studio.
During the age of Google, these inquiries can be resolved within moments. Roxy Music was familiar with numerous models, and Bryan Ferry was romantically involved with half of them. The retired fisher was known as John Button. Wikipedia kindly clarifies that the individual featured on the album cover was not a member of The Cure. Parkinson did not perform with Wings. Despite these details, certain mysteries have remained elusive.
The fourth album from Led Zeppelin, which is often referred to as Led Zeppelin IV or “Zoso” due to the mysterious symbols on the cover, has long captivated fans. The figure of the elderly man on the cover, burdened by a load of tied branches, evokes a haunting presence reminiscent of a character in an MR James ghost tale.
Historian Brian Edwards recently stumbled upon the original photograph while conducting research on another subject. He believes that the man in the photo is Lot Long, a thatcher from Wiltshire during the Victorian era, and that the photographer is Ernest Farmer. Fans can now form their own opinions on whether this revelation adds to the value of the artwork or takes away from its mystery.
When physical music sales declined two decades ago, there were predictions that albums and their covers would become obsolete and that music would be consumed solely as a list of file names. However, this has not happened for several reasons, such as the continued popularity of vinyl and the increasing significance of merchandise for artists’ profits. While the Spotify app may not provide the same visual impact as a 12-inch sleeve, it still requires visually appealing images in the form of small digital squares. Faces, particularly those of the artist or another individual, are ideal for this purpose.
Some artists are lucky enough to know the right faces. The bleary-eyed cigarette smoker on the Arctic Monkeys’ debut album is the band’s Sheffield acquaintance Chris McClure, while the doe-eyed child on U2’s albums Boy and War is Peter Rowan, the younger brother of Bono’s friend Guggi.
Some people aim to create a connection with things or people who are far away or no longer alive. Morrissey’s ability to find powerful images from the 1960s was crucial in placing the Smiths among a group of famous individuals who seemed to exist in a dreamlike world separate from the 1980s reality – an opportunity to not only listen to their songs, but also adopt their perspective on life. Alain Delon and Billie Whitelaw accepted this invitation, while Albert Finney and George Best declined.
In some cases, the photographer or rights holder may be the only ones who need to give permission, rather than the subject. This can create discomfort. Being unknowingly involved in music history can result in a peculiar type of fame, where one’s face becomes associated with someone else’s creative vision. US marine Michael Wynn, who was photographed in Vietnam in 1967, recently expressed his discontent in 2019 about his helmet slogan being changed from “Make War Not Love” to the title of the Smiths’ 1985 album: “Meat Is Murder”.
Certain states in the US have laws known as “right of publicity” laws. These laws hold individuals accountable for using someone’s likeness without their consent. Ann Kirsten Kennis, a former model, filed a lawsuit against Vampire Weekend and their record label for $2 million. She claimed that the band had used a Polaroid photo of her on the cover of their 2010 album Contra without her permission. Kennis stated in an interview with Vanity Fair that it felt like she was being exploited and questioned why the band thought they could use her photo without her knowledge. The lawsuit was eventually resolved for an undisclosed amount.
The grunge group Tad came across a striking photo of a partially-clothed couple in a secondhand photo album and included it on their 1991 album, 8-Way Santa. However, they later discovered that the woman in the photo had become a strongly unimpressed born-again Christian.
Celebrities’ likenesses, which are highly valuable assets, are granted extra legal safeguards. When creating the cover art for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles sought approval from all individuals depicted in the collage. However, The Rolling Stones took a more casual approach to image rights with their 1978 album Some Girls, causing uproar from Lucille Ball, Raquel Welch, and Liza Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland. As a result, a revised cover was released.
Younger individuals featured on magazine covers often experience regret and ethical concerns as they reflect on the famous images later on. For example, David Fox, who was only 12 years old when he posed for the cover of Placebo’s debut album, revealed that the image led to severe bullying and ultimately caused him to switch schools. Similarly, Spencer Elden, the naked baby depicted on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind, has filed a lawsuit claiming he was exploited as a child. Although the suit has been dismissed twice, Elden is currently in the process of appealing. On the other hand, Peter Rowan, who appeared as the “boy” on U2’s cover, does not have any legal complaints but publicly criticized the band for their pro-choice stance during Ireland’s 2018 referendum on abortion rights, creating an uncomfortable situation.
Artists tend to have a double-edged view of copyright: they appreciate protection of their own work but crave the freedom to grab the perfect image, like a musical sample, without having to secure watertight permission or consider the feelings of the individuals concerned.
Led Zeppelin’s fascination with England’s history proved to be advantageous for them. Unfortunately, Lot Long passed away in 1893, so we’ll never know if he would have approved of being linked to “Stairway to Heaven,” mysterious symbols, and wild rock concerts.