BY MIN CHEN
Kamikaze, Eminem’s latest pressing, is not the first and won’t be the last record cover to pay homage to artwork that’s come before. The rapper’s newest sleeve (designed by Mike Saputo), depicting a kamikaze-piloted plane in mid-explosion, obviously tips its hat to the Beastie Boys’ 1986 debut Licensed To Ill, its cover (by World B. Omés) painted with a similar disaster-bound aircraft. Eminem’s not been silent about his reverence for the New York three either, telling Rolling Stone in 2013, “There was something about Licensed To Ill… [It was] ‘Fuck you. We fucking curse. We spit beer. We throw it on our fucking fans.’ And obviously as they got older their views and things changed, as all of ours do… Same as me.”
Or perhaps not, since Kamikaze, while containing impassioned rhyme and delivery, is no forward-looking artifact, but continues to dwell in Eminem’s time-worn territory (declarations of superiority, doses of homophobia, an unnecessary amount of diss tracks). In this way, the album’s frantic, almost juvenile, assault does live up to its title, if not echoing the balls-out bluster of Licensed To Ill—except, of course, the Beastie Boys opened with this; Kamikaze is Eminem’s 10th outing. But anyway. Point is, Mathers’ visual tribute is not entirely unfounded or off its mark. Joining a storied heritage of album cover pastiches, it invites an intertextual reading of its contents, as it converses with pieces of art that precede it. Below are seven other such albums that weave homage, allusion, parody, and self-reference into their visual and musical presentations.
Joni Mitchell: Turbulent Indigo No one person better embodies the myth of the anguished artist, suffering and bleeding for his art, than Vincent van Gogh. Mitchell was more than aware of this, and whether with half or total seriousness, often saw herself in his light. And quite literally on the cover of her 1994 album, for which she rendered herself in the style of the artist’s 1889 Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear (the painting then framed and hung, no less). Created after a stay at the hospital for disfiguring his ear, van Gogh’s canvas captures the Impressionist in his studio, in a melancholic and meditative mood. Mitchell’s own self-portrait was painted in frustration at being “undervalued” in the art world, she explained in 2000. “My work was being rejected whereas mediocre work was being accepted and elevated on the basis of newness and youth… So rather than physically cut my ear off, I did it in effigy.” Cue, too, the record’s title track, which sympathetically embraces van Gogh’s mythical isolation, loneliness, and madness. “‘I’m a burning hearth’ he said / ‘People see the smoke,” goes its concluding stanza, “‘But no one wants to warm themselves / Sloughing off a coat.’”
The Residents: Meet The Residents Too apt that The Residents’ long and lingering career in sonic deconstruction should officially begin on April Fool’s day in 1974, with the release of their debut LP that opened with a sparse, screechingly unhinged cover of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” The rest of Meet The Residents contained yet more pop pastiches, amassed into a deluge of avant-noise (“Smelly Tongues”) and sound collage (“Spotted Pinto Bean”) that offered unstinting comment on formulaic pop and media saturation. As Homer Flynn, appointed spokesperson of the anonymous group, put it in 2016, “The Residents, while there is an art background there, also come from a pop culture point of view, so there’s always been the feeling that there should be some entertainment value in this stuff, besides a strong intellectual backing.” No reason for their pop vandalism to stop right there; the record’s cover by Porno/Graphics irreverently sent up The Beatles’ 1964 pressing Meet The Beatles, the original Robert Freeman portrait defaced with cartoon mustaches, fangs, and alien eyes. George and Ringo, apparently, appreciated it enough to acquire copies of the absurdist artifact—making up two of the 40 units that Meet The Residents moved.
Bow Wow Wow: See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy! In the early ‘80s, arch-provocateurs Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood were deep in the throes of a phase they termed Nostalgia of Mud, during which they producing a collection of rawly tailored threads that recalled a time untouched by the industrial age. According to him, “We want to get out of this island mentality, and relate ourselves to those taboos and magical things we believe we have lost.” As is his practice, the clothes spilled over into his latest, post-Pistols musical project, Bow Wow Wow. There was the group’s new wave pastoral “Go Wild In The Country,” which announced, “I can get a plane / I don’t need no suitcases / ‘Cause truth loves to go naked.” And also, its album’s tongue-garbling title and cover image, made in collaboration with designer Nick Egan, which re-created Édouard Manet’s dreamlike Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Unveiled in 1863, the French artist’s work was instantly notorious and famously rejected by the Paris Salon for its casual nudity and vulgar realism. Photographed by Andy Earl in 1981, the record cover saw Bow Wow Wow’s members precisely staged for the same luncheon on the grass, complete with scattered fruit and half-clothed bather, conjuring sun-dappled romance and idyll. It was still a troubling tableau though: singer Annabella Lwin was underaged when she posed naked, prompting her mother to file a police report. Magic and taboo, it seems, were far from lost.
The Fall: 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong The Fall’s 2004 compilation packaged 39 of its “Golden Greats,” as its subtitled claimed, behind one of the cheekiest and funniest album art parodies. Evoking Elvis Presley’s famed 1959 retrospective, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong (or Elvis’ Gold Records Volume 2), it drew its impish humor from contrasts. It’s Elvis’ billions of fans to The Fall’s humble five digits; it’s Elvis’ golden, lusty frame outshining Mark E. Smith’s meek, argyle-clad silhouette. But of course The Fall remain in the King’s shadow—appropriately and rightly so. The blistering, raging, and grudgeful dark is where they reside, after all (Smith: “The vision was to make music that didn’t exist, because everything else was so unsatisfactory”), and where those 50,000 fans go to find them.
New Order: Movement “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty,” proclaimed Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 Manifesto of Futurism, “the beauty of speed.” A rapturous celebration of all the machine age had to offer, the work continued to wax lyrical on “man at the wheel,” “modern capitals,” and “steel horses.” More than seven decades on, technology likewise transforms New Order—namely on 1981’s Movement, a synth-powered statement that propelled the ex-Joy Division members out of somber post-punk and boldly into a shiny electronic epoch. The parallels between Italian futurism and Manchester’s new wave did not go unnoticed by Peter Saville, Factory Record’s resident designer. He masterminded the band’s first LP cover by lifting directly from one of Italian artist Fortunato Depero’s designs—the cover of the book, Futurismo 1932, which marked futurism’s first decade and was published on the occasion of Marinetti’s visit to Trentino. Saville carefully modified the original for New Order’s purposes: re-crafting its typeface and altering the geometric elements to create an F, for Factory Records, and an L, as in the Roman numeral 50, the album’s catalog number. More than allusion, Saville’s faithful replication broached no distance between the art movement and, well, Movement. “To me, it was better to quote Futurism verbatim, for example, than to parody it ineptly,” he’s said. “It was a more honest, more intellectual, and in a way, more artistic approach.”
The Mothers of Invention: We’re Only In It For The Money Not the first record on this list to send up The Beatles, that Platonic ideal of a rock band, the Mothers’ 1968 release didn’t just tear into the Liverpool four, but additionally, the entire hippie culture that grew up around them. Just nine months after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band dropped, Frank Zappa presided over a parodic cover shoot, an insolent retort to the Beatles (“just a good commercial group,” said Zappa) and their Peter Blake-directed artwork. Where Sgt. Pepper’s boasted an azure sky, trim flowers, famous faces, and natty uniforms, the Mothers’ cover, as shot by Cal Schenkel, had a motley crew (including Jimi Hendrix), smashed fruit, a sartorial hodge-podge, and a thunderstorm overhead. Right from the outset, We’re Only In It was intended as the “direct negative,” according to Zappa, of everything The Beatles stood for (Paul McCartney and Capitol Records also objected to the Mothers’ parody, so it was only printed on the inside of the sleeve; Frank was pissed). The savagery was ceaseless: on the record’s tracks like “Flower Punk” and “Absolutely Free,” Zappa’s satirical edge slid deep into the prevailing counterculture. “What’s there to live for? / Who needs the peace corps? / Think I’ll just drop out / I’ll go to Frisco,” taunts “Who Needs The Peace Corps.” Never mind that the hippie milieu had been somewhat sustained by the Mothers; Zappa knew where he stood: “I was never a hippie. Always a freak, but never a hippie.”
David Bowie: The Next Day By all accounts, the time David Bowie spent in Berlin in the late ‘70s was creatively fruitful and fulfilling—producing a trio of albums, Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger, of unparalleled innovation and daring. Bowie himself once reckoned those records some of his “best work,” adding, “Nothing else came close. If I never made another album, it really wouldn’t matter now. My complete being is within those three.” So in 2013, when he released The Next Day after a decade’s hiatus, he trailed his muse back to Berlin, and in turn, his past. For one, lead single “Where Are We Now?” hopped through the city’s locales from Potzdamer Platz to Nurnberger Strasse, shadowing “a man lost in time / Near KaDeWe / Just walking the dead.” Even when removed from Berlin, Berlin was never removed from David Bowie. Observe the album’s sleeve, designed Jonathan Barnbrook, which called up the much-beloved, Masayoshi Sukita-shot “Heroes” cover art, if only to obscure most of it with a white box bearing the album’s title, the original legend “Heroes” simply scratched off. More than plain self-reference, the subverted, defaced design collided Bowie’s past and present. It quoted his older material just as it introduced the new; the fresh, clean slate surrounded by an earlier piece of art. Legacy—even and especially one involving the Berlin trilogy—is equal blessing and burden when you’re trying to make an album titled The Next Day. “Here I am / Not quite dying,” the titular track insists. “On the gallows for me / And the next day / And the next / And another day.”