Photo: Jean-Luc Ourlin / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
Over the course of their career, The Who haveembodied rock ‘n’ roll in both its rawestformas well asits most complex. Cover artwork for theiralbums have been no less interesting an assortment.Illustrated concepts haveranged from one which involvedhiringsixteen – count ‘emsixteen– top Britishartists toanotherwhich utilizeda single cartoonistforwhom they didn’t exactly have to look very far (he was in the band). Photo-based covers have sometimes been simple group shots, butprobably their best-knownis like nothing that had come before (or since),yethas earned itself at least one surprising detractor.
Here are our choices for the top ten album covers by The Who, along with the stories behind them.
# 10–Who Are You
As they were returning aftera three year absence – andtoaworldwhere disco dominated the charts and the punk movementvowed to bring down rock’s old guard–wemight makean educated guess that The Whowanted to reintroduce themselves in as straightforwarda manner as possibleon their 1978 release,which is whyWho Are Youwas the band’sfirstalbum sinceMy Generationto feature a simple group shoton the cover.But it might not have been quite that calculated:Thepicturecamefrom a spur-of-the-momentshoot on May 28, 1978, when the band was performinga short live setatSheppertonStudios in Londonto be filmedfor the upcomingfeature The Kids Are Alright.
Also, no practical idea for the coverhad beenpresented bythe oneoriginally commissionedto deliver it: Keith Moon. It wasthe drummer’sturn in the rotation ofmembers toconceive the album cover artwork,but nothingon his partwas donewith the opportunity. Moon –who appears visibly heavieron the cover,an explicitsign of hisdeteriorating health–diedless than four months later (ironically, the chair he’s sitting on in the photoisclearlymarked “NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY.” If only).
In the wake ofcountlessWho compilations which have been released since, thisdouble albumcollection released in 1981,which focuses mainly ontheirSeventiesoutput,has largely fallen by the wayside.But that, in fact,mayjustbe the theme oftheunderratedcoverdesign by Richard Evans:in the lot in front of(whatappearsto us like) a British apartment complex, it looks like the aftermath of either ariot or a party(in rock ‘n’ roll sometimes it’s hard to tell).
A few of the discarded itemslying on the groundtell a story:an abandoned drum cymbal andthe remains of asmashedguitarare pretty obvious, but the TV set that looks like it’sburrowedpart way into the ground is likely a reference tolate drummer Keith Moon’scalamitoushobby of throwingsets out of hotel room windows. The fact that this TV not only seemed tohave survived,but isbroadcastingan image of the band, perhaps is meant to convey that The Who’smusic canand willsurvive just about anything as well(the fence/musicnotationacross the bottom of the cover is anothercompelling and innovative touch).
# 8–The Kids Are Alright
Though actually taken in 1968, thisgroup shotbecame probably the last defining Who image of the Keith Moon era after beingused forthe poster of the 1979 feature documentaryThe Kids Are Alright, as well as the accompanyingsoundtrack.Although the four members are covering themselves witha UnionJack (a common sight in the band’s imagery), thepicture was actually taken in New York City by photographer Art Kane, originallyforaLifemagazine article.There’s always been some speculationthatthe imageismeant to be homage to aHenriCartier-Bressonphotowhich shows a homeless man sleeping in public.Some accounts havealso claimedthat the four members of the bandweren’tplaying possum: rather,tuckered out from theirhighlydemanding schedule, the ladssimplynoddedoff.Awwwww……
# 7–Face Dances
Face Dances,the Who’s 1981studiorelease (and also the firstwithout Keith Moon), features possibly the most elaborate cover in the band’s catalog. This isprobably not surprising given that it was designed by Peter Blake, who had previously orchestrated thegame-changingartwork for the Beatles’Sgt. Pepper’sLonely HeartsClub Band. ButFace Dances,which features fourface portraits (hence the title) of eachof the four members of The Who (including new drummer Kenny Jones),took the combined effort of sixteen top British artists, including DavidHockney, Colin Self, Richard Hamilton and Clive Barker (no, notthatone).The finalresult sort of invokes an art gallery, and early pressing of the record even came with a fold-out poster reproduction.
# 6– MeatyBeatyBigandBouncy
Released in 1971,MeatyBeatyBigandBouncy was already the Who’s third commercially issuedbest-ofrecord, butit’s still consideredto beprobably theessentialsingle-LP collection of thetheirpre–Who’s Nextoutput.Originally meant to be titledThe Who Look Back, the use of thebrown-tinted black and white photography and the image of the foursmall boys arepossibly meant to reflect the fact thatby 1971pop culture phenomena closely associated with the Who likemod scene and the original Britishinvasion were already seen as nostalgia.
The foursmall boys picture is neither a stock imagenor is itan actualphotoof the four membersof the bandin their younger years(despite what’s probably widespread assumption and/or wishful thinking, asthey didn’t meet until their teens). Rather,the photo taken by Graham Hugheswas staged to emulate TheWhoas children(one of theboysis PaulCurbishley, the younger brother of Who managerBillCurbishley).Of course,in the upperleft handcorner those arethe actual bandmemberslookingoutthe window,in contrastingfullcolor.
# 5– The WhoByNumbers
Not merely content tobe one of rock’s all-time greatest bass players, JohnEntwistleshowed the worldhis hidden talents as acartoonistwith hiscover design (complete withboldsignature)forthe band’s1975studio albumThe Who By Numbers, which featuredcaricatures of himself and the three othermembersas a connect-the-dots puzzle (okay,let’s all behonest– how many people took a pen to the album coverand completed it?).But it might not have been all fun and games:By Numbersisa collectionofdeeplypersonal songswhich addressalcoholism, feelings of isolation andthe mixed blessing of rock stardom(among other topics), soit could be said that the coveralsorepresentsthe ideathatthesefour successful musicians,now facing age thirty,werestill trying to connect all the dotsin their lives.
The visuals which most peopleprobablynowassociate with the Who’s rock opera Tommyarethosewhich derivefromKen Russell’spopular 1975film adaptation. Whilethe cover artwork by MikeMcInnerneyfor the original 1968albumisnowhere near as elaborate,it nonethelesssuccessfully incorporatesnumerousthemes into abrilliantduel image, wherean illustrationofbirds flyingina clear blue sky with white fluffy clouds is contrasted againstphotos of the band membersappearing to be“trapped”and trying to reach out(probably meaning to invokethe album’s song“Go to the Mirror!”).
It’salso presented as an optical illusion,where which imagine is dominant dependsupon how you look at it (inevery sense of the term).Some–includingguitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend–have suggested this cover artwork isclearly a product ofthe psychedelicera…but in many ways so is the album, yet both have proven to be timeless.
Thecover for The Who’srock opera about the mid-Sixties modexperience featuresonesuch individual(presumablymeantto be Jimmy,the story’s protagonist)on a scooter (their preferred mode of transportation). The photobyGraham Hughes and overall design are pretty brilliant,perfectly representing the album’s themeswith thecentralfigurefacing away from the camera(to illustratehis feelings of isolation) and the use of grey tones(representing both the grey area that Jimmy’s life is, as well asabundance ofrainwhich typically falls inEngland).
Asperfect a reputation of the album asthe main image is,lead singer RogerDaltreyapparently wanted the band members’ likeness toalsohave some representation on the cover, thus each of themappearin one of the scooter’s real view mirrors(essentially “hidden,” the same way they were on the cover ofTommy).
# 2–The Who Sell Out
If you’re not familiar withthe story behind this cover,thenyou don’t know beans(sorry, we couldn’t resist). The Who’sthird full-length albumsaweach of the four memberssatirizing celebritycommercialendorsement complete with meandering ad copy includingRogerDaltreyasspokesman forHeinzBakedBeans (the only real product being hawked here).
This called for the singer to sit in a bathtub full of ‘em,andgetting the photo apparentlywasn’tjust messy:the beans had comedirectly out ofrefrigeration, which meant that they wereice coldat thebeginningof the forty-five minuteswhichDaltreywould be required to sit in them.Hewould later sayhecontracted pneumonia as a result, although Townshend has openly questioned that claim(either way, we’re sure it was uncomfortable).
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss this album cover without bringing up theirony that in the early Eighties the Whoappeared in severalTV commercials for Schlitz Beer (after becoming one of the first bands ever to accept corporate tour sponsorship),and since then Townshend has regularly allowed the band’s songs to be used for advertising(we can look at it this way:if we’ve got to be subjected to advertising, we’d ratherheara few seconds of a Who classicthan some wussyjingle).
# 1 – Who’s Next
“[A] piece of sh*t. I hate it. It’s a horrible thing. Just horrible.Of course I don’t like it. It’s got no artistic consequence whatsoever… It’s meaningless.”Just who is this describing theiconiccover of the Who’s 1971masterpieceWho’s Next?Some overprotective anti-rock parent? A self-appointed media watchdog?Some disgruntled music or art critic? Or just your garden–variety hater?It’s none other than Pete Townshend himself,explicitly conveying his obviously distaintoEntertainment Weekly’s website in 2019.
We’re going to respectfully disagree.The phototaken by Ethan Russell,whichshows the four band members having just finished urinating on amassiveslabplanted in the ground in the middle of nowhere (actuallyEasingtonCollieryin the UK), is a perfect statement whichat onceconveys nothing, everything, or just what you want it to.The “sky” was addedto make the photo seem “otherworldly” (possibly a link toLifehouse,Townshend’s dystopianconcept that this album was originally intended to be). Speaking of science fiction, theslabitselfwas a reference to the then-recent movie2001: A Space Odyssey(of which the Who were fans, despite whatthis seems to implicate).Three of the urine stains are actuallywater, since apparentlyat the shootonly Pete Townshend legitimately pissed on the slab. As suggested by the quote above, he’s since taken similar aim at the idea of this cover.Butwestill like it.
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