Classic Album Cover Design – “Sticky Fingers” by the Rolling Stones

Released in 1971, Sticky Fingers drew a line under what had been a transitional and traumatic period in the ongoing saga that is The Rolling Stones.

  • It was their first studio album to be recorded without any contribution from founding member Brian Jones, who'd died tragically in his swimming pool two years previously.
  • It was the first studio album since the infamous Altamont concert, where a festival-goer was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel directly in front of the stage where the Stones were trying to perform.
  • It was the first release on their new Rolling Stones record label, after an acrimonious split with Decca.
  • It was the first studio album to feature new lead guitarist and Brian Jones's replacement, Mick Taylor.

These upheavals certainly didn't take the edge off the band; in fact, they may well have played heavily in intensifying their image and creative input, as Sticky Fingers and its follow-up Exile on Main Street are undoubtedly their finest albums. Nor was it steer them from the path of controversy as the cover design for the LP played its part in landing them back in hot water.

Possibly one of the most iconic of the 70s, the album cover features a waist-down frontal shot of a male figure in tight figure-hugging jeans, which leaves very little to the imagination. The initial print run came complete with a working zipper!

The cover came about as a result of a meeting between Mick Jagger and Pop-Art Godfather, Andy Warhol, at a New York soiree so popular with the international jet-set types of the 70s. Apparently Warhol mentioned that it might be amusing to put a real zipfly on an album cover, and from this comment the concept was born.

Much speculation at the time suggested that the model used for the photograph was in fact Jagger himself. This has since been displaced by the rumour that it was more than likely a Warhol hanger-on and regular named Joe Dallesandro.

Using Warhol's concept the graphic design for the finished cover was carried out by inventive music packager Craig Braun, who also worked on Alice Cooper's School's Out album. It was photographed by Billy Name.

To ensure the workings of the zip didn't scratch the vinyl contained inside, an extra piece of card was inserted upon which another male figure, photographed at roughly the same distance and angle, was featured in just his underpants. Hence when the zipper was undone, a glimpse of this image was what greeted any mischievous or curious members of the record-buying public.

However, a problem was to arise when the first pressings were shipped. Stacking the albums on top of each other caused the zip to press into the album above. This succeeded in damaging the vinyl, ruining side 2, track 3: Sister Morphine. The designer, Craig Braun, was threatened by the record's distribution label Atlantic, with a substantial lawsuit - but he was to come up with an ingenious, yet simple, solution whilst "very depressed and very high" of pulling down the zipper before shipping so that any damage would only occur to the central label.

But there was no such easy solution to tackle the various department stores that initially refused to stock the album on the grounds that the cover was "lewd" - referring to the overt tightness of the jeans and what was suggested beneath.

Likewise, fascist dictator, General Franco, banned the cover outright in Spain and had it replaced with the alternative 'can of fingers' design. This depicted an opened tin of treacle from which protruded three severed fingers, the treacle suggesting blood - Those crazy fascists, eh?

Incidentally, this album also saw the first use of the now legendary Rolling Stones 'tongue and lips' logo.

Even today, without the working zipper and surrounding controversy, the Sticky Fingers album cover remains instantly recognisable worldwide, giving it a well-deserved place in any list of the most iconic album cover designs of all time.

Nick James writes for Essence Design, a UK web design company and UK graphic design agency

Author: Nicholas James
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