Album Cover Story #5: Do The Scorpions Shock You Like a Hurricane or Merit a Total Blackout?
I'm a moderate Scorpions fan, but even the most die-hard followers of the German juggernaut would likely admit they've had some low moments when it comes to their album art. To be fair, a couple isolated flashes of brilliance, as well. I imagine there are apologists out there who see nothing wrong with anything they've ever done, but today we will definitively prove to the jury that dubious design decisions have undoubtedly been made over the years in the interest of shameless shock value and lucrative controversy. It has resulted in a significant amount of public backlash in the form of not one, not two, but three banned album covers! Of course, they are not alone in their approach—countless examples of questionable taste litter record store shelves. But there's no changing the fact that they are the band that released possibly thee most controversial album cover ever made and added several others that challenged the boundaries of good taste. So, speaking of dubious decisions, the Pickled Priest has decided to assess the collected works of the band in context by ranking all nineteen of their album covers from worst to best.
19 VIRGIN KILLER (1976)
Well, we didn't keep you waiting in suspense for long. Here it is, the record that will live in album cover infamy forever. You may ask yourself, how did we get here? How did something like this happen at any point in our lifetime? Why didn't someone—anyone—step in to put a halt to the initial conception, subsequent development, and eventual manufacture of this album cover, which features a naked 10-year-old girl (obscured here with redactions for obvious reasons) on the front of a record crudely titled Virgin Killer? Hell, even the original cover for Spinal Tap's fictional album Smell the Glove was shelved by their record label for being too overtly sexist and out of touch with the times—and that was in a movie! I only wish "sexist" was the problem here. Sexism in rock & roll, particularly in the decadent 70s, was so common it almost counteracted the expected shock value intended due to the ubiquity of titillating product. But this was pedophilia, plain and simple. Amazingly, this wasn't the first time a young naked girl appeared on an album cover—Blind Faith did the same thing on the cover of their debut album back in 1969, a full seven years prior. That album featured a topless young girl holding a phallic hood ornament in her hand and the controversy certainly generated some major kickback, to the point the record label issued a replacement cover with a photo of the band. But the publicity could not be taken back and nobody at the record label was upset in the slightest over the controversy. The same goes here. It was meant to gain attention. Mission accomplished. But at what cost?
In this case, most accounts point the blame at the record label. They were fully behind the idea of a controversial cover because they wanted to sell a ton of records. So, when the design concept was presented, the reaction was not "Get the fuck out of here!" as it should've been, but instead, "Even if we have to go to jail, there's no question that we'll release that." They knew that any publicity was good publicity and in exchange for a suitcase full of cash, they'd take a short hit to their freedom in exchange for it. I don't know about you, but the fact it was a German record exec only makes it worse for me. Perhaps I watched too much Hogan's Heroes as a kid. So an evil German record man is to blame. That solves the matter. But doesn't the band have some control over the album cover, you ask? Yes. Yes, they do. The band has, depending on the interview, either expressed some level of support for the cover or totally disavowed involvement in its creation and eventual use. Others have provided additional background in an attempt to rationalize the indefensible. Let's take a moment and look at a few reasons some put out there in defense of the cover:
1. It's art, man!
Some would say that a naked human body is art. And they would be correct. Many great works of art feature nudity. Even the photographer in this instance felt that way. The designer of the album cover even offered up his daughter for the photo shoot. Does that make it any more palatable for you? Sure, if the person involved isn't ten years old! A person whose legal consent wouldn't even be considered for at least another six years or more. And don't tell me the cracked glass approach to covering her genitalia makes it acceptable. If anything, that indicates that they knew it was wrong at the time and felt the need to do something to mitigate the fallout, even if it made the whole sordid thing look even more creepy in the process. There's a reason Sweden formally declared the cover child pornography. Because it is. Parental consent be damned.
2. It's misunderstood!
In an attempt to save some face, band co-founder and guitarist Rudolph Schenker attempted to lessen the atrocity of the cover by saying that the girl was a symbol meant to reflect the thematic concept of the title track, claiming that "time is the virgin killer," despite the fact that there are no lyrics anywhere in the song that approximate that sentiment. Nice try, Rudy. He went on to elaborate, spliff presumably in hand, that time steals the innocence of youth. Totally agree in theory. But you know what else steals the innocence of youth? Posing a girl naked on an album cover at ten years of age. Maybe a grander purpose was indeed intended, let's give them the benefit of the doubt for fun, but expecting fans to draw that parallel is a major stretch. Especially when your fan base is made up of primarily young boys. And let's put this nicely: with very few exceptions, people don't come to the Scorpions for profound lyrical content. Much of the German band's material suffered mightily from cringe-inducing lyrics that simply didn't sound natural or coherent. Germans writing in English—enough said. Bottom line: If you want to keep enjoying Scorpions music, do not inspect the lyrics closely. It's painful. I repeat. Painful.
3. The girl was, and still is, OK with it!
As I said, she wasn't of legal age to consent. She did state years later that she was, and is, OK with being on the cover. I'm glad she feels that way and hasn't suffered adversely from it, but it doesn't change the facts of the situation at the time it was created. Recently, the kid from the Nirvana album cover for Nevermind sued for his depiction on the cover to no success. I bet the girl here might have her case viewed a little differently. Cute little baby in a swimming pool vs pre-teen girl on an album titled Virgin Killer? Big fucking difference.
4. The band didn't know about it!
Perhaps they didn't initially, but they did have plenty of time to do something about it. Band members have since expressed regret over the cover even if some initially liked the idea of causing some controversy. Guitarist Uli Jon Roth: "Looking at that picture today makes me cringe. It was done in the worst possible taste. Back then I was too immature to see that. Shame on me—I should have done everything in my power to stop it." Exactly. The buck stops here.
5. It's European!
Yes, nudity is seen differently in Europe and isn't as taboo there as it is here in the US. And in the 70s, people weren't as aware as they are today of pedophilia, sex trafficking, and other crimes involving children. It was a more innocent time in many ways. This cover wouldn't see the light of day today, but then it had a chance. But that doesn't make it right. A picture of some young naked kids running through a sprinkler or running into the surf at the beach is a lot different than being posed on a rock band's album cover with the title Virgin Killer scrawled above her head. Defense rejected.
Postscript: In the end, the cover was replaced, the damage was done, the controversy banked, and from that point forward this is what we got in its place...
VIRGIN KILLER (1976) (Alternate Cover)
Awkward rock poses for 1,000, Alex. This deodorant advertisement in the making was the quickly developed substitute for the aforementioned original cover art. It's more acceptable, sure, but there's still the issue of the album's title. Do you want the members of the band on the cover of an album titled Virgin Killer? Having some wild rock and rollers on the cover really drives home the point that time steals our innocence. Bullshit. At least it's not plural, I guess. I would've defaulted to a standard picture of a scorpion and called it a day (sit tight, that was the approach used for another controversial cover later in the band's career). While harmless, this one is guilty by association and also gains a failing grade.
18 PURE INSTINCT (1996)
Well, it's now twenty years post-Virgin Killer and we're back, older and wiser, with more child nudity. WTF!? Have we learned nothing? At least we have some adult models this time. If they want to appear on a ridiculous album cover that's their prerogative. And the baby is "tastefully" presented, I guess. Fine. I can live with it. But in the background we find what I believe to be a naked adolescent being ogled by a zebra. Did the presence of a young boy not remind anyone of a past indiscretion? While it's not as overtly unnerving as Virgin Killer, it is a testament to the band's stupidity that they went anywhere near this direction ever again, no matter the context. And what an original concept they went with, too. A futuristic Planet of the Apes-esque scenario where humans are the zoo animals and the animals are the voyeurs. Been there, done that. The execution is preposterous, too, thanks to third-grade level photoshopping and a man who looks like he's in the middle of a harsh dump. Yep, this is the shot we're gonna use! To end on a positive, I do like that they altered the classic Scorpions logo a little this time, but that innovation is hopelessly lost in the suffocating ridiculousness that is this cover.
17 ANIMAL MAGNETISM (1980)
This cover almost made me reconsider this project, so overt is its demeaning, sexist approach. It was designed by a well-known and highly regarded design firm, no less, but we'll tell you more about them a little later. This was the second go-round and the result is memorable in the worst way. A woman and a dog on the same level each waiting for a treat, both subservient to the dominant, testosterone-oozing male. Imagine this cover being released in 2022. They'd have been crucified. In 1980, it still didn't sit well. Strangely, the kickback didn't get it banned or replaced by their label. Even if you could live with the concept, and I don't want to, I would argue that it's pretty poorly executed. In fact, it comes off like a shameless co-branding deal with Sears supplying some bland outfits you might find in a suburban shopping mall. Nothing says wild and crazy rock band like a pair of tan Lee jeans.
16. CRAZY WORLD (1990)
This is a pretty big disappointment from a band with a long history of scandalous album covers, especially one for an album titled Crazy World. The design possibilities were literally endless. Instead, we get this feeble attempt at profundity. Nothing says "crazy world" like a skeleton key being inserted into an old wood door. And that very door, standing in the middle of the wilderness, opens to reveal yet more wilderness! Jim Morrison would be so proud. What a circle jerk. The album did find the band going unexpectedly deep for inspiration—CIA-operative deep if the podcast Wind of Change is correct—and the band ended up with one of the biggest selling singles of all time, the perestroika-influenced, 14-million copy selling single, "Wind of Change." Maybe the Scorps knew they had written a major political anthem and didn't want to distract from their newfound maturity by slapping another nude model on the cover. This time they were serious, man.
15 EYE II EYE (1999)
This cover has all the charm of the speak/see/hear-no-evil monkeys, which is at least something new for a wayward hard rock band who cut their teeth on 70s rock & roll excess and now were trying to find a way to stick around in the alternative 90s. The album the band has called their "greatest mistake" didn't have a great cover, but at least it showed a little humor, which is always appreciated.
14 FACE THE HEAT (1993)
I liked this better when I thought it was a firing squad with their rifles all trained in on the band at sunrise. Then, upon closer inspection, I figured out that the Scorpions are bringing such heat that their adoring fans watching their every move are being slowly scorched to death, their long shadows casting their path to safety. Not a horrible concept, but it's not really clear what's going on, especially in the middle of the CD era when this record was released. Too small of a canvas to do it justice. I doubt people could get the visual. Slapping a red, oversized Scorpions logo in the middle was also a bad call.
13 STING IN THE TAIL (2010)
If you're an aging band, you might not want to make your album cover look like the front door to your mausoleum crypt. It kind of implies a "That's all folks!" vibe. Maybe they thought so at the time, but money and ego usually wins out—they still had delusions at this point that people wanted at least two more Scorpions albums. We didn't.
12 RETURN TO FOREVER (2015)
In every way, this has the distinct feel of an aborted Bond movie. The title has that Back to the Future-esque vibe that looks sexy on a marquee, but has no discernible meaning. The futuristic crown has the look of a Queen Elizabeth reboot (although putting this steel crown on her head now would surely snap her neck). Not only that, wouldn't "The Scorpion" be a great name for a new Bond villain? Clearly the designer really wanted to break out his new air brusher for this one. He went hog wild.
11 FLY TO THE RAINBOW (1974)
Let's get our obvious bias out of the way: Pickled Priest is now, and always has been, adamantly anti-rainbow,* one of the most overused tropes in all of songwriting. To this day, we have an active restraining order against Ritchie Blackmore (which he seems intent on regularly violating). We have also banned Radiohead's overrated In Rainbows album from our premises. We've even gone on record that the cover of Dark Side of the Moon is vastly over-valued in the album art world, elevated more by its content than its innovation. In the history of recorded music, we've acquiesced on our rainbow ban, by our count, only four times,** and this is most certainly not one of those.
At first glance, perhaps you might give this one a pass, almost relieved that it lacks any ham-fisted sexuality or disturbing imagery, but it is conceptually whacked, artistically bizarre, and mechanically unlikely, not to mention highly unsafe. I hope the propeller boots on display have a stern factory warning attached. I can only imagine the lawsuits generated by a product with this many design flaws. Even the guy on the cover has his hand dangerously close to the rotating blade. Watch out! Plus, I'm not sure why a welder's helmet would be required in this scenario either. It seems like the precautionary focus is severely misdirected. And are we to believe this guy, presumably on his way to a rainbow, is holding a flag with the group's name and album title in his left hand? And even more, that said flag is somehow defying the trajectory of his flight direction by flowing perfectly right to left? Has the artist ever heard of a jet stream? Highly convoluted. And, last but not least, why fly to a rainbow at all? Why not just find the pot o' gold at the end like everybody else? No need to risk your life for an optical illusion my friend.
*This applies to music only. We are adamantly pro-rainbow as a flag and LGBTQ+ symbol. We also enjoy the presence of a rainbow after a warm summer sun shower. We're not Satanists. That said, we do, despite our love for Lucky Charms cereal, reject the addition of a rainbow marshmallow into the mix. The original colors, when taken together, constitute a rainbow unto themselves and we didn't need all of them condensed into one mallow, thereby eliminating the random beauty found in each unpredictable spoonful. It goes without saying that we also hate Leprechauns of course. Everyone does.
**If you must know, here they are: 1) "Over the Rainbow" by Judy Garland (the original gangsta of rainbow songs has been grandfathered accordingly); 2) Dio's "Rainbow in the Dark" (allowed because the rainbow has been banished to the darkness where it belongs); 3) The Rolling Stones' "She's a Rainbow" (allowed because it's a great song); 4) "Rainbow Connection" by Kermit the Frog (original version allowed only because Kermit's swamp log rendition on banjo in The Muppet Movie could melt anyone's heart, and in the process asks the question that exposes the core of our issues with rainbows: "Why are there so many songs about rainbows?").
10 HUMANITY: HOUR 1 (2007)
When did the Scorpions turn into late-period Rush? Answer: 2007. The Scorpions going high concept makes about as much sense as Vladamir Putin buying a Build-a-Bear franchise—it just doesn't add up based on past behavior. That said, it's not a bad attempt at a futuristic, Blade Runner-esque design. Does it hint at an underlying desperation to be relevant? If it didn't, the Billy Corgan cameo certainly did. And co-writing with The Hooters' Eric Bazilian and enlisting Bon Jovi song doctor Desmond Child (Ooh, ooh Child, things are gonna get poppier) removed all doubt that a rebranding attempt was in motion. But the focus here is visual impact and I do appreciate their deviation from the standard Scorpions logo in the main title, the first time the band did so on a studio album since Fly to the Rainbow in 1974. This cover would've suffered if they hadn't made that call. The logo is still there if you look closely—it's lightly tattooed on the fembot's neck. A rare subtle touch from a band not known for nuance. Not bad.
09 UNBREAKABLE (2004)
The Scorpions' answer to Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box, this may not be as innovative the second time around, but it is a nice change of pace nonetheless. It does complement the title, too. (Which came first, the packaging idea or the title?) I would've loved if the packaging was scorpion shaped somehow, but that was probably outside the budget for a band on the back end of their careers at the time. Even though I normally advocate for simplicity, something is missing here that could've made it even cooler. Any ideas?
08 ROCK BELIEVER (2022)
Docked two grades for blatantly ripping off the Stones' Goats Head Soup cover concept almost 50 years (!) after the fact (see below), this cover does at least push into a new conceptual direction. The scorpion on her tongue is a nice, albeit obvious, touch, and amounts to the only thing remotely original in the design. That said, it is still one of a few Scorps albums in their later years that has a distinct visual identity. Next time, and there may not be one if the band is to be believed, do your own work.
07 SAVAGE AMUSEMENT (1988)
How does a scorpmaid, the land version of a mermaid, underwhelm? This one was a no-brainer with a high upside, but the execution is very disappointing. Why? For one, they saturated the cover in teal, a color that would unfortunately have a moment in the late-80s and early 90s, but hasn't aged well since. Two, make the image cloudy and hard to decipher (close inspection required to realize her leg turns into a tail). Everything about this cover needs greater focus and clarity. A major missed opportunity from a band that normally knows how snack you in the face with a concept.
06 IN TRANCE (1975)
The Scorpions love boobs, for better and often worse. This cover gives us a little boob shot in a subtle way that you might not even notice at first. The cover is about as cliché as rock album covers get, but at least it looks like a rock album and nothing else. The black & white approach was a good idea. And I like the way they used a font for the title that hearkens back to the psychedelic 60s. Otherwise, the guitar as phallic symbol concept has been beaten off to death over the years, but this might be one of the earliest and most overt examples of that concept, so credit where credit isn't due. This is also the first cover appearance for the band's iconic logo with their now trademarked "bellbottom" lettering. They hit the nail on the head with it.
05 LONESOME CROW (1972)
A simple and effective cover, imagine that! This was the band's debut, before they outsourced their logo branding to a professional graphic design firm. The blocking of the name and title is tasteful (a term not normally associated with the band) as is the use of black space which really focuses the action on the hand foolishly attempting a highly un-recommended "scorpion pick-up" maneuver. It conveys tension in a very Fear Factor-y kind of way. My only qualm is titling the album after a completely different species known for their ominous presence when your name is the Scorpions! Why do that? For a group later obsessed with highlighting the "sting" of their band name, this was an odd choice.
04 LOVE AT FIRST STING (1984)
The Scorpions is a pretty cool band name. It's a feared arachnid with a stinging tail and it's never a bad thing to have a little danger built into your image. This cover is nothing special, but it does have a little of everything a rock band could want—leather, sex, danger, tattoos, and some side boob action for their young fans' (predominantly boys) spank bank. That said, I don't recommend getting a tat in this position or handling your ink so carelessly. You might end up with a long squiggly line on your thigh—very impractical. I do like that they kept the image black & white, which offers a little mystery to the photo by keeping some of the action in the shadows.
03 LOVEDRIVE (1979)
This is by far the Scorpions cover that gets the most public attention and debate, well above the firestorm that accompanied the ill-fated Virgin Killer cover released three years earlier (mainly because this one is still widely available and the band was considerably more popular at this point in their career). There are usually two camps of thinking on this cover: the amused and the appalled. I imagine some are a little of both. But there's no denying that it is a memorable image. It's also, if you're honest, a little humorous in a crude, National Lampoon kind of way. It's more than a little surprising coming from a German band, too, as the Krauts are not generally known for their humor. Hence, it makes sense that it would be a little demented when it does emerge. The main question is this: Is it really that offensive? What we have here is a cover that features two sophisticated and seemingly consenting adults (she doesn't look put out at all) engaging in some backseat shenanigans. Show me a cab or limo driver and I'll show you a driver with a lurid story about amorous backseat lovers unable to contain themselves. No big whoop, so far. The bubble gum is the hangup, of course. Yeah, it's the bubble gum you're struggling with I bet. There's just so much of it. There's no explanation for the volume used in the shot. Oh, and why is it present at all? Where did it originate? Are we to believe the woman's nipples are made of it? Or did the man bring it along? Is it a fetish item? In the end, it's just the theater of the absurd. An unsettling and unexpected visual meant to rattle your cage for a while. It was created by the legendary Storm Thorgerson of the the esteemed design house, Hipgnosis, who had a reputation for designing some of the most iconic album covers of all-time* and I'd argue it is well-executed when taken for what it is. A clear, crisp image with vibrant colors perfectly sized for the LP format. The photo reflects the album's title, albeit in madcap fashion. The title font is small and tastefully placed at the bottom, with the band logo in a pleasing, non-intrusive light blue which fits right in with the grey suit and blue dress combo of our subjects. Alas, in the end, this was the band's third consecutive banned cover (at least in some places, for some period of time), and was, for a time, sold with an alternative cover featuring a slapped-together blue scorpion sitting on top of the band's logo. Boring! Reissues have since reverted to the bubble gum cover when the general public finally got the stick out of its ass.
*A very small sample of past Hipgnosis creations: T. Rex's Electric Warrior; Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy (itself controversial for depicting naked children), UFO's Force It (again, controversial), Montrose's Jump On It (again, controversial); and of course, XTC's famous album cover send-up Go 2 (see below).
02 TAKEN BY FORCE (1978)
This was another of the band's controversial covers, but the problem wasn't of a sexual nature this time. Instead, the cover photo was taken in a French military cemetery (similar to America's Arlington in Washington, D.C.) and featured two kids playing guns with each other amongst the endless rows of cement cross headstones each likely representing a dead soldier. I could see how it could offend some people. It's never good form to co-opt someone else's grief for commercial purposes. That said, it is undeniably a compelling photo that does complement the album's title. Many of those interred were indeed taken from this world by force during a battle it can be presumed. The irony of two boys playing guns in such a location is striking, to say the least. Proper for a rock and roll band's album? Uh, probably not. That said, if a hardcore punk band had used this photo for their album, people would probably consider it a classic example of subversive political commentary. I suppose it doesn't go down so well for an album with lyrics that rhyme, "Your main god is money" with "I'm not your Bugs Bunny." Kind of lessens the impact a bit and makes you question their motives. But it is provocative and a visceral reaction is assured.
01 BLACKOUT (1982)
I always appreciate when a band's breakout album also has a great album cover. It gives the impression of everything coming into alignment at the same time. Here, we finally get a compelling image without any ham-fisted, premeditated controversy. They didn't need it. This is a very hard image to forget. It stands out to this day as one of those covers everyone knows—easily one of the most iconic of the 1980s. The cover is a so-called self-portrait done by Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein. For some reason he often featured himself being abused or mutilated in his works, usually with bandages on his head and surgical instruments torturing him somehow. The dude had a fucked up perspective on life thankfully. This time, innocent cocktail forks are corrupted into instruments of torture. I'll never have a cocktail weenie again without thinking about stabbing someone in the eyes with them thanks to this cover. It's violent, yes, but there's no denying the impact on those who come face to face with it. You'll want to know how the music underneath this cover sounds and that's the cover's main goal. Mission accomplished in this case. I was a young kid when this came out and you bet your ass I was going home with this from the record store. Thankfully, it was released in the vinyl era, otherwise the impact would've been significantly diminished.
Note: In case you wanted to see some additional Helnwein originals, see below. It could've been much worse.
Well, this one took on a life of its own, but a project is a project. You've got to go all-in or go home. Thanks for reading, my beloved congregation! There's no one like you!