The Velvet Underground & Nico Album Cover

The album “The Velvet Underground & Nico” is remarkable for many reasons–not least the music. a. It is one of only two albums that I know of that names the cover designer rather than the band or the record’s title on the front (the other being Swedish band bob hund‘s 1996 LP “Omslag: Martin Kann“.) b. The cover provoked two lawsuits (more on those later). c. Gatefold covers had generally only been used for double albums. Elvis Presley’s “Elvis Is Back!” from 1956 is said to be the first gatefold cover for a single LP and “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was not released until two months after the Velvets’ album.

In 1965 Andy Warhol became The Velvet Underground‘s manager and he booked them into New York’s Scepter Studios in April 1966 to record the group’s first album which was de facto produced by studio owner Norman Dolph rather than by Warhol. Warhol insisted that chanteuse Nico (real name Christa Päffgen) sing on the album and she sang on three songs. For unknown reasons some songs were rerecorded and some new songs recorded by producer Tom Wilson in Los Angeles later that year. Wilson was a staff producer for Columbia (and later Verve) Records and had produced three of Bob Dylan‘s early albums (“Another Side of Bob Dylan“, “The Times They Are A’Changin’“, four tracks on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan“, “Bringing It All Back Home“) including the hit single “Like a Rolling Stone“. Warhol offered the album to Columbia Records, who turned it down! Then through the Andy Warhol association Verve Records agreed to release it. Logically enough, as Nico was not a member of the group the album’s title was “The Velvet Underground & Nico. The “&” emphasizing the fact.

Warhol gave his Banana painting to the band for the album cover. The removable banana on the front was difficult to produce and delayed the album’s release until March 1967. Acy R. Lehman, who designed the cover, decided on the gatefold to be able to include photos of the band members taken by Paul Morrissey, and colour photos by Verve photographer Hugo. I have seen the large band photo on the rear cover credited to Andy Warhol, so I am not sure it was by him or, as stated in the album credits, by Hugo.

The rear cover photograph showed actor Eric Emerson the lights projected behind the band with his inverted face superimposed on the picture of Lou Reed‘s head. This is commonly called the “Torso” version”. Emerson was in need of money as he had been charged with drug offenses and sued Verve Records to pay him for the use of his photograph. Verve refused to pay and recalled as many copies as it could and stuck a large black sticker over the offending photograph. On subsequent printings of the album sleeve the photograph was airbrushed to obscure Emerson’s portrait before the album could be reissued in June 1967. This delay badly affected the album’s sales; only about 30,000 copies being sold between 1967 and 1972 – I must be one of the early buyers as I bought my copy in late 1967 on the strength of the review in Rolling Stone. Brian Eno is quoted as saying in 1982 “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” – obviously, with one exception – me!

There were promo copies distributed with the “Torso” cover which had white or yellow record labels. I think all promos were mono versions with “Torso” rear cover. There are three versions of the cover of the original American release: a first state with the “torso” rear cover, a second state with the sticker over the upper part of the torso picture and the third state with Emerson airbrushed out.

The front cover of the mono version.
The front cover of the mono version.

The front cover of the stereo version. Note the lower positioning of the banana.
The front cover of the stereo version. Note the lower positioning of the banana.

The
The “first state” torso rear cover. Below: the airbrushed “third state” rear cover.
VU-Airbrush_bk

The rear cover with the sticker covering Emerson's face.
The rear cover with the sticker covering Emerson’s face.
This album has never been out of print since it was originally released. There have been several variations on the cover design and recent re-issues have once again reverted to the original “torso” rear cover photo. Some re-issues have appeared with coloured vinyl (yellow or red) and a limited edition by Newbury Comics is on black and yellow vinyl.

The original UK version was released with a single cover and the banana was not peelable. A later German re-issue showed only the peeled banana and other re-issues have added the album’s title to the front cover. There are at least three picture disc versions of the album; two from Russia on the Vinyl Lovers label (one in a die-cut card sleeve and one in a clear plastic sleeve. These have the title at upper left and “Andy Warhol” at lower right while the third picture disc has all the text at upper left, including “Andy Warhol”.

Re-issue with title on front.
Re-issue with title on front.

German 1975 re-issue with unusual cover.
German 1975 re-issue with unusual cover.
VU-PictureDisc_fr

Vinyl Lovers picture disc in die-cut card sleeve.
Vinyl Lovers picture disc in die-cut card sleeve.
I mentioned at the start of this essay that the album was the cause of two law suits. The first was Eric Emerson’s suit for compensation for the use of his face on the cover. This was resolved by Verve airbrushing out the offending face. However it seems that the hatchet has been buried since as recent re-issues have reinstated the torso picture on the back.

The second law suit was when The Warhol Foundation in 2012 licensed the banana image for use on smart phone and iPad accessories. Lou Reed and John Cale sued the Foundation, claiming that Warhol had given them the image and that The Warhol Foundation did not have the right to license it to third parties. The case was settled out of court the following year. Neither party has revealed the terms of the settlement.

The Velvet Underground & Nico is a great album with a great cover that is one of the ten most recognisable covers, alongside “Sgt Pepper“, “The Dark Side of the Moon“, “Sticky Fingers“, Nirvana’s “Nevermind“, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run“, “Never Mind the Bollocks–Here’s the Sex Pistols“–and you can name the others.

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7 thoughts on “The Velvet Underground & Nico Album Cover”

  1. thanks for the research. I just came across a very good condition second state VU & Nico…very stoked….Nice to read about it here.

    1. I gather you have a post about the Velvet Underground & Nico album on your site, but I don’t speak Islandic so I don’t know what you are trying to tell me in your comment. If you send me an English translation I could respond more appropriately. Cheers!

    1. Thank you for this great and informative post. I had no idea that there was a 50th anniversary bash in Paris in August. Neither did I know about the reunion in Paris in 1972. However, I do know of the 1990 Paris concert as it has been released on a very rare bootleg (entitled, remarkably, “Paris, 1990”).
      1966 and 1967 are remarkable years in the history of popular music. While there was some publicity about “Revolver’s” 50th anniversary in August, I haven’t seen any celebration of that other groundbreaking album “Pet Sounds”.
      Personally, I’m saving my own celebration of the 50th anniversary of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” until March next year (the anniversary of the official release of the album). I’ll also celebrate the 50th anniversary of a few other albums from 1967 that formed my music tastes (grateful thanks to John Peel); “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “The Doors”, “Surrealistic Pillow”, “Safe as Milk”, “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, “Are You Experienced”, just to name a few.
      But can you explain why Universal chose to reissue “The Velvet Underground & Nico” in lavish 45th Anniversary editions rather than wait until the big 5-0? Just greed, I suppose.

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