R. Crumb’s Vibrant, Over-the-Top Album Covers (1968–2004)


It is sur­pris­ing to me, but a few peo­ple I’ve come across don’t know the name of car­toon­ist Robert Crumb, cult hero of under­ground comics and obscure Amer­i­cana record col­lect­ing. On sec­ond thought, maybe this should­n’t come as such a sur­prise. These are some pret­ty small worlds, after all, pop­u­lat­ed by obses­sive fans and archivists and not always par­tic­u­lar­ly wel­com­ing to out­siders. But Crumb is dif­fer­ent. For all his social awk­ward­ness and hyper-obses­sive­ness, he seems strange­ly acces­si­ble to me. The eas­i­est ref­er­ence for those who’ve nev­er heard of him is Steve Buscemi’s Sey­mour in Ter­ry Zwigof­f’s Ghost World. There’s an obvi­ous trib­ute to Crumb in the char­ac­ter (Zwigoff pre­vi­ous­ly made an R. Crumb doc­u­men­tary), though it’s cer­tain­ly not a one-to-one rela­tion (the film adapts Daniel Clowe’s com­ic of the same name.)

Music Never Stopped

Whether or not Ghost World (or Zwigof­f’s Crumb) rings a bell, there’s still the mat­ter of how to com­mu­ni­cate the lov­able lewd­ness and aggres­sive anachro­nism that is Crum­b’s art. For that one may only need to men­tion Big Broth­er & the Hold­ing Com­pa­ny’s 1968 clas­sic Cheap Thrills (top), the first album cov­er Crumb designed—and which Janis Joplin insist­ed upon over the record com­pa­ny’s objec­tions. With its focus on musi­cians, and its appro­pri­a­tion of hip­pie weird­ness, racist Amer­i­can imagery, and an obses­sion with female pos­te­ri­ors that rivals Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s, the cov­er pret­ty much spans the spec­trum of peren­ni­al Crumb styles and themes. Above, see anoth­er of Crum­b’s cov­ers, for a com­pi­la­tion called The Music Nev­er Stopped: Roots of the Grate­ful Dead, which col­lects such roots and old-school rock and roll artists as Mer­le Hag­gard, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Rev­erend Gary Davis, Howl­in’ Wolf, and more.

Crumb BBKing


Though he object­ed to the 1995 assignment—saying to Shanachie Records, “You want all these peo­ple on a CD cov­er? What are they, like, five inch­es across?”—Crumb must have rel­ished the sub­ject. (And he was paid, as per usu­al, in vin­tage 78s.) Next to those pos­te­ri­ors, Crum­b’s true love has always been Amer­i­can roots music—ragtime, swing, old coun­try and blue­grass, Delta coun­try blues—and he has spent a good part of his career illus­trat­ing artists he loves, and those he does­n’t. From famous names like Joplin, Dylan, and B.B. King (above, whose music Crumb said he “did­n’t care for, but I don’t find it that objec­tion­able either”), to much more obscure artists, like Bo Carter, known for his “Please Warm My Wiener,” on the 1974 com­pi­la­tion album below.

Crumb Weiner

Crum­b’s use of racial­ly ques­tion­able and sex­ist imagery—however satirical—has per­haps ren­dered him untouch­able in some cir­cles, and it’s hard to imag­ine many of his album cov­ers pass­ing cor­po­rate muster these days. His recent work has moved toward more straight­for­ward, respect­ful por­trai­ture, like that of King and of Skip James on the best-of below, from a series called “Heroes of the Blues.” (Crumb also illus­trat­ed “Heroes of Jazz” and “Heroes of Coun­try,” as we fea­tured in this post.) See Crum­b’s inim­itable, loos­er por­trait style again fur­ther down in 2002 album art for a group called Hawks and Eagles.

Crumb Skip James

Crumb Hawks and Eagles

Crumb may have shed some of his more unpalat­able ten­den­cies, but he has­n’t lost his las­civ­i­ous edge. How­ev­er, his work has matured over the years, tak­ing on seri­ous sub­jects like the book of Gen­e­sis and the Char­lie Heb­do mas­sacre. For an artist with such pecu­liar per­son­al focus, Crumb is sur­pris­ing­ly ver­sa­tile, but it’s his album cov­ers that com­bine his two great­est loves. “What makes Crum­b’s art so appro­pri­ate for the album sleeve,” writes The Guardian’s Lau­ra Bar­ton, “is its vivid­ness, and its cer­tain oomph; it’s in the min­gling of sex and joy and com­pul­sion, and the vibran­cy and move­ment of his illus­tra­tions.”

Crumb Soundtrack

Crumb has­n’t only com­bined his art with music fan­dom, but also with his own musi­cian­ship, illus­trat­ing cov­ers for sev­er­al of his own albums by his rag­time band Cheap Suit Ser­e­naders. And he even pro­vid­ed the illus­tra­tion for the sound­track to his own doc­u­men­tary, as you can see above—an extreme exam­ple of the many self-abas­ing por­traits Crumb has drawn of him­self over the years. Crum­b’s album cov­er art has been col­lect­ed in a book, and you can see many more of his cov­ers at Rolling Stone and on this list here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Coun­try Fea­tures 114 Illus­tra­tions of the Artist’s Favorite Musi­cians

A Short His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca, Accord­ing to the Irrev­er­ent Com­ic Satirist Robert Crumb

Car­toon­ist R. Crumb Assess­es 21 Cul­tur­al Fig­ures, from Dylan & Hitch­cock, to Kaf­ka & The Bea­t­les

Ralph Steadman’s Evolv­ing Album Cov­er Designs: From Miles Davis & The Who, to Frank Zap­pa & Slash (1956–2010)      

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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