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


Ralph Stead­man will always best be known—and for good reason—as the visu­al inter­preter of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug­gy gonzo vision of Amer­i­can excess and hubris. As Col­in Mar­shall wrote in a pre­vi­ous post on Stead­man and Thompson’s pow­er­ful col­lab­o­ra­tive rela­tion­ship, it’s hard to imag­ine a more “suit­able visu­al accom­pa­ni­ment to the simul­ta­ne­ous­ly clear- and wild-eyed sen­si­bil­i­ty of Thomp­son­ian prose.” But the British artist has had a long and dis­tin­guished career, pre- and post-Thomp­son: illus­trat­ing Lewis Carroll’s sur­re­al­ist clas­sic Alice in Won­der­land; cre­at­ing lim­it­ed edi­tion DVD cov­ers for the dark cult hit TV show Break­ing Bad; mak­ing bul­let-rid­dled col­lage art with coun­ter­cul­ture hero William S. Bur­roughs…. To name just a few of his off­beat assign­ments over the years.

happy jack steadman

Today we bring you a less­er-known facet of Steadman’s work: design­ing album cov­ers. As artist and illus­tra­tor John Coulthart notes in a post on Steadman’s album designs, he’s been at it since the mid-fifties, when—for example—he illus­trat­ed a release of Con­cep­tion (top), “an under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed mas­ter­piece of cere­bral cool jazz” fea­tur­ing the likes of Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and Son­ny Rollins. Stead­man’s abstract expres­sion­ist-inspired jazz cov­ers soon gave way to more Stead­manesque, though still rel­a­tive­ly tame, cov­ers like that above for The Who’s sin­gle “Hap­py Jack”/“I’ve Been Away” from 1966.


It’s not until the 70s, however—after he’d begun his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Thompson—that his album cov­ers begin to take on the decid­ed­ly crazed look his work is known for, such as in the cov­er for Paul Bret­t’s Phoenix Future, above, from 1975.


By 1997, Stead­man seems to have per­fect­ed his inim­itable riot of grotesque imagery, wild col­or palette, and unhinged black lines and let­ter­ing, as in the cov­er for Closed On Account Of Rabies: Poems And Tales Of Edgar Allan Poe, a com­pi­la­tion of Poe read­ings by stars like Christo­pher Walken, Iggy Pop, Mar­i­anne Faith­full, Jeff Buck­ley, and Abel Fer­rara, which we’ve fea­tured on OC before. The artists rep­re­sent­ed here are—as in his work with Thomp­son and Burroughs—perfectly fit­ting for Stead­man’s sen­si­bil­i­ty. So, of course, is the clean-liv­ing but oth­er­wise total­ly bonkers Frank Zap­pa, whose 1997 Have I Offend­ed Some­one? received the Stead­man treat­ment, as you can see below.

zappa steadman

In the past few years, Stead­man has mel­lowed a bit, if you could call it that, and his work has tak­en on a slight­ly more refined char­ac­ter. His Break­ing Bad illus­tra­tions seem restrained by the stan­dards of his work with Thomp­son or Zap­pa. And in a 2010 cov­er for Slash’s first offi­cial sin­gle, “By the Sword,” below, he reigns in some of his wilder graph­ic impuls­es while retain­ing all of the styl­ist sig­na­tures he devel­oped over the decades.

slash steadman

Stead­man has always been a one-of-a-kind illus­tra­tor. In his album cov­er design, we can per­haps best watch his work evolve. As Coulthart writes, “the style of the ear­ly sleeves is marked­ly dif­fer­ent to the angry, splat­tery cre­ations that made his name, and with­out a sig­na­ture you’d be unlike­ly to recog­nise the artist.” See many more Stead­man album cov­ers over at Coulthart’s excel­lent blog.

via Feuil­leton

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Break­ing Bad Illus­trat­ed by Gonzo Artist Ralph Stead­man

See Ralph Steadman’s Twist­ed Illus­tra­tions of Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land on the Story’s 150th Anniver­sary

Gun Nut William S. Bur­roughs & Gonzo Illus­tra­tor Ralph Stead­man Make Polaroid Por­traits Togeth­er

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

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.