H.R. Giger’s Dark, Surrealist Album Covers: Debbie Harry, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Celtic Frost, Danzig & More

The work of H.R. Giger is immense­ly pow­er­ful. Giger’s amaz­ing cov­er for Emer­son, Lake and Palmer’s album Brain Sal­ad Surgery por­trays a Goth­ic touch that could fit any heavy met­al band at any time.

—Jim­my Page

Swiss artist Hans Rue­di Giger is a genre unto his own, sin­gle-hand­ed­ly invent­ing the bio­me­chan­i­cal hor­ror of the 1980s with his designs for Rid­ley Scott’s 1979 Alien, the film that launched him into inter­na­tion­al promi­nence and turned Deb­bie Har­ry on to his work. Meet­ing him the fol­low­ing year, the Blondie singer asked Giger to design the cov­er and music videos for her solo album, KooKoo.

The album was panned, but the cov­er end­ed up being as pre­scient as the film that pre­ced­ed it. It would “see its influ­ence in films like Hell­rais­er, the rise of what was called the ‘mod­ern prim­i­tive’ move­ment, and help cul­ti­vate the dark masochis­tic char­ac­ter Har­ry would play in David Cronenberg’s Video­drome,” writes Ted Mills in an ear­li­er Open Cul­ture post. “It was a feel­ing that would flour­ish in the deca­dent ‘80s.”

The record was also, in a way, “a throw­back to Giger’s oth­er famous record cov­er, the one for Emer­son, Lake, and Palmer’s Brain Sal­ad Surgery” from 1973 (above). Ten years before Alien, Giger designed his first album cov­er, for a “pro­to-met­al” band called The Shiv­ers.

Their 1969 Walpur­gis, fea­tures what look very much like Alien’s face­hug­gers. Giger had been hav­ing this night­mare for a long time. Years after these begin­nings, due in large part to Alien and its sequels and the Deb­bie Har­ry cov­er, Giger became high­ly sought after by met­al bands, from Celtic Frost to Danzig to Car­cass.

His work appears, how­ev­er, on far more album cov­ers than he would like. There have been “many small bands over the years,” he writes on his site, “pre­sum­ably fans of mine, who had appro­pri­at­ed my art­work for their album and CD cov­ers,” with­out get­ting per­mis­sion. Giger him­self has only cre­at­ed a few pieces specif­i­cal­ly as album cov­er art, the last in 1989 for Steve Stevens’ Atom­ic Play­boys. “Of the approx­i­mate­ly 20 records on which my art­work has been seen over the last 30 years,” he writes, only a small num­ber have been com­mis­sions. These include The Shiv­ers, ELP, Har­ry, and Stevens.

All the oth­er covers—those offi­cial­ly sanc­tioned, in any case—come from work Giger “made for myself, many years before, which the bands, lat­er, licensed for their own use after see­ing them in my books.” Though Giger him­self is more of a jazz fan, his appeal to heavy met­al is obvi­ous. “Giger’s style of adding a sur­re­al­ist twist to mechan­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal scenes,” writes All­mu­sic, “often with twist­ed sex­u­al undertones—was imme­di­ate­ly iden­ti­fi­able,” and imme­di­ate­ly iden­ti­fied a band as some­thing seduc­tive­ly taboo and pos­si­bly dead­ly.

At least one use of his work got a band pros­e­cut­ed. “Bay Area punks the Dead Kennedys includ­ed a poster of Giger’s Land­scape #XX, also known as Penis Land­scape (the image depict­ed rows of erect phal­lus­es in coitus), in the pack­ag­ing of their 1985 album Frankenchrist,” writes Rolling Stone, “and were sub­se­quent­ly put on tri­al for obscen­i­ty.”

Those who would mis­use his work and vio­late his copy­right may also find them­selves in court. “It will,” he warns, “cost a lot more than if they had first con­tact­ed me, through my agent, to ask for per­mis­sion.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Deb­bie Har­ry Com­bined Artis­tic Forces with H.R. Giger

The Giger Bar: Dis­cov­er the 1980s Tokyo Bar Designed by H. R. Giger, the Same Artist Who Cre­at­ed the Night­mar­ish Mon­ster in Rid­ley Scott’s Alien

H.R. Giger’s Tarot Cards: The Swiss Artist, Famous for His Design Work on Alien, Takes a Jour­ney into the Occult

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

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