50 fascinating facts about Led Zeppelin's seminal album covers
An in-depth look at their iconic artwork
Last updated 21st Oct 2019
Almost four decades on their original demise following the untimely passing of legendary drummer John Bonham, Led Zeppelin’s zeitgeist-defining, earth-shattering sounds remain as enduring and vital as ever. Over the course of eight studio albums released over just a decade, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham truly changed the face of music forever and influenced countless bands.
Alongside the rightfully revered musical output, Led Zeppelin also released some iconic album sleeves – from the burning zeppelin airship on ‘Led Zeppelin I’ to the otherworldly ‘Houses of the Holy’ to the downright bizarre ‘Presence’.
Here Absolute Radio presents 50 defining facts about Led Zeppelin’s album covers:
Led Zeppelin (1969):
- The seminal cover to Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut album features a black-and-white image of the Hindenburg disaster, which occurred on 6th May 1937 in Manchester Township, New Jersey. The vast airship LZ 129 Hindenburg burst into flames while trying to dock at Naval Air Station Lakehurst following a transatlantic flight resulting in the deaths of 36 people.
- Although there were many images of the Hindenburg disaster due to the assembled media waiting for the airship to land, it was Sam Shere’s powerful photograph that proved to be the most enduring. In 2016 Time Magazine listed it as among the 100 most influential images of all time.
- Graphic designer George Hardie created the cover illustration from the iconic photograph by rendering it in ink using a radiograph pen to avoid potential copyright issues. Hardie also worked with Hipgnosis in the 1970s on Pink Floyd’s timeless covers for ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’.
- Explaining why he picked the image of the Hindenburg disaster, Jimmy Page told Time Magazine in 2016: “The idea of it was to use the impact of this but use it in a graphic interpretation. The fact is that it was the right thing to do because it’s really an iconic image plus it’s Led Zeppelin’s first album so it’s really good to go in there – not quite like a lead balloon – but like a streaming rocket. I’m sure that people know that phrase ‘going down like a lead balloon’ and it was a sort of play on words if you like; a play on attitudes even. It’s a dramatic incident, it’s a dramatic album, it’s a dramatic statement.”
- The very short-lived initial ‘Led Zeppelin’ pressings – estimated to be less than 2,000 copies - featured the album title and Atlantic Records logo in turquoise. Weeks later, the colours were switched to the now familiar orange version. Highly sought after by record collectors, an original turquoise version fetched $1890 (around ￡1450) on eBay in 2012.
- Although he helped create one of the most iconic album covers of all time, Hardie doesn’t rate it highly. He showed Jimmy Page a number of album cover ideas including “a multiple sequential image of a zeppelin” based on a club sign in San Francisco but they were rejected. Eventually creating an illustration of the Hindenburg photo at Page’s suggestion, the then Royal College of Art student didn’t include the artwork in his degree show. He explained to Eye On Design: “I didn’t think Led Zeppelin was a very good bit of work, apart from millions of copies being around, and the fact I was paid $60. I didn’t put it in my show because it wasn’t really a proper idea, and there wasn’t enough original thought in it.”
Led Zeppelin II (1969):
- Keeping things early 20th Century German-themed, the front cover of ‘Led Zeppelin II’ is based on a photo of Baron Manfred von Richthofen (pictured sitting in the cockpit of his Albatros fighter) and his ‘Flying Circus’ Jagdstaffel 11 Division during World War I in 1917. Nicknamed The Red Baron and widely considered the ace-of-aces of the war, von Richthofen shot down more than 80 aircraft before he himself died when he suffered the same fate near Vaux-sur-Somme, France aged 25 in 1918.
- The album cover design was created by David Juniper, a fellow student of Jimmy Page’s at Sutton Art College in Surrey. Simply asked to come up with an interesting idea, he airbrushed John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham’s faces onto members of von Richthofen’s squadron from a 1969 press photo of the band.
- Decades before digital illustration, Juniper used a combination of collage, photography and airbrush illustration to create the sleeve. He commented: “(It) was groundbreaking for me because the traditional airbrush technique was very tricky, especially when compared to today’s digital equivalents. The cover imagery was completely experimental and I liked the combination of the abstract ghostly Zeppelin shape along with a faded sepia WW1 photo of German Aviators. All the faces were replaced or altered with sunglasses and beards on some of the pilots.”
- Interestingly, Baron Manfred von Richthofen doesn’t feature on Juniper’s ‘Led Zeppelin II’ cover at all as the cockpit, where he’s sitting in the original photograph, is obscured by plumes of smoke emanating from the silhouette of the Zeppelin airship.
- Other faces featured on the cover include Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant (pictured above), tour manager Richard Cole, astronaut Neil Armstrong (however, some have speculated this is fellow astronaut Frank Borman), Andy Warhol’s friend Mary Woronov (again, others contend this is actress Glynis John; a play on the name of recording engineer Glyn Johns) and jazz legend Miles Davis.
- ‘Led Zeppelin II’ was nicknamed ‘The Brown Bomber’ in reference to the sepia tinted cover, the depiction of the bombing squadron, the silhouette of the Zeppelin airship and, most importantly, the explosive music contained within.
Led Zeppelin III (1970):
- The cover of ‘Led Zeppelin III’ was created by innovative artist Zacron, aka Surrey born Richard Drew, who first met Jimmy Page while studying at Kingston Collage of Art in 1963. Zacron said of their friendship in the sixties: “Jimmy visited my studio and in his home we discussed art and music. We decorated our guitars with experimental materials and designs, I made liquid projections using hot oils and strobes linked to the music of Jimmy Hendrix.”
- Several years later, Page personally asked Zacron to create the sleeve on 24th January 1970 when Led Zeppelin were playing a gig at Leeds University Union where Zacron taught. Months later they met up again to take portrait photographs of the band to use on the cover.
- Both the inside and outside of the gatefold cover feature a smorgasbord of images with a number of them related to the theme of flight; zeppelin airships, UFOs, butterflies, birds, hot air balloons, fighter planes and dragonflies included. According to Zacron.com: "Each component became a formal abstract element, interacting with all the images to make a unified whole. The work created a surrealist environment, changing relative concepts of scale and subject matter. The square format became a visual theatre in which images could appear to move and have their own energy, some moved beyond the boundary."
- Behind the vinyl album cover is a rotating laminated wheel – known as a volvelle – containing more random psychedelic images and photos of the band members that could be manoeuvred to appear through holes in the cover. Zacron said of the visually complex artwork in 1970: "An album cover is not sound packaging, but an area of visual communication, an opportunity to put visual art and audio art together in a joint arena."
- The back cover of the first pressings of the record feature composite photos of the four Led Zeppelin members taken by Zacron. The artist said he selected the photos as they showed the band “as the giant force they were in music.” This image was used on the front cover on certain international editions of the record.
- The vinyl on some early editions of ‘Led Zeppelin III’ is inscribed with the words ‘So Mote Be It’ and/or ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ on the run-out groove. The virtually identical ‘So mote it be’ is a ritual phrase used by Freemasons and modern pagans, while ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ is the first part of ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’; the ethos of Aleister Crowley’s 20th Century religion of Thelema.
Led Zeppelin IV (1971):
- Led Zep’s fourth album is completely devoid of the band’s name and album title on the cover. Explaining the reasoning behind this, Jimmy Page told Brad Tolinksi in 2001: “The cover wasn't meant to antagonize the record company. It was designed as our response to the music critics who maintained that the success of our first three albums was driven by hype and not talent. So, we stripped everything away, and let the music do the talking."
- Instead of a title, each band member chose their own personal emblem to feature on the record. Page designed his own ‘ZoSo’ symbol based on a renaissance icon for Saturn or Capricorn, while Plant based his feather design on a symbol for the fabled ‘lost continent’ of Mu. Jones (a single circle intersecting three vesica pisces) and Bonham (three interlocking rings) picked their symbols from German type designer Rudolf Koch's Book of Signs. Page commented years later: “John Paul Jones and John Bonham just said, 'Oh, we'll pick these, you know, sure, whatever,' they weren't that interested.”
- Robert Plant bought the rustic oil painting of the old man carrying sticks that adorns the cover from an antiques shop in Reading, Berkshire. It’s thought to originate from the 19th Century and its current whereabouts are unknown.
- To create the cover, the painting was hung on the inside wall of a dilapidated, partially demolished suburban house. The block of flats that can been seen on the back sleeve of the gatefold is Salisbury Tower, a 20 storey tower block on Middleway View in the Ladywood district of Birmingham. Completed in 1968, the tower is 57 metres tall and contains 116 flats.
- The inside sleeve of the gatefold contains a painting called The Hermit by artist Barrington Coleby. The Gandalf-esque figure is actually based on The Hermit (IX) card from the popular Ride-Waite tarot. Jimmy Page played the role of The Hermit during a fantasy scene in Zeppelin's 1976 movie ‘The Song Remains the Same.’
- In 2010 the cover was selected to appear on a set of Royal Mail stamps celebrating iconic albums from the last 40 years. Other sleeves features included The Rolling Stones' ‘Let It Bleed’ and David Bowie's ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’.
Houses of the Holy (1973):
- The otherworldly cover image that adorns Led Zeppelin’s fifth studio album is a collage of several photographs taken at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland by Aubrey Powell of Hipgnosis fame. The 40,000 interlocking and mostly hexagonal basalt columns are the result of an ancient volcanic fissure eruption some 50 to 60 million years ago.
- The artwork was inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 science fiction book Childhood’s End. Aubrey Powell told Rolling Stone in 2017: “In the end of that book, there was this image of all the children of the Earth rising up in this great firestorm and going up into outer space. Storm (Thorgerson) and I were very interested in that kind of thing. We loved William Blake, Luis Bu?uel and Salvador Dalí – surreal imagery and esoteric writing. So, we presented Led Zeppelin that.”
- Aubrey Powell also submitted an alternate sleeve idea with the ‘Zoso’ symbol “bulldozed” into the plains of Nazca in Peru in the style of the Nazca Lines - a series of massive geoglyphs created between 500 BC and 500 CE. Unfazed by the meteoric costs involved in creating the sleeve, which included shooting from a helicopter, Peter Grant told Powell: “You decide which one you want to do. We’re going on a tour of Japan. We’ll see you when we get back in about six weeks.” Ultimately Powell opted for the Giant’s Causeway sleeve and the rest, they say, is history.
- The two children on the cover were siblings Stefan and Samantha Gates who were aged five and seven respectively. The now 51-year-old Stefan Gates is a television presenter and food writer who is perhaps best known for his documentary series Cooking in the Danger Zone. Stefan listened to ‘Houses of the Holy’ for the very first time on a boombox at Giant’s Causeway in 2010 for a BBC show called Stefan Gates’ Cover Story.
- In parts of America, the album was issued with a strip of paper around the cover to obscure the children’s bottoms. Powell remarked to Rolling Stone: “If you did an album cover like that now, you couldn’t release it. Naked children on the cover? But it was done with such innocence.” Defending the sleeve, he added: “When you look at the Louvre’s paintings, it’s full of naked children. Nobody complains about that. So this is a piece of art. It’s not something that was, in any way, devious.”
- The inner gatefold was taken at the medieval Dunluce Castle near the Giant’s Causeway and depicts a silver man holding up the young girl. Upon being presented with the artwork in the carpark of London’s Victoria Station, Jimmy Page immediately wanted the inner sleeve and the cover switched. Despite Peter Grant prodding Powell and strongly maintaining “we’ll have what we want”, the designer eventually managed to persuade them to keep the Giant's Causeway image on the front.
Physical Graffiti (1975):
- Abandoning the usual gatefold design, for ‘Physical Graffiti’ Led Zeppelin opted for a die-cut cover of two side-by-side tenement buildings located at 96 and 98 St. Mark’s Place in New York’s East Village. As you can see from the image below, artist Peter Corriston and designer Mike Doud were forced to crop out the top floor of the five-storey buildings so they would fit onto the square sleeve better. The front cover is a daytime shot, while the back is at night.
- Echoing the volvelle on Led Zepelin III, ‘Physical Grafitti’ has two inner sleeves – one for each LP – and a middle insert cover featuring images that can be seen through the die cut windows; essentially creating different visuals for the cover depending on which way the sleeves are inserted. The white inner features the song titles and the album title ‘Physical Grafitti’ that can be viewed through the windows.
- Among the eclectic famous faces featured on the LP sleeves are JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, astronaut Neil Armstrong, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (a film in which Peter Grant had a cameo), King Kong, the Virgin Mary, Judy Garland, members of Led Zeppelin, Peter Grant, body builder Charles Atlas, Queen Elizabeth, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Marcel Duchamp and Pope Leo XIII.
- The Rolling Stones' video for their 1981 single ‘Waiting on a Friend’ was filmed on the front steps of #96 St. Mark's Place in an apparent nod to Led Zeppelin. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meet on the steps of #96 before walking to the corner of 1st Avenue to the meet with the rest of The Rolling Stones.
- The concept for the cover was allegedly inspired by the sleeve on Puerto Rican guitarist Jose Feliciano’s 1973 album ‘Compartments’. The cover was designed by Frank Mulvey and featured inner illustrations by Bernie Karlin.
- ‘Physical Graffiti’ was nominated for the best album package Grammy Award in 1976 but lost out to the Jim Ladwig designed sleeve for ‘Honey’ by Ohio Players. In fact ‘Led Zeppelin II’, ‘Houses of the Holy’, ‘Presence’ and ‘In Through the Out Door’ were also all nominated in the same category from 1970 to 1980 but Led Zeppelin failed to pick up one win.
- Led Zeppelin once again drafted in Hipgnosis and George Hardie to create the surreal artwork for the seventh studio album. Jimmy Page gave Hipgnosis’ Aubrey Powell three weeks to formulate some ideas for the cover and, just like with Houses of the Holy three years earlier, Page didn’t divulge any information about the record including the title, song names or what musical direction the band were taking.
- It was Powell’s idea to feature a black object on the cover (referred to as ‘The Object’ and ‘The Obelisk’) loosely based on the otherworldly and mysterious black monoliths in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey that affect human evolution. Arthur C. Clarke’s book of the same name was developed concurrently with the movie, meaning that ‘Presence’ is the second Led Zeppelin album cover to have links to the science fiction writer after ‘Houses of the Holy’.
- Powell has stated that the object was intended to represent the “presence” of Led Zeppelin and it ultimately gave the record its title, as Jimmy Page explains: “There was no working title for the album. The record-jacket designer said 'When I think of the group, I always think of power and force. There’s a definite presence there.’ That was it. He wanted to call it 'Obelisk'. To me, it was more important what was behind the obelisk. The cover is very tongue-in-cheek, to be quite honest. Sort of a joke on 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think it’s quite amusing.”
- Explaining why the black object was placed in a number of everyday situations on the front and back cover and inner gatefold, Aubrey Powell told Rolling Stone: “This was something you needed to live. It was food. It was a symbol of energy, of power, which is what Led Zeppelin were.” He added: “It was so brave of a very, very heavy rock band to take such a surreal idea. I mean, a family sitting at a boat show with a black object on the front is that Led Zeppelin? I don’t think so. But if you take it another way, yes, it is Led Zeppelin. On the back cover, you’ve got a school teacher with a child with a black object on the desk teaching the child. The power of teaching. You know, it’s all there. Again, I take my hat off to band for having the balls to take such an outrageous idea. It’s all about power. That’s what Led Zeppelin were about: power.”
- The background of the striking cover image is an artificial marina that was installed at a Boat Show inside the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre in the winter of 1974 to 1975. Led Zeppelin played a fabled five-night residency of the now demolished West London venue in May of '75.
- To promote the album, Led Zeppelin’s label Swan Song enlisted the Alva Museum Graphics in New York to produce 1,000 individually numbered 12” replicas of ‘The Object’. Unsurprisingly these replicas are now highly sought-after collectors’ items and in February 2013 one fetched $2,000 (￡1500) on eBay despite being chipped and not coming in the original cardboard box.
In Through the Out Door (1979):
- The artwork for Led Zeppelin’s eighth and final studio album was the brainchild of Hipgnosis legend Storm Thorgerson. Mimicking bootleg records of the day, the album came in a sleeve that resembled a brown paper bag that was rubber stamped with Led Zeppelin’s name and the album title on the front, and the Icarus logo and song titles on the back.
- Beneath the brown sleeve, the album was issued with six different front and back covers; 12 different images in total that depicted a different viewpoint of the same scene at almost exactly the same time. Each of the six sleeve pairs is identifiable by a letter code (A-F) at the top of the spine of the record.
- The covers all depict a man wearing a sharp white suite in a bar burning a Dear John Letter (a letter to a lover ending their romantic relationship; the equivalent of dumping someone by text nowadays). There are six people watching the man in total – a paunchy man holding a coat by the door, a blonde woman next to the bar, the barman, a lady guffawing at the end of the bar, a piano player and a brunette woman by the jukebox.
- Although it looks as though the cover was shot in an American bar, the photo session in fact took place in a London studio. The recreation was allegedly based on a photo of the famous Old Absinthe House in New Orleans, Louisiana.
- The inner LP sleeve features a black-and-white close-up sketch of the burnt Dear John letter, a broken glass, peanuts, the white-suited man’s cigar and lighter, coins and a dollar bill. Tying in with the brush stroke on the cover(s), when water was applied to the original 1979 sleeve with a wet brush, it ingeniously permanently transformed into a colour image – many fans discovered this brilliant gimmick by accident.
- Explaining why the cover is a brown tinge and has a brush stroke, Storm Thorgerson said in his book ‘Eye of the Storm’: “The sepia quality was meant to evoke a non-specific past and to allow the brushstroke across the middle to be better rendered in colour and so make a contrast. This self same brushstroke was like the swish of a wiper across a wet windscreen, like a lick of fresh paint across a faded surface, a new look to an old scene, which was what Led Zeppelin told us about their album. A lick of fresh paint, as per Led Zeppelin, and the music on this album...”
- The more simplistic sleeve for the compilation album, released two years after Led Zeppelin disbanded following John Bonham’s death, was once again designed by Hipgnosis; their fifth for the band if you include 1976 live album ‘The Song Remains The Same’. It was also Hipgnosis’ final album cover before the art design group dissolved and went their separate ways.
- The main four letters CODA are from an alphabet typeface design called "Neon" designed by Bernard Allum in 1978.