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November 29, 2023

Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Story Behind the Banned ‘Electric Ladyland’ Album Cover

Rock and roll has a long history of controversial album covers. These abominations are often conceived by record labels and forced upon musicians. One famous example of art gone wrong is the British pressing of Electric Ladyland.

The outer record sleeve UK cover by the photographer David Montgomery and later Polydor reissue distributed in Europe.

Shot by David Montgomery, this photography work was chosen as the European cover for Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 album Electric Ladyland. It features nineteen London Club girls, all non-models, who pose nude. When it was released, the cover was banned in the United States, while others sold it with the gatefold cover turned inside out, or in a brown wrapper.

In an interview with Louder Sound, Montgomery revealed how the shoot came about, and what happened on the day:

“Linda McCartney shot the original picture of Electric Ladyland in New York. She took a picture of a little white kid and a little black kid playing together. It was peace, love, harmony – all that stuff. But the record company in London looked at it and said: ‘What the hell is this? This isn’t gonna sell records.’ So that’s when I got the job. 

“I’ve met a lot of people who told me they had the Electric Ladyland album but they’d never listened to it. They just liked the naked girls. I think the people from the record company arranged it all. I knew the girls were going to be topless and [UK cover art director] David King just said to me: ‘We’ll do it Thursday night’. I can remember that, that it was a Thursday night, because I was working in the daytime. So they went to all these London clubs and rounded up all these girls by saying to them: ‘We’re taking pictures of Jimi Hendrix and would you like to be in the picture with him? You’ll make five pounds.’ 

“On the big day, all these girls came into the studio – I think there were 19 of them – and slowly started undressing. Then I put them into some kind of grouping and took a Polaroid of it, to see what the lighting was like. David King and maybe somebody from the record company looked at it and said: ‘It doesn’t look good with their knickers on. Okay girls, can you take your knickers off?’ The girls all said no. So David offered them more money. I think, with haggling, they gave them another three pounds each. Also, for some reason Hendrix never showed up. That’s why some of them are holding albums. 

“Deep down in my heart I knew that this picture could be controversial, so I kinda made sure there was nothing really showing, just their boobs. The other thing is that, in a situation like that, I was shooting on Kodachrome film, which was a transparency. Which meant that either you were right or wrong on the exposure. So I had all these girls and all these different skin tones. My normal habit would be to take four different exposures. When I got them back the color was absolutely beautiful – all the girls’ skin tones looked like babies’ bottoms. It was really beautiful and I was very pleased with it.

“I gave David all the film and made a couple of choices and that was the end of it. But when the album came out, it was really dark and murky. So I called them up and said: ‘I know it was a low budget, but jeez!’ They said: ‘There’s nothing wrong with that picture, that’s how we wanted it. Your correct exposure was too nice and open and clean. I wanted it a bit more gritty.’ So that’s what David King did. He was the art director so he was the genius. Evidently, Jimi Hendrix didn’t like it. But I don’t actually believe that, because Jimi was quite a ladies man. He was a promiscuous character, so I couldn’t see why he was being all puritanical.”

Jimi Hendrix with Electric Ladyland album.

A handful of shops banned the record. Many stores sold the album with the gatefold turned inside out. The anticipated windfall of free press failed to materialize. The general consensus was that the cover was tasteless. Hendrix agreed. He distanced himself from the photo in interviews and proclaimed disdain for the gatefold.

To prevent a similar fiasco in the states, Hendrix contacted Reprise Records with his vision for the U.S. pressing of Electric Ladyland. Jimi gathered a selection of band photographs and personally sketched a collage with detailed instructions on arranging pictures across the cover.

Reprise Records completely disregarded Jimi’s concept. Many of the photographs do appear inside the gatefold. However, for the outer cover, Reprise went with the now iconic red and yellow photo of Jimi that we know.

Electric Ladyland is the third and final studio album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, released in October 1968. A double album, it was the only record from the Experience with production solely credited to Hendrix. The band’s most commercially successful release and its only number one album, it was released by Reprise Records in the United States on October 16, 1968, and by Track Records in the UK nine days later.

By mid-November, it had reached number 1 on the Billboard Top LPs chart, spending two weeks there. In the UK it peaked at number 6, where it spent 12 weeks on the British charts. Although the album confounded critics in upon its release, it has since been viewed as one of Hendrix’s best works and one of the greatest albums of all time, and has been featured on many “greatest albums” lists, including Q’s 2003 list of the 100 greatest albums and Rolling Stone’s 2020 list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” on which it was ranked 53rd.

Hendrix had written to Reprise describing what he wanted for the cover art, but was mostly ignored. He expressly asked for a color photo by Linda Eastman (later known as Linda McCartney following her marriage with Paul McCartney) of the group sitting with children on the sculpture of Alice in Wonderland in Central Park, and drew a picture of it for reference. The company instead used a blurred red and yellow photo of his head while performing at Saville Theatre, taken by Karl Ferris.


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