How Led Zeppelin turned tragedy into an iconic album

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How Led Zeppelin  self-titled debut album came out 50 years ago, on Jan. 12, 1969 — 

The iconic cover of Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album — which launched one of the greatest bands in rock history when it came out 50 years ago, on Jan. 12, 1969 — famously features a black-and-white image of the zeppelin Hindenburg ablaze. The New York Post By Chuck Arnold

But the man who designed that classic album artwork would rethink using such a picture of the 1937 disaster. “A lot of people died,” says George Hardie, 74, recounting the 36 fatalities after the German airship caught fire in Manchester Township, NJ. “If you ever see a film of that event, you hear people screaming . . . I should have thought more about it — I would now.”

 

Actually, though, it was Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s idea to use the image, which is based on a renowned photo by Sam Shere taken at the site of the explosion. Hardie — who had previously designed only one other album cover (for Jeff Beck’s 1968 debut, “Truth”) — had presented another concept, depicting a zeppelin in the sky, but it was flatly rejected.

“It was just literally put to one side,” says Hardie, “and Jimmy Page said, ‘No, here’s what I want.’ And he opened a book to show me the photograph.”

All of this negotiation was going down as Led Zeppelin was about to play a big gig at the Marquee Club in London that night. “It was their first night at the club,” says Hardie. “[Lead singer] Robert Plant was coming back to the office, which was 100 yards away from the club, and saying, ‘Hey, the queue is getting bigger and bigger and bigger,’ so that was quite exciting.”

The British artist had to come up with a clever way to replicate Shere’s photo without actually using it or infringing on the copyright. Turning it into what is ostensibly an illustration, he altered it sufficiently.


Hardie’s original idea would end up being used as a small logo on the back cover of both “Led Zeppelin” and “Led Zeppelin II,” which came out in October 1969. He later contributed to the band’s artwork for “Presence” and “The Song Remains the Same,” both released in 1976, while also doing the cover designs for Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” (1973) and “Wish You Were Here” (1975).
“We were already in the world of Andy Warhol and a lot of other American pop artists using existing images to do things,” says Hardie, who used a Rapidograph pen for his ink rendering. “That was in the air at that time.”

But despite creating all of that vintage album art, Hardie is no vinyl junkie. “One of the strange things about my life is that I never had anything to play records on,” he says.

Nor did Hardie imagine — with those first pen strokes of the cover he was paid about $76 for — that Led Zeppelin would get a whole lotta love: “Everyone was terribly excited and told me they were gonna be very important, but I didn’t know that. I didn’t know enough about music.”

 

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