First introduced in the mid-1960s, gatefold album covers greatly increased the creative possibilities of album cover design.
Effectively doubling the canvas size, both inside and out, cover designers could showcase seamless artwork, or extend a theme beyond what is initially seen from the front cover alone.
As the popularity of gatefold album covers grew throughout the 60s and 70s, many of these designs became synonymous with the music and iconic in their own right.
To this day, when an artist wants to showcase their music in a beautiful and artistic way, there’s nothing quite like the vinyl format for expressing a concept or theme.
Celebrating the beauty of classic and modern gatefolds, we’ve compiled some of the best gatefold album covers. Let us know your favorite in the comments section.
Santana III (1971)
Viewed by many as the band’s creative and commercial peak, Santana III is also one of the best gatefold album covers for fans of the era’s psychedelic visual style.
It was designed by photographer and illustrator Mary Ann Mayer and visual & animation artist Joan Chase. Chase also ran the Heavy Water Light Show, which became an integral part of many psychedelic bands’ live performances in the late 60s and early 70s.
It’s easy to see how these light shows influenced the album cover with its outer-worldly Sci-Fi feel.
Led Zeppelin – IV (1971)
One of the great classic rock masterpieces! Led Zep IV is a beautiful gatefold album cover inside and out, showcasing what can be done visually with an extended canvas.
Thanks to a clever use of perspective, the front cover is one that only makes complete sense when you open the gatefold fully to reveal the entire scene. It shows a 19th-century rustic oil painting that Robert Plant reportedly purchased from an antique shop. It was attached to the wall of a partly demolished old house for the photograph.
In the background, you can see a post-war scene of victorian terraced housing being cleared. The new concrete tower block is Salisbury Tower in Birmingham. I prefer the old houses (personally), but it’s a clever album cover and a classic rock staple.
The side cover is just as intriguing, showing The Hermit (a character from tarot cards, which have been in use as a form of wisdom and fortunetelling for centuries). Allegedly, it represents “a seeker aspiring to the light of truth.”
Yes – Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
Designed and illustrated by Roger Dean, who also worked with the band on several other albums, the cover depicts—in the words of lead vocalist Jon Anderson—an “alternative landscape” dreamt up on several flights during the Close to the Edge Tour.
Everything depicted on the cover is of something that exists, including a Mayan temple and many famous English stone landmarks, including Brimham Rocks, the last rocks at Land’s End, Logan Rock at Treen, and select stones from Avebury and Stonehenge.
Jimi Hendrix – Axis: Bold as Love (1968)
Though it was dismissed as disrespectful by Jimi Hendrix himself, many still regard Axis: Bold as love as one of the best album gatefold album covers of all time.
The cover depicts Hendrix and the band as various forms of Vishnu, through a painting by Roger Law. It’s a stunning gatefold image that many music fans and critics hold up on the same level as The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s.
Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
One of the most iconic album covers of all time—famous for its depiction of a glass prism dispersing light into color—it’s often forgotten that this imagery continues on the reverse side of the beautiful gatefold album cover.
The image represents both the band’s stage performances and the album’s lyrics, while also meeting band member Richard Wright’s request for something “simple and bold”.
The Eagles – Hotel California (1976)
While this 70s classic is better known for the edgy photo of The Beverly Hills Hotel, Hotel California is a perfect example of how the inside cover of a gatefold album can tie the whole theme together.
The inside gatefold shot shows the lobby of the Lido Hotel in Holywood (Also featured on the back cover). According to Art director Don Henley, “I wanted a collection of people from all walks of life; it’s people on the edge, on the fringes of society.”
Great album covers often get people talking. In this case, there were speculations over the identity of one shadowy character featured on the balcony. A picture really does tell a thousand words.
The Mars Volta – De-Loused in the Comatorium (2003)
Another Storm Thorgerson cover (the famous designer involved with Dark Side of the Moon) this more modern example showcases two separate cover design proposals.
On the front of the original is the main cover, while the reverse side shows an alternative album cover by the same designer.
On some limited editions or re-issues (including the VMP release pictured here), the covers are flipped, featuring the alternative cover upfront.
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Better known for the pop-art classic front cover, Sgt. Pepper’s is also one of the best gatefold album covers with an interesting back-story.
The story goes that the inside gatefold shot of the band plays into the Beatles’ interest in “eye messages”, with Paul McCartney recalling that, “…with Michael Cooper’s inside photo, we all said, ‘Now look into this camera and really say I love you! Really try and feel love; really give love through this!’… [And] if you look at it you’ll see the big effort from the eyes.”
Lennon’s recollection is a little different, with him famously stating the shot showed “two people who are flying, and two who aren’t”.
I’ll leave it down to your imagination as to what “flying” means…
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1970)
Bitches Brew received mixed reactions when it was first released (as many boundary-pushing albums do), but eventually, it became Davis’ first gold album certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Davis’ pushed the boundaries of traditional jazz, incorporating many different styles and even introducing electronic instruments into the arrangments.
As an album, it’s now regarded as a classic that influenced many crossover and psychedelic musicians worldwide. The cover was designed by German-born French surrealist and visionary art painter Mati Klarwein.
Klarwein was also the artist behind Santana Abraxas, which is in a similar “visionary art” style. In fact, Bitches Brew also features imagery of an African Wodaabe Charm dancer, as featured in a trio on the Abraxas cover.
Abraxas kickstarted Klarwein’s reputation in the music industry, and it’s likely Davis picked up on his style to represent the fusion of cultural music styles reflected on the album.
Bob Dylan – Blonde On Blonde (1966)
As one of the first double albums, the album cover for Blonde On Blonde is instantly recognizable. It’s famous for the out-of-focus shot of Dylan taken on an impromptu photo shoot while recording in New York.
The famous blurred shot is completely revealed when you fully open the gatefold album cover. Many pundits speculated that the out-of-focus picture was a statement about drugs at the time, but according to photographer Jerry Schatzberg who shot the photo with Dylan on an extremely cold day, “…we were just cold and the two of us were shivering. There were other images that were sharp and in focus, but, to his credit, Dylan liked that photograph.”
Genesis – Foxtrot (1972)
You can always rely on prog-rock bands to produce album art with depth.
Foxtrot is the last album cover designed by Paul Whitehead, following his work on Trespass and Nursery Cryme. Also, it’s arguably his most ambitious, despite falling flat with the band at the time of release.
As a reference to the English upper classes, Nursery Cryme shows a disturbing-looking game of croquet. The theme continues on Foxtrot with its surreal depiction of Foxhunting imagery. (If you look closely, though, Whitehead also gives a nod to Nursery Cryme with the croquet scene repeated in the background, giving consistency to the series of albums).
Whitehead took his inspiration for the cover from the lyrics of “Supper’s Ready”, which references the apocalypse. Here, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are loosely represented in a peculiar way, including one rider as an alien and another as a monkey.
The cunning fox (out in the water) has chosen to disguise itself in a dress, supposedly an idea that came to Whitehead based on attractive women being referred to as “foxes” at the time.
In true prog fashion, the cover is full of hidden details. Hilariously, in an interview with RockPop Gallery he revealed a hidden easter egg that not many people know about this cover:
In his words, “Here’s an interesting aside – as we were always trying to get away with something for a laugh and sneak something past the censors, I was particularly proud of how we accomplished this feat in this painting. Now, you may have looked at this cover hundreds of times, but I’ll bet that you have never noticed just how “excited” the 4th horse (the one farthest to the right, ridden by the rider with the green head) is to be this close to the fox.. 😉
To this day, I still win bets with people who ‘know this painting backwards and forwards’ but who’ve never seen that particular ‘naughty bit’ before!”
Long Live the Gatefold Album Cover
While most of the examples shown are considered classic albums, the gatefold album cover is by far from consigned to the dustbin of history.
With vinyl records continuing to see a resurgence in popularity, innovation and artistic expression continues to this day. There are whole record clubs dedicated to beautiful album artwork, and to this day, when a real statement is required, there’s nothing quite like a gatefold jacket.
Take this example below from the subscription service, VinylMoon. It’s a triple gatefold cover showcasing the theme of this particular month’s issue, which is all centered around vacation desires, expectations, and trials and tribulations of the unknown. Perhaps then, the best gatefold album covers are yet to come. Long live vinyl and the gatefold jacket.
Of course, there are so many great examples of gatefold covers throughout history that we haven’t mentioned. What’s your favorite gatefold cover? Let us know in the comments below.
For more on this topic, check our previous article on classic album covers and what makes them great.