Cover Stories: Beastie Boys, ‘Licensed to Ill’
Beastie Boys came out swinging with their 1986 debut, Licensed to Ill, announcing themselves as loud, crude and in your face. Given a different set of circumstances they may have been professional wrestlers or presidential candidates.
But unlike your basic presidential candidate, the Beasties were intentionally loud, crude, in your face and funny. Pity the poor album cover designer who had to capture all of that in a single image. But the team of Steve Byram (design) and World B. Omes (artist) hit the assignment out of the park.
Not that they were working in a vacuum. Producer Rick Rubin said in the book 100 Best Album Covers:
At the time, I had just read Hammer of the Gods, a wild biography about Led Zeppelin's rock excesses. In the book there is a photograph of the Led Zeppelin private jet and the idea of this cover came from that. The Beastie Boys were just a bunch of little guys and I wanted us to have a Beastie Boys' jet. I wanted to embrace and somehow distinguish, in a sarcastic way, the larger than life rock 'n' roll lifestyle.
The plane that Rubin is referring to is the legendary Starship – a Boeing 720 airliner converted into a sort of insane flying grotto replete with bedrooms and fireplaces. Zeppelin was the Starship's most famous renter, but any rock band that could afford the fee was welcome to hire the beast, and many did. Nothing says "rock star excess" like a flying fireplace.
It's not all glamor, though. Ever since "the day the music died" back in '59, when a chartered flight claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, plane crashes have ended the careers of some of music's biggest names. Patsy Cline's plane went down in 1963, silencing one of the greatest voices to ever crossover from country music to popular music. We lost the great Otis Redding to an airplane accident in '67, and just a few years later, singer-songwriter Jim Croce's career was cut short just as it was starting to take off. Perhaps none of the above were as startling as Lynyrd Skynyrd's horrific 1977 plane crash.
Airplanes were symbols of both rock excess and tragedy. What better way to announce a young band than to crash their jet into the side of a mountain?
The image is darkly humorous, but not out of step with the times. Gallows humor prevailed in the mid-'80s, with Garbage Pail Kids collector cards and "dead baby" joke books enjoying what in retrospect seems like unusual popularity. There's a little Mad magazine tossed into that gatefold sleeve, too: The magazine's back cover usually featured a "Fold-In," a cartoon that when folded a certain way became a different cartoon. Opening Licensed to Ill's cover and viewing front and back as a single image echoed that same sensibility.
Just like a Mad cartoon, the fun is in the details. The plane's tail number, 3MTA3, spells "Eat Me" backward. The Beastie Boys logo on the vertical stabilizer was intentionally designed to evoke the Harley-Davidson logo. Even the album's title was a pun on James Bond's notorious license to kill. This wasn't uncommon slang, either: Def Jam label mates and Beastie friends Run-DMC had a top 40 hit with "You Be Illin'" just two months prior to License to Ill's release.
But the real fun is in the hidden details. Again, in 100 Best Album Covers, the authors assert that "according to Rick Rubin, if you look at the cover sideways it looks like a penis with pubic hair." Perhaps. But in 30 years, this is the first reference I've seen to a subliminal member on the album's sleeve.
The more common interpretation -- and people were making this assertion pretty much from the day the album dropped -- is that the "Mad Fold-In" joke here is that the plane is really a smoldering joint. Squint, ignore the plane's big rudder and a tightly-rolled blunt should appear, but your mileage may vary.
The cover illustration itself is a deceptively complex piece of work. Artist David Gambale, aka World B. Omes, created a collage of various airplane parts then illustrated over it using water soluble crayons. The process must have taken significant hours, but the result was worth it.
In what might be one of the strangest couplings in pop culture history, Gambale's preliminary art for the sleeve popped up on an episode of Antiques Roadshow a couple of years ago.
Over the next 25 years, the Beastie Boys created some of the most arresting visual iconography of the rock era: from their videos with artists like Spike Jonze to fashion to their increasingly clever album covers, and all because their first album granted them the deadliest license of all: a license to ill.