This month marks the 50-year anniversary of the release of Sticky Fingers, one of the greatest and most notorious of the Rolling Stones’ 30 studio albums. The songs, of course, have been embroidered on FM radio for decades—with “Brown Sugar” stirring controversy to this day—but just as unforgettable is the seamy LP cover, which depicts an anonymous denim-clad crotch, an image arranged by Andy Warhol, with a real, working zipper embedded on the cardboard. The zipper pulls down to reveal another crotch in white underwear.
The album cover was a collaboration between Warhol and Craig Braun, who was known in the heyday of vinyl records as a designer of sophisticated cover packages, starting with the Velvet Underground & Nico LP adorned with Warhol’s famous banana print, which could be peeled from the album itself to reveal a suggestive pink banana underneath. (Original copies of the album can sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay.)
The story behind the Sticky Fingers cover begins with Warhol, who in the 1960s stewarded Braun, a working-class Chicago guy, from the mundane world of die cutting and print manufacturing to the hot houses of rock and roll, high art, and high society, which at the time were bleeding together into a new jet set. Overnight, Braun went from a printer of hype stickers for record companies (“Includes the hit single…!”) to socializing with Jann Wenner, Lou Reed, Elaine Stritch, Richard Avedon, and Salvador Dalí. It was heady stuff for Braun, who, after winning a Grammy in 1974 for his packaging of the orchestral version of The Who’s Tommy, fell into the classic 1970s pitfall of cocaine addiction. After recovery, he began an acting career, appearing in TV shows like Law & Order and Billions. (His son Nicholas Braun played Greg Hirsch in HBO’s Succession.)
What follows is the story, in Braun’s own words, behind the invention of the Sticky Fingers LP cover, from the identity of the crotch(es) on the album to the reputed source of the Rolling Stones’ iconic lips-and-tongue logo, which first appeared on the back of the Sticky Fingers album in 1971 and has since been deemed one of the most recognizable brand logos in history.
The interview was conducted and edited by Joe Hagan.
So Mick [Jagger] and Andy, in some club some night, were talking about album packages [for their next record]. And Andy said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to put a blue-jean zipper on a cover?” And Mick said, “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea, man.” So Marshall [Chess, Rolling Stones Records president] laid that idea on me. I said it sounds like a real challenge because putting something like that on the cover could easily do damage [to the record]. It was a very complicated project, and meanwhile, I had five or six other ideas.
One of them was to do a triptych panel of this castle that I think Keith [Richards] rented, a chateau in the South of France. So you’re looking at the outside of a castle and then you open it up and, holy shit, it’s the inside of the castle and they’ve got all this equipment and speakers, monitors set up and guitars and everything. One of them, I did a public execution where I had Mick’s head cut off and these two nude chicks in the middle of the desert reaching for his head.
Marshall had a house at the top of Mulholland and Coldwater [in Los Angeles] and he was taking a house at the beach, so I took over his house up there and it had a pool. It was really the cabana house. It was Al Jolson’s house. So I had a photographer with a waterproof camera go [underwater in the pool]. And then I blew up these heads of the Stones. This was after Brian Jones died [he was found dead in a swimming pool]. And so these faces were looking in the pool. It was so fucking sick, man. So dark. I couldn’t. I thought, Jesus…. I was cringing myself when I saw the prints. But anyway, I didn’t show that because that’s when Mick Taylor joined the band for Sticky Fingers.
One night when I was high—and I mean, that was almost every night. I had a glass desk in my office and all that was sitting in front of me was a Bambú cigarette-paper package, because I just rolled the joint, and I thought, It’s square. That’s a perfect package. So I got ahold of my illustrator and my mechanical guy and I said, the next morning, “Let’s make this part of the Stones presentation. Bambú Rolling Stones. It’s perfect. And we’ll do a giant cigarette paper with the Stones inside.” It was a motherfucker and I still kept it. And then when Marshall saw that, he said, “God, that’s fantastic.” And I said, “Well, yeah, but you’re staying with the zipper?” And he said, “Yeah.” So I said, “Okay, I’m going to send this to [record and film producer] Lou Adler.”