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There are controversial album covers, then there’s the time John Lennon and Yoko Ono posed naked for Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. The cover went down as one of the most scandalous moments in rock history and outshined the album itself. Here’s the story behind the controversial image.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono | Bettmann / Contributor

John Lennon and Yoko Ono create the most infamous album cover ever

Both as Beatles and as solo artists, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr produced many iconic images. People across the world can identify the covers of albums like Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One of the most famous images produced by any member of the band was the cover of John’s first collaborative album with Yoko, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins.

Despite its chaste title, the album’s art was very risque. The front side depicted John and Yoko holding hands in the nude. The backside of the album also depicted John and Yoko naked, this time turning their heads to look at the viewer. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, the photo was taken in Ringo’s basement, where the couple lived following John’s separation from his wife, Cynthia Lennon.

The inspiration behind the bizarre album

John described the album’s origins. Alternative Nation quotes him saying “We went upstairs to my studio and I played her all the tapes that I’d made, all this far-out stuff, some comedy stuff, and some electronic music. There were very few people I could play those tapes to.”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Amsterdam | Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

He added “[Yoko] was suitably impressed, and then she said, ‘Well, let’s make one ourselves,’ so we made Two Virgins. It was midnight when we started, and then we made love at dawn. It was very beautiful.”

John did explain his intentions behind the album art. “We were both a bit embarrassed when we peeled off for the picture, so I took it myself with a delayed-action shutter. The picture was to prove that we are not a couple of demented freaks, that we are not deformed in any way and that our minds are healthy. If we can make society accept these kind of things without offense, without sniggering, then we shall be achieving our purpose.”

John explained the reason why he and Yoko were nude on the album. He saw himself and Yoko as “two innocents lost in a world gone mad.” According to Salon, Sir Joseph Lockwood, EMI’s chairman, didn’t take the cover quite as seriously. He reportedly remarked “Why [didn’t he] use Paul instead? He’s much better looking.”

The album’s legacy

John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono in 1969 | Bettmann / Contributor

The cover for Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins worked its way into popular culture, but it didn’t help the album’s sales.The album didn’t even reach the commercial success of the Beatles’ least successful records. Part of this may have been the result of risque album art. On the other hand, a conventional cover likely would not have propelled the album to the top of the charts either. Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins is a bizarre album filled with seemingly random noises.

Although the album produced no hits, it led to two follow-ups: Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions and Wedding Album. This trilogy helped to mold a generation of avant-garde musicians. It also gave the world one of the most famous examples of celebrity nudity.