Fame in the frame

Pop Culture: Rolling Stone/Wanna see my picture on the cover/ Wanna buy five copies for my mother/ Wanna see my smiling face…

Pop Culture:Rolling Stone/Wanna see my picture on the cover/ Wanna buy five copies for my mother/ Wanna see my smiling face/On the cover of the Rolling Stone - Dr Hook & the Medicine Show

For many rock stars in the 1970s, the ultimate high was not cocaine, hash or groupies - it was getting your mug on the front page of the world's most iconic music mag. It meant you'd arrived, you were deemed worthy of joining the pantheon of pop legends, you were not just another two-bit rock'n'roll loser. Dr Hook & the Medicine Show knew this too only well when they wrote Cover of the Rolling Stone, a humorous, country-flavoured tune that detailed the travails of a rock band who had everything a band could possibly want - except that coveted cover shot which made everything else seem insignificant.

The song reached number six on the Billboard chart in March 1973, and Rolling Stone rewarded Dr Hook & the Medicine Show with their own cover, illustrated by Gerry Gersten, and accompanied by the strapline, "What's-their-names make the cover". Over the past 40-odd years, many of rock's most famous names have graced the cover of Rolling Stone, and this coffee-table book tells the history of America's most influential pop magazine through the stars, celebrities and legends that have peered out from its cover on newsstand shelves since the magazine's inception in November 1967. Sure, there are a few words from Rolling Stone's publisher, Jann Wenner, explaining how the magazine developed its visual style through the creative work of such photographers as Annie Liebovitz, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, David Bailey, Steven Meisel and Mark Seligman, and there are extracts from key cover stories such as the murder of John Lennon, the ill-starred Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, and the cataclysm of 9/11; but for the most part in this colourful, cracking tome, it's the pictures that really tell the story.

Everybody who is anybody has been on the cover of the Rolling Stone, and they're all here, many captured in immortal poses, and looking like works of pop art at an exhibition. The Beatles (collectively and solo), the Stones, Dylan, Springsteen, Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Bowie, Madonna, Kurt Cobain - all have had their smiling/frowning/know- ing faces on the front of the magazine. Rolling Stone didn't just snap its subjects - it got behind the star's carefully managed public image and caught a glimpse of the real person. In many cases, it got right into the head of its subject, showing fans a candid, unvarnished version of their idol.


Being an American publication, Rolling Stone tended to favour American heroes, which is why the bearded grin of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia appeared so often on the cover - in life and in death. But there were plenty of British stars who got the cover treatment, including the Sex Pistols, Boy George, Duran Duran, Oasis, Spice Girls and the Prodigy. U2 have mugged for the RS cameras more times than they've had hot dinners, and Sinead O'Connor has stared intently from the cover at least three times; Dolores O'Riordan from The Cranberries and Bob Geldof had their moment under the light meter too.

But it wasn't just pop stars who got their pictures on the cover of the Rolling Stone: actors, politicians, athletes, broadcasters, comedians and commentators also appeared, concomitant to RS's brief to cover the wider spectrum of politics, society, popular culture, entertainment and the arts.

"Rock'n'roll means more than just the music," wrote RS journalist Chet Flippo, ". . . there are books and movies and people and events and attitudes that matter more to a rock'n'roll way of life than do many records that are labelled rock'n'roll."

Among the most rock'n'roll of the non- musical cover stars were Muhammad Ali, Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson and Uma Thurman. Presidential hopeful Al Gore posed ruggedly but not too rigidly - apart from a controversial trouser bulge. Bill Clinton - possibly more controversially - gave Rolling Stone an in-depth interview while he was the sitting president.

Many stars collaborated with the magazine in subverting or magnifying their own myth. John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously posed nude for the cover in November 1968, when the caption read: "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed." Lennon posed nude again in December 1980, curled up in a foetal ball beside a fully clothed Yoko. On the way home from the photo-shoot, Lennon was shot dead outside the Dakota apartments by Mark Chapman. When a rock icon died, Rolling Stone's tradition was to simply show a portrait of the deceased, with only the star's name and dates. But Annie Liebovitz, who had taken those final pictures, told the publishers she had promised Lennon that Yoko would share the cover with him. So the photo of John and Yoko ran - but this time there was no need to even print a name or a date.

Since then, numerous stars have posed nude, partially clothed or provocatively attired for the cover of Rolling Stone. Britney, Christina Aguilera, Pamela Anderson, Gisele and Letitia Casta, naturally, but also Janet Jackson (a double "wardrobe malfunction" cupped by two male hands), Jennifer Aniston, Brooke Shields, Backstreet Boys (trousers down for the ladies), Red Hot Chili Peppers (hands not on socks), Jim Carrey (trunks down in a mock-Coppertone ad) and Mulder and Scully (x-rated files, perhaps).

WHEN STARS WEREN'T undressing, they were dressing up and having fun with their public image: the cast of Seinfeld camping it up as the characters from The Wizard of Oz; rapper Ice-T dressed provocatively as a cop during the furore over his tune, Cop Killer; the Blues Brothers' faces painted blue; Brian Wilson on the beach in his dressing gown - clutching a surfboard. The cast of The Sopranos, on the other hand, just stood there, and it made for a memorable tableau.

Cartoon characters such as the Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-head and annoying Star Wars animated creature Jar Jar Binks were drawn into RS's orbit, and Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau created an explosive cover that attacked Bush's war in Iraq.

But the strongest images throughout the years were the simplest ones: John Lennon staring blankly from the cover in January 1971, Johnny Cash in stony monochrome; Meryl Streep in white-face; Drew Barrymore mischievously licking her lips; Tupac Shakur tattooed and dangerous; and Kurt Cobain, always looking as if he never bought the rock'n'roll lie, even for a second.

You might ask, what's the point in having a book solely comprised of RS covers, without the option of reading the wealth of words that were published in between? Well, there's a space on my coffee table for that one, but meanwhile, here's the music to accompany the lyrics, a 40-year pictorial history of rock'n'roll, starring almost every legendary face in pop, rock and every other genre. That should tell you all you need to know.

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist

1,000 Covers: Rolling Stone - A History of the Most Influential Magazine in Pop Culture Edited by Corey Seymour Abrams, 568pp. £19.95

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist