The Story Behind Van Halen’s Fair Warning Album Cover Art

When Van Halen fans first listened to a copy of the Fair Warning album in the early eighties, few could miss the fact that the band’s sunny subject matter had turned to a more somber and threatened perspective. This tone was set by the album’s opening track “Mean Street”, and was continued through a song-cycle filled with dark subject matter and disillusionment. The overall theme extended to the record’s haunting cover art, which depicted some poor guying getting pummeled in the face, along with other scenes of aggression, pain and torture. The cover remains as stirring and enigmatic as it was upon the day of the record’s release April 29, 1981. Yet few VH fans know the story of that album art, which has a background as disturbing as the content of the songs within it.

The original artwork is from a grotesque painting by Canadian artist William Kurelek (1927-1977). Raised on a prairie farm in midwestern Canada, he had experienced such a brutal childhood that he had become extremely withdrawn, eventually retiring into a private world of weird fantasies. In one of these, he imagined that if he cut off the flesh of his arm (lower right chamber) he would be shocked back to human feelings. When he actually made some cuts on his arm, he was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric treatment. There, the 26 year old was given treatment for schizophrenia. Additionally, the sympathetic doctors gave Kurelek a room to pursue his artistic endeavors, a passion deemed helpful by his therapists. It was during this stay that he created a painting he called “The Maze”, a harrowing portrayal of his tortured youth in Canada during the Great Depression.

Kurelek had great difficulty talking to people. Yet when he began to paint, the images of his torment poured out with remarkable clarity. In “The Maze”, he portrayed himself lying in a field,  his scull cut open to reveal the painful memories of his past and the morbid fantasies of his present state. In the strange self portrait, the artist’s open skull is divided like the maze of a psychologist uses to observe a rat’s behavior. In the central compartment lies the rat, the artist himself, exhausted in defeat after entering each chamber. The various chambers depict bitter incidents in the artist’s childhood, his disillusion (The “Museum of Hopelessness”) and his cynicism (dancers seen as puppets). His doctors are seen in one chamber as crows tormenting a helpless lizard while in another chamber the scrutinize the artist in a test tube.

Once the imagery of his illness emerged, he could step back from the canvas and talk to his doctor about his torment. In time he recovered and married. His subsequent paintings had a much less morbid outlook.

The vividly brutal imagery contained in “The Maze” is remarkably different from the paintings sequel, entitled “Out Of The Maze”, painted after the artist’s recovery. This second painting reflects a pastoral countryside, as well as an artist no longer as deeply disturbed, with his wife and children enjoying a happy family picnic. However, all is not as idyllic as a first glance might suggest. An empty, open skull in the bottom left hand corner is a reminder of the psychological prison from which the artist has escaped and the impending storm on the far right horizon hints at Kurelek’s premonition that the world was heading for a nuclear holocaust.

When the painting was used for the Fair Warning album cover, it was severely cropped and modified, ostensibly to highlight the most striking images inherent in the work. The album can best be viewed via it’s original 12″ x 12″ vinyl release, which (due to it’s size) allows a close study of the artwork not available in it’s far smaller CD counterpart. Sadly, due to price constraints at the time of the record’s release, a single sleeve album jacket was used, whereas a gatefold-type cover would have greatly enhanced the details found in the work.

  • joel

    Most of Eddie’s peers pick this album as their favorite. What a kick ass stage set with the street view too. This album can melt any record on a shelf next to it…….

  • Gahr

    I remember reading William Kurelek’s books “A Prairie Boy’s Winter” and “A Prairie Boy’s Summer” as a little kid. I loved them, and was really surprised when I realized that the rather grotesque picture on the Fair Warning sleeve was his work. Great stuff!

  • Anthony

    I’ve been looking for a print of the Maze for years to no avail. If anyone has any luck, please let us know. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like a framed copy of this work.

  • CoMoVHFan

    A couple of obvious questions:

    1) Who chose “The Maze” for the cover? Dave or Al?

    2) What’s the story behind that choice? It obviously fits the album’s mood and themes, but how did Dave, Al or someone else come across “The Maze” and decide to adapt it? Any in-band debate over that choice, or did everyone immediately agree?

    Thanks.

  • http://vhnd.com VH4

    It`s a really sad painting. Almost – in fact, completely – impossible to buy as a print, but then the whole picture is a bit dark and complex for your average domestic room.

    I settled on the FW LP cover on the wall like probably thousands of others have! Gatefold would have been a great idea.

    http://www.leicestergalleries.com has Kurelek`s perspective on it. Though this possibly takes us a distance away from VH and a bit too near Art criticism!

  • Roth_Leaps_83

    “Fair Warning” album cover is one of the best I ever seen because it perfectly represents the dark, angry tone of the music. When I first laid eyes on it, it was obvious that the guy who created the painting was a tortured soul. Great art usually comes from conflict and pain — Eddie and Dave proved that.

    “Fair Warning” took a lot of balls for VH to make because it could have destroyed the image they built up of being a fun-loving party band, and I’m sure there were some nervous people at Warner Bros. I think by 1981 they were exhausted from recording and touring non-stop and somewhat disillusioned with the rock star life and they had to vent. FW was their big “FUCK YOU” to all the critics who labeled them as one-dimensional and fleeting.

    By the way, growing up in Canada during the Great Depression would make anyone go insane!

  • Gov13

    Very interesting info on the painting and the artist!

  • Terry

    It’s nice to know that the story behind the album cover is as equally disturbing as the cover itself. Thanks for the story vhnd.

  • Joe

    Thank you guys at VHND for the article on the cover art for Fair Warning. That is exactly the kind of things I hope to find when I search for =VH= info, and you guys deliver. this site is awsome!!

  • anythingleftinthatbottle

    Great article VHND. I never knew the background of this as their album cover. My guess is that Dave probably chose it. He seems like he has a secret life aside from Rock n Roll. I love the mystery that is Dave.

  • Telly

    For those looking to get Kurelek’s print, contact the museum at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in the UK. Their contacts link is http://www.bethlemheritage.org.uk/contact-Us.asp

  • http://hubcapdave.blogspot.com HubcapDave

    Well, Sammy said in his book that the covers were always Al’s thing.

  • freddiegirl

    anythingleftinthatbottle..The Reverand Big Al chose the painting.

    “The album cover was also odd, a collection of drawings of violent street situations, each panel loosely corresponding to a song on the album. The images were chosen and arranged by Van Halen’s lighting designer turned all-purpose creative director, Pete Angelus, based on paintings by troubled Canadian-Ukranian prairie artist William Kurelek. Alex had discovered the paintings, and instead of a college he initially was interested in only one image: a man running his head into a wall.”
    Page 68 in Ian Christe’s VH bio ‘Everybody Wants Some’.

    Interesting though that Christe hadn’t realized it was one painting or bothered to find out the painting’s name. I never knew so this is all really cool info. I always liked the FW cover; it really is different from any of their other covers. Also…I rather like that it was Al, who is not usually thought of as a deep fella..who discovered Kurelek’s painting. Al doesn’t get nearly enough props..for a lot of things..including being perhaps the last great rock drummer alive. He’s the only one left to really carry Moon and Bonzo’s mantle IMO.

  • Fred Gruber

    The album artwork is something you would expect to see on a Black Sabbath or Tool album. This is a departure from most Van Halen records but it fits the tone of Fair Warning perfectly.

  • Roth_Leaps_83

    Freddiegirl —

    Hmmm, interesting….I always thought it was Dave who picked the album cover art for “Fair Warning”, so I was surprised to learn it was actually Reverend Al and Pistol Pete Angelus. They legend of FW grows deeper and deeper. I’d love to hear Ted Templeman give his perspective on recording FW — I’m sure he has some juicy stories on the battles that took place bewtween Eddie and Dave. Come to think of it, Ted should write a book — he produced some big acts (VH, Doobie Bros.) and I’m sure he could produce an entertaining read.

    BTW, the weirdest Roth-era album cover has to be “Diver Down”. None of the guys in the band dived, so why pick the international flag of scuba? I think Dave mentioned in an interview that it symbolizes “something happening under the surface”, but that still perplexes me since DD was mostly covers with an upbeat summertime vibe.

  • Atomic Pete

    One of the best album covers of all time!
    I remember finding it quite disturbing as a kid.
    Thanks for the info VHND!

  • Mike V.

    Some excellent research. I remember reading ‘Creem’ magazine as well as Rolling Stone and learning more of the artist. I assume it may have been Alex who had the most influence over the album, he also helped with F.U.C.K. and other albums with Hagar.

  • wayne

    I already knew most of the background behing “Fair Warning” cover but it’s cool to see it here. As somebody already said, I believe Big Al was the one who found that painting. I seem to recall hearing that he saw it Life magazine or something and thought it would be perfect for Fair Warning cover which of course it was.

  • wayne

    Here’s some more info I found:

    The cover art was Alex’s idea after he saw a painting in a book called The Brain from the Time-Life series (published in 1964). The cover was taken from a piece by self-taught artist William Kurelek (1927-1972), a mentally unstable painter whose family immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine. Initially, Alex planned to use only the scene featuring a man ramming his head into a brick wall, but later expanded the idea to include several different images from the scene. The original painting hangs in the hospital where The Elephant Man (Brooksfilms, 1980) was filmed.

  • Bocephus

    A dark album which concisely typified the mood and state of Van Halen at the time. The beginning of the end for Dave(phase 1) but beautifully transcribed in the music of the album.

    They all knew it at the time- but it didn’t matter. The music told the story.

  • Halen High

    A long time ago, I read that Dave and Alex were behind the imagery and artwork associated with Van Halen during their glory years. But it was Dave who was ‘fanatical’ about it.

    In fact prior to the last tour, in July 2007, Alex and Dave were snapped hanging out with artist Andy Cruz of House Industries, at an art/design evening.

    Dave once described Classic Van Halen as also being “a great visual entity” and that it was something he was really proud of. Whether it be album covers, posters, photos, stage sets or, of course, videos.

    So my guess is, Dave sourced the FW artwork and then with Alex made a final decision to go with it. But whoever suggested it, it was an inspired choice.

  • Halen High

    Atomic Pete says:
    “One of the best album covers of all time!
    I remember finding it quite disturbing as a kid.”

    I totally agree. It certainly was disturbing!

  • Halen High

    wayne says:
    “I already knew most of the background behind “Fair Warning” cover but it’s cool to see it here. As somebody already said, I believe Big Al was the one who found that painting. I seem to recall hearing that he saw it Life magazine or something and thought it would be perfect for Fair Warning cover which of course it was.”

    Very interesting. Where did you find this?

    It’s good to see Alex and Dave together again, presiding over Van Halen the “visual entity”.

  • Halen High

    freddiegirl says:
    “I rather like that it was Al, who is not usually thought of as a deep fella..who discovered Kurelek’s painting. Al doesn’t get nearly enough props..for a lot of things..including being perhaps the last great rock drummer alive.”

    I would like to hear more from Alex on stuff like this. And I wonder what he and Dave have in store for us with the new album?

  • MICAL VEE

    Fair Warning came out at the end of my JR year in high school. Jammed on it all summer long then the MIGHTY VAN HALEN came to town in August,the start of my senior year! Great memories!!!!

  • john

    easily my favorite vh album….I really hope they re-issue it on 180 gram vinyl like the others they did.

  • anythingleftinthatbottle

    @freddiegirl-I haven’t read that bio -”Everybody Wants Some”. I think i should. Thanks for the info and I am with you on Al’s percussion skills. I always loved his fills and tom- tom work. He and Ed were definately blood related. They play together so well. The only thing that used to bother me is that he would constantly ride on his crash symbol instead of his ride during chorus’s. But that has since changed. I realized it was cause when I was a kid, all I had in my car were 6×9′s and too much treble.(Made that crash hiss) As I got older, I got better systems. Anyway, that is just a funny antecdote. Thanks for the info though. Tomorrows my birthday so I think I’ll get on line and see if I can find this book and buy it for me-self.

  • Homer

    Would be really funny/symbolic if they used the idyllic countryside picture as the cover for next album haha.

  • dirtyfacedkidinagarbagecan

    Just had a bunch of questions answered thanks so much, Ive been waiting for this kind of info for years. The folks posting the info in the comments just about covered the rest.

    Ive also attributed the term (and tone) ‘brown sound’ to the browness of the Fair Warning cover, can anyone tell me if this term was used prior to FW?

  • Dooley

    I believe they were smoking marijuana when they came up with
    the artwork. Damn hippies !!

  • Dooley

    Leaps: your comment/question

    “BTW, the weirdest Roth-era album cover has to be “Diver Down”. None of the guys in the band dived, so why pick the international flag of scuba?”

    I dunno, but I’d like to believe it had something to do with
    muff-diving.

  • Sparks in ’11

    I’ve seen photos of Mike in full scuba gear, but I think Dooley done hit the nail on the head.

  • http://www.applemacservicerepair.com Eric

    Simply the best band ever!!!!
    at night i walk this stinking streets past the crazies on my block and i see the same old faces and i hear the same old talk

  • evhua

    the dark side of Halen…

    …there’s always something deep in this band…

    and the artwork, shows once again how this band,

    reflects genius…

  • http://www.aucklandmagician.co.nz Mick

    Re : Diver Down cover. Safe to say that the diving being referred to is a colloquialism for something else …