Black Sabbath’s 1970 self-titled debut features one of the most iconic album covers of all time. With its enigmatic cloaked figure standing against a stark wooded setting, the artwork would come to define the aesthetics of heavy metal: dark, ominous, and macabre. For many years, the identity of the mysterious woman who appears on the cover was not known. Now, both she and the designer are speaking about the cover for the first time.
After staying mute on the topic for years, artist Keith “Keef” Macmillan offered the history of the album cover in an interview with Rolling Stone, revealing the secrets of metal’s most mysterious sleeve.
Macmillan, who was a in-house album designer for Vertigo Records, was tasked with Sabbath’s debut. Influenced by surrealists such as René Magritte, Macmillan played the album off a quarter-inch master tape before conceiving the concept for the cover.
He then found his model, Louisa Livingstone, who was 18 or 19 years old at the time of the shoot. For the location, Macmillan chose the Mapledurham Watermill, a 15th century structure in Oxfordshire. He took the shot on Kodak infrared aerochrome film, designed for aerial photography, giving it a pinkish hue.
“Nowadays it’s very much more modernized, beautified, and touristed,” he said of the location. “Then, it was quite a run-down and quite spooky place. The undergrowth was quite thick and quite tangled, and it just had a kind of eerie feel to it.”
Livingstone, whose identity remained a mystery until now, vividly recalled how “cold and dark” the setting was, as the shoot took place early in the morning. Neither Macmillan or Livingstone remember the exact the date of the shoot, falling somewhere between the November 1969 recording sessions and its February 1970 release.
“I had to get up at about 4 o’clock in the morning, or something as ridiculously early as that,” Livingstone said. “It was absolutely freezing. I remember Keith rushing around with dry ice, throwing that into the pond nearby, and that didn’t seem to be working very well, so he was using a smoke machine. But it was just one of those very cold English mornings.”
In addition to the smoke, Macmillan brought other props, including a taxidermy crow and a live black cat — supposedly what Livinstone is often speculated to be holding, though she doesn’t remember the cat. But Macmillan said he borrowed it from a friend and Livingstone was holding it in the shot.
“I think it might just be the way my hands are there,” Livingstone said, stating that she was merely keeping her hands warm. “I’m sure I could remember if it was a cat.”
Livingstone, who went on to pursue a career in modeling and acting, is not a Sabbath fan herself, preferring rock bands like The Rolling Stones, Cream, and The Beatles. However, she was impressed with the final cover art.
“When I saw the cover, I thought it was quite interesting, but I thought, ‘Well, that could be anybody,’ so it’s not like I got any kind of ego buzz out of it,” Livingstone said. “But, yeah, I thought it was a very nice cover.”
She added: “Black Sabbath is just not my kind of music. I feel awful for saying it, because it’s probably not what people want to hear, but it isn’t particularly my kind of music. When I got the album, I gave it a listen and moved on.”
Black Sabbath themselves also favored Macmillan’s evocative final sleeve; however, the inverted cross on the inside gatefold drew ire from both the band and the conservative press.
“I love the front cover,” drummer Bill Ward said. “I thought it was mysterious. It’s kind of like where we kind of hung our hats, to be honest with you. All that was fantastic to me. I hated when I opened up the middle part and somebody put an upside-down cross in it.”
Black Sabbath’s debut album turned 50 years old on Thursday (February 13th). See our 50th anniversary retrospective on the iconic LP, and watch our exclusive video below. In the clip, members of Iron Maiden, Rage Against the Machine, Disturbed, and more discuss Sabbath’s impact in celebration of 50 years of the band’s music.