A great record might start out with killer songs, but it takes more than riffs to create something iconic. For many of us, it’s the visual component that hooks us first. A strong album cover conveys the mood of the album with such clarity that you understand its contents before hearing a single note. It doesn’t get much stronger than Pantera, folks.
Few images are as immediately potent as the photo adorning the cover of Pantera’s Vulgar Display Of Power. Demons and pentagrams might be spooky, but getting punched in the face is downright relatable. The story behind the cover photo is just as tough as the image itself. Speaking to WRIF in Detroit in a 2017 interview, Vinnie Paul said: “When we first described the concept to the label, they brought us all these pictures of all these boxers and stuff, and we were, like, ‘No. It’s gotta be street, man. It’s a street-level thing.’ So they did the pictures, and then, obviously, that was the one we wound up using. And it really did work — it was perfect for what it was.”
As Paul tells it, the man was paid “ten dollars a punch, and from what I understand, they hit this guy, like, thirty times, so he made three hundred dollars and disappeared back onto the streets of New York, and his face has been pasted on about ten million records around the world, man.”
It’s a tale befitting one of the heaviest records ever made. Unfortunately, none of it is true.
Having shot the cover of Cowboys From Hell, photographer Brad Guice was hired to capture an image befitting Pantera’s follow-up. In a 2012 interview with Revolver, Guice said: “So they called me again and said, ‘We want you to do this incredibly powerful album cover of a fist hitting a face.’ I was like, ‘What?!’ but I knew I had to pull it off. We looked for a longhaired male model to play the part of the guy being hit.
“We ended up using this guy from L.A., Sean Cross, and he’s still a friend of mine. We got a real strong hand to be the guy punching and we did it all in studio, straight shot. We had a red light behind his hair because they were originally going to run it in color. So I thought the red was powerful and the motion of the hair was really interesting. We had the fist move in slow motion and then Sean moved his head to get it to look right. And then this rumor started about this guy having to get hit in the face over and over until we got the shot right. That’s not true at all. It was a controlled situation. No one ever got hit.”
Cover model Sean Cross elaborates, saying: “I had never done any modeling before that. I owned restaurants and a consultant company and my wife was an actress. A friend of hers told me [Brad] needed someone who fit my description and I should go up for it. The guy who did the punch was a professional hand model. He would put his fist up against my face and I would push against his fist so my face would mush up against it, and that’s how we would start the shot. And then he’d move so that my hair would move. After that shoot, I dabbled around with modeling, but then I went back to my consulting company working with different Wall Street firms.”
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the photo, it’s a sick photo that perfectly suits one of the hardest records ever.