The Wilco Towers: How ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ Redefined the Chicago Skyline

The story behind the band's most celebrated album echoes the city's own architectural renaissance.

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Oct 4 2016, 2:09pm

Under the Covers explores the stories behind iconic album covers.

In the heart of Chicago, a pair of honeycombed towers often reflects in the water of the city's river below.

Every Chicagoan can recognize the identical towers, but they often know them by different names. There's the original, official title, "Marina City," and then there's the colloquial "Corn Cob Towers." But since 2001, another name is often used when the pair of buildings comes up in conversation: "The Wilco Towers."

Photographer Sam Jones captured the now-iconic shot on the cover of Wilco's fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The image looks up at the two towers at a slight angle, allowing the leaning towers to perfectly capture the unbalanced place Wilco and the world around them were in at the time. But it's the foundation the image cements in the band's relationship with Chicago that fans like graphic designer Lawrence Azerrad find most notable in the album's cover.

"It's kind of a signature Chicago landmark, which is what Wilco is. But it's also like nothing else in Chicago, which is also like Wilco," said Azerrad, who designed the cover for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and six other Wilco albums. "In hindsight, it ended up being the perfect building to end up using."

Alternate cover, courtesy of Lawrence Azerrad

A lot of things worked out in hindsight for Wilco, despite how bleak the future looked during the long-drawn out release of what's now their most acclaimed album to date.

The band was dropped from Warner Bros. as they were gearing up to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, then ended up signing with Nonesuch Records—a subsidiary of the very same label that dropped them in the first place. The uncertainty surrounding the record also formed an emotionally draining one-two punch with budding tension between members of the band, highlighted in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

"There was a lot of commotion at the time," Azerrad says. He first started working with the band as an artistic director at Warner Bros., was laid off by the label at the same time Wilco was released, and then watched the turmoil between frontman Jeff Tweedy and late multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennet boil over in disagreements that, put gently, were simply "hard to watch."

In the wake of blindsided confusion and resulting anger, things were changing. In "hindsight"—a word that's often spoken when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the topic of conversation—things probably worked out better for the album because of its redirection. It was just that things needed to burn to the ground first.

Photo via Steven Dahlman.

Like Wilco, Marina City also rose from ashes. According to building historian Steven Dahlman, the disastrous Chicago Fire of 1871 opened the doors for a whole new approach to American architecture, clearing a path of opportunity for the city's most famous buildings to be constructed—including the Marina City towers.

"A blank slate was created, onto which new buildings would have to be created quickly and economically," Dahlman wrote in his biography of the Marina City complex. "A flood of speculators, developers, architects, and builders met the devastation of the fire. They would rebuild Chicago. They would do it fast and cheap, but they would unwittingly create the Chicago School, a style of architecture noted for its originality."

Wilco's path to releasing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot echoed both the turbulence its hometown braced through more than a century earlier and the newfound chance at doing something new. Like the architectural renaissance that swept through Chicago in the years following the infamous fire that nearly destroyed the city, groundbreaking opportunity was created as a result of the band's tug of war with Warner Bros. Due to the delayed release, songs from the record began leaking online, which forced Wilco's hand to stream the album in full on their website in September 2001. As the album started to garner more and more attention, Wilco signed with Nonesuch Records two months later and officially released the album in April 2002.

"[Yankee Hotel Foxtrot] was definitely a turning point for the band and I think that's why it resonates with a lot of people too," Azerrad says. "It's really kind of funny how that particular cover has resonated with people so much for so long. I think it's because of all these factors lining up. It's a really simple cover and concise and clear, and the record is so strong and straight-forward. In a way, it just kind of happened beautifully."

Alternate cover, courtesy of Lawrence Azerrad

As ugly as the process to release the record might have been for Wilco, the final result was something extraordinary. The album helped pioneer the idea of bands operating independently on their own accord and further introduced the music industry to the possibilities of music streaming. For Wilco, the album's cover also helped seal its blood pact with fans in Chicago and incidentally reclaimed one of the city's most iconic structures in the process.

"The more I learned about the building, the more it all made sense," Azerrad says, revisiting Wilco's common theme of hindsight. "Bertrand Goldberg was the architect. There's all these ideas about the building that seem to echo Wilco. The building was all about innovation and breaking out of the norm. They were nice apartments for sanitation workers, but it was supposed to be this urban utopia. A lot of Goldberg's architecture was supposed to be architecture of the future—really Jetsons-like. It was kind of similar to Wilco in a way that they definitely cut their own way and don't subscribe to any Oh well, alternative bands should do A, B, C, or D. They do what they want to do."

It's only fitting that an album regarded as one of the most important modern American rock records is one that was forced to forge its own path in order to survive. It's also another eerie coincidence that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was originally supposed to come out on September 11, 2001, a day that redefined the United States and rattled the country to its core.

Architectural model of the towers. Photo via Steven Dahlman.

Some believed the attacks were inspirations for many aspects on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: The two towers on the cover, songs like "Ashes of American Flags," and lyrics like "Tall buildings shake. Voices escape, singing sad, sad songs" and "Voices whine/Skyscrapers are scraping together."

Tweedy didn't aim to portray so many—or any—comparisons to the tragedies, longtime friend Azerrad says. But that's the way it lined up—accidental, yet another oddly timed coincidence. Despite questions about possibly changing the album's artwork following the attacks, the idea was quickly turned away within the band. "Absolutely not," Azerrad says of the whether Tweedy was reconsidering the album cover after 9/11. "Jeff was like, no way we're changing that. He actually said it more emphatically than that. He's a real believer and walks the walk and talks the talk of: this is my art and this is how it's going to be."

The album began streaming a week later on the band's website. Fifteen years since the songs appeared online, most fans don't typically draw comparisons to the tragic attacks and the album's artwork. Instead, the focus remained on the love affair between Chicago and its most beloved band.

"(Tweedy) has such a true compass as an artist," Azerrad says. "He guides the process but lets the process unfold. Like a good director, he knows where it should end up."

The final product—both the album and its imagery—has continued to resonate with Wilco fans over the past 15 years, especially in Chicago. It's not uncommon to see replications of Jones' angled shot popping up all across social media.

"It's definitely fun looking on Instagram and you can see lots of people replicating that angle and shot," Azerrad says. "These are the kind of things that form our culture. It's not Abbey Road, but it's kind of like when people cross that road and recognize it like that. It's really gratifying."

Alternate cover, courtesy of Lawrence Azerrad

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ended up a commercial and critical success. It's been named everything from one of the most important records of its decade to one of the greatest records of all time. It's also single-handedly rebranded a pair of buildings that were built three decades before it and already had their own pop-culture fame, being used in movies like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Blues Brothers, and The Hunter.

That's not too bad for an album that was uncertain to see the light of day.

"A lot of planets happened to align," Azerrad says. "It's a really nice cover because it's so restrained, but it's so notable in culture for a lot of other reasons in addition to the design: The fact that it's such an important musical record in American culture, you could argue it's Wilco's best record, and the things that happened at the time in the music industry. A lot of the planets lined up so that it was an icon of that time. All of these kind of pieces of the puzzle had to fit together for it to click."

Sean Neumann is on Twitter - @Neumannthehuman