THE EYE OF THE STORM, by G. Graff
Visionary designer Storm
Thorgerson looks back at 30 years of landmark album art for Led
Zeppelin, Genesis, Phish, and of course, Pink Floyd.
"GUITAR WORLD? WHAT KIND OF
MAGAZINE IS THAT?" The questioner is Storm Thorgerson. He doesn't play
guitar. In fact, he claims he doesn't even know "one end of the guitar
So what's he doing here? As one
of the three partners in Hipgnosis, once the preeminent and most
visionary album art design firm in the world, Thorgerson has put his
stamp on rock and roll history via photographs, illustrations and
ambitious packaging for some of rock's landmark albums. Works by Pink
Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, Yes, Wishbone Ash, John
McLaughlin, Genesis and many others bear the stamp of Thorgerson and
Hipgnosis, which disbanded in 1983.
Thorgerson has continued to work
as an in-demand album designer- two of his most recent clients have
been Dream Theatre and Phish - and video director.
That he remains so highly sought
after is hardly surprising. Any working musician who cleaned seeds in
the gatefold of one of his classic creations would probably be thrilled
to see have his ethereal way with an album of theirs.
"He's awesome," says John
Petrucci of Dream Theatre, for whom Thorgerson designed the cover of
"Falling Into Infinity", their latest. "We've always wanted to work
with him. In the past we would actually sketch our album covers
ourselves, then get together with the people who would execute them.
This time around, Storm insisted on doing the whole thing, and we just
deferred. When you're working with someone of that calibre, you can
trust his professional instincts."
No band has trusted Thorgerson
more during the past 30 years than Pink Floyd, whose relationship with
the designer dates back nearly five decades to Cambridge, England,
where Thorgerson grew up with Floyd's original band leader Syd Barrett,
who was a year behind him in school, and former bassist Roger Waters,
who was a year ahead. Thorgerson and Waters played rugby together. They
went their separate ways in college, but everyone wound up in swinging
London during the mid-Sixties, as rock and roll culture took over the
Starting with A Saucerful of
Secrets in 1968, Thorgerson became Pink Floyd's chief album designer,
crafting a series of indelible images - the picture-within-a-picture
cover of Ummagumma, the cow of Atom Heart Mother, the prism of Dark
Side of the Moon, the Easter Island-style totems of The Division Bell.
Beyond the albums, there were videos and concert films, as well as
covers for solo projects by Gilmour and Barrett. With the notable
exceptions of The Wall, The Final Cut and a handful of other releases,
Thorgerson was responsible for the visual face of Pink Floyd. He'd
blanch at any reference to him as the band's fifth member, but in
Floyd's extra-musical domain, it was Thorgerson's vision that set the
controls for the heart of the sun.
"He has been my friend, my
conscience, my therapist and of course my artistic advisor..." Gilmour
writes in the foreword of Mind Over Matter: The Images of Pink Floyd
(Sanctuary Music Library), a 176-page tour of the incredible graphic
world Thorgerson has created for the band. "Storm's ideas are not
linked to anyone's ideas of marketing: that they are atmospherically
linked to the music is a bonus. I consider what he does to be art."
Gilmour also notes with obvious
affection that "Storm has always had a big mouth," an observation
confirmed by the designer during a long conversation in his London
office, in which he generously shares his thoughts about Floyd,
Zeppelin, his myriad other projects and the general state of album art.
All this, of course, after he is assured that "the fact I don't know
anything about guitars doesn't disqualify me from being in Guitar
World, is that right?"
GW: How did your association with Pink Floyd begin?
It began with Syd, but also with Roger. Roger's mum and my mum were
best friends. Also with Dave, because he used to hang around with us,
even though he was younger. It was just a gang in Cambridge... a group
of teenagers who came together, not unlike, I should think, they do in
many places in America. Roger was more on the fringes of our peer
group; we both chased the same girl... but he won that one.
GW: What were the Floyd guys like as teens? Ordinary, red-blooded young English lads?
Storm Thorgerson: I think
that Roger and Syd were not that ordinary...or the others, for that
matter. They have ordinary things they do in their lives - they're not
absolutely weird as hell - and they have the usual set of passions.
They also make the usual number of mistakes that us normal people do.
But they also have drive and talent, obviously. And also, in some
cases, great musicianship. I think Dave lent them a sense of
musicianship that helped them to be very successful.
GW: What was it like, watching the band come together?
Storm Thorgerson: I didn't
see it. I went off to another university. They came to architectural
school in London, and Dave joined later, anyway. I didn't do "Piper"
[at the Gates of Dawn]. I knew them, and I knew they were being nearly
successful. But although I knew them as friends, I didn't have a
particular view of this, other than it was exciting to know a band that
might be successful. I didn't pay too much attention; I was too
preoccupied with myself, as one is when one is younger. When I met them
again, they were in the process of losing Syd. So their main creative
talent was sort of going off the rails. It's hard to find the correct
way to describe it, really.
GW: In Nicholas
Schaffner's book A Saucerful of Secrets, he describes a meeting in your
apartment where Syd's ouster from the band was discussed. What was that
Storm Thorgerson: It's a
bit long ago to remember. [laughs] Because they knew that I knew Syd,
and I knew them, they thought maybe I could perhaps offer some limited
advice as to what to do. Rog, who hadn't spoken to me in quite a bit, I
think was interested in talking to me about what I thought was going
wrong with Syd, 'cause he knew that I'd been relatively close to him in
Cambridge. But I don't think that I had much of an idea about what they
should do, really. It's very difficult, even when you're an adult, to
know what to do when a friend goes off the rails. It was very hard for
the band; I don't think there was ever a desire to get rid of him, but
they had to function.
We talked about it, as chaps do.
I couldn't proffer much direct advice, but we chatted about how
horribly difficult it was, what the hell they were going to do. Syd was
in such a state at times, you just couldn't talk to him. I think I was
of the opinion then that it made sense to get rid of him if he really
was preventing the band from functioning. He seemed to show clear signs
of getting worse rather than better, and also seemed to be unreachable.
If a person seems unreachable, or appears to be immune to entreaty,
then you have to reluctantly decide to go on without him.
I think it's very sad, really.
And they were very sad about it. I think Shine On You Crazy Diamond is
the most concretized form of their sadness, if you like. I think that
song, written eight years later, approximately, is a clear indication
that this was something they did not want to happen.
GW: So in the midst of this, you wound up doing the art for A Saucerful of Secrets.
Storm Thorgerson: I think
they knew they didn't want the record company to handle it. This was in
the days when the Floyd and the stones and the Beatles were beginning
to take power back to themselves, especially artistic power, away from
the record companies - to literally take more control of their artistic
output. I think they realized that, along with the music, sleeves are
things that last, and that maybe they're important in their own way.
Even if they're not as important as the music, except to people like me.
I think they wanted someone they
trusted and who knew them to do it rather than some impersonal or third
party designer that had no relationship with them. Their music was
intimately related; why shouldn't their cover be related?
GW: So what if you hadn't liked the music?
Storm Thorgerson: [laughs]
I didn't think particularly in those terms. I was keen to do it. I
don't know that I applied much critical faculty to the question of
whether the music was really good or not. I think I just thought it was
all really great. You have to remember the Floyd were extremely cutting
edge and contemporary. It was all terribly exciting. So I think I was
carried along in that wave, really.
GW: What kind of working relationship did you fall into with the band?
Storm Thorgerson: You get
used to each other and you chat and you develop some shorthand's. And
you prick your ears to pick up the bits that are most interesting. Dark
Side, for example, came from sort of an aside said by Rick - not
necessarily the most likely source. The back of Ummagumma comes from
something Nick Mason did. Meddle comes from God knows what. Wish You
Were Here comes from conversations with Rog in particular. Animals is
actually a Roger thing; although we did the work, it was his idea.
Momentary Lapse of Reason comes from a line of lyric of Dave's. The
Division Bell comes from several things.
What happens is, in all these
cases, you still have a sort of communication with the band. That comes
and goes. It breaks down sometimes. It's mostly by talking, by being
there - by going to gigs, particularly, so that you get some sensation
of what the music is really like, 'cause you don't find that much
during recording, since a lot of it is done in bits.
GW: Is it important to start working on the album art at the gestation of the project?
Storm Thorgerson: It
depends on what the gestation was. I didn't have anything, really, to
do with the start of Atom Heart Mother, and when I asked them what it
was about, they said they didn't know themselves. It's a conglomeration
of pieces that weren't related, or didn't seem to be at the time. The
picture isn't related either; in fact, it was an attempt to do a
picture that was unrelated, consciously unrelated.
GW: It's a cow!
Storm Thorgerson: 'Cause
that seemed to be the most unrelated thing it could be. Also, I think
the cow represents, in terms of the Pink Floyd, part of their humour,
which I think is often underestimated or just unwritten about. Not that
their music is funny, but I think they have good senses of humour. Nick
is very droll; he's got a very good dry sense of humour. And Roger is
very sharp. Dave has his own particular sense of humour, as well. I
think that's why they chose the cow. I think they thought it was funny.
GW: Any rejections of your work that come readily to mind?
Storm Thorgerson: Yeah,
for Animals in particular. There were two roughs for Animals, one of
which was a picture of a young child, age three or four, with a teddy
bear, opening the room to his parents, who are on the bed making love,
being caught in the act, and appearing to be animals. I thought that
was really good, but they didn't like it. For the same job, I also
suggested this idea about ducks. In England, the essence of bad taste
is to put plaster ducks on the wall. So I took that idea and put real
ducks and nailed them to the wall to suggest that people are really
animal in some of their artistic and moral decisions. I think they
rejected that not because they didn't like it - because I think they
did - but because it was very heavy. These were ducks I bought at a
poultry place and nailed to a wall.
So yeah, it happens. For Dark
Side of the Moon, we did six or seven complex roughs of all sorts of
different things that were eminently suitable. And we were very excited
and looking forward to showing these different ideas to the band. At
the actual meeting, we gathered around and... it took about a minute!
They looked at all these things
and looked at the prism and said, "We'll have that." We said, "Oh,
there's this and this, have a look at this." And they said, "No, we'll
have that. Now we've got to go back and do our real job." And they
walked out of the room to continue recording.
GW: While Dark Side was being recorded, was there a sense that it was a special album?
Storm Thorgerson: Not that
I remember. I think they thought they'd made a pretty good record, but
not "mega", to use their term. I think they were unbelievably surprised
at its reception and gratified, and continue to be so. I mean, it
changed their lives.
GW: You tell a great story in the book about shooting the pyramids in the middle of the night for the Dark Side poster.
Storm Thorgerson: I scared
myself shitless doing it, too! I hired a taxi at 2 o'clock a.m. to take
me out to the pyramids. So there I am, thinking I'll be fine, and I put
the camera on the tripod to do a long-time exposure. It's a wonderful,
clear night, and the moon is fantastic. So I'm doing it...and then, at
like 4 o'clock a.m., these figures come walking across - soldiers, with
guns. I thought, "This is it. The game is up - young photographer dies
a strange death in a foreign land." I was actually really scared. Of
course, all my fears were unfounded. They were really very friendly.
They wanted a bit of baksheesh, a little bit of money to go away. They
kindly pointed out that where I stood was actually a firing range, and
that they'd come to tell me it wasn't very cool for me to be there. If
I was there first thing in the morning, I might get a bullet up my butt.
GW: It's obvious from the book that you're very fond of Wish You Were Here. Did you feel you had to one-up Dark Side?
Storm Thorgerson: Not
really. Dark Side...I think it's sort of goodish, good. Sort of. But I
don't think it's a moving piece; I don't think it's as moving as I
would like in terms of their music. So when Wish You Were Here came
around, I was quite fueled up for it. In fact, I was even more fueled
up for it. And I only suggested one thing to them, as opposed to
several to choose from. It was quite nervy, 'cause normally for the
Floyd and other bands I would suggest a few different roughs to choose
from. But the one thing that was suggested to the band was what they
GW: Those images were mostly inspired by Shine On You Crazy Diamond, correct?
Storm Thorgerson: It was
particularly to do with Shine On You Crazy Diamond, yes. In a way, that
theme could be expressed by one word: absence. It was absence in terms
of relationships, absence in terms of previous members of the band.
Also, absence in terms of a commitment to a cause or a project. This
was a feeling that I think was in the air.
GW: How involved did you get in those inner-band Floyd politics that started to surface during the mid-Seventies?
Storm Thorgerson: The
divorce, you mean? Quite a lot on Dave's side. Roger has not spoken to
me since 1980. I was not privy to meetings they had. I just know that
there was a very, very hard time indeed, with a lot of fighting.
GW: Did you have a falling out with Roger?
Storm Thorgerson: I don't
know whether it was a falling out. He didn't want to use me on The
Wall, which is understandable. He was also supposedly cross with me for
something, for a credit I'd given him in a book I'd done called Walk
Away, Renee. An illustration of the Animals cover appeared in the book,
and Roger didn't like the credit I'd given him. I corrected it on a
reprint, so I don't know whether that was really what upset him.
GW: You've done so much
highly regarded work - not only for Pink Floyd but for other bands as
well. Were you conscious at the time, or have you been conscious over
the years, of raising the bar and setting certain standards for album
Storm Thorgerson: I don't
think so. I understand your question, but I kinda don't think so,
really. I think we were too busy working. You have to remember that
most graphic designers...a large preoccupation may be your art, but
another large preoccupation is called the next job. It's frightening,
but it's useful. And it can drive you. You need to keep working and
keep up your standards as much as you can; people might judge you only
on your last job, in which case you might be out of work if you don't
do as well as you can. You can do one job for somebody else and other
people might call you, which is just what happened with Led Zeppelin.
They saw a job I'd done for another band and rang up.
GW: Which was that?
Storm Thorgerson: On an
album called Argus by a British band, then popular, called Wishbone
Ash. I think Jimmy saw it somewhere and rang up... Actually, I think he
got the manager - the infamous and late Peter Grant - to ring us up.
That was pretty scary. [laughs] He rang up the studio, and me and my
partner, Po [Aubrey Powell], had been acting like the Marx brothers for
the day. Peter Grant rang up and I did a sort of Groucho impersonation
- badly, of course. And he was not amused. [laughs]
GW: So what was working with Zep like?
Storm Thorgerson: It was
considerably different. Po...did most of the direct communicating with
them. We all did design and the work, but he did most of the
communication. Zeppelin were not friends of ours from youth, so
obviously the whole thing's different. But it was very great to work
for Zeppelin. My son was very impressed we worked with Zeppelin; he
actually reintroduced me to Zeppelin. It's easy to either over- or,
particularly, underestimate a band you're working with 'cause you're
doing a job. You listen to them in order to gather impressions to make
a picture, make a design, as opposed to listening to them as music to
GW: In Through the Out
Door, the last of the five albums you did for Zeppelin, featured one of
the most ambitious packages ever created. How did you come up with that?
Storm Thorgerson: In
England, you often hear people say, "You don't need to expend all this
effort on a cover. Why bother, man? The music sells itself. You can
sell just as much in a brown paper bag." So for In Through the Out
Door, we said, "Okay, we'll put it in a brown paper bag." And we did!
It was a lavish cover, actually. I enjoyed it a lot. Did you ever
notice you could affect the dust jacket by putting water on it? If you
applied spittle to it or a bit of water, it would change to color, like
a children's coloring book we based it on. But we didn't tell anybody.
I don't think Zeppelin told anybody, either.
GW: What was the idea behind the object on the Presence cover?
Storm Thorgerson: It was
inspired by the idea that somehow Zeppelin were really powerful. I
think Zeppelin were a very particular band; they were very strong. The
object was supposed to represent them. The idea was that everybody
should feel that they needed this object, that it was so powerful that
you couldn't live without it. You had to be exposed to this object
wherever you were, perhaps once a day. And when you were exposed to it,
it would zap you. Scientists would examine it, babies would hunger for
it, ordinary families would sit around it. It was an all-purposeful,
all-present, all-powerful object.
GW: How did you like working on Phish's new album, Slip stitch and Pass?
Storm Thorgerson: I really
enjoyed working for them. I hope we work again; boys, if you're
listening, let's work again. I was very impressed by one particular
piece of information: did you know that they don't work with a set
list? You knew that? I didn't know that. How many rock bands do you
know of that don't have a set list?
I don't know any. I was
really impressed by this, that they feel the level of communication
with each other is such that they don't worry too much about what
they're going to play. And they take things, take themes and improvise
them, go off and play quite long versions of things. They seem to take
an idea and run with it, musically speaking. I thought that was
GW: Which would explain the cover.
Storm Thorgerson: It was
about their improvisation. It's a picture of a man who's unraveling a
very big ball of wool, and somehow it seemed to be appropriate - take
an idea and run with it, see where it leads you.
GW: How important is it for you to meet with a band in person? To see them perform live?
Essential. It is essential always to meet the band or musician in
question, and always essential to hear the music and see them play, if
I can. Sometimes I can't, because they won't be playing before a record
is out. I've worked with very diverse musicians, Zeppelin on one hand
and John McLaughlin on the other. I've worked for metal outfits and
I've worked for Phish. And as diverse as the musicians are, so are the
kinds of meetings we have had, not to mention where and when we met.
GW: And how important is it for you to actually like the music that's on the albums you're designing?
Storm Thorgerson: That's a
good question. I've had a couple of interesting arguments with other
designers here on this particular point, and we agreed to differ. I
took a decision quite early on, for right or for wrong, that I didn't
make value judgments when I started to work. It seemed to me that this
had the potential of putting one in a very tight corner. So I didn't
judge. Give me a piece of music and I react to it -- I don't have to
like or dislike it. I find that music affects me; good or bad music, it
has an effect on me. I just translate that effect from a sound spectrum
into a visible eye spectrum.
I also find that my tastes
change. If I were to turn down a job because I didn't like the music, I
might like it later. Or vice versa. And there will also be those cases
where even if you don't like their music so much, you'll think the
musicians are great. Do you really want to turn to a great guy and say,
"By the way, I can't work for you. Your music sucks." Maybe his music
isn't so good this time around, but it might be great next time.
GW: That's a very charitable and humane philosophy. Can you recall some instances where this actually happened to you?
Storm Thorgerson: [laughs]
That I might give you for public consumption? Obviously, in a way, one
would be very loathe to say that. But notwithstanding the fact I might
easily get litigated in your country or beaten over the head, I found
working for Mike Oldfield very unsatisfying, not enjoyable. I don't
think he enjoyed it, either. So there was something where I was
interested in the music but not interested in the man. The other side
of the coin would be a group called UFO. I would have to say that -
chaps, I'm sorry if you're reading - I didn't really rate the music
that highly, but the guys were great. They were really good fun.
I didn't like Led Zeppelin that
much when I first worked for them, and I've worked on Floyd albums,
like Ummagumma, that I don't like. I've worked on other albums, like
Meddle, where I definitely didn't do near as good a job as the music.
GW: How do you feel about doing album art in the CD age?
Storm Thorgerson: This is
a continuing debate. The usual response of graphic designers is that
the CD provides you with less of a graphic canvas to work on. But it
has its own challenges. Also, designers are, to a great extent,
realists; you've got to function, you've got to work. CDs are here.
You've got to learn to like them. Obviously, though, I would rather
have a bigger canvas. That's probably why I build big things sometimes.
For Phish, I built this ball of yarn that is the size of a small house.
GW: Part of the challenge seems to be in packaging, too, rather than simply designing a cover or a booklet.
Storm Thorgerson: I think
designers are driven to do that because there's less of a canvas to
work on with just the booklet. So where are they going to get their
rocks off? Because it's smaller, it becomes more touchy, more of a
tactile thing so that you can play more with textures and boxes and
fold-outs and digipacks - this pack, that pack, see-through trays,
embossing, etc., etc. I have obviously indulged myself; I enjoyed
greatly doing Pulse for the Floyd.
GW: A spectacular CD package. How did that come about?
Storm Thorgerson: I think
it came about for two particular reasons, one of which was that it was
a live album. I wanted the package to be live, so we came up with a
list of things that included balls and mazes. We had some that made a
noise when you opened it, squeaked at you, some that smelled, others
that you could see in the dark. And this one that had a flashing light
thing, which reflected the heartbeat in Dark Side. And also it was a
light, which is really handy 'cause obviously the Floyd have a really
good light show.
The other thing was, I was also
fed up with having to squint at spine details. I thought, "I'm going to
make something that I know where it is when I want it." It was about a
spine that was completely and utterly unique and recognizable, that
says: "Here I am. You want to play me? I'm over here." I think it works
really well. Mine still blinks.
GW: I take it from your continued involvement with the Floyd that you view the current incarnation of the band as legitimate.
Storm Thorgerson: Yes,
because Roger resigned. If you leave a band, I cannot see the moral
imperative that would allow you to presume it finished. If you leave,
you leave. And presumably a man of Roger's standing and intelligence
left because that's what he wanted. I think it's peculiar because if
it's not what he wanted, why did he do it? Nobody asked him to. Nobody
pressured him to. So I presume he wanted to. But there was a lot of
fighting afterwards, so you have to presume that something went astray.
GW: You chose the cover of The Division Bell to be the cover of your book. What's the special significance this piece has for you?
Obviously, we were tempted to choose Dark Side because of its success,
but we eschewed that choice in favor of art. I hope it doesn't sound
over-pretentious to say that. On a more simple level, this is the
picture I have liked the most. It is the image I'm proudest of - at the
moment. I think it says a lot about the Floyd. It think it says a lot
about past Floyd. I think it says a lot about Roger. I think it says
something about the layers of meaning, the elegance...the ghost, the
spirit of Floyd. It says something about their ambiguities. It says all
those things. It most particularly says something about departed
GW: And from your vantage
point, do you think there is any truth to the rumours that Roger and
the rest of the Floyd will be playing together again in the coming year?
Storm Thorgerson: [laughs]
I've heard that. It sounds like bull to me. Although I think it would
be quite interesting and dynamic if it did occur. I think you're
talking about two huge talents here. And as much as there may have been
friction, there's mileage to be made out of friction. But if you ask me
if I think it's a reality - I don't think it's a reality. But then, of
course, what's real and what's not with the Floyd?