February 1998 - Guitar World


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 from another."

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 city.

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?

Storm Thorgerson: 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 like?

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 used.

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 design?

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 be enjoyed.

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 interesting.

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?

Storm Thorgerson: 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?

Storm Thorgerson: 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 friends.

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?