Storm Thorgerson at John Varvatos. Legendary designer has created conceptual album cover photographs for bands from Pink Floyd to Mars Volta
By Gustavo Turner Thursday, May 12 2011
Quick: If I say "Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon," what's the first thing that comes to mind?
Chances are you're picturing a luminous triangle on a black background, with a single ray of light coming from one end and a neat rainbow emerging from the dispersive prism.
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon is one of many striking statements in pop culture made by the designer Storm Thorgerson, who was a key member of the creative team known as Hipgnosis that lasted from 1968 to 1983
Thorgerson and main Hipgnosis partner Aubrey "Po" Powell are part of a rarefied elite responsible for powerful icons for generations of music fans who witnessed the evolution of the long-playing record album in the second half of the 20th century. Their names might be less known to the public at large or to many in the established museum/gallery art world, but it's inconceivable to think anyone has been unexposed to — and unimpressed by — their commercial design work for record companies.
Try to think of the Blue Note jazz records without thinking of Reid Miles' inventive covers. Or of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band without Peter Blake's pop art installation. Or of the Sex Pistols without Jamie Reid's deceptively DIY graphics, or of Joy Division without Peter Saville's sober aesthetics.
Hipgnosis' heyday of the early to mid-1970s coincided with a sort of golden age for album cover design, helped by three factors: a period of growth in the music industry, as bigger sales translated into bigger design budgets; a post-psychedelic obsession with expansive gatefold covers and elaborate and often baffling "concepts"; and the rise of the often comically grandiose prog-rock genre.
If you're a music fan, the odds are high you have some Hipgnosis designs in your collection, and if you're between the ages of 50 and 70, you probably have an entire shelf: pretty much anything by Pink Floyd (including the famous handshake on fire forWish You Were Here), several Led Zeppelin albums (Houses of the Holy, In Through the Out Door, Presence), 10cc, Wings, Peter Gabriel and his distorted faces, the occasional Black Sabbath and AC/DC, Genesis, Hawkwind and Electric Light Orchestra.
After 1983, the Hipgnosis partners went their separate ways. But while Po concentrated on film and video work and some of their pre-punk '70s cohorts either passed away (the great Barney Bubbles and Neon Park) or continue to produce heavily nostalgic pieces (Yes' main designer Roger Dean), Thor-gerson teamed up with some younger colleagues and kept going after more commissions, or "jobs," as he plainly calls them.
"We have four or five jobs going at a time," Thorgerson told us last week in L.A. He was flown in from the United Kingdom by clothing designer and fan John Varvatos to exhibit a set of art prints of some of his cover projects in Varvatos' West Hollywood store.
Thorgerson might look a bit frail — he's in his late 60s — but once he'd recovered from the jet lag and had his breakfast, his brilliant mind kicked in, and he bantered with much younger associates Peter Curzon and Dan Abbott in the typically no-bullshit, puckish, seen-it-all manner of British artists of his generation.
"We're a comedy design studio," Thorgerson said of the loosely organized StormStudios. Every time they describe their design projects, the three men chuckle like clever schoolboys after pulling an elaborate prank.
These projects can involve "burying 150 teddy bears," which Muse turned down for an album cover, though the image resurfaced on the sleeve of their single "Uprising." Or building an elaborate machine called Scrutiny that illustrates "man's paranoia of women," which currently resides in one of StormStudios' facilities and might never be photographed for an album cover.
If Thorgerson's reputation rests solidly on his pre-1983 work with Hipgnosis, those career-making projects have endeared him to later generations of like-minded musicians who grew up with his images while they dreamed of making it. From obvious neo-prog revivalists like Muse, Mars Volta, Dream Theater and even Phish, to less likely fellow travelers like Anthrax, the Offspring, Audioslave or the Cranberries, anyone looking for a high-concept, no-Photoshop stunt photograph featuring eyes floating in the sky and the like (skies are crucial in Thorgerson's work) keeps coming back to the father of surreal rock art design.
At the Varvatos opening, Thorgerson was visited by L.A. blues-rock band Rival Sons, whose album cover he'd just finished. It features a man descending a staircase with a picture of himself descending the same staircase tattooed on his bald pate, of course.
"I want our productions to tell a story," Thorgerson told the Weekly. "But an unclear, entirely ambiguous story. My goal is to invest a picture with ambiguity. To make people curious. To make them want to look again."
After Thorgerson and his associates accept a job, they present some ideas to the band and to the label people, those "intermediaries" he can be scornful about. After an idea is agreed upon, the designers engage a team of subcontractors to, say, secure hundreds of beds and the perfect empty beach, as they did for Pink Floyd's Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987. Typically, after all the effort and the expense, the work is accepted. Other times, people might not be too keen on the initially unclear, entirely ambiguous stunt they enabled.
Mars Volta's rejection of their design for 2006's Amputechture especially disappointed Thorgerson. "The Mars Volta told us that one of the inspirations behind the record had been this story about a nun that had been crucified in a monastery," he said at the time. In Thorgerson's proposal, "Here's the nun being pursued by her vision — the head of a pagan god — across the countryside at Dead Man's Hill and Wimbledon Common. The band then went and hired someone else. It's a bit like losing a girlfriend who won't tell you why."
While Thorgerson seems intent on matching particular concepts to particular albums, sometimes the connection between an artwork and a record can be negotiable. For instance, there was the time Perry Farrell — the frontman for Jane's Addiction and an art director in his own right for the albums Nothing's Shocking and Ritual de lo Habitual — commissioned an image "about female sexual allure and sexual contrariness," Thorgerson recalled. After meditating on "Alice in Wonderland via Toulouse-Lautrec, French cancan, red-/black-striped corsets, Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge or Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," he and his partners devised an image: two women whose bottom halves were red onions.
After Farrell and co. passed on "the Onion Ladies" — "They clearly don't know their onions," Thorgerson determined — the design team unsuccessfully tried to unload the image on electronic band Deepest Blues. The label's marketing rep turned it down. "I don't get the onions," he protested.
For an uncertain hiatus, according to Thorgerson, "the Onion Ladies themselves were so exasperated at not being realized for so long that they still couldn't get over it."
But then, another prog jam band knocked at StormStudios' doors. And so the Onion Ladies found a home on the cover of The Bottom Half, a B-sides collection by American jam band Umphrey's McGee.