John Harris

Journalist & Author

Storm Thorgerson, Pink Floyd and the final secret of the world’s greatest record sleeve designer

Storm Thorgerson designed classic album art for a host of rock greats – but only now that he has died can the truth be told about one of his final pieces of work …

Storm Thorgerson could be inscrutable, grand and archly funny – all qualities that placed him some distance from the music industry’s standard mixture of flimsy bonhomie and superficiality. Rather than serving either commercial considerations or following the whims of musicians, the work he accomplished as a sleeve designer betrayed a fierce independence, and an obvious belief in art for art’s sake.

My favourite photo of Thorgerson was taken in 1975, and shows him deep in conversation with David Gilmour and Roger Waters while on tour with Pink Floyd, the group for whom – in partnership with Aubrey “Po” Powell – he came up with his most iconic designs. The foreground is cluttered with glasses and bottles; it would be nice to think that the three of them are discussing Thorgerson’s latest neo-surrealist concept. Whatever, it is clear from this shot alone that he was no kind of underling: he is holding forth while the other two keep schtum and listen, and they are clearly creative equals.

The environment in which Thorgeson did much of his work now seems comically old-fashioned, not just in terms of the glorious canvas provided by the 12-inch vinyl record, but the people with whom he had to deal. For the early part of Pink Floyd’s career, Thorgerson and Powell – who traded as Hipgnosis – were theoretically answerable to an EMI staff member called Ron Dunton: as Powell later recalled, “this big, jolly fat man who was in charge of the album cover department”. When the pair presented the artwork for the Floyd’s 1970 album Atom Heart Mother – a solitary brown-and-white cow, staring at the camera in that blank way that cows do – Dunton and his colleagues were inevitably less than impressed. “It was: ‘What the fuck is this thing?’” Powell later told me. “They had no concept of something that was so original.”

“Whenever you went in there with something,” Powell continued, “Ron Dunton would say: ‘Well, what do you call that then? What’s that? He hated Storm and me. ‘Where’s the lettering? What do you mean, there isn’t going to be any? Well, I’d better speak to somebody upstairs about that.’”

Thorgerson and Powell, though, had a few trump cards. The two of them had a bond with Pink Floyd that dated back to their early days at Cambridge, where Thorgerson had ended up after an early childhood in Potters Bar, and time spent at the famously utopian Summerhill boarding school in Suffolk. They were employed by the band, not their record label. And at a time when rock was moving way beyond the cheap thrills of the jukebox era and into the album-led period of FM radio and popular-music-as-art, their work quickly turned out to be a perfect match for the records it adorned: high-end, wilfully non-commercial, so of a piece with the music that one digested them both as a sense-filling whole. As the Powell quote above suggests, as of the early 1970s, they led the way into a world where the most ambitious groups dispensed with band-portraits, and even typography: to this day, even if album “sleeves” are now often boiled down to the size of a postage stamp, musicians usually serve notice of their ambition by leaving such fripperies off their artwork.

Thorgerson and Powell’s work for Pink Floyd is now so seared into the popular consciousness as to barely need mentioning: the Atom Heart cow, the wonderfully crisp prism-and-light motif that accompanied – and now denotes – The Dark Side of the Moon, the pig floating over Battersea power station on Animals, the flaming figure shaking hands on the front of Wish You Were Here (and, indeed, the logo of two robot-arms doing the same thing, a perfect illustration of the album’s sense of musicians lost in a cold, mechanised industry). These were the days before Photoshop, when art budgets would easily stretch to prodigious international travel – and everything was done in person, on location, right down to the Egyptian pyramids featured on the posters that were tucked inside the Dark Side sleeve. All this reached its apogee in 1987, with the sleeve art for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Waters had by now left the band, and the music was mostly second-rate – but the cover image was arguably Thorgerson’s ultimate piece: 800 hospital beds, arranged in perfect lines on Saunton Sands, in Devon.

Elsewhere, there are plenty of other examples of the brilliant work Thorgerson did, both with Powell and on his own. His collaborations with Peter Gabriel reflected Gabriel’s restless, discomfiting aesthetic just as well as the Floyd designs had chimed with their music: the artwork for his self-titled third solo album (aka Melt), for example, consisted of a single shot of Gabriel’s face, apparently melting off his skull, something achieved by the simple expedient of smearing a still-developing Polaroid (a technique later known as Krimsography). The cover of the heavy rock band UFO’s 1974 album Phenomenon features a hand-tinted image of a suburban couple apparently faking a UFO sighting, and manages to be both camp and inexplicably unsettling. The Alan Parsons Project’s Pyramid (1978) was fronted by portrait of a solitary figure in a hotel bedroom, riven with a huge abstract, blue blob of interference, as near to an approximation of a migraine as any visual artist has probably ever managed.

Not everything, of course, was quite so wonderful. The signature Hipgnosis style was easy to parody, and Thorgerson occasionally did the job himself. The cover art for the Cranberries’ Bury the Hatchet (1999) was an evocation of paranoia – a giant eye bearing down on a crouching figure – that did neither band nor artist many favours; his image for Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations (2006) amounted to a thin revival of his work for the Floyd that, if you were being generous, suggested a wry comment on that band’s unconvincing attempts to revive the excesses of 1970s progressive rock. And his infamous picture of naked female backs adorned by Floyd artwork was a rare surrender to music-biz vulgarity, though he seemed to like it.

But mostly, Thorgerson delivered. In 2004, I was working on a history of Dark Side for the US publisher Da Capo. Having already interviewed three of Pink Floyd and most of the album’s supporting cast, I spent an afternoon in conversation with Aubrey Powell, and then contacted Thorgerson. Doubtless tired of telling the same old stories, he declined to talk – and offered instead to design to the book’s cover. It seemed too good to be true, but over the next sixth months or so, we occasionally spoke, and he delivered a tantalising couple of drafts. My strongest memory is of one early-evening phonecall: for at least three minutes, the voice at the other end insisted I was connected to the “Man of Mystery”, and tied me in knots, before I swore in frustration, and Thorgerson wearily played it straight, wondering when the deadline was, and how the book was going.

He soon delivered a lovely piece of art, built around meticulously arranged plastic letters spelling out the album’s bare informational bones (”A landmark album that stayed 724 weeks in the Billboard top 200 – the longest ever for an album”) in pyramid formation, set against a grey-brown stone backdrop, with a quietly enigmatic droplet of water (or marble, I was never quite sure) in the top right-hand corner. He was somewhat concerned about his work adorning a book that was unauthorised by Pink Floyd themselves – and, at the 11th hour, insisted that “Man of Mystery” should be his only credit.

Now, the truth can be told: it was a Thorgerson piece – and looking at it afresh, it could have been done by no one else. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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