The album art of Storm Thorgerson is almost as famous as the music it accompanies, as a new book on the subject testifies. Jonathan Wingate meets him.
Born in 1944, Storm Thorgerson’s childhood would not have been thought unusual were it not that he went to school with Roger Waters and Syd Barrett.
‘Roger and I had two connections, one of which was through our mothers, who happened to be pals, and also, Roger and I tended to play rugby and cricket together at school,’ Thorgerson says over lunch in a restaurant beneath his North London studio. ‘I knew Syd better in some ways, because he was one of our direct peer group, hanging around Cambridge in the early 60s. I look back fondly on those teenage years … great friends, illuminating experiences, and of course, the music.’
Having studied English and philosophy at university, he went on to complete an MA in film and television at London’s Royal College of Art. Pink Floyd were putting the finishing touches to their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets when a friend turned down the job of creating its sleeve. With no background in art or graphic design, Thorgerson volunteered for the job. ‘They happened to be in our flat and they asked David Henderson, who was a painter, but he refused,’ he says. ‘I was nosily listening at the door and I said, “I’ll do that”. I didn’t know any better.’
Along with his friend Aubrey Powell he formed a graphic design company, Hipgnosis. Their surrealist work upped the ante for album cover designs, changing the way the world looked at the music of everyone from Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Moe recently, Thorgerson has designed covers for Audioslave, The Cranberries and Biffy Clyro as well as a programme for Scottish Opera.
‘Brian Eno said one of the things he likes to do is think, and I feel the same,’ he says. ‘We often play the music at the same time as we talk, so there’s a lot of talk, listen, scribble … and then scribbles become drawings. We work for music, with music and because of music.
‘Since I cannot draw for toffee, I work with photography, but just because I can’t draw, it doesn’t mean I can’t take the flight of the imagination. It may occur in a flash or take weeks of arduous bits and pieces. It’s usually a mixture.’
From the burning businessman on the cover of Wish You Were Here to the giant pig flying over London’s Battersea Power Station, Thorgerson went on to design almost every Pink Floyd album sleeve, although it is his memorable work on 1973’s The Dark Side of The Moon that left the biggest mark. His prism design has mesmerised fans ever since.
‘The idea itself was cobbled from a standard physics textbook, which illustrated light passing through a prism,’ he says. ‘Rick Wright suggested we do something simple, elegant and graphic – not photographic. Subsequently we decided to connect it to ambition and madness, which were themes Roger was exploring in the lyrics … hence the prism, the triangle and the pyramids. Somehow, it all connects.’
When it came to shooting the cover of Animals things took on a touch of the Spinal Tap. ‘Roger Waters was very fond of Battersea Power Station, and they had this gigantic inflatable pig that was part of the Floyd live show. The first day of the shoot the pig escaped from its moorings directly into the flight paths of Heathrow Airport. You couldn’t have paid for all the newspaper coverage it got: “Airline Pilots See Flying Pigs.” The pig floated with the wind and landed up somewhere in Kent.’
His latest project is Taken By Storm: The Album Art of Storm Thorgerson, a sumptuous handmade limited edition book and box set. It comes with what has been described as ‘a treasure chest of rare and exclusive objects d’art’. Although it also comes with a hefty price tag of £500, Thorgerson believes people should not take it too seriously.
‘It would be a shame if people treat this thing with such reverence that they daren’t play around with it. There’s a sense of fun, a playfulness that people often miss with a lot of what we do. Anyway, who takes our work seriously, or are you suggesting that they shouldn’t? We got 500 teacups and took individual pictures of each one for each set, mainly because they’re easier to get than 500 swans or 500 girls. £500 is not bad for a cup of tea. It’s Storm in a teacup,’ he chuckles.
Taken By Storm: The Album Art of Storm Thorgerson – the handmade limited edition book of 500 copies – is available through Genesis Publications; www.genesis-publications.com; 01483 540 970. Collector copies are priced at £500.