Mr and Mrs Thorgerson weren’t kidding when they called their boy Storm. I turn up at the prearranged time, and find he has double-booked. I am asked politely to come back in half an hour. Not surprisingly, the interview over-runs and he has to cancel a lunch date.
Thorgerson sails through it all on a sea of bonhomie, dispensing hard and fast opinions where the rest of us would be struggling to make small talk. As David Gilmour says in his introduction to Mind Over Matter: The Images of Pink Floyd (Sanctuary, 30), Storm has always had a big mouth.
Gilmour also says he regards what Thorgerson does, designing album covers, as art. This is an interesting one. When is a graphic designer not a graphic designer? When he’s an artist. Clearly the idiosyncratic Thorgerson is confused by these labels. When I suggest that a lot of the work reproduced in Mind Over Matter looks to me suspiciously like art, he doesn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted.
What nudges him into the designer-as-artist category, apart from the work itself, is his contempt for commercial imperatives; the fact that he’s self-taught; and his ability to pluck startling images out of not always inspiring soundtracks.
This doesn’t, of course, apply to his work with Pink Floyd, where the music has inspired Thorgerson to produce some of rock’s most striking images. Who could forget the inflatable pig soaring above Battersea Power Station (Animals, 1977), the flaming man (Wish You Were Here, 1975), the luminous prism (Dark Side Of The Moon, 1973), the monolithic metal heads (The Division Bell, 1994) and, weirdest of all, the trail of 700 hospital beds snaking along the seashore (A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, 1987)? Each one imprinted itself on the consciousness as indelibly as the music within. These were one-off brand images destined to last in a field notorious for its transience.
Storm Thorgerson is a youthful, grey-haired Englishman of 53 (the name pays homage to his Norwegian roots) and is happy to admit he’s been in business so long he’s “beyond fashion”. Yet he is still in demand by bands young enough to be his children. He goes along to their gigs and people assume he’s someone’s father. He is a survivor in a world littered with casualties. Though deeply critical of recording companies and their marketing strategies, he has managed to avoid becoming cynical about the product, at least in the presence of visiting journalists.
“I’m very open about music. I decided many years ago that I would concentrate on being a designer rather than a music critic. It’s not my place to say whether music is good or bad, though I have my preferences, like anyone else. When I’m working on a particular project, I play the music incessantly so that it is taken into the system, like osmosis. Music is a great stimulus to design, whether it be Beethoven or Blur.”
What Thorgerson calls “the charm of rock ‘n’ roll” is that it is almost impossible to anticipate what will sell. “The difference between music and chocolate is that chocolate is always the same, whereas music is always changing. This means the usual design and marketing criteria don’t apply. The primary job of the guy who designs the sleeves, as far as I’m concerned, is not to sell records, but to delineate the album, to embody the music, and to ensure an album’s durability. Each sleeve should be as different and idiosyncratic as the music, and shouldn’t be tied to any set of selling criteria.”
In our market-driven economy, all this sounds suicidally unfashionable, but Thorgerson tends to stick with the creative principles he laid down in the Sixties when he set up the successful studio Hipnosis, with Aubrey Powell, which lasted 15 years. As if to proclaim from the outset how laid-back they both were about money – hey, this was the Sixties – the © dynamic duo would negotiate their fee by asking a client to pay what he could afford. “Our first three clients offered us twice what we were going to ask!” Thorgerson recalls.
The primary spur to Thorgerson’s creative energy, it seems, is not alcohol or chemical substances (though he had his moments in the Sixties) but his tireless sociability. He has often arrived at an idea through a process of discourse and elimination. He talks an idea to life.
“I don’t trawl through source books, or rifle through plan chests full of references. I’m not that organised. I just sit down with good pals, listen to the music, and ask out loud ‘What’s this album all about then?’ We discuss what the music feels like, or what the album may really be about, even if the Floyd haven’t said, or don’t know yet. We look for broader brushstrokes, not because we’re deep, but because we need to refer to a whole spectrum of experience.”
What emerges from these sessions may be half a dozen ideas worth playing around with. Thorgerson says he can’t draw, so he gets someone to do some rough sketches – or takes photographs if appropriate – and then submits them to the musicians, his employers.
“They look at the work and decide whether they like it or not. Whether you’re working for people who know and respect you or with people you’ve never worked for before, everyone gives an emotional reaction to artwork. Yes, it drives me crazy but it’s part of the job. And perhaps it’s not such a bad thing for designers with big egos to have people telling them to piss off occasionally. Sometimes it’s my own fault because I have given them too many choices.
I have some clients at the moment who won’t trust me. We may well part company, or they may end up with a piece of shit. At the same time, I’m also working on an album for Ian Dury who is just as profligate, saucy and egocentric as any other rock ‘n’ roller, but he’s fun.”
The re-packaging of top-selling Floyd albums (which means all of them) as CDs in recent years has been a mixed blessing for Thorgerson. On the credit side, the work must have brought a smile to his bank manager’s face, but the downside is that he has had to scale down his illusions of grandeur.
“The smallness of the CD format enables you to do more on the packaging side, but, given the choice, I imagine very few designers would plump for the CD format, not unless they have very accommodating egos, which certainly isn’t true of me. The hole in the middle sabotages any attempt at integrated design. I’m just too selfish to have any part of my design removed.
“Imagine telling a musician: ‘Hey, here’s a really nice song, except that the middle verse and chorus are being replaced by 30 seconds of silence.’ I think not.”
The Pink Floyd CD of which he is most proud, both in terms of the graphics and the packaging, is the double live album, Pulse (1995), the spine of which contained a flashing red light intended to pulsate in the privacy of your own CD collection for a year. “I rarely thank record companies, and usually regard them with caution, mistrust, or complete loathing, but this was different. It identified the CD loud and clear and helped to make it feel like a live event, like the music itself.”
Making a cover for Catherine Wheel
‘This is my fourth cover for Catherine Wheel, a very good indie/hard rock band,’ says Storm Thorgerson.
‘I listened to the Adam & Eve album in demo form, then I discussed with the singer Rob Dickinson, the band’s main creative thrust, what the album is about, the feelings. It has more coherence than their previous albums. Among other things, it’s about people in their own closed worlds, being sensitive but separate, and about parting in good spirit, saying goodbye nicely.
‘It takes somewhere between a fortnight and a month for me to come up with something. If you’re a commercial artist, you are supposed to produce things in a given time, but the creative process is often more opaque. You’re never quite sure if anything is going to appear at all.
‘I drew some roughs, and they didn’t like them. They asked me to have another go. I was angry at the time because I maintained that I hadn’t been briefed properly. This isn’t unusual. I screamed at everyone, then went and worked on a couple of other ideas. They liked one of those. It was a sketch of some naked people in boxes. I thought it had a sort of art nouveau feel to it.
‘I always intended to use photographs, partly because I can’t draw and partly because I wanted real flesh. Nakedness is only partly about sex. We experimented with different size boxes, so that they would be big enough to get into but not so big as to be comfortable – a bit like life!
‘We built 12 boxes, each one about 0.6m x 0.9m, painted them, stacked them up and put the people in them. I wanted them open-ended to give the suggestion that the people could get out if they wanted to. By doing it for real, you get proper perspective. I wanted the people inside the boxes to look vulnerable but a bit sexy too. I didn’t rehearse them. I just made them climb into the boxes and get as comfortable as they could.
‘The band were pleased with the result, but they also wanted me to do something else, something more free-form, what you might call reportage design, which isn’t really me.
‘Anyway, I took two actors, one male, one female, to Paris, and they had to pretend to be a couple who weren’t getting on very well. We took a lot of pictures of them pretending not to get on. I felt it would have worked better as a small-budget movie, or a video. But they turned out quite well, and we used some of them for a Catherine Wheel single release in the US.
‘The album came out in America last summer. Since then, the band has changed record companies and are now recording for Chrysalis. The album was meant to be released in the UK this month, but it’s been put back to March because Chrysalis are re-thinking the marketing strategy. They have talked about using pictures of the band for the cover. I’d be really pissed off if they decided not to use my design. And I’d be even more pissed off if the band don’t support me.’