February 28th, 1944 to April 18th, 2013
February 28th, 1944 to April 18th, 2013
Pink Floyd's Animals
Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon
Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy
"Storm Thorgerson's death marks the end of an era"
British artist Storm Thorgerson, who worked with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, was the master of a time when album covers were art and rock dared to take itself seriously, says Neil McCormick.
April 19th, 2013
The death of Storm Thorgerson genuinely marks the end of an era. He was one of the great album sleeve designers, from a time when album covers were as close as pop culture came to creating actual pop art.
As a school friend and close collaborator with Pink Floyd, he rose to prominence just at the moment when rock music first dared to take itself seriously. His fantastically inventive and elaborately detailed graphic creations indulged rock stars’ conviction that their work deserved to be treated with the same reverence accorded to other art forms. The 1970s was rock’s boldest, most ambitious and frankly pretentious era and Storm stamped his particular visual sensibility all over it.
When you think of Thorgerson’s covers, the remarkable thing is how many of them have entered the common lexicon of 20th Century design. You don’t even have to be a fan of Pink Floyd to recognise the prism from Dark Side Of The Moon, or the pink pig floating over Battersea power station from the cover of Animals.
He operated in a medium that invited artists to be inventive: 12 inch sleeves printed on cardboard, objects that fans could hold in their hands while listening to the music, pouring over what was printed inside for clues to the inner mysteries of the music. In a giddy atmosphere of ego and affluence, where money was no object, Thorgerson was given budgets that would make today’s designers weak at the knees. He worked with a whole team to create dynamically integrated packages, with gatefold sleeves, inner booklets, posters, logos and labels that reflected and refracted on each other, creating a mentally dazzling kaleidoscope of possibility.
I wasn’t always a fan of the highly stylised, photographic magical realism of many of his designs (I have a fondness for a blurry picture of a band with dodgy haircuts) but I appreciated the love that had gone into them.
There was a daring absence of literalness in his interpretation of the music. Thorgerson’s designs embraced mystery, ambiguity, surrealism and abstraction, and as a result they never obliterated your own interpretations of the music, they just hinted at other possibilities. Any idiot could have turned in a design for Dark Side Of The Moon that would have featured a photograph of the dark side of the moon. Thorgerson came up with that amazing fold out prism. What is that all about? Yet hold it in your hands, listen to the album, it makes a sense beyond logic.
I used to bump into Storm in the 1990s, in a café in Belsize park, and he occasionally regaled me with war stories from an era when record sleeve design was conducted on a military scale. The greatest saga was the Pink Floyd flying pig. The obvious way to create the image was by photo montage but somehow, in the spirit of the 70s, it turned into a whole production, with a two day shoot to capture a giant forty foot dirigible flying over London’s skies in high winds, while a helicopter buzzed about. Inevitably, the pig broke free and headed off into the clouds, causing flights to be halted at Heathrow before it eventually descended in a farmer’s field. After all that, when they looked at the shots, they realised they hadn’t got what they wanted. So they ended up stripping a picture of the pig into a separate picture of Battersea after all. It’s the kind of thing a contemporary designer would cobble together in 15 minutes on Adobe Photoshop. Yet it is probably true that the image has something real and vibrant that emerged from the whole experience.
You just can’t imagine any of that happening anymore. Great album sleeve design was dealt a mortal blow by the arrival of the CD, a format that is too small and pokey to accommodate the kind of bold, beautiful imagery and inner sleeve detail fans can lose themselves in. It’s not that there aren’t great, fascinating music visuals, but the album sleeve format itself is too confined and constrained to bleed into the outside world and become part of the visual language of the moment. Anyway, in the age of the download, it is all but over. When there are no more albums, there will be no more sleeves.
Thorgerson’s best work remains to be admired, however, forever linked in the imaginations of music fans with some of the greatest albums ever made.
Storm Thorgerson [Wikipedia]