Friday, April 19, 2013

Art For Art's Sake - a tribute to Storm Thorgerson: 1944-2013

If you were to ask me to make a list of the greatest albums of all time, I could start now and probably never finish. Magazines and radio stations regularly try to give it a go, but rarely come up with a top 10, top 100 or even top 100 that will truly cover things adequately.

You might, however, stand a chance of coming up with a decent list of the greatest albums based on their cover art.

From Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to London Calling, album covers were an integral part of the record buying experience in the pre-CD era.

With the 2013 Record Store Day taking place throughout the world tomorrow, you won't have to go far to hear old heads - like me - ruing the disappearance of gatefold sleeves, of liner notes and lyrics, and the whole tactility of buying music in a physical format.

As a schoolboy, album art meant as much to me as the music contained within. Dull geography lessons on Upper Volta would pass more meaningfully while recreating band logos in biro on the cover of an exercise book. Entire band back catalogues could be filed and discussed according to their sleeve art, while no adolescent male could resist a sneaky peak at Roxy Music's Country Life while perusing the record racks on a Saturday afternoon.

Some covers - and more pertinently, their designers - became synonymous with the impact of the album's musical content. Barney Bubbles was the creative force behind Stiff Records during the New Wave, while further back, Roger Dean's elaborate fantasyscapes will be forever associated with Yes.

But, perhaps, the most inventive and iconic cover art designer of them all was Storm Thorgerson, who died yesterday from cancer at the age of 69.

He is mostly associated with Pink Floyd, but together with Hipgnosis, the design collective he co-founded in 1968, Thorgerson was responsible for designing covers for 10CC, Muse, Led Zeppelin, Audioslave, The Cranberries, Peter Gabriel, Black Sabbath, Ian Dury, Steve Miller and Genesis.

Growing up in Cambridge, Thorgerson was a childhood friend of eventual Floyd members Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and David Gilmour. "We first met in our early teens," Gilmour wrote yesterday on his website. "We would gather at Sheep's Green, a spot by the river in Cambridge and Storm would always be there holding forth, making the most noise, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. Nothing has ever really changed. He has been a constant force in my life, both at work and in private, a shoulder to cry on and a great friend."

In 1968 Thorgerson and fellow Cambridge designer Aubrey Powell were asked by the Floyd to design the cover for A Saucer Full Of Secrets. It was to seal Thorgerson's association with the band forever: "The artworks that [Storm] created for Pink Floyd from 1968 to the present day have been an inseparable part of our work," Gilmour added in his online tribute.

In 1973 the band released Dark Side Of The Moon, for which Thorgerson came up with a cover design as iconic as the record itself. It's origins were pretty functional: the band's Rick Wright had suggested Thorgerson produce something simple and straightforward. The outcome is something so straightforward and simple that it has adorned T-shirts and posters for the last 40 years

"No amount of cajoling would get them to consider any other contender, nor endure further explanation of the prism, or how exactly it might look," Thorgerson has explained. "'That's it', they said in unison, we got to get back to real work, and returned forthwith to the [Abbey Road] studio upstairs."

"The refracting glass prism referred to Floyd light shows - consummate use of light in the concert setting. Its outline is triangular and triangles are symbols of ambition, and are redolent of pyramids, both cosmic and mad in equal measure, all these ideas touching on themes in the lyrics. The joining of the spectrum extending round the back cover and across the gatefold inside was seamless like the seguing tracks on the album, whilst the opening heartbeat was represented by a repeating blip in one of the colours."

Throughout Thorgerson's work, artistic influences can be easily identified, from Picasso to Magritte, but also plenty of humour. With the Floyd's Animals, Thorgerson created another icon, with a pig famously flying over Battersea Power Station.

The shot has now passed into lore thanks to the inflatable pig used for the photograph slipping its mooring and drifting off into the incoming flight path for Heathrow Airport.

As the 1970s unfolded, and conceptual cover art became increasingly intertwined with musical narrative, Hipgnosis expanded their client roster to include other bands, and notably those on the artier side of rock, like Genesis and 10CC.

The studio also picked up Black Sabbath's Technical Ecstasy, the cover of which was once described eloquently by Ozzy Osbourne as "two robots screwing on an escalator"

More often than not covers were conceptual interpretations rather than literal representations, eschewing the pop notion that albums should be adverts for the bands, featuring the members themselves.

Through Thorgerson's work with Pink Floyd, however, notable design cues emerged that would appear in his work for other acts. Anonymity played a major part. Even with albums like Floyd's Wish You Were Here, ...And Then There Were Three by Genesis, and jazz-rockers Brand-X's Moroccan Roll (my favourite album title ever), which feature photography of people, they are never in close-up. Faces are never clear and in several cases feature figures with their backs to the camera.

Distance is always significant, something Thorgerson's work shared with Floyd's Roger Waters, who became increasingly obsessed with absence and separation, culminating in the entire narrative of The Wall. Thorgerson returned to Water's feelings with the cover for Is There Anybody Out There?, the box set of the live Wall show, which simply features the four face masks worn by the fake Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason at the beginning of the ambitious show.

One dominant cue throughout Thorgerson's projects has been the prominence of flat, green grassy fields in the lower half of the cover, blue sky in the upper half, and a prominent object or objects in the immediate foreground.

Perhaps inspired by Grantchester Meadows in Cambridge (immortalised by Floyd on Ummagumma), Thorgerson returned to this device again and again, on everything from Floyd's Atom Heart Mother and The Division Bell through to Biffy Clyro's single God & Satan and Synrise by obscure Belgian electro band Goose. Along with the setting, Thorgerson's photography would often have an unreal reality about it - rich greens in the grass, bold blues in the skyscapes, and an unnerving clarity of objects in the fore.

"I listen to the music, read the lyrics, speak to the musicians as much as possible," Thorgerson has explained. "I see myself as a kind of translator, translating an audio event – the music – into a visual event – the cover. I like to explore ambiguity and contradiction, to be upsetting but gently so. I use real elements in unreal ways."

As albums have become reduced to bitstreams, and music consumption shifts from having the patience to listen to two or even four sides of vinyl to downloaded singles or Spotify mixes, Thorgerson's artistry is, sadly, diminishing. 

There are still, thankfully, champions of the art of record design, who regard the packaging and presentation of their music as more than just a marketing exercise, and who look to today's multiple formats as an opportunity for renewed design creativity. 

But with Storm Thorgerson's passing, we should mourn the death of an era when the album cover meant more than just the thing that stops your record from getting scratched.

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