A Storm of two parts
A few weeks ago I was invited to be a guest on Bugeye’s Rock Pop Rambles. The podcast takes you on an amusing (and somewhat informal) journey through music history where the members of Bugeye (plus guests) share tales of music legends, as well as their new music discoveries.
After 26 episodes Bugeye decided it was about time they started to explore the visual side of music, hence my invite. So in Storms and Stardust (episode 27) I chat about my ‘encounters’ with the iconic graphic designer, music video director and (in his words) performance artist, Storm Thorgerson.
It seemed a shame to leave my rambles in audio format when Thorgerson’s work was obviously very visual. So here seems the perfect place to share my musings in (hopefully) a slightly less rambly form…
For the few of you who haven’t encountered the name Storm Thorgerson, you will have almost certainly encountered his work, as he is best known for creating surreal (and usually ideas-based) album art. His name is most intertwined with Pink Floyd, as he knew the band’s founders Syd Barrett and Roger Waters from his school days, but he also created work for numerous other artists including Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, Black Sabbath, Paul McCartney, Muse, the Cranberries, Biffy Clyro… the list goes on.
When I say ‘his work’, he obviously didn’t create it alone. From when Thorgerson graduated from the RCA in his mid-twenties until his death in 2013, aged 69, he co-founded and ran three different companies – firstly the famed design studio Hipgnosis with his then flatmate graphic designer Aubrey Powell, followed by the music video production company Greenback Films again with Powell, and fellow Hipgnosis member Peter Christopherson, and finally StormStudios with graphic designer Peter Curzon, where they brought together a group of creative freelancers to complement their disciplines. StormStudios is still run by Peter Curzon today, along with photographer Rupert Truman and designer Dan Abbott.
Part 1: My first encounter with Thorgerson – his work (1994)
Of course I wasn’t aware of any of the above when I was a teenager. I didn’t really know anything about graphic design, let alone who the great Thorgerson was. However, quite randomly, one of the first albums I ever bought, aged 15, was Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell (designed by StormStudios). I didn’t buy it because I liked the music (it turned out upon listening, I actually didn’t). I bought it just because I liked the way it looked. The CD’s striking cover, showing two symmetrical metal head sculptures facing each other in a field, intrigued me no end. I loved the hieroglyphic and braille symbols embossed down the front spine of the jewel case, and the pattern on the disc itself felt like an indecipherable secret language. Oh and no cover typography – no album or band name, so all in all a hidden world.
Reading more about The Division Bell for the podcast, I discovered there were actually two versions of this cover – both giant sculpted heads facing each other – in metal for the CD, and in stone for the compact cassette release. I also hadn’t spotted Ely Cathedral on the horizon between the mouths. And it wasn’t a fabrication in Photoshop, they were real sculptures erected in a real Ely field. This was no shoestring budget creation, but an epic labour of love.
To add to the secret world feel of The Division Bell, it turns out there was a cryptic puzzle associated with the album (known as the Publius Enigma) that I never knew about in the 90s. In a post on a Pink Floyd fan group online, it was suggested that there was a riddle hidden somewhere in the album. It was later assumed that the puzzle was cooked up by the record company for promotional purposes but nobody (by the looks of it) ever claimed their involvement. Although at the time, members of the band or Thorgerson himself were thought of as possible culprits. Who doesn’t love an easter egg, but this one, considering it was the early years of internet usage, was pretty innovative stuff.
A great story to find out about a CD that’s been sitting on my shelf since the mid-nineties.
Incidentally, I have now listened to the album again with fresh (or older) ears and found it rather relaxing. I’m not sure what that says about how my music taste has evolved since the age of 15…
Part 2: My second encounter with Thorgerson – the man (2007)
By this point I’d been working for several years in a design studio that specialised in branding for charities and cultural institutions. So I definitely wasn’t one of those designers whose dream was to design album covers for a living (I didn’t even like Radiohead at the time).
In the noughties paper merchants and printers always threw great parties for the design industry. We nicknamed them ‘Paper parties’, and they usually involved free drinks, with canapés at the best ones.
Howard Smith Paper (now no more), ran a series of such events at Bafta where a big name in the industry gave a lecture each time. One of the lectures was by Storm Thorgerson. The series was devised by founder of Browns, graphic designer Jonathan Ellery and each lecture was accompanied by a book, also designed by Ellery, which showcased Howard Smith Paper (of course) as well as being part notebook and part catalogue for each lecture. These coveted books were given out for free to the attendees, in addition to the free drinks (so these were top notch events for young designers indeed).
When I arrived at the Storm Thorgerson lecture, I had no expectations, as I (rather ignorantly) knew little about him or his work. But it turned into one of the most surreal evenings I’ve ever experienced. It was no conventional design lecture (where I perhaps may have struggled to stay awake). Thorgerson put on a show. It was mesmerising. There was a topless model seated to the side of the stage throughout, with a makeup artist painting eyes all over her back. Then for the pinnacle of the performance, Thorgerson handed out cabbages to each of us in the audience, and asked us to hold them over our faces whilst he took a photo.
I contacted Peter Curzon about the lecture and he very kindly found the cabbage photo in his archives for me. I’m still trying to decide which cabbage I’m hiding behind in the top right of the photo. Curzon went on to tell me about Thorgerson’s similar lectures across the world – using melons in Mexico, boxes in New York and Kiwi fruit in New Zealand. I wonder why us Brits got cabbages?
It really has been immensely enjoyable looking back over the Thorgerson lecture book, and rereading the witty commentary by Thorgerson about the work he chose to showcase. I think it makes sense to leave you with a quote from the man himself.
‘Some erudite critic once said that trying to translate one medium to another is a mug’s game, whether making a film from a book or a cover from a sound recording. … This is not something I can possibly agree with having spent forty years doing just that. What I did find was that possibly the best way to represent the ideas of one medium was to uncover ideas in another.’
Particular thanks to Jonathan Ellery for the use of his images, to Adrian Shaughnessy for aiding me on my search for the cabbage photo, and to Peter Curzon for being so helpful and generous with his time. Plus of course a special thanks to Bugeye for inviting me on to their podcast, Bugeye's Rock Pop Rambles.
The Division Bell: cover design by Thorgerson, graphics by Peter Curzon and Ian Wright.
Cabbage photo: courtesy of Peter Curzon, © Rupert Truman.
Thorgerson on stage at the New Zealand lecture: by Peter Curzon.