Friday, April 19, 2013

Storm Thorgerson 1944-2013

Last night it was announced that Storm Thorgerson, one of the founders of the legendary Hipgnosis design studio, had died at the age of 69.

Thorgerson was, like most of the creatives that surrounded the Pink Floyd, a contemporary and peer of the band, attending the same school as Syd Barrett and Roger Waters as well as being a childhood friend of David Gilmour. In fact Hipgnosis (which he founded with Aubrey 'Po' Powell) got their first break by designing the Floyd's second album sleeve: A Saucerful of Secrets.

The plaudits are (rightly) pouring in, although there are certain caveats which probably need to be made clear before we all descend into mass adulation. Thorgerson was probably, above all, a man whose wit and erudition found a channel in the visual puns and sleight of hand which cropped up in his design work, especially the photographic kind. It's wonderfully dated now, but Hipgnosis' work on the repackaging of the Floyd's first two albums in the early '70s as A Nice Pair really sums up the stoner hilarity that permeates their early work, filled, as it is, with a host of punnery, alongside some period sexism.

The early work he and Powell did for the posh proggers was always tip top, and more importantly of a much higher quality than bands had been used to up until that point. using top photographers and graphic artists (especially the criminally underrated George Hardie who actually drew the Dark Side of the Moon cover) meant that their work always stood out, even if it was sometimes wonderfully oblique. My favourite from this period is probably their cover for Atom Heart Mother. can there be a more iconic bovine?

From these early days onwards this was a design studio that, if they could get the concept accepted by the band, would utilise a budget to the max. Take a look at this old fave for The Nice - Elegy. This was shot in the Sahara with actual blow-up beach balls, with the production assistant walking backwards along the crest of the dune so there wouldn't be footprints (allegedly if you look closely you can see where he's fallen over right at the end in the distance).

By all accounts, Thorgerson was a larger than life character who quite obviously had a sense of humour. Another favourite from the late '70s is the cover Hipgnosis did for XTC's second album, Go2. The meta humour perfectly reflects the band's clever-dick approach to 'new wave' and, to this day, still makes me laugh.

He wasn't afraid of controversy either. Can you imagine ANYONE getting away with the sleeve for Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy these days?

Yesterday's Guardian obit brought out Douglas Adams' famous quote that Storm was 'the best album designer in the world' (Hipgnosis designed early covers for Adams too), although I fear that the constant deification of Adams along with the unconditional love showered on Hipgnosis and the Floyd by several generations of young people may skew the picture somewhat.

Thorgerson undoubtedly played a pivotal role in the way in which we regard commercial art - not only in his work but also through his publications of collections of other sleeve art - but often (especially in later years) his work tended to lapse into cod-surrealism with somewhat trite plays on words or phrases. As striking as these polished images could be they often lacked the subtlety and obliqueness that kept my generation staring at the cardboard sleeves for HOURS. After Wish You Were Here Thorgerson found a style that he often stuck to far too rigidly.

Also Hipgnosis' work quite often seemed at odds with the music contained within. It took me years to accept that Going For The One by Yes was a good album, simply because I was so disappointed that the band had rejected their own pet designer, Roger Dean. That naked man against clean, totalitarian modernism? Urgh...

But in the end Storm Thorgerson was, and should remain, a legend in terms of record sleeve design. Everyone, from Dean to Vaughan Oliver owes him a debt. And if I were to pick my own absolute favourite of his sleeves, I wouldn't pick DSOTM or even that lovely cow, I'd pick Peter Gabriel's debut album. For years I wanted a car THAT colour. It's enigmatic, slightly creepy and the car also hints at the slight Americanisation that Gabriel got into his music at that point. In other words, it's perfect.


Laurence Stevenson said...

Certainly nits can be picked with all the covers but, in general, Hipgnosis raised the level of awareness of good graphic design for a generation. They brought a sense of quality to an arena that previously really did not get much. 'Electric Ladyland'? Aaargh! 'Foxtrot'? Yikes!
They hooked me in with 'Ummagumma':-).

Chris Jones said...

Thanks Laurence, I totally agree. It's just the later Muse, Biffy Clyro and Mars Volta(and Floyd, naturally)-type stuff that became somewhat generic and over-literal for me. But yes, they were massive groundbreakers, and one of the main reasons why, for years, I wanted to be a sleeve designer.
Unfortunately I had no talent whatsoever ;-)