Interview: Designer Storm Thorgerson Reflects on Pink Floyd and 30 Years of Landmark Album Art
Gilmour also notes with obvious affection that “Storm has always had a big mouth,” an observation confirmed by the designer during a long conversation in his London office, in which he generously shares his thoughts about Floyd, Zeppelin, his myriad other projects and the general state of album art. All this, of course, after he is assured that “the fact that I don’t know anything about guitars doesn’t disqualify me from being in Guitar World, is that right?”
GUITAR WORLD: How did your association with Pink Floyd begin?
THORGERSON It began with Syd, but also with Roger. Roger’s mom and my mum were best friends. Also with Dave, because he used to hang around with us, even though he was younger. It was just a gang in Cambridge… a group of teenagers who came together, not unlike, I should think, they do in many places in America. Roger was more on the fringes of our peer group; we both chased the same girl…but he won that one.
GW What were the Floyd guys like as teens? Ordinary, red-blooded young English lads?
THORGERSON I think that Roger and Syd were not that ordinary…or the others, for that matter. They have ordinary things they do in their lives—they’re not absolutely weird as hell—and they have the usual set of passions. They also make the usual number of mistakes that us normal people do. But they also have drive and talent, obviously. And also, in some cases, great musicianship. I think Dave lent them a sense of musicianship that helped them to be very successful.
GW What was it like, watching the band come together?
THORGERSON I didn’t see it. I went off to another university. They came to architectural school in London, and Dave joined later, anyway. I didn’t do the first album; I didn’t do Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I knew them, and I knew they were being nearly successful. But although I knew them as friends, I didn’t have a particular view of this, other than it was exciting to know a band that might be successful. I didn’t pay too much attention; I was too preoccupied with myself, as one is when one is younger. When I met them again, they were in the process of losing Syd. So their main creative talent was sort of going off the rails. It’s hard to find the correct way to describe it, really.
GW In Nicholas Schaffner’s book A Saucerful of Secrets, he describes a meeting in your apartment where Syd’s ouster from the band was discussed. What was that like?
THORGERSON It’s a bit long ago to remember. [laughs] Because they knew that I knew Syd, and I knew them, they thought maybe I could perhaps offer some limited advice as to what to do. Rog, who hadn’t spoken to me in quite a bit, I think was interested in talking to me about what I thought was going wrong with Syd, ’cause he knew that I’d been relatively close to him in Cambridge. But I don’t think that I had much of an idea about what they should do, really. It’s very difficult, even when you’re an adult, to know what to do when a friend goes off the rails. It was very hard for the band; I don’t think there was ever a desire to get rid of him, but they had to function.
We talked about it, as chaps do. I couldn’t proffer much direct advice, but we chatted about how horribly difficult it was, what the hell they were going to do. Syd was in such a state at times, you just couldn’t talk to him. I think I was of the opinion then that it made sense to get rid of him if he really was preventing the band from functioning. He seemed to show clear signs of getting worse rather than better, and also seemed to be unreachable. If a person seems unreachable, or appears to be immune to entreaty, then you have to reluctantly decide to go on without him.
I think it’s very sad, really. And they were very sad about it. I think “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” is the most concretized form of their sadness, if you like. I think that song, written eight years later, approximately, is a clear indication that this was something they did not want to happen.
GW So in the midst of this, you wound up doing the art for A Saucerful of Secrets.
strong>THORGERSON I think they knew they didn’t want the record company to handle it. This was in the days when the Floyd and the Stones and the Beatles were beginning to take power back to themselves, especially artistic power, away from the record companies—to literally take more control of their artistic output. I think they realized that, along with the music, sleeves are things that last, and that maybe they’re important in their own way. Even if they’re not as important as the music, except to people like me.
I think they wanted someone they trusted and who knew them to do it rather than some impersonal or third party designer that had no relationship with them. Their music was intimately related; why shouldn’t their cover be related?
GW What kind of working relationship did you fall into with the band?
THORGERSON You get used to each other and you chat and you develop some shorthands. And you prick your ears to pick up the bits that are most interesting. Dark Side, for example, came from sort of an aside said by Rick—not necessarily the most likely source. The back of Ummagumma comes from something Nick Mason did. Meddle comes from God knows what. Wish You Were Here comes from conversations with Rog in particular. Animals is actually a Roger thing; although we did the work, it was his idea. A Momentary Lapse of Reason comes from a line of lyric of Dave’s. The Division Bell comes from several things.
What happens is, in all these cases, you still have a sort of communication with the band. That comes and goes. It breaks down sometimes. It’s mostly by talking, by being there—by going to gigs, particularly, so that you get some sensation of what the music is really like, ’cause you don’t find that much during recording, since a lot of it is done in bits.